Lesson in Teamwork

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Although this blog doesn’t deal with Web projects in particular, it concerns a lesson anyone who works on a team has learned or will learn one way or another.

I’m taking an online class in technical writing that requires me to coordinate my work with two other people in a different time zone. Coordination has not been easy to begin with, but the last assignment was a killer.

For an earlier assignment, we had to write an instruction manual for a piece of pretty awful software. Then we performed a usability test on that manual. We used the information gleaned from that test and the instructor’s notes to prepare a report and revise the manual.

Because preparation of the manual, itself, was a headache, I volunteered to head the report portion of the project. Although I forwarded drafts to my team members, I managed to lose a very important file prior to the submission of the assignment.

I don’t know how I did it, but considering my frame of mind when trying to get this report and my portions of the manual revised in time, I’m not totally surprised.

Problem: Our instructor will not accept that I was totally responsible for this mess; she will be downgrading my partners if I don’t provide the file required. All this means that I have to re-create a file in xml in my “spare” time and get it to her before she grades the assignment.

Moral of the story (other than keep all the files in the same folder!): Share all files via a common server, even those files you don’t think are “necessary” for the others in a team. You never know when a bus will hit you.

To leave your coworkers out in the cold is unforgivable; to do it purely by mistake is never acceptable and is pure stupidity.

To my class team members: I apologize, even though I doubt you’ll feel much like forgiving me.

To my instructor: Thanks for allowing me to redeem myself.

To my coworkers: I vow to never do this to you. I have learned a hard lesson and hope to never put myself (or anyone working with me) in that position again.

From Zero to Blogging in Five Easy Steps

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Blogging is the only addiction that won’t make you fat, drunk or stoned. But it might make you so hungry for instant gratification that your books get shorter.

—Erica Jong, novelist, HuffPost blogger

Introduction (skip this if you want)

What is a blog?

The truncated version of Web log, the term blog refers to any website with frequently updated information ranging from personal opinions to business or academic topics. Blogs often read more like journals than academic papers and are typically less formal, shorter, and more for conversation than in-depth treatment of a subject. Blogs often contain links to other websites covering the same or similar subjects; they usually focus on a narrow subject, but there is no reason to be limited provided the author has new information to share on a wider range of subjects.

Blogs typically contain

  • A main content area
  • A listing of articles with most recent on top (often categorized)
  • An archive of older articles
  • A comment section for readers (moderated or not, depending on your preference)
  • Links to related sites
  • Feeds (RSS, etc.)
  • Pingbacks(1) or trackbacks(2)– inform others whenever you cite their article—maintain online conversations

What’s in it for me?

A blog can be a wonderful method for faculty to

  • Communicate, collaborate, and network with peers
  • Be recognized as a thought leader (increase your reputation)
  • Educate others (and focus your thoughts as you reflect for your regular updates)
  • Publish immediately (no need to wait for your website to be updated or your webmaster to post your thoughts)
  • Have an excuse to read others’ works in order to gather information for your posts
  • Propose questions or theories for discussion and comment by others
  • Relate to your students, who are often asked to blog for their courses

Why will you blog? As shown above, there are a number of reasons for blogging, none of which is better or worse than the others. But the key here is to know why you are blogging so that you can set your goals and plan for the future of your blog.

What topic(s) will you cover? Regular topics will help you establish your voice and your credibility, but keep in mind that regular posting will be what keeps your readers coming back. Make sure your topic is not too narrow for your blog. Determining whether you will have a set topic for each blog for the coming year/semester may be helpful for some; for others, spontaneity is key to their blog’s freshness as they like to respond to current events or thoughts. Know what works best for you and plan around that.

  • What makes you a good choice for blogging about this topic (or set of topics)? Are you the “go-to” expert? Are you just building your reputation and hope to offer some fresh insights? Are you willing to share some of your personality with your readers? Successful bloggers tend to develop their own voice as they grow with their blog, so don’t worry if you’re not yet recognized as being an expert. Offering fresh insights will help your readers grow and challenge the status quo.
  • How often will you post? Posting daily or even weekly is not a requirement. However, not posting for a few months after you began posting weekly will signal your readers that you’ve either run out of material or you’ve quit your day job and given up the blog. While quitting your blog will not end up on your permanent record (according to The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, it’s estimated that less than 7 percent of blogs have been updated in the past 90 days, readers will turn off their subscription if you leave them hanging for too long!

