Everything is Awesome on April Fools

Last week, the University of Rochester homepage was overrun by thousands of LEGO bricks and mini-figs? Why? For April Fools Day, of course.

screenshot of University of Rochester homepage with LEGO bricks

We’ve done homepage pranks on April Fools for a few years now. These have evolved from simple things like running our large homepage photos upside down, to more full-blown site takeovers like 2012′s kitten homepage and now this year’s LEGO extravaganza. With these last two efforts, we’ve shifted focus a bit from simply playing a prank to using the day as an opportunity to say something real about the University to a new audience in a fun (and hopefully funny) way. We’re a geek school; we have a lot of engineers, builders, and creators amongst our student body; and the nature of our curriculum allows for many of our students to have these crazy “mash-up” lives where they really do major in both chemistry and music while playing on the Quidditch team. So LEGOs — in addition to having a bit of a moment right now — seemed like a natural fit for having some fun.

From planning to execution, the project took about 40 hours of staff time from five different team members (a writer, a photographer, a graphic designer, a videographer, and me, getting stuff in shape for the web). The “Piece of Resistance” — the LEGO construction of our iconic Rush Rhees Library — had been made last summer by a videographer in University IT.

So how did we do? We did kinda awesome! We quadrupled the typical weekday traffic to the homepage on April 1st, with about 75% of that traffic coming from external users. On a typical weekday, just over 50% of our traffic comes from an internal, University of Rochester audience. So we did expand the number of eyeballs on the site, and especially so among that new, external audience we were hoping to reach.

The landing/story page we created — with a photo gallery of mini-figs representing real and made up majors and student organizations — received 18,000 views. I added a bit.ly link from that page to our real majors and programs, saying “Learn more about our real majors and degree programs: And that’s no April Fool.” That link received 760 clicks, for a clickthough rate of about 4.5% One thing I would like to do differently next year is to create a very simple intake form with a name and email address to see how many visitors would chuckle at the April Fools gag, and THEN go on to raise their hand and request more information about the school.

Everything was awesome on the social front, too. On Facebook, the initial April Fools post had an organic reach of nearly twice that of our total fan base. That’s never happened before. Subsequent posts for the video, for a photo gallery of Facebook cover photos for fans to download and use, and for a wrap-up piece on other April Fools jokes each reached more than half of our fan base, receiving hundreds of likes, comments, and shares. The aforementioned video received nearly 10,000 views in 8 hours.

And the conversation was really hopping on Twitter, where we apparently made a lot of people’s day.


This Is Only a Test: Lessons Learned from a Live Action Emergency Drill

The public safety officers of the University of Rochester conducted a live-action emergency drill this month that provided an opportunity for our officers to coordinate with local law enforcement agencies and other first responders in the event of an “active violence scenario.” For “active violence scenario,” read “gunman on campus; shooting at, injuring, and killing our students, faculty, staff.” If you are near a wood surface of any kind, this may be a good time to give it a few good raps with the knuckles.

While the drill was scripted and designed for the public safety officers, the staff in the University Communications office decided to observe and participate in a parallel exercise of our own to put ourselves through our paces. How would we respond on a day when the worst thing that can happen, happens?

Even though I knew what was coming and when it was coming, I confess I was filled with an adrenaline rush as the minutes to the start of the drill ticked down. What follows is a listing of my main takeaways from the experience: some obvious, some obvious only in hindsight, and some more questions than answers.

1. Haven’t done one of these? DO ONE. 
If your job involves publishing university news to institutional websites, supporting and maintaining your school’s web infrastructure, posting and monitoring social media, or working with media outlets or internal communications vehicles and you have never participated in a live action exercise like this one, talk to your boss and your public safety coordinator about joining in with the next one. I had participated in “table top” exercises in the past, where scenarios are conducted in a kind of play-acting way that, while still revealing and helpful, does not match the intensity of having actors portray gunshot victims, gunmen, news media, etc.

2. Have a mobile-friendly homepage ready to go. Now. Before an emergency.
I am sure your current homepage is beautiful. Hero images and carousels and event calendars and calls to action and core messaging and aids to navigation and all the rest. What should your homepage say when people are being shot on your campus? I hate being so blunt and scary, but there it is. You should have a stripped down, lightweight, image-free, script-free, font-free MOBILE-FRIENDLY version of your homepage ready to go and in the wings somewhere. Multiple people in your communications and IT offices should know where it is and how to publish and update it and have whatever server or account permissions are needed already in place to do so.

screenshot of an emergency homepage, with list up updates and a red header graphicscreenshot of our “pre-baked” emergency homepage


3. Prioritize and delegate. 
Within the first 12 minutes or so of the exercise I had my first “well, d’uh” moment when I realized that I was somehow expected to update the university homepage, the emergency information website, the newsroom, and Twitter, all at the same time. Not gonna happen. At a certain point, the laws of time and space intervene.

