Lessons Learned: Let There Be Web Divisions

This is the first post in a series about the lessons I’ve learned during my first year as a web geek in higher ed.

In 2007, Jeffrey Zeldman proclaimed, “Let there be web divisions.” I can’t agree with him more. He specifically points out that the web shouldn’t be managed by either marketing or IT because neither group fully has the skill set to produce great web experiences. So guess which department at my university manages the website?

Surprise! It’s a trick question- both do.

I don’t want to regurgitate Zeldman’s post for he makes his case eloquently, but I can add my own specific reason why the web should be its own department as it relates to higher ed. In a word, connections. What I mean is that nothing on the web exists in isolation (or shouldn’t) like it does in the physical world. Because it doesn’t, the web needs to be managed by a group that understands the power of connections.

Here’s what I’ve found to be true in higher ed: there’s widespread belief that what it produces are standalone products. It might be due to the silo mentality that the organizational chart promotes, but essentially, a department thinks in terms of individual, isolated communication pieces: a brochure, a flyer, a magazine, a newsletter and yes, even a website. Those pieces are thought about only within their own context, not so much within the context of each other.

A magazine intended to cultivate connections with alumni is just that- a magazine. It gets produced on a regular basis, stories are written for it, ads are sold, it’s designed, printed and sent out. Wash, rinse, repeat. The online version is nothing more than a duplication of the printed piece. It’s organized by issue using the same stories, same images, same everything. Each “issue” is isolated from all the ones that preceded it. The physically isolated experience of reading a magazine has been ported to the web. The sense that the building block of the web, the link, could stitch stories and themes from multiple issues to one another is lost. Along with it comes the loss of a deeper experience for readers where similar stories or topics could inform each other and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

A printed magazine, being a physical object in the world, can bring laser-like focus on a particular audience with a particular set of wants and needs and a particular end goal. It can bring that level of focus because it sits in isolation from donors, current students, prospective students, staff, etc. The web, on the other hand (and it’s not news to anyone reading this), is, in comparison, one stop shopping. It’s interconnected. You’ll find information for all audiences. A site can be sliced and diced into neat little properties (as it currently is for us), but that misses the point of the web entirely.

The web is a conversation as Zeldman would say, not a monologue. But in higher ed, monologues are standard procedure. The move toward a conversation is the battle, but one not easily won when the web is managed as though it’s just another marketing tool.

Leason learned: The web should be managed within its own division in order to gain impartiality, independence and efficiency of operations.

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