Where do I start?

1.     Plan

First, why do you want a blog? Do you want to communicate with others about your work/life/hobbies? Or are you joining the blogging community because your boss says you have to.

If you’re in the first category, great! You’ll have a real reason to want to blog. If you’re in the latter, well, it’ll be harder at first. But go at it with the attitude of sharing your knowledge while learning from your commenters, and you might just find you’ll enjoy it. Either way, you’ll need to plan ahead.

  • What platform will you use? (Note: If you are a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, you can use WordPress at  blogs.nd.edu.
  • How many blogs a week/month/year do you want to produce? Having a schedule in your calendar is a great way to “remember” to blog.
  • What’s your topic? Do you need to research it? If so, plan time for research.
  • Are there other blogs similar to yours? Can you find a niche that fits you?

2.    Commit

Review your schedule. Review your plan. Are you sure you can commit to this? Dropping off the Internet into oblivion will definitely not help you in the long run. Make sure you can commit to a fairly regular schedule of blogging before starting.

OK, I’m ready to commit. What’s next?

3.    Set up your blog

  • Once your blog has been approved,  it’s a matter of choosing a theme, widgets, and plugins, and writing your first blog! (Okay, it’s not something you can do between appointments, but the Resources page can help a lot.)

4.    Write your first article

Good for you! You’ve planned, committed to blogging, set up your blog, and . . . now’s when the fun begins—your first blog. (Some may tell you this will be your easiest blog to write. They may be right. However, you can also think of it as setting the stage for further great blogs, some of which will be hard to pull from your thoughts and others that will flow by themselves. This is the foundation for your journey. So, how do you start?

Your first blog sets the stage for you. In it, you will most likely want to:

  • Introduce yourself. Who are you? What drives you to do what you do? Are there others who share in your work/your dreams/your goals? This is where you can create a sense of trust in your readers and make them want to come back to read your writings.
  • Tell your readers why you are blogging. Or, from your readers’ point of view—why should they read your blog? What do you plan to share with them that’s different from everyone else or that has a special spin on it that only you can provide? 
  • Let your readers know you value their feedback. Yes, it can be risky allowing comments, but one very strong aspect of blogging is the ability it gives you and your readers to interact.
  • Keep it simple. Not all your readers will have a Ph.D. or know your jargon. Try to keep the language clear and simple when possible. You’ll develop a larger readership and educate those readers with differing backgrounds.
  • Be original.
  • Ask a question. By asking a rhetorical question, you cause your readers to engage with you—to think. This can lead to a commitment on their part to come back to find out what else you are thinking and how they can challenge themselves by reading your blog.
  • Share a (short) story. Establish the main point by telling a story or quoting someone in order to get the attention of your readers. Stories often help by helping your readers create visions in their minds of the point you’re making—and pictures, even mental ones, make for longer-term memories of what is read.
  • Give your readers something to do. Ask for comments. Challenge them to come up with a different (better?) idea. Simply putting words out there for people to consume isn’t enough. You want to create a community of interaction, thought sharing, education, or action. And blogging is a wonderful way to do it.
  • Close by returning. A good way to close your blog is to return to the point you were making or the statement or question you set forth in your first paragraph. Let the readers know you’re finished for now.

Now What?

Congratulations! Your first blog has been posted! You may even have two or three more ideas stashed away for future blogs. But now what? You know finals are coming up and you’ve got a heavy load what with grade reporting, exam prep, etc., and you’ve got that conference in Stockholm the week after next. How are you going to keep those blogs coming?

Now that you have your first blog under your belt, take time to tentatively plan out the next one. In fact, if you’re feeling the urge to write more, you can store those future blogs away for those days when the well of creativity runs dry or the deluge of academic pressures inundate you.