I quickly decided that, having gone to the Defcon 1 version of the homepage, the homepage was now the most important place to post the most up-to-date information. From all other outlets — social media, e-newsletters, other websites — we should be directing people to the homepage as the source for the latest information. I decided to take responsibility for the homepage and Twitter, and asked my assistant web editor to take over the emergency website, and our web writer to take responsibility for posting and monitoring Facebook. In order of priority for what to post to when, I quickly fell into a pattern: homepage, Twitter, emergency page, Facebook. I quite honestly forgot all about our newsroom.

Logistical note: for posts to our homepage and emergency information page, we actually did do real posts to our development environment as part of this exercise. To mimic posts to Facebook and Twitter, we kept a running Word document of what we would have posted when.


LEARN MORE: Kerri Hicks and Cindy Sabato (University of Rhode Island) “Red Stapler” winning presentation from HighEdWeb 2013 — Lessons Learned from a Lockdown: Using the Web and Social Media During a Crisis


4. Where are the words coming from?
If you are an IT or web communications professional, are *you* the one providing the actual words and sentences that are being posted to your website or social media outlets? You may very well be. There is also a chance you might not be, and instead you are waiting to hear from … someone else. Or maybe it’s a little of both. You can’t be waiting around for someone to draft then review then approve every sentence. In our case, our public information officer was on the scene with the public safety officers, communicating back to us. It was hugely helpful to know who the trusted sources for internal communication were. However, I also made on-the-fly editorial changes to some of the messaging, for Twitter especially. And editing down messages to 140 characters took a not insignificant chunk of time. Also, during our exercise, we did not even include the whole second-half of the equation for both social media and traditional media: responding to questions. Who does that? Who can speak to what?

5. Who is the audience for this NOW and what do they need NOW?
Like many universities, we have an email emergency alert service that all students, faculty, and staff are automatically signed up for. They are then encouraged to provide additional contact information for voice, text, or non-university email addresses. I didn’t realize until after this exercise that a large portion of our students include their parents as additional points of contact in this system. So as it turns out, many parents will be seeing the very first emergency alerts we send out on campus, at the same time their kids are seeing them. Imagine for a moment what that must be like.

As a crisis and tragedy like the one this exercise explored plays out, at each moment and in each message and communications vehicle, I think there needs to be a decision made about who the most important audience is and what that audience needs to know now. This exercise only encompassed the “live action” portion of this scenario. Once the gunman was apprehended, the exercise was over. The most important audience during this stage of the scenario, I think, has to be current students and their parents. Sure, there are other audiences to serve and other audiences that will see our messages: local and national news media, trustees, alumni. But if you are sitting in your dorm room or class room, or you are sitting in your living room 2,000 miles away in Arizona watching this unfold on CNN, what do you need right now?


Humor + Content Strategy on Facebook Posts

Why did the social media manager cross the road? To engage followers with compelling content that drives conversions and creates brand awareness among key influencers.

OK, not funny.

But since late August, I’ve been trying an experiment on the University of Rochester Facebook page that hopefully does bring the funny. The Geek Joke of the Week is an attempt to share a bit of re-shareable humor, while also reinforcing one of the key aspects of our school’s reputation — its brand, if you will.

Facebook post reads Geek Joke of the Week for computer science majors: a foo walks into a bar and says Hello World

We are a geek school. There is no denying it, there is no hiding it, there is no shame in it. We have a Quidditch team. Our top three majors are biology, biomedical engineering, and brain and cognitive sciences. More than a quarter of our students graduate with double majors and even triple majors. Meeting a double major in microbiology and Russian who’s also an all-star on the field hockey and lacrosse teams is not usual. Her name is Amanda.

Facebook post reads Your Geek Joke of the Week for music and math double majors. I'm starting a new band called the Exponents but we still need a base.

