Feb 09 2007

Get Fresh

Stagnant Web sites are likely to be ignored. Here's how to keep visitors coming back to the site you worked so hard to create.

Stagnant Web sites are likely to be ignored. Here’s how to keep visitors coming back to the site you worked so hard to create.

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When Villanova University overhauled its Web site four years ago, it wanted more than just a state-of-the-art electronic environment for students, faculty and the public. The site had to change and grow over time.

“We wanted to present content that wasn’t static,” says Stephen Fugale, CIO of the Villanova, Pa., university. “It had to draw our various constituents back to the site.” The efforts have paid off. Fugale’s traffic studies show steadily increasing click-through rates — a strong indication that Villanova’s site is a dynamic information portal, not a museum piece frozen in time.

Like other universities, Villanova learned that best practices for design, navigation and performance aren’t enough to keep a site vibrant. The entire organization must work to keep content fresh and accurate. A vital component: a reliable content management system (CMS) that lets individual departments create their own updates. Schools also need oversight committees to enforce “refresh” schedules. Finally, Web managers must embrace new technologies to generate ongoing interest — employing school-centered chats, studentconducted virtual tours, newsfeeds and podcasts.

Content is King

Decentralizing content creation is critical. “Make all the individual departments responsible for their own content as much as possible,” says Steve Chapin, president of Vision Internet, a Santa Monica, Calif., consulting company.

Chapin’s company offers clients — including UCLA School of Law and Dallas County Community College District — a content management system it developed in-house. Chapin says there are also appropriate commercial systems, such as Microsoft Content Management Server and Oracle’s Stellent Universal Content Management.

Interactivity Reigns

Here are some ideas for bringing excitement to your Web site:

Student Portfolios: This spring, Adelphi seniors will be able to publish multimedia art portfolios to the site. This coincides with $113 million in new construction, including a performing arts center. “We wanted to break out of our standard template to promote how important the arts are,” says Elizabeth Sparr, manager of Web communications.

E-News: Some schools are targeting news stories to students and faculty, based on their requests. Some examples: upcoming classes and teaching opportunities. This helps maintain ongoing connections with the Web site.

Podcasts: An internal Villanova site lets visitors download audio and video podcasts of school events, as well as news, music, sports and other programming. Villanova is one of a handful of schools offering Apple’s iTunes U service, which delivers content free in exchange for driving students to commercial iTunes offerings.

CMS applications should create workflows that automatically move content from creation through necessary approvals before publication, says William Iek, Vision Internet’s lead project manager.

A CMS also must appeal to nontechnical users. “If people get frustrated, they’ll abandon the system and not maintain content,” Chapin says.

Villanova developed its CMS using Java and eXtensible Markup Language. It included a staging area where a Web editor — often a department manager — can review content prior to production. In the past, users have deleted relevant content or posted conflicting information, says Marybeth Avioli, director of Web services.

Villanova’s IT staff also uses snippets of Java code embedded in the copy to control scheduling, so departments can write advance copy and be assured that it will post at the right time. Tags also point information at specific groups. Freshmen, for example, receive targeted news when they log in.

Fugale believes users have more incentive to revisit the site if they know they’ll find timely and personally relevant information. “We keep trying to add new functions — not just static content — to drive people to the site,” he adds.

A Group Effort

Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., created a Web committee to keep its award-winning site current. The committee must have the authority to say, “You need to update your Web site with new information,” says Adelphi CIO Jack Chen.

The school maintains a team of designers and editors to polish content for a consistent look and editorial voice. “Our copy editor is here to make content Web-friendly — creating shorter paragraphs for readability and cohesiveness or adding links to related pages,” says Elizabeth Sparr, manager of Web communications.

Students and faculty also regularly visit an internal Web portal (ecampus.adelphi.edu) that offers custom content not available to the general public. There are also forums for faculty, staff and students to learn about apartment openings and ride-sharing opportunities or to grapple with the academic calendar and grading policies. One great thing about having forums, says Chen: “The information just naturally stays fresh from all the discussions that are going on there.”

How To Energize Your Site

  • Install a content management system
  • Create a Web oversight committee
  • Target news to specific audiences
  • Use discussion forums to generate interest
  • Make multimedia ubiquitous

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