Back to school lesson: Your web strategy is not just your website strategy

university web site

Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of independent school (private school) administrators from around the country who were attending an institute at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. (I hesitate to mention my speaking there, as I don’t want it to bring down Peabody’s ranking as the best graduate school of education in the nation).

Had it been around then, I would have shown them that funny venn diagram accompanying this post. It’s been making the rounds among the university (and beyond) web development crowd because it satirizes a universal truth about institutional and corporate websites: Too many institutional websites seem designed to appeal to the institution’s senior management, not the people who actually use the site — the audience.

While I didn’t have the cartoon when I spoke with the administrators, I did spend some time warning them not to fall into the trap Finnish communications theorist (and person I’ve quoted more than anyone else for the past 20 years) Osmo Wiio warns us about: Jos itse olet sanomaasi tyytyväinen, niin viestintä varmasti epäonnistuu. Or, for those of us who do not know Finnish: “Being content with the formulation of your message is a sure sign of having formulated it for yourself.”

I believe I said something like the following to the participants: “Osmo Wiio suggests to us, if the head of your school really likes your website, chances are it will fail.”

Recently, I received the following email from one of the people who attended the institute. I thought I’d share it here because in some parts of the country, school doors are already opening again for the fall. Note: In order to “protect the innocent,” I’ve changed some names and job titles.

Dear Rex:

I had the pleasure of being a member of the (group) you presented to at Vanderbilt in June. I, like everyone there, was so impressed by your presentation and was utterly convinced of the necessity to assert my school’s presence on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, I was so convinced, that I thought it would be a non-issue when I returned and proposed it. Much to my dismay, I was shot down by (the powers that be) for the following reasons: (He or she) doesn’t want anything to draw attention/traffic away from the school’s website (I already know that both Twitter and FB can DRIVE traffic to your website), secondly, and more importantly (he or she) thinks a school’s communication needs to be more substantive than the space Twitter allows.

I was not deterred. I redoubled my efforts and have now come up with a formal proposal stating the reasons for having this social media presence. However, as I prepare to make this presentation, I was wondering if you had any thoughts that sum up (again) why schools should move in this direction. I have all of my notes from your talk but fear that in all of my drafting and re-writing, I may have missed some perfect encapsulating nugget that will have the effect of convincing (the school’s power that be) to move forward.

[Name Withheld]

(Okay, okay. I should have warned that the email contained a shameless plug for my “utterly convincing” presentation skills.) Here’s a slightly modified version of what I sent “Name Withheld” in response:

Dear Mr or Ms Withheld:

I don’t have an encapsulating nugget, but I’ll give it a try.

First, as I emphasized in my presentation, if you develop a web strategy (or any communications effort) to please the powers that be, it is doomed to fail. Your experience is what I was talking about when I spent way too much time talking about Osmo Wiio.

That said, I’ve had a little success with some non-academic corporate clients (who also don’t enjoy telling their bosses they are wrong) by explaining the issue of “attention and traffic” in the following way:

Unless your business model is one where you make money directly from visits to a website (translation: advertising or e-commerce), the reason for using the internet should not be focused on driving on-site metrics like “traffic” or “page-views.” Unless you are a media or e-commerce company, the internet should be viewed as a means to communicate and build relationships (for example, in a private school context: to recruit future students, communicate better with parents and alumni, develop better ways to “teach,” facilitate and improve development and fundraising activities). If you can accomplish those things better “off” your website than “on” your website, then your “business model” may be served better “off your site” rather than “on.”

If your students, parents and alumni are found on other websites like Twitter or Facebook, why should you focus all your energy and limited resources into trying to get them to come to your website. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who is a professor at Vanderbilt called me to ask if I knew of a way she could set up a private place on the web where her students could share research, post photos and other digital media and have discussions leading up to and after classes. “Yes,” I told her. “Set up a private Facebook group.” Not only did it work, my friend’s approach became a role-model for others.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a strong believer in a school or business or non-profit having its own presence on the web. But I view the internet as a “place” and like in the real-world, it’s not always the best strategy to stay inside your own four-walls if you’re wanting to communicate with others. It is better to also be in those places wherever your “community” can be found. And, as I hope you can find in your notes from my presentation, the best “social places” on the web provide you with ways to publish content on your site and their’s simultaneously — so using those sites are not duplicating efforts, but providing ways to be several places at the same time. (Note: The participants of the institute asked me to come back for a second “lab” session during which I demonstrated to them how to use Posterous and Tumblr as a means to post once and publish to many places simultaneously.)

As for the belief that messages from the school need to be more substantive than what Twitter allows, I’ve found that despite it being impossible for school headmasters to understand Twitter, here’s one way I try to explain Twitter and other social media so that “even principals” might understand them:

You can think of “social media” on two levels:

1. At a basic level, they are merely another channel to “distribute” or “syndicate” content. In other words, “Twitter” doesn’t need to be thought of as the place where meaningful conversation and community is going to take place. (And while it is, and I can prove it, that’s not my point.) In many cases, Twitter should be thought of as just another way to disseminate short messages that need to get out fast. Let’s say your school has some breaking news — like it’s on fire. By any measure, that’s substantive communication that can be summed up in less than 140 characters. Since dozens of your parents are already using it for other purposes, Twitter is a perfect message-relay channel to send out updates — in multiple ways (including via text-message to their cell-phones) the subscriber controls. If that is the only way you use it, Twitter is worth using. (Note: Yesterday, Twitter announced a new feature that means you don’t even need to have a Twitter account to get text-messages from, say, your children’s school who send out emergency messages via Twitter.)

2. A higher level of thinking about social media services (beyond a syndication or distribution channel) has to do with developing extended relationships with students, parents and alumni on the platforms THEY have chosen. If you don’t host these online gatherings, they will do so themselves. And if you don’t participate, you’ll be strangely absent. Let’s say, you have alumni associations in different cities around the country. Would you say to those local groups, “I’m sorry, if you want to get together or get messages from us, you’ll have to travel back here?” If your alumni are already hanging out with one-another on Facebook, then support them there: They’re doing all organization work for you — all you need to do is show up and smile.

I hope this helps in some way. If not, maybe it will next year.

Good luck,


I haven’t heard back yet on how the follow-up strategy session went. If nothing else, I hope this school — and your’s — can make the venn diagram of how you communicate, and how your audience wants to communicate, overlap a little better this year.