The Geek Joke of the Week is an attempt to do a few things: (1) use the emotional immediacy of humor to (2) introduce or reinforce something real and meaningful about us while (3) having fun on a fun platform. Tim Nekritz recently wrote about the importance of thinking through what it is your school represents and thinking about how to represent THAT in even simple posts about the weather. Couldn’t agree more. It’s why we celebrate May the Fourth Be With You on our page but not, say, National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day. Conversely, I’m betting the folks at Chips Ahoy celebrate the heck out of National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day but Star Wars Day, not so much.

Facebook post with a photo of bananas and text that reads Your Geek Joke of the Week for biology majors. Wanna hear a potassium joke? K.So how have these posts fared so far? So far, so good. The Geek Joke of the Week posts have tended to reach around half of our fans, and have garnered better-than-average likes, comments, and shares (with the caveat that I am getting increasingly frustrated by and skeptical of the analytics Facebook provides). Interestingly, the one post I posted as a photo — the bananas over there on the left — saw far less reach than the other text posts: 6,800 compared to 10,000-12,000 for the others. Why? Who the heck knows. <shakes fist at Facebook!>

The most liked, commented on, and shared of these jokes has been the one at the end of this post devoted to English majors, proving that not all geeks are science geeks. We have geeks of many stripes here, and crucially the jokes are about celebrating that geekiness. They come from a place of love, of insider knowledge and community, not a place of meanness or cruelty.

So I think I’m gonna keep this up, but the next step needs to be asking people to send in their own jokes. I’m having a heck of a time coming up with jokes about political science or economics.

Facebook post reads: Geek Joke of the Week for English majors. Past, PResent, and Future walked into a bar. It was tense.


Thoughts on the 2013 Penn State Web Conference: Nobody Knows Nuthin’

In addition to my annual reminder that all foods are better when pretzel-encrusted, this year’s Penn State Web Conference has again left me with several tasty nuggets to chew on. The unifying concept I would say emerged from the sessions I attended was this: Everything is mobile and there is no such thing as mobile. If mobile was ever a discrete context in which people used Web technologies, that is no longer the case. Except sometimes, when it is. And nobody who works on the Web knows what they are doing.

That last point is pretty much a direct quote from Matt Griffin (@elefontpress) of Bearded Studios who, along with Patrick Fulton (@patrickfulton), presented what was probably my favorite session of the conference, Designing for Extensibility. The guys provided some specific examples of techniques and processes to make your life as a Web designer easier: the benefits to users and coders alike of CSS pre-processors like Sass; a spec document for every new Web project that leads with the project goals and answers the question “what is the ‘victory list’ for this project?” from day one; a style prototype that covers typography, look, and tone without any content or information architecture at all so that clients can discuss “the pretty” separately (love this idea). But in addition to these useful specifics, Matt and Patrick provided the helpful reminder that the Internet has only just celebrated its 20th birthday. Other communications technologies such as letterpress printing have taken decades and centuries to reach their highest potential as a medium. If you don’t know what you’re doing on the Web, that’s OK because nobody else does either. Just keep on doing it, learn from others, and give back to help make the Web better for everybody.

This reminder was especially useful in light of the keynote presentation given on the conference’s second day by content strategist Karen McGrane (@karenmcgrane). Karen also provided a bit of a history lesson by opening her keynote with the story of Digital Equipment Corporation, once the second-largest manufacturer of computers in the world. In 1977, the president of DEC was quoted as saying, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Today, Karen said, there is probably someone in our organizations saying, “There is no reason why anyone would want to [fill in the blank -- submit their application, pay tuition, register for classes, take classes, read course descriptions, etc.] on mobile.” Due to the digital divide in this country, there are many people who will completely skip the desktop experience of the Internet in their homes and workplaces and will only ever know the Internet through the one computing device they will own: their cellphone. Providing a second-class experience on the phone and expecting people to go to the “real” website to do “real” things may have been an acceptable bridge to mobile; in 2013, it is a cop-out.

presentation slide with a cartoon that reads Chunk Your Blog

Advice from Karen McGrane: Chunk your blobs. But what am I going to do with my blurbs?


