Skip Navigation

Thought leadership from SAI to accelerate your performance

Systems Alliance Blog

Opinion, advice and commentary on IT and business issues from SAI
Keyword: higher ed

How have I been working in marketing, communications, and web strategy for over five years without knowing about Confab? Not sure how this abundant wealth of knowledge existed outside my realm of awareness, but I am so glad to have discovered it this year, just in time to attend the 2016 Confab Higher Ed conference. Last week, I packed my bags, said farewell to the office for a few days and headed to Philly to take in two amazing workshops, three inspiring keynotes, and as many breakout sessions I could attend without cloning myself.

From the time I got on the train Sunday evening, to the very last keynote, to all the discussions and sessions in between, I was learning. Unfortunately, my first lesson was not content-strategy related. Free tip: always sync your phone to iCloud prior to traveling, because you never know when your phone will surreptitiously freeze in the middle of a strange city. After a quick four-hour factory restore upon gaining access to Wi-Fi at the hotel, it was back in business. By Monday morning, I was ready for the conference and my phone was ready for my excessive tweeting throughout the event. (See: #ConfabEDU.)

I learned so much at this conference, from higher education-specific strategies to general writing and content-related tips. The best part is that I can start implementing most of my takeaways right away and improve my work for our clients. It will probably take our entire weekly meeting to share my learning in my obligatory recap presentation for my team. I know my coworkers are excited for the PowerPoint slides that await them! Don’t worry guys, I’ll be sure to incorporate a generous number of cat memes and GIFs as my esteemed Confab mentors did (See: Amanda Costello).

Confab 2016

As I sat in the workshop sessions on the first day, I felt an overwhelming sense of community as I met content strategists from other agencies and higher education institutions across the world.

Confab 2016

I heard more than one person remark that they enjoyed being surrounded by others who understood the unique challenges of working in higher education. I bonded with more than a few people over frustration with inconsistent comma usage. Furthermore, this is an event that embraces cake! Where else can you get that kind of camaraderie? 

Confab twitterConfab cake

Here’s why I think the conference was so successful: the keynotes, workshops, and talks not only provided heaps of inspiration to make me want to do better; they also delivered hundreds of tangible tips, tricks, and insights to help me improve right away. As a copywriter, there is the temptation to reuse the same tried-and-true strategies and approach projects the same way over and over because that’s “our process.” I was challenged to venture outside my comfort zone, think bigger, ask better questions, and seek to understand stakeholders’ points of view instead of making assumptions. I was challenged to take a step back and identify the inherent bias embedded within my writing and to consider all audiences when developing content. I was challenged to write and organize content more purposefully, and to communicate and collaborate more intentionally. 

Confab 16

I’ve been back for less than a week, and I’m already putting my learning to work across a range of topics, including structure and usability; brand strategy; voice, tone and inherent bias; communication with clients; and project management. I hope some of my takeaways help you as you navigate your higher education website strategy.

Every page is a homepage

One of the presentations that is sticking with me the most is Lisa Maria Martin’s “Better Strategy Through Structure.”  Lisa emphasized the need to look at content through the lens of structure, noting that structure helps us to understand organize and connect content. I could not agree more. Since I’m part of the User Experience (UX) team, this was extremely pertinent to the work that I do collaboratively with information architects and web/visual designers on our team. In his talk “Writing Content for Findability,” Rick Allen said one of my favorite quotes from the conference: “We shouldn’t be optimizing content for search engines; we should be optimizing content for people.” That caused me to take a step back and think about goal-setting and purpose-driven content.

The phrase “every page is a homepage” was thrown out a few times, highlighting the fact that we don’t know what page users will first land on, so we need to consider how the content fits in the site. When I’m writing content for a program page at a university, I need to first understand how the program fits into the website structure. Is this major part of a department? Part of a school? Are there other, similar majors? What key points need to be included in the content to help prospective students understand where this program falls within the university?

Collaboration is not just a buzzword

It’s not just about writing content that makes sense within the information architecture (IA), Lisa asserted. Structure also requires collaboration with developers, early and often. Ideally there should be collaboration among designers, developers, and content authors from the beginning of a website project to establish content types and the new IA. Once these frameworks are established, the content will answer the right questions, send users on the right paths, and ultimately help users reach the desired action (contact us to learn more, schedule a tour, apply, etc.). I loved this little nugget of wisdom from Bon Champion of the New York Times: if content strategy starts at the beginning of project, the last phase can be used for refinements instead of scrambling. While we as a team already collaborate at some level, this takeaway reinforced the need to collaborate even earlier during a project to improve our deliverables for our clients.

Show, don’t sell

Higher education websites are brimming with possibilities. The subject matter is constantly evolving and the opportunity to produce fresh, relevant content is a huge boon. Student-generated content, like photos, videos and blogs show the best qualities of your college or university’s far better than generic marketing claims. Words like “unique student experience” and “innovative learning” are tired. By conducting keyword exercises with stakeholders and doing the legwork to understand our subject matter, we can create better content that serves our website users in meaningful ways.