Here are some ideas on how to get the juices flowing in preparation of those busy days ahead:

  • Schedule half an hour (okay, 15 minutes if that’s all you really have) two or three days from now. Go ahead. Put it on your calendar and reserve that time for blogging. In fact, you may want to put that as a repeating appointment to meet with your inner thoughts and express them on paper.
  • Write down a list of titles or topics. This list, whether you follow it or not, will give you a starting point for those days when you can’t think of a thing to blog.
  • Write down bullet points for those topics that are of interest to you. If bullet points don’t work for you, make an outline or a thought cloud for organizing your points.
  • If typing isn’t your thing, try speech recognition software or dictate your blog.
  • If you have photos you think would help express your points, gather them in a special blog folder on your computer or server so you’ll have them handy for your late-night inspirations.
  • Consider video as a form of blogging!

Keep on Keepin’ on

It’s true. No one will read you at first, let alone comment. So don’t let that get you down. And don’t quit!

Eventually, by using best practices with keywords and links, you’ll get a reader or two. And if they like what they read, they’ll tell their readers, who will tell others. And soon, you’ll be read by and educating more people than you’d have ever thought would be interested in your line of work. It takes time; and it takes commitment.

Keeping it Real

Take It Easy on Your Readers

No, we’re not suggesting you avoid controversial or hard-to-grasp topics. Indeed, that would be exactly what would help readers realize you know your topic and invite interaction. We’re talking readability here. Just like on regular websites, readers tend to scan to see if what they want is on your page.

  • Make your text scannable. Short paragraphs. Bullet points. Headings.
  • Check your spelling. Especially as a faculty member.
  • Read your post aloud. Does your post read smoothly? Does it make sense? Can it be improved by deleting or adding text? Would it read more easily if it were broken up into smaller sections?
  • If you are aware of other sites with similar content, or are referring to another site, include the hyperlink for that site. That author will appreciate your courtesy, and your link will add authority to your statements.
  • If using terms that might not be familiar to a layperson, link to a definition of the term.
  • If you have a large number of hyperlinks within your blog, you might consider listing all the hyperlinks at the bottom of your blog so as to not interrupt your readers’ concentration when reading the text.

Link to Other Sites

While you don’t want to look like a link farm (which is what this post might look like to some), if your content naturally lends itself to links to other blogs or websites, don’t be afraid to use them. This will help your interaction with others and provide good information for your readers.

Use Appropriate Keywords

These are words that Google and other search engines use for identifying content. By using words that relate to your topic and by defining acronyms, you’ll help your search engine ratings and help others find your blog. In the same way, make sure your blog titles draw in readers. By asking a question or posing an answer (“10 Ways to Avoid Burnout in Teaching Physics,” “What Makes a Architectural Model Effective?”), you can attract readers and help your search engine findability.

Identify Your Posts with Good Tags

When you post your blog, you’ll be asked to provide tags to help the search engines find your post. It’s suggested you use any and all that relate to the post, but no more than 10 per post. To develop your tags, try to think of your readers looking for your post. What would they use as search terms?

Interact with Readers

Invite comments and, when people comment on your site, be sure to respond to them, at least the first time they comment. By doing so, you’re building relationships with your readers, thus encouraging loyalty and continuing the conversation.

Consider having your photo on your site. By letting the world identify you, you are inviting trust and a relationship that will be key to readers returning to your site.

Give Them Something New

Give added value to your readers that they can’t find anywhere else. Do you have a colleague who is worth interviewing?

Leave Out These Things

  • Anything animated
  • Music
  • Misspelled words and grammatical errors
  • Old content, especially from other sites. If you have nothing original to say, link back to the source.