In his session immediately following Karen’s keynote, Eric Kim (@huafi) of Modo Labs provided what I thought was a useful counterpoint to this “one-website-to-rule-them-all” approach to creating websites for the mobile context. Eric was involved in developing the MIT mobile framework — now known as Kurogo — that powers many dedicated mobile “m-dot” sites in higher ed. One could argue that dedicated mobile sites are losing ground to the content parity approach espoused by the responsive Web design community. But just because the old idea of the mobile context — you’re checking your email on the way to the grocery store or looking up a map on the way to the restaurant — no longer holds true, does not mean that there are not aspects of the mobile user experience to consider when designing and building websites. It is true that most of the time people are using their mobile devices in an indoor, stationary setting. But mobile interactions do tend to be more spontaneous, more simultaneous (two screens at once) and more likely to occur on “found time” (the spaces between other activities) than traditional desktop experiences.

a presentation slide showing a comical Venn diagram of the user experience on a mobile device and desktop device and the old view in which all the mobile activity takes place outside, where now it takes place everywhere

The mobile context, in handy Venn diagram form. 


For Andrew Smyck’s (@andrewsmyk) grade-school aged kids, the mobile experience is working on their math homework together with their classmates using Facetime, then taking a picture of the blackboard in their playhouse and emailing it to their teacher. Mind = blown. Andrew’s presentation on Digital Kids, Branding, Privacy, and Technology Bias was full of examples from his research into how kids use phones and tablets. My favorite quip: kids can tell the difference between iPhones/iPads and other mobile devices, but they call everything “an iPod.” Like how in some parts of the country, all soda is “Coke.” So well done, Apple marketing team. My least favorite factoid: for these kids, if something cannot be found via a Google search, it does not exist on the Internet. Not good news for libraries or budding librarians. And the one “nugget” I’m going to take home and try to do something with this summer came from Andrew’s discussion on how younger kids use Instagram. It’s not so much a photo sharing service for them as it is a live chat or instant messaging service. One photo of your waffles from breakfast results in a 40-comment-long conversation. Instagram has not been kind to platform outliers (Palm Pre to Windows Phone? That’s me!) so I kinda missed the boat. But that’s my summer social media project: figure the heck out of Instagram.  And in the last session of the conference, Donna Talarico (@donnatalarico) covered several social media projects she has undertaken at Elizabethtown College to turn followers into participants, or “stalkers into talkers.” The coolest idea here was an Instagram 30-day photo challenge to increase both awareness of and content for a new Instagram presence at the school. Aaaaaand … steal!

All in all, the Penn State Web Conference left me with one final conclusion: The fact that we don’t know what we are doing means we better know what we are doing. Let me explain. We don’t know yet, for example, whether responsive web design and content parity techniques, or mobile-optimized websites, or native apps are going to “win” the cage match for best approach to the fast-developing mobile landscape. Maybe they all have a place. We don’t know yet what form current social networks will take in two years or five years or what new players will emerge or what new uses our audiences will find for both technologies and creative content. And it’s OK not to know. But we’d BETTER know just what it is we are trying to achieve for our institutions, for our students and faculty, for our alumni on any given Web project and we better have a plan for recognizing and measuring whether a particular project has met that goal (even if that goal is just to have some fun). We’re already flailing around on the technology side of things; we can’t afford to flail around from a lack of strategy or evaluation, too.

That, and everything tastes better with pretzels.


Adventures in Livestreaming: Student Music Ensembles

An occasional series in which I fumble my way through the world of live-event coverage. I screw up so you don’t have to. 

If your university is home to the kind of wonderful student performing groups we have here at the University of Rochester, and you are not currently livestreaming their performances over the Web, may I humbly suggest that you make it your belated New Year’s resolution to start. Or to at least try. I promise you they are the low-hanging-fruit of awesome when it comes to starting and sustaining a live-event-coverage program.

Last semester, I started a livestreaming pilot program with a few of our music department ensembles: the Jazz Ensemble, Wind Symphony, Symphony Orchestra, and Chamber Orchestra. I can happily report that these events have been the most successful events I’ve livestreamed so far. And I am measuring success in terms of both the total number of viewers and the sheer blissed-out happiness expressed by viewers and performers alike at the opportunity to participate in something they had no way of experiencing before.

The first “shake out cruise” was the Jazz Ensemble’s fall concert. With very little promotion, the livestream attracted a sustained viewership of around 40 listeners, with a high of 53. Earth shattering? No. But consider that most of this group’s performances attract around 150-200 in-person attendees. The livestream availability increased their usual attendance levels by between a quarter and a third, without detracting from that in-person attendance.