In the spirit of showing instead of telling and/or selling, the topic of visual content came up more than once. Knowing what we know about Generation Zs and their affinity for video and images, paired with decreasing attention spans and limited interest in reading web content,  I thought it was really interesting to hear from renowned Philadelphia photographer Melissa Kelly. She shared several photography tips that were huge “aha!” moments for me, such as: Don't just show the dean standing there, staring at the camera with his arms folded. Get him in his element—talking with students at lunch or walking the campus. Words simply conjure up an image in the imagination; photographs capture the essence of an idea and support the message.

Visual Storytelling in Action:

Confab 16

Find your voice

One of my favorite topics in life, or at least within the workplace, is brand strategy. I believe it is the basis for strong writing, the foundation for an effective website and a crucial part of content strategy.  I was excited to learn a few ways we can improve brand messaging for our higher education clients, like keyword exercises, card-sorting, and stakeholder workshops.  During a great talk about using an organization’s mission statement as the basis for content strategy, Devin Asaro outlined several benefits for using an organization’s mission statement as the starting point for brand messaging. The key benefit? The political legwork is largely done; and when the goals of your message are already identified and approved by stakeholders, you can start writing sooner.

Devin identified some interesting questions to ask stakeholders when furthering brand messaging based on a mission statement: 1) How do we embody this as an organization? 2) How does our content embody this? 3) How does our content further this? I’m super inspired to start considering these questions early in the content strategy process!

Lastly, just for fun, I scrolled through my tweets from the conference and compiled a list of my favorite nuggets of wisdom.

Confab 16

Top 10 Confab Higher Ed Conference Takeaways.

1. Buy notecards. Start incorporating card-sorting exercises into content strategy efforts. Jot words and ideas on index cards, then sort, discuss, re-sort, discuss again and then label notecards to organize thoughts. You can even use them to record notes during meetings with stakeholders.

2. Keep a work journal. Make notes on what you're doing while you're doing it, day in and day out. Conversations about projects happen in Slack, over email, in the hallway, etc. This method helps to manage all the different communications in an ongoing log of all conversations around a given topic. 

3. Findability is crucial. If prospective student visits a college website and can have a fancy VR experience but can't find out how to apply, something is wrong. 

4. Create a spark file. Keep a single running collection of all miscellaneous ideas and unused concepts. Take some responsibility for the stewardship for unused ideas. 

5. Learn to COPE. “Create once, publish everywhere.” Can I get an amen for reusable content?

6. Teach faculty to get social. Many institutions are cultivating and elevating conversations through social media; take advantage of this! They teach and train faculty to use Twitter and Pinterest to show off what they're doing in the classroom. In doing so, they make engaging content and support admissions, advancement, and marketing efforts.   

7. Embrace different types of content audits. There isn’t just one all-encompassing content audit. Content audits can be focused on items like site structure, distribution data, or quality—think accessibility and messaging. There are even design content audits to take stock of visual patterns, button styles and module types.

8. Design with compassion. In higher education, our work is never neutral. When we make design and content choices, we need to think about all the ways that our work will fail. For example, are we writing using hetero-normative assumptions? Are we excluding certain racial identities in our forms? Inclusion is our responsibility.

9. Really look at analytics. If you’re not, start. If you already are, look even more than you have been. Words people type into a website's internal search are a goldmine that indicate what users can’t find.

10. Tell stories, visually. In 2014, 1.8 billion images were uploaded to the internet every single day. Visual storytelling will only continue to grow. On that note, in the spirit of visual storytelling, here are a couple photos as I said good bye to Philly at 30th Street Station.

Confab 16

Did you attend? Wished you had attended? Feel free to drop me a line (do people still say that?) with your thoughts or questions! 

Imagine a high school student who is blind or has a physical disability, who was planning a campus visit. You would expect the college or university to accommodate any challenge or limitation that student might face, and work to make sure they had the support they needed. There would be accessible parking spaces in the lots. Buildings would include wheelchair ramps and elevators. Tour guides would be quick to offer additional assistance to meet the individual’s unique needs.

Now imagine that same student’s experience with the school’s admissions website. If the website was designed using best practices for web accessibility, people who are blind or have low vision could use a screen reader to “view” the content and easily navigate across the site. People who are deaf or hard of hearing could read on-screen captions for videos. People with physical disabilities could use keyboard navigation or mouse alternatives to interact with the content.

First impressions are everything. Research indicates that today’s Gen Z prospective students make judgments about college websites in eight seconds or less. When prospective students begin looking at colleges, they start the evaluation process with the school’s website—the virtual tour is the new campus tour. For students and their parents, the first impression of a school is through its website.  And for students with disabilities, that first impression is going to be poor if the site is not accessible. Having a website that is not accessible to all prospective students means that some people will not be able to view all of the content. As a result, they will miss important information and find it difficult or impossible to navigate the site.

Online Accessibility Graphic

What is accessibility?

When people talk about website accessibility, they are likely referring to a set of standards and best practices that ensure that people with disabilities can use a website. You can learn about accessibility by reading about Section 508, which is the US federal guidelines requiring certain websites to meet a small set of requirements for accessibility, and WCAG or WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), which is the widely accepted set of standards for website accessibility.