Other Resources

Why Blog:

microbiologybytes.com/AJC/whyblog.html

nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2007/04/encouraging_edu.html

buildabetterblog.com/2009/07/why-blog-when-youve-got-facebook.html

Blog Planning:

problogger.net/archives/2008/02/26/building-a-blog-plan-for-success/

codex.wordpress.org/Introduction_to_Blogging

First Blogs:

searchengineguide.com/mack-collier/how-to-write-your-first-blog-post.php

copyblogger.com/5-simple-ways-to-open-your-blog-post-with-a-bang/

Best practices:

slideshare.net/rlewis1686/5-blog-best-practices

armchairtheorist.com/2008/05/22/top-10-tagging-best-practices-for-anything-web-20/

https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal

General:

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, by the editors of the Huffington Post

dailyblogtips.com/101-ways-to-promote-a-new-blog/

(1) Pingbacks are a form of remote commenting. You post something on your blog; the next person links to your post; you get a pingback that sends you to that person’s blog so you can verify the pingback..

(2) Trackbacks are similar to pingbacks. You post something on your blog; the next person comments on it in her blog and sends a trackback to you. Your blog then displays the trackback as a comment to your blog, with a link to the second person’s blog. Trackbacks aren’t verifiable (can be faked) but your readers can see some of what the second person has to say before clicking over to that person’s blog. The preference of pingbacks vs. trackbacks is personal and arguable.

Website Style Guides

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We strongly recommend that you develop a written style guide for your website content for several reasons:

  • The act of creating a guide will mean that you will be making choices rather than “winging it” as your site grows
  • The guide will provide one source for answers to style questions and help to ensure consistency in style from one author to another
  • Consistency in style and voice will provide visitors to your site with a more intelligible, pleasant experience by making the text easier to read and reducing the variations that tend to distract readers

You can choose to follow the AgencyND Style Guide or create your own. If you create your own, a form similar to the one attached to this blog (Style Guide Template 66kb PDF ) can help you get started.

Here are some areas you will want to consider and decide upon before publishing your site:

  • Abbreviations and Acronyms — list abbreviations and acronyms along with when you will define these for your audience; CSC (Center for Social Concerns), C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross)
  • Academic Degrees — B.S. vs. BS, MBA vs. M.B.A., Ph.D. vs. PhD, bachelor of arts vs. Bachelor of Arts
  • Active vs. passive voice – Avoid passive when possible
  • Addresses — P.O. Box vs. PO Box, USPS style (for mailing info), text style (Ind. vs. Indiana)
  • and, & — When will you use ampersands (if at all) (not in text unless part of official name)
  • Capitalization
  • Nouns — Science vs. science, Trustee vs. trustee, President vs. president (when referring to U.S. or Notre Dame president
  • Headings — Consistency in style (statement vs. title), & vs. and
  • Citations — style
  • Class — Class of ’10, Jim Smith ’10 (make sure to use the right single quotation mark)
  • Commas
    • Serial vs. not
    • Before Jr., Sr., III vs. not
  • Course names — in quotations or italicized?
  • Dates — 1/12/10 vs. January 12, 2010 vs. Jan. 12, 2010 vs. 12 Jan. 2010, etc.
  • Departments, Offices, Committees — full titles, shortened titles, capped or not
  • Dr. vs. Prof. — Will you refer to a faculty member with a Ph.D. as Dr. or Prof.?
  • Email vs. E-mail (lowercase unless first word in sentence)
  • He, she, they — nonsexist, but will “they” be used for singular?
  • Headings and subheadings — The page title is always H1. Will you follow with H2, H3, etc., in that order, for each page?
  • home page vs. homepage
  • Links — include url or “hide it,” including several in text or at bottom of page
  • Lists — numbered or unnumbered? (Typically, numbered are used to show chronological order) (Note: In Web writing, bulleted or numbered list items are typically not followed by periods; periods tend to slow down reading, and Web users are interested in quickly scanning pages.)
  • log in (verb) vs. login (noun)
  • Numbers — spelled out under 10 or 11?
  • online vs. on-line
  • Phone, Fax — 574.631.5000 vs. (574) 631-5000 vs. 631-5000 vs. 1-5000
  • Prof. vs. Professor
    • Capitalize names of endowed professorships. Note that the is to be used before the title.
    • the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology
    • Abbreviate Prof. when used as part of a name: Prof. John Jones or Prof. Jones.
    • On second reference, the last name may be used alone. Jones was the speaker.
  • Publications — italicize books; quotations around articles?
  • Spelling — always spell check! If referring to British sites, use British spelling?
  • Time — 8:00 a.m. vs. 8:00 am vs. 8:00AM vs. 8 a.m., etc.
  • Unnecessary words — omit them all!
  • Web site vs. website
  • Web vs. web

Other examples of Web style guides are available at

Whether you create your own style guide or use one provided by others, make sure that you follow it and let others who work on the site know that it exists. Visitors to your site will appreciate the professionalism, and you will be helping your site to do its work.