And that online audience was beyond thrilled. Here is the very first comment received on the built-in chat during that very first livestreamed concert:

8:10 PM  universityofrochester: This is the first jazz ensemble concert to stream live on the Web
8:10 PM  universityofrochester: We appreciate any feedback you may have
8:11 PM  parent: pan the camera left-we can’t see the rhythm section
8:14 PM  universityofrochester: is your student in the rhythm section?
8:14 PM  universityofrochester: I can try to zoom in. :-)
8:15 PM  parent: yes – thanks – the bass player

And it only got better from there. Here is some of the commentary from the Wind Ensemble performance the following week, which sustained 100 viewers throughout the entire concert, and hit a high of 121 (again, with an in-person attendance of around 200):

8:15 PM  MommaLi: Go Greg from Ma and Pa Danchik in Pittsburgh!
8:15 PM  Jay: Kedar u played well and nice job! made me and your dad very proud…
8:18 PM  Jaclyn: go vicky, go! love you, lady!
8:19 PM  MommaLi: “Rust Belt” making us proud tonight : ) Go horns!!!
8:27 PM  Websters: Enjoying this very much!  Thanks for livestreaming for those of us who can’t be there in person.
8:28 PM  akshay: Beautiful! Enjoying this sitting in Carlson doing my assignments!
8:29 PM  Jairo: I am abroad and this is awesome!
8:30 PM  memphismary: I see my girlie sitting between the 2nd and 3rd sax players–yay!
8:44 PM  MommaLi: Thought we’d get the tree decorated tonight but we’re glued. Go Emily! And huge thanks UofR for this privilege.
8:45 PM  URalum89: UR doing a great service and these are wonderful artists. It is a great way to stay connected to the University. Thank you.
8:45 PM  lysolmom: You are doing great, UofR – Miss everybody there so much -you are All fantastic, and this is better than an old lady like me could ever imagine!

When I shared this feedback and viewership stats with the conductors – along with the fact that the livestreams had attracted viewers from Kuala Lumpur, Brussels, Australia, Florida, California, North Dakota, Virginia, etc. – their jaws literally dropped. Needless to say, we are planning to livestream all the major music ensemble performances this semester. This data also helped justify my department’s decision to go ahead and purchase the ad-free version of the livestream platform we are using (Livestream.com; $3,250/year for 3,000 ad-free viewer hours/month).

Here are some tips on how to get started livestreaming your own students’ musical magnificence.

(1) Talk to the right people. Finding out who the right people are on any campus can be a challenge in and of itself. In my case, I first spoke to the press officer in our Communications office who handles publicity for our concert events. She put me in touch with the Music Department’s concertmaster, a faculty member who also administers the department’s performance programs. He then put me in touch with his student technical staff – they set up the house sound before each concert – and with the director of the Jazz Ensemble – he was an eager and gracious “guinea pig” for the first livestream. NOTE: it took two-and-a-half months between my first point-of-contact to my first dry-run of livestreaming a rehearsal. So be patient, young grasshopper. And persistent.

(2) Address issues of copyright. You’d need to take a course in copyright law to understand all the intricacies of rights to sound recordings and performances. In fact, I have taken a course in copyright law, and I still don’t understand them. Luckily I don’t have to. The aforementioned concertmaster handles all copyright concerns when the ensembles are putting together their programs for the semester. For much of the classical music repertoire, copyright is not an issue since works are in the public domain. Also our university has signed contracts with the three major publishing rights organizations – ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. So far, there has been one song in one concert that we did not have clear rights to based on these agreements, so for that song I simply unplugged the audio source from the laptop and explained to the online audience what was going on. And we did Not. Lose. A single. Viewer. They stuck around for six minutes of silence; that’s how much they want this stuff. On your campus, talk with those involved in planning performances of musical works and possibly your university counsel to make sure you have all your intellectual property ducks in a row.

(3) Get the conductor on board. The conductors of the major ensembles I’ve worked with so far – Bill Tiberio of the Jazz Ensemble and David Harmon of the classical ensembles – have been amazing, enthusiastic, and gracious. From the very first one, Tiberio welcomed the online audience from the stage (just as he would welcome the in-person audience), repeated the livestream URL multiple times, and encouraged attendees to send the URL to their friends and relatives at home (which I saw several audience members doing from their phones as the concert began). This has set the tone for the rest of the performances.