While accessibility is important for all websites, colleges and universities have even more compelling reasons to make sure their websites are accessible.

Why is accessibility so important for college admissions?

  • An accessible website will benefit your admissions department. Statistically speaking, you will have people visiting your site who will benefit from accessibility. As an example, the National Eye Institute estimates as many as 8 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women with Northern European ancestry have the common form of red-green color blindness. If your website follows color contrast guidelines, you will be more effectively reaching a large segment of prospective students and their parents.
  • Accessibility represents fundamental values of higher education. Higher education is defined by inclusivity, diversity and learning. It’s about expanding education and opportunities. That mission falls flat if college admissions websites put thousands of people at a disadvantage every year.
  • It’s good business. Every higher education institution—whether public or private—shares the goal of making sure every incoming class reaches its capacity with smart, talented students. With trends in applications showing a national dip, it’s more important than ever to attract students who will excel at your school. The fact that some students rely on website accessibility does not in any way preclude them from being successful in college.
  • You can stand out as a leader. Fewer people are applying to college, and competition is a challenge for everyone. There is only so much you can do to differentiate your institution from others. But while you may not be able to expand your campus or offer a new program, you can start to make your website accessible. This is one way you can differentiate yourself from your competitors.

Tips for Making College Admissions Websites Accessible

Accessibility Best Practices

Making your website accessible may seem like a daunting, time-consuming, expensive task. The good news is that changes don’t have to be made all at once. Instead of struggling to implement a site-wide overhaul, start with these easy wins.

Make your text size large

When it comes to font size, go big or go home. Forget 12px as the standard. Go for 16px for your base body copy. Reserve 12-14px for special cases or literal fine print. There are a lot of people who have minor visual impairment, including older users and people who forgot their glasses. Even people who have perfect vision will thank you if they are viewing your website on a screen with wonky resolution. Large text size is also a design trend, so you’ll be helping people view your content and you’ll look good at the same time.

Choose a color palette that meets contrast standards

Meeting color contrast standards is the best way to make sure people who are visually impaired or colorblind can view your website. Unfortunately, many designers are not in the habit of planning for color contrast when they are determining the brand colors and typographic styles for a website. If you check contrast before you finalize the basic color palette, you won’t have to worry about checking every single element on the site.

Use descriptive text for links

Avoid generic link text like “Click Here.” People using screen readers often “scan” the page by jumping from link to link, and they rely on link text to describe where that link will take them. For instance, say “View the events calendar” instead of “To view the events calendar, click here.” Not only is this an important accessibility feature, it is also a best practice for SEO and user experience.

Use consistent heading hierarchy

People who use screen readers also rely on headings to scan the page – just like sighted users. Make sure you use a logical heading structure to make the page easier to follow. Reserve the heading 1 tag <h1> for the page title. For the main content area, use the heading 2 tag <h2> through heading 4 tag <h4>. You can keep going, but most people won’t require additional levels. Make sure your typographic styles for headings make it clear—at a glance—what the hierarchy is.

Don’t rely on color alone

Color is a great way to communicate information, but it shouldn’t be the only way. This will be helpful for people who are colorblind or anyone dealing with a monitor that has poor color resolution. The most important place to apply this best practice is with interactive elements, such as button, links and form fields to indicate status or state changes. Instead of or in addition to color, you can use icons, typographic styles and language as a redundant way to convey information.

Strategies for Prioritizing Accessibility Efforts

Unfortunately, accessibility is often a great idea that never sees the light of day. Many people still don’t know what accessibility refers to, let alone how to plan for it in their websites. Even strong advocates may lack the time and resources to put their beliefs into practice. It’s often unrealistic for colleges and universities to do a complete accessibility overhaul on their existing sites all at once. Fortunately, that’s not necessary.

Here are a few strategies to start moving towards a more accessible website:

  • Start small. You don’t have to do everything. Concentrate on easy fixes. Continuously make your site more accessible over time. This is more manageable, and you will see results begin to gain momentum as you go.  
  • Take ownership. Whether you work on in the admissions office, on the IT team, or with Marketing—you can start taking responsibility for including accessibility as part of the discussion. Make sure people know about it, even if you can’t take action right away.
  • Join forces. You may not be alone at your institution. Find your advocates and allies. Reach out to other parties who might be interested in or benefit directly from making your site more accessible. Talk to the ADA compliance officer. See if there are student or faculty groups devoted to advocacy and equal opportunity.
  • Plan for it. Accessibility is rarely a line item on a budget or a milestone in a timeline. But it won’t just happen on its own. Even if you are not able to do much now, start planning for opportunities to improve by setting aside resources and including accessibility into the next website redesigns or upgrade.   

In Closing

If this is the first time you are thinking about your website’s accessibility, we hope we have illustrated how important it is to prioritize making your college website more accessible.

If you have been advocating making your college website more accessible, we hope this gives you some good ideas for how to proceed. Check back soon for more articles and resources about accessibility. 



Nov 2016