Centralization Around Audience

Two of the main ideas I promote for higher ed websites is that a decentralized management approach does not work well, but a centralized one does. But what does this mean in practical terms? That entails a discussion about audiences.

The Problem

While your mileage may vary, most universities would list the following groups as major audiences their websites need to serve:

  • Prospective students
  • Current students
  • Parents
  • Faculty & staff
  • Alumni
  • News media / press

While I would quibble over the finer points of who is on that list, let’s just go with it for now. As I see it, the major issue with most edu sites is that they are organized around the university’s org chart, not their audiences. That may sound strange given that every edu site offers dedicated audience links, but  those links are just that–links–not the global organizing structure that I propose. To explain this further, look at any edu site’s global set of links. They will include some, all or more of the following:

  • Home
  • Admissions
  • Academics
  • Research
  • Student Life
  • Athletics
  • About us
  • Alumni
  • News
  • Calendar or events
  • Community

The audience specific links will also be on the page, but are shown to be part of the global navigation system. They tend to be set off as a list of their own. The question then becomes what’s the differnce between the two navigation methods? If all the audiences have a specific area of the site intended just for them, then who and what are the main links for? I guess the answer would be that the main links are for all audiences–a sort of catch all offering or way of browsing the site without any preconceived notions or biases on the part of the university about who has come to the site. But that creates more problems than it solves. In fact, I don’t think it solves anything to have both sets of navigation. Why have an “alumni” link among the main set of links and among the audience specific links? That’s confusing.

You can certainly offer site visitors competing navigational opportunities–search versus browse, tags versus categories–but general audience versus specific audience doesn’t work because they’re the same thing- general audience IS an audience, but not a mutually exclusive one given the other audiences listed. This is fundamentally the issue with a decentralized management/strategic approach to edu websites and why it creates a fundamentally poor visitor experience.

The Solution

Edu site managers need to take a stand by deciding who they serve, then get on with the task of serving them. If it’s prospective students, then the umbrella www.yourSchool.edu site needs to be built for them and only them. That brings clarity, efficiency and rationality to the site’s architecture. There’s no confusion introduced, as in my earlier example, of an “alumni” link existing twice on the same page: once among the global navigation and again among the list of audience links. Links to other audiences should still exist and be universally accessible from any page, but the content and navigation in those areas shouldn’t commingle with the content and navigation for prospective students. So, if you go into the alumni area from the prospect’s area, then the navigation and content there should be tailored for alumni and no one else. That is not the place and time to offer up degree program information- that only exists in the prospective student area.

The intention behind centralizing the site around audiences is that audiences are, more than not, mutually exclusive. You can draw hard lines in the sand about what content should exist, how it should be communicated and how it should be navigated based on that exclusivity. It allows a web team to focus their efforts for each group in terms of that group’s wants and needs without regards to any other audience’s wants and needs. If some content, like news and events, are useful to multiple audiences, then let the CMS dynamically handle when and where to put the information. 

If this approach is taken, you’ll only manage a handful of sites–one for each audience–instead of one for the main site, one for each academic department, one for athletics, one for each administrative department, etc. Also gone will be the need for visitors to declare themselves as prospective students at the main site, then again when they reach an academic department’s site and yet again when they visit a different academic department’s site. All that duplication vanishes because audience becomes the central way the site is architected, not the university’s org chart.