(4) The technical stuff. Short answer: it’s all about audio. These are musical performances, after all. For me, my setup is probably embarrassingly low-tech, but it works. (You can check out the archive of the Wind Symphony performance at http://livestre.am/4eYB8  for a sample; fast-forward to the 20-minute mark unless you enjoy watching people mill about.) I use a Canon Vixia HV40 camera – an older model HD camera with a Firewire output. I connect the camera to my Macbook Pro via Firewire, and then connect to the output from the auditorium’s sound board with an RCA audio adapter into the stereo mini-jack input in my laptop. The craziest part is that the sound board is in the back of the stage, so I run a 200-foot extension cable from the stage to my laptop, which is set up in a break in the auditorium seating. Honestly the part of the set-up process that takes the longest is taping this cable down with gaffer tape. But on the upside, I do get to say “gaffer tape” with an air of knowledge and authority.

So what’s next? Obviously the parent audience is key here. These are folks who have probably been watching their child perform at recitals and concerts since the kids were in grade school. Now imagine that for the first time you can’t attend every performance, because your kid is in Rochester and you are in Pittsburgh. It’s kind of a no-brainer that for this audience, this content is unbelievably valuable. My next step for this semester, though, is to try to work with our Admissions office to see how they might use these livestreams as a way to reach out to prospective students. I have to imagine that showing a high school student with an interest in the arts and biomedical engineering just what it would be like to study and perform at our university could also be potentially helpful to students making their college choices.


A Meeting of the Mindsets: Real Students vs. The Beloit Mindset List

Inspired by a 2009 blog post from SUNY Oswego’s Tim Nekritz and the hilarious #fakebeloitmindlist Twitter hashtag initiated by same.

Just in time for back-to-school, the annual Beloit College Mindset List was published on Tuesday, providing quick-and-dirty insights into the minds of today’s college-bound 18-year-olds. For instance, did you know that the Class of 2016 is younger than you? Shocking, I know.

To me this list has always been a weird combination of sure-it’s-true-but-what-the-heck-does-it-have-to-do-with-anything facts (“There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.”) and whose-ass-did-they-pull-that-out-of overgeneralizations (“They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of ‘electronic narcotics.’”) As a fun, informal glimpse into the world of people born in 1994, the list is mostly harmless I suppose. However, if you do a Google News search for Beloit Mindset List, you’ll find more than 600 media references to the list as an arbiter of freshman knowledge and tastes, with everyone from the Christian Science Monitor to eCampus.com getting in on the act. (The infographic from eCampus.com is particularly … infographical. In that it contains both information and graphics.)

This year, the authors of the Mindset List even offered a webinar to help struggling old fogeys “understand the mindset of today’s modern student.” Well as luck would have it, on the same day the list was published, I had another opportunity to understand today’s students: I attended a meet-and-greet reception for our new EcoReps students at the University of Rochester. These are the incoming freshman who work with their fellow classmates on issues of environmental sustainability in the dorms. And I discovered something fascinating: these students are people. We can talk to them. And if you work on a college campus, they are everywhere. I’m telling you, this place is lousy with them.

So what did I learn from my conversation with about 10 actual students? Here are a few insights, provided in a convenient and popular list format:

  1. They all say they hate Facebook, but that they still use it. Primarily for groups. (Hey, look! Something I have in common with the youth of today!)
  2. Most of them admitted to lurking rather than actively participating in their “Class of” Facebook group because occasionally someone will ask a good question. But “it’s always the same people posting all the time,” was an agreed-upon complaint.
  3. Only one of them was on Twitter. She was also on Instagram, and said these two have basically replaced Facebook for her as the way she communicates with her social circle. The students who weren’t on Twitter seemed to agree that the reason they weren’t was because they didn’t really have any idea what they would say on Twitter.
  4. They all agreed that they wished they got more information about their fall courses online earlier. “I wish the syllabus was available already; I just want to get started!” got enthusiastic nods.
What does any of this say about the mindset of a generation? Nothing. I just love the opportunities I get to talk to our students. I have to seek those opportunities out more proactively in my job as a Web developer and editor in a central communications office, but I am always impressed and happy when I do. And you won’t get that from no list.

How Higher Ed Covered The Supreme Court Healthcare Ruling

I was curious today to see how colleges and universities responded to the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. So I looked at the homepages and main newsroom pages of the 61 schools in the Association of American Universities (AAU) to find out. These schools are the leading research universities in the United States and Canada. What I wondered was this: in addition to pitching their faculty experts and doing other media relations activities that have traditionally raised the profile of our institutions, how many colleges and universities chose to be their own publishers and tell their own stories regarding the big news of the day?

The answer is: not that many. Of the 61 schools, 45 did not publish any Web content about the ruling by the end of the day Thursday.

For the other 16 schools, I would say that the online coverage fell into three categories: experts lists or pitches, actual news stories, and real innovative approaches to communicating directly to your audiences about an important national story.

At the top of that last category I would put the University of Chicago, followed by Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. The University of Chicago live-tweeted a discussion among its law school professors hours after the ruling came down. The discussion was Storified and linked to from the university’s homepage. I just think it’s amazing both that they got something so substantive together so quickly and that they were thoughtful enough to include ways for a larger audience outside the room to participate. At Harvard, the Harvard Gazette published a complete package with expert commentary and video, and the School of Public Health will hold a live webcast tomorrow, which I think is a fabulous way of allowing members of your own community (and by extension the general public) to benefit from the expertise of your best professors and researchers. Finally, Berkeley linked to faculty bloggers from its homepage, another great way to show the character of your university while sharing informed opinion to both internal and external audiences.

Of the schools that did their own news stories on the matter, I would say that Brown and Emory were fairly representative. Brown included five different short reactions from professors in various health-related fields. And Emory did the same, with the addition of some commentary from law school professors along with an older “explainer” video from a health policy professor.

Better-than-average story approaches I think came from Duke and Stanford. Duke provided a fully reported and well-written story summarizing faculty reaction from across the university, as well as a separate story explaining that the decision would not affect Duke’s own benefit plans. They were the only school that I saw that did that, and I think that is a great idea: anticipating the questions of your own community and reassuring them right out of the gate. Duke also included a Storify of faculty tweets in the immediate aftermath of the ruling. From its homepage Stanford linked to a story from its School of Public Health that was a kind of rolling blog with commentary from different professors added throughout the day. And once again we see Storify in action, with the university’s law school professors’ reactions added to the mix by the end of the day.

Hmm, that’s three uses of Storify to collect faculty commentary and reaction on an important issue. So far, I have only used Storify for big, student-focused events like Commencement and Move-In Day. It’s great to see some inspiration for using it as a way to capture research stories or academic stories.

Finally, with what I would characterize as the lowest level of content creation and storytelling, were the experts lists that several schools compiled and then linked to from their homepages or newsrooms. Some typical examples include the experts lists at the University of Virginia and the University of Texas.

I’ll be honest and say that these lists feel like missed opportunities, and they kinda depressed me. I should say that here at the University of Rochester I am in the large group of AAU schools who did nothing so, hello, kettle? This is pot. But still, these lists just make it clear to me that the goal of the communications offices that produced them is to get the name of the university into print, and not to help members of their community understand a complex issue, an issue that some members of the university community are experts in. And that seems to me to be a very limited, very “insider” goal. I should also say that I’m not a press officer, so I don’t have a good sense of how successful these experts lists are in achieving media relations goals. But does it need to be a zero sum game? If you are going to take the time to compile these lists, would it be possible at the same time to get a few quotes and write up a simple story that your own community could read and benefit from directly?

With both CNN and Fox News rushing to report today’s Supreme Court decision news (and getting a few details wrong in the process) perhaps there is a place for the smart people at research universities to become another direct source of news?


April Fools and Kitten Analytics

This Sunday to mark April Fools Day, the University of Rochester homepage was overrun with kittens.

The homepage itself has of course reverted to normal, but the gallery lives on. 

I did a little number crunching this morning and found that homepage itself received 34,604 pageviews yesterday; the average number of pageviews for the homepage on a Sunday for the current semester is 11,868, so we saw nearly triple the average traffic. So as a sheer driver of eyeballs, kittens it would seem are fairly successful. 38% of those visitors came from inside the University network, which is fairly typical.

The number of unique visitors to the website was also significantly higher this past Sunday than on an average Sunday. We had 16,500 unique visitors on April Fools, which is a 55% increase over the Sunday average this semester of 10,616. This tells me that we had both more people coming to the site and more people hitting refresh more often to see the images. We also had a much lower exit rate than normal – 32% compared to 55% – and most of that difference seems to be accounted for by people going right to the lolcat page – which accounted for 19% of the “next pages” clicked off the homepage on Sunday.

The homepage photo gallery was viewed 2,287 times yesterday, and about 8.7% of those visitors clicked through to one of the secondary pages listed in the kitty captions (About Us, Majors and Programs, Grad Studies, etc.) The “lolcats” gallery was viewed 3,444 times. 38% of that traffic came from Facebook, 25% came from the homepage, and 13% came to it directly, which I take to mean came from our weekly student e-newsletter which delivers at 8am every Sunday. (We don’t have clickthrough data for Weekly Buzz — which we’d changed to “Weekly Purr” with a kitten masthead for the day — but if I’m analyzing this right it looks like about 460 people clicked on the link to the lolcat page out of about 5,500 recipients). The lolcat page also had a significantly higher time on site number than the site average (1min 47sec compared to 1min 9seconds) but also higher exit and bounce rates than the site as a whole. Which is reasonable, I guess. People came and read all the jokey lolcats, rated their favorite ones, but then didn’t move on to anything else.

Recommendations: This year for the first time we tried to integrate the April Fools jokes with facts/messaging about the University. In hindsight, I would have done this even more, especially on the lolcats page where people did seem to spend some significant amount of time reading. Bottom line: kittens are good drivers of traffic. But when making lolcats, MAKE MORE LOLCATZ!


8 Sources of Inspiration for the New Facebook Timeline

The new Facebook “Timeline” layout for Pages rolls out for everyone — like it or not– on March 30, eight days from now. Are you ready to go? Here are eight ideas and sources of inspiration to get you thinking.

1.) Choose a cool cover image. The most visually striking feature of Timeline is the new cover image at the top of the page. This image is an opportunity to show visitors to the page something unique and gorgeous about you. When choosing this image I think it is especially important to think of new visitors who have not yet liked your page and do not yet potentially get your updates through their News Feeds. Karine Joly at collegewebeditor.com compiled a list of some example cover images from early adopters in higher ed.

For inspiration outside higher ed, I look no further than Cupcakes by Heather & Lori. Of course, the subject matter works in their favor. You can’t go too far wrong with cupcakes! But I love the idea of seasonality here, with their Easter cupcakes on display. Shows the potential fan what is interesting now.

screenshot of cupcakes Facebook page

This idea could definitely work in higher ed, around the academic calendar, around sports seasons, etc. Even the standard quad building beauty shot could benefit from a sense of season.

2.) Let your students provide your cool cover image. As much as I love our professional photographers, I think the cover image provides a new opportunity to showcase user-generated content.

screenshot of University of Rochester Facebook cover image with libraryAt the University of Rochester, we’ve been running a homepage feature for about three-and-a-half years called Photo Friday. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni (even the occasional parent) submit photos and we choose the best to run as the large homepage photos every Friday. Visitors to the site vote on their favorites over the weekend, and on Monday we announce the favorite. We always post both the homepage gallery and each week’s winner to the FB page, so why not make the winner the cover image for the remainder of the week?

3.) Provide your fans with their own school-themed cover images. I love this idea from Arizona State. They provided ASU-themed cover images for their Sun Devil-crazed alumni and students, all sized up and ready to be used by their fans on their own profile pages. Such a great way to allow your fans to show off their school pride to their Facebook friends.

BTW — the cover image dimensions are 851px by 315px. You can upload a larger photo than that and Facebook will allow you to slide it around to position it as you like.

4.) Use custom cover images for your apps. Facebook tabs are a thing of the past in the new Timeline. They’ve kinda been a thing of the past for awhile though, relegated as they were to links along the left side as opposed to the true tab interface.

I never used a default landing tab other than the Wall, so I’m not very familiar with how those used to work. But in the new Timeline, tabs have a new life as apps. And each app has its own thumbnail image. There are default images (and labels) provided by Facebook, but you can change these images to align with your graphic identity or to just stand out more. This video describes how to manage and edit apps custom settings. 

screenshot showing CBS news logo in place of Fast Facts icon on FacebookBe warned: there seems to be some kind of bug in apps/tabs made with FBML. On the UofR page, for example, it keeps replacing the custom image I added to our Fast Facts page with the logo from CBS News. Also, at their developer’s conference in 2011, Facebook announced that FBML would no longer be supported starting on Jan. 1, 2012, and that FBML tabs and applications would cease to function on June 1, 2012. So something else to worry about, then.

5.) Link to your livestreamed events from your Facebook page. Cornell’s Alumni page includes a link to the Livestream.com Facebook app in its line of Facebook apps, which I think is awesome. It allows users to watch a livestreamed event while logged into Facebook — right on the school’s Facebook page — and invite their Facebook friends to join the livestream. This feels like a great way to allow for word-of-mouth communication about your live online events.

6.) Use milestones to stitch together a narrative. The new milestