This week we had the pleasure of sponsoring HighEdWeb’s 2016 Annual Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. We shared SAI Digital’s Web Strategy for Gen Z white paper, gave out a fleet of paper airplanes, and awarded a lucky winner an iPad mini. We heard some killer blues music and soaked in the rich culture and delicious food of Memphis. I even had my picture taken with Elvis. But the best part of the conference for us, was getting to meet over 600 talented and dedicated web professionals across the U.S., Canada and beyond. (Okay, we didn’t meet every single person, but we sure tried!)

Jeanne & Elvis HighEdWeb

As a UX professional who has worked in and for higher educational institutions over the past 20 years, it was an enriching opportunity to listen to lessons learned and inspirational ideas for the future of higher education websites, recruiting and marketing. While I didn’t get to attend every session (there were close to 100) I did see a few major themes emerge that many higher education institutions are currently facing.

Understanding Your Audience

Quite a few sessions focused on understanding the post-Millennial audience that will reach college campuses in the next year or so. Doug Tschopp from Augustana College provided thought-provoking research on generational theory, while we pondered how technology shaped the next generation of college students. Gen Z’s have not known a world without the Internet and may have first connected with technology before they could walk (or in the case of Doug’s example, during potty training). It’s no surprise that there were multiple sessions about how and when to start texting and Snapchatting with prospective students.

Doug Tschopp

There were several presentations on providing personalized experiences to site visitors. At SAI Digital, we know that many of our Higher Ed clients would like to provide an Amazon-like experience for interested students. The CMS vendor, Terminal Four, walked through possibilities for personalized experiences based on geographic location, email campaign click-throughs, and website behavior depending on which academic program was viewed. The opportunities are exciting, but we must be careful because far worse than not providing a personalized experience, is making incorrect assumptions about our visitors or providing an experience that feels intrusive.

The presentation that sparked my imagination the most was from Melissa Dix and Bill Mortimer at Beloit College. Beloit shared their bold and unapologetic approach to marketing and recruiting which centers on the idea that hefty viewbooks are a thing of the past and the future is less permanent, student-authored content. Beloit formed a collective of students and invited them to collaborate and even drive the content authoring process. (And when I say drive, I mean literally drive. Check out their In a Van series on YouTube.) As a result, Beloit is able to provide fresh, fun and authentic videos and messaging that prospective students are overwhelmingly connecting with through email and social media, especially YouTube and Snapchat.

Beloit College

Managing Websites and Redesign Projects

Several presentations focused on how to build and manage a web team, especially when departments are understaffed or resources are decentralized across the college or university. Jennifer McFarland of NC State University provided an insightful (and hilarious) view into NC State’s move from two web team members to an expanded team of more than six web professionals and interns—all while moving their CMS from Drupal to WordPress.

Lisa Catto of Western Oregon University (WOU) emphasized the need for a more thoughtful and strategic process when undergoing a major website redesign. A poor vendor relationship and lack of campus buy-in led to a painful redesign of the WOU website. Some of the key takeaways for improving the redesign process in the future were agreeing on the primary audience, investing in usability testing, avoiding “death by committee” for key decisions and centralizing content creation. As a company, SAI Digital prides itself on thorough audience research, iterative usability testing and long-term collaborative partnerships with our clients. It was great validation to hear that the work we do can go a long way toward avoiding those pitfalls.

Data, Accessibility and Security

Another hot topic during the conference was collecting, analyzing and reporting on email, website and social media traffic data. As the Digital Analytics Lead for Harvard University’s Public Affairs and Communications, Aaron Baker had plenty of insightful experiences to share. For many of our clients, the job of data capture and analysis falls by the wayside behind too many other responsibilities. Aaron’s advice on selecting the right key performance indicators (KPIs) to track and leveraging analytics and social media listening tools is a first step toward building more comprehensive insight.

The theme of accessibility was addressed not only in several thoughtful presentations, but also by attendees I spoke with in conversations throughout the conference. A growing list of higher education institutions are currently facing liability for inaccessible websites. Colleges are becoming more aware of accessibility guidelines and putting plans into place for evaluating and improving their websites, reflecting a commitment to meet the needs of all students. This is a topic that will continue to be in the foreground of web development in the near future. (We recently wrote a blog on this very topic. Check out  Website Accessibility Tips for College Admissions.)

It is telling that the session selected as best presentation for the four-day conference was by Paul Gilzow from University of Missouri about securing higher education websites against hackers and malware. With more colleges moving to open source CMS solutions, like WordPress, security is an ever increasing concern.

Content and Storytelling

Aside from attracting audiences and tracking data, the real heart of the matter at HighEdWeb 2016 was content. Whether it was developing a clear content strategy, producing fresh and authentic content, or writing findable content, it was clear that many institutions are working on ways to improve the content they deliver. 

It was so fitting that the conference ended with a Keynote by LeVar Burton. (THE LeVar Burton from Roots, Star Trek the Next Generation and Reading Rainbow.) Mr. Burton, who has dedicated the past 30+ years to literacy, talked about how storytelling is the foundation of education. Stories spark our imagination and it is our imagination that allows us to form ideas. When I thought about Mr. Burton’s message and how it related to higher education marketing, one quote he said really stood out to me. “A story is only as good as the storyteller’s ability to communicate that to a listener.” It reminding me of a recent experience where we developed what we and our client thought was a very compelling story about the University, only to find out during usability testing that prospective students didn’t really understand the message we were trying to convey. Not only do we need authentic and compelling stories to tell, but we have to continually learn how to tell them in ways that resonate with our audiences, whether that is through an interactive website or a 10-second Snapchat.

LeVar Burton

For our team at SAI Digital, the conference was a great experience. Not only did we get to meet fantastic people and hear the difficulties facing a wide range of colleges and universities, we left inspired to continue to develop innovative solutions for our higher education clients and their audiences.