Style Guide Template 66kb PDF

Writing for Web E-Book Draft

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I’m in the process of writing a book for our clients setting forth some of the do’s and don’ts of Web writing. It’s here for downloading as a pdf. A Guide to Writing for Your Website

In the process of writing the book (under 25 pages, so “real” writers don’t have to worry), I realized there is a plethora of really good advice on the Web. I simply reiterated what so many others have expressed before and provided a quick and easy introduction to that field of expertise.

Ideas covered by this book (so far) include

  • The Why of Your Website
  • Content – clarity, brevity, credibility, timeliness, relevance, quality, and SEO friendliness
  • Reading Patterns

and others.

I’d appreciate any feedback you want to provide regarding the book, which we’ll be offering for free.

Don’t like what I wrote? Have a different opinion? Got a better way to say it? Now’s the time to speak up!

Evernote as Interviewing Tool

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I’m always in the market for free tools to help me in my work, and I’ve fallen in love with Evernote (software for taking notes) for several reasons:

  • I can take notes in a meeting and actually read most of them later on (I have horrible handwriting)
  • I can immediately sync my notes between my PC netbook, my office Mac, and my iPhone
  • I can send my notes to team members
  • I can print my notes

And now I have yet another reason to love Evernote:

Templates

You see, I’ve set up my notes in folders (clients, Web group meetings, 1:1 with boss, etc.), and now I’ve started a new one just for templates. I’m one of those people who loves to have an idea of what I’m going to be asking during client intake meetings, but I hate hauling around papers that look like scripts. Now, I have my handy-dandy little form right in Evernote.

When it comes time to meet with the client, I follow these simple steps to have a form for taking notes:*

  1. Open Evernote
  2. Open the Template folder and note (Kickoff Meeting Questions, in this case)
  3. Highlight the text in the note and copy
  4. Open a New Note
  5. Paste the text into the new note

Voila! I now have a screen with blanks for all the questions I want to ask and get answered and no one’s the wiser for it!

Kickoff Meeting Template

Kickoff Meeting Questions Template
Kickoff Meeting Template for Questions and Site Plan

The template I’ve attached is basically a set of tables; one for the intake questions, and one for the draft of a site plan. If I think of other questions to ask or want more lines in the table for the site plan, then I simply add more rows to the tables just as you would in Word or Excel. And, of course, I can simply type below or above any of the text already on the screen, so there’s no limitation such as having a printed paper.

New and Improved!

With much gratitude to Evernote, I am entering a new phase of efficiency in interviewing.

Not to sound like an Evernote salesman (I have no connection with the software maker other than using their free version, so this is honest praise), but I also find it useful to take notes on conference calls for my online class or in other general meetings, make lists of things I just “gotta” do, and generally keep track of things I used to jot on paper and then lose or misfile.

Now to just figure out what else I can use it for . . .

*Note: If anyone knows of a template function, let me know! In the meantime, this works really well.

Website Mistakes Mean You’re Not Worth My Time

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I found a site today that had this statement across the page:

I’m glad your website has spelling mistakes.
It confirms my initial thoughts that you are an idiot.

Now, while I can’t say I approve of the language used throughout the other pages of his site, the author has a valid point. Why shouldn’t visitors to our sites assume the worst of us if we don’t even take the time to proofread our own work?

——-

I heard a story recently about a family whose oldest child developed an interest in baseball. He loved to play the sport, and with his natural curiosity and intelligence, soon developed into an all-star player. Mom and Dad went dutifully to all the games; Dad coached Little League in order to be a good influence on the boy; both parents spent money and time to support the boy in his chosen path through adolescence.

But, as often happens, the boy soon learned the he would never be “top dog” or even make it to the major leagues without a great deal of work and even more luck. He gradually dropped his interest in baseball. He quit working with the pitching machine and batting cage Dad had bought. He skipped practice (and even school). He would deliberately sabotage his own game by showing up with a bad attitude. He eventually showed up in body only, leaving his spirit behind, and finally quit playing ball at all.

Dad, of course, was devastated. But he realized that there had come a time when he cared more about his son’s baseball career than his son did. And that’s when he stopped caring about the prospective career.

——-

Smart dad. He knew he couldn’t continue that strategy.

Likewise, visitors to your website cannot care more about your information than you do.

If they do, they’ll soon realize it and discount your site as inferior and not worth their time.

The information might be perfect for them—the graphics incredible. But if they spot a spelling error, that’s a strike. A grammatical miscue could be another strike. And a broken link? Well, that’s definitely the third strike. And many visitors will leave after the third strike, if not before.

Stanford University conducted a study on why people believe (or disbelieve) what they read on the Web. Three years of research including 4,500 people, resulted in a number of findings and reports, including “Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility.” The final guideline they suggested was “Avoid errors of all types, no matter how small they seem.”

In the researchers’ words, “[t]ypographical errors and broken links hurt a site’s credibility more than most people imagine.”

So, when you’re tempted to just “slap up anything so there’s a site for people to visit,” think again. Think how you could be striking out with your visitors, not just with the site, but also with their opinion of your organization/department/program. And then think how quickly bad news spreads on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Is that the reputation you want? If not, check your site again. And have someone else check it.

You can never be too careful. It’s your reputation at stake in this ballgame.

Building a new website is a lot like falling in love.

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When you find someone who interests you more than usual, you will often go out of your way to try to impress that person: dress up a bit; maybe get a haircut; shower regularly (thank you!); and work really, really hard at being polite, sensitive, and interesting. You may even pretend you’re someone you’re not in order to attract that person; perhaps hide a part of your personality your ex said was annoying. And you might even feign interest in or show off your expertise in something that interests your love interest.

Believe it or not, we do the same when building a website.

Setting our goals.When we start looking for a spouse, special friend, or lover, we already have a goal, whether or not we realize it. We are looking for someone special.

Likewise, when we build a website, we should also have goals. What do we want to accomplish? Are we selling a specific program? Are we trying to encourage donations to the University? Are we trying to impress our peers or a funding agency? Or are we simply sharing knowledge? Not knowing what we want to do with our site is a little like going to a singles bar or a matchmaking club before we decide that we really want to share our life with someone else. If we do attract someone special, then what?

Finding our new love. We’ve decided something is missing in our lives. We want someone special. So we clean up our act a bit and head out to where our best pals met their true loves; or we get involved in the community; or we join a dating club. Anything, just so long as we’re meeting people. And we begin the sorting out process. No, that’s not the one–too self-centered. Nope–no attraction. We soon discover we know what we want in a mate, and we start looking for that specific type. And we narrow down our search.

Just as when we’re searching for that one-in-a-million person, we will want to narrow our Web audience to those who really have an interest in what we have to offer and determine what it is that would attract them.

Although clients often tell us their audience is “everyone,” by asking lots of questions, we can often determine that yes, Mom and Dad might check out the site to find out what kinds of classes Junior will take, and the Trustees might come here to find out what kind of professors the University has hired; but the main focus might turn out to be incoming first year students looking for an interesting major and sophomores trying to decide if they want to take three more years of Norwegian literature.

What is interesting to Mom and Dad or Ms. Trustee would, of course, need to be represented, but the major focus should be on the audience that will help us fulfill the goals of our site. To quote the inimitable comedian Bill Cosby, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Making an impression. Wow! That’s the one! We’re in love! From across the room, we can tell this someone is THE someone, and we want to make the best possible impression as we introduce ourselves. We scramble to come up with the best lines, the most sophisticated “look,” and the right way of saying things as we move in to make that first big impression.

Likewise, in the Web world, we want to present the best possible side of ourselves. We hire the best designers and developers to create an experience that our audience will not likely soon forget. But we need to be careful to not overdo it. Just like the guy who shows up with a dozen roses, perfume, and candy for a first date, we don’t want to scare off our audience (or overwhelm them) by trying too hard.

Knowing what they want. When we begin dating that special someone, we soon find out everything we can about this person so that we can do everything we can to create a harmonious relationship and find common interests. We try nearly anything to make this person happy.

It’s the same with the Web. We study our audience so we know exactly what they want, need, and expect from our site. We work within the goals we’ve set forth for the site to make sure our audience gets what it wants and in the most pleasant manner possible.

Keeping the love alive. We’re madly in love. We plan to spend the rest of our lives together. But how do we sustain the love and commitment through the bad times? It’s a commitment we make to work diligently, always trying new things to keep the spark alive and to keep our mate’s interest. Is it easy? No way! But it’s something we do because we are partners now. And it means we both win in this relationship.

Keeping the love alive in a website is much the same. We must always test our Web presence to make sure both the audience and we are getting something from the relationship. And if the audience changes or the needs of our audience change, we must always be ready to change our website to reflect what our mate, er, audience wants.

By frequently testing the site, refreshing the material, and listening to our audience, we can keep this relationship going for a long, long time. As in a strong marriage, both parties will flourish and have their needs met. And what more can we ask from a relationship?

Elevator Pitches for your Website

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We tell clients they need an elevator pitch for their home page, and often they look at us like we’re from another world. Why an elevator pitch? We’re an academic institution; we’re not selling anything!

Ah, but I disagree.

We are selling our university, our department, our program. Whether we realize it or not, we are selling something just by offering our thoughts, publications, or insight into our organization. We may be selling our school to potential students (and their parents), our expertise in a research field, the world-class stature of our faculty, or something else, but by our presence on the Web, we are, nonetheless, selling something.

And unlike in a face-to-face meeting, we cannot immediately adjust our pitch to fit the circumstances. Or hand out a different brochure to difference audiences.

Our Web elevator pitch needs to be a brief, compelling, and visual way to entice visitors into our site. It’s a way to tell others in one or two sentences

  • Who we are
  • What we do
  • Why they should care
  • What we can do to benefit them

An elevator pitch is what we want others to remember about us or what we want a journalist to quote when describing us.

In order to create a good elevator pitch, we must, of necessity

  • Know our audience (how do they speak? what are they looking for?)
  • Know ourselves (what are our strong points? what do we want our visitors to do?)
  • Know our competitors (saying the same thing about ourselves as our peers say about themselves will only bore our visitors; we must separate ourselves from the crowd)
  • Know our advantage (what makes us different and better?)

We can then set these down in a short paragraph and then look at that draft from the harsh viewpoint of a disinterested visitor to our site.

  • Does it ring true?
  • Does it make me want to learn more?
  • Does it bore me?
  • Is it memorable?
  • Does it clearly state who, what, and how?

Then we cut mercilessly. We whittle our pitch down to one or two sentences.

But we’re not finished yet!

What about all the other pages? Do they have an introductory statement like this? Since most of our visitors will make their return visits beginning at something other than our home page, we want to be sure to capture their interest on each page.

Oh. And then, we will need to make sure each of these pitches is relevant today. And next month. And next year. Like anything on the Web, we must keep our elevator pitches fresh and relevant.  When our department/school/program changes, we need to review our pitches to make sure we’re still being truthful and informative.

And you thought the Web was just moving text from print pieces . . .

Long, long, day

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I’ve been working at home all day for two reasons: (1) I didn’t have any meetings, so this was a good excuse to go back to bed for an hour after my 5 a.m. trip to the Y; and (2) I needed to record (and re-record) a presentation on Web writing. It’s so much easier to do when only the dog and cat are around to hear me make all my mistakes.

Why am I, an information architect, giving advice about writing for the Web?

Well, believe it or not, even though I don’t consider myself a great writer, I have picked up some nuggets about Web writing:

  • be concise
  • don’t use references to the Alferd E. Packer Grill unless you are writing for Univ. of Colorado students*
  • leave out the hyperbole
  • use bullets, but no periods after them (slows down the reader)
  • and more (you have to see the video to get the rest of the benefit of my studies)

Does that make me a good Web writer? I don’t know. But it’s often said that “those who can’t, teach.” And if I can pass along any nuggets of knowledge I’ve picked up to make it easier on the next guy, great!

Because that means that someone out there who can write well may just learn a few tips that will help him write even better for the website we’re helping him build. And isn’t that the point? Share your gifts; and all benefit.

Keep tuned to conductor.nd.edu for the presentation: Writing for the Web Your Web Visitors.

Note: This is the first time I’ve been able to find a reason to use the strikethrough format. I can now tell our clients I’ve used it!

*See http://bit.ly/clnfE4 for information about the Packer Grill (and the cannibal it’s named after).

Website Strategy—Planning: What a Concept!

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How in the world does one go about planning a new or reworked website? Well, in a lot of cases, that planning consists of a number of committee meetings ruled by one or two people who force their ideas down the throats of everyone else. Or perhaps the committee works well together, and they all agree on what they want on their site. Sometimes, an “expert” or team of experts is hired to devise the plan. The experts may even sit down with the people owning the site and find out what they want on it.

But in all these cases, the reason for the site is absent or, at the very best, hidden in the corner. I mean, what’s the site for? Surely we can’t all afford to have a site made for us/our department/our group for the sake of vanity. It’d be easier to have a printed piece produced; one we wouldn’t have to maintain.

No, in nearly every case, the reason a site is built in the first place or revamped should be stated at the very beginning of a project—and it should not be “because we need one” or “but every other department has one and ours is not as pretty/pithy/up-to-date, etc.”

Determining the reason (the goals) of your site should be one of the first things you do. For without properly defined goals, no site, no matter how beautiful it is, will persuade your user (the guy who comes to your website) to do what you want him* to do. He may appreciate the beauty, but unless you define your goals and have specific actions you want your user to do, he will probably walk away pleased with himself but a little confused because “something was missing.” That “something” was most likely a call to action.

So you determine what you want someone to do; then you put in your call to action. Now what? Just for the sake of argument, assume not everyone who comes to your site wants to do what you want. Just suppose that he feels he can get a better deal, find newer information, get something for free if he just keeps on looking on the Internet. How are you going to convince him otherwise? That, ladies and gents, is the key to judging whether your website works—whether it serves its purpose in helping you accomplish your goals.

True. With a university site, one hardly has to worry about making sales (usually). And if a student is thinking of coming to Notre Dame, it might not take too much to convince him to delve a little deeper and find out about the benefits of coming here. But suppose he’s not really sure he wants to come here. Or his Aunt Agnes went to Harvard, and “gee, anyone who’s anyone would go there.” Do you have that response ready when his mind starts wandering away from that “Apply Now” button and back to Aunt Aggie’s tirade at dinner the other night? Well, if you want to turn that prospective student/faculty member/donor into someone who buys in to what you are offering, that objection is something you’ll need to consider—for each call to action—on each page.

How do you keep those website “musts” all straight? It’s not easy. However, something we use here at AgencyND might help. It’s a simple table that sets forth each top-level navigation page you anticipate having in your site, what you think you might want to have on that page, your goals for that page (calls to/points of action), possible objections, and (drum roll, please) how you will respond to that call to action.

Anticipating objections before you populate your site will help you further define your goals and also help clarify your thoughts as you sit down to write your copy. Knowing why you are putting something on the Web helps make what you put on the Web much more powerful.

Try out the table. See if it fits your needs. And if you find something you like better, pass it along. We’ll all benefit!

*Just a note. As a former editor and a woman who has been around a long time, I have no problem with using the formal “he” when referring to a person of unknown gender in cases such as this. I find it much easier to type “he” than “he/she” or “s/he” or “he or she” and am personally not offended one bit by this quirk of the English language. I apologize in advance if you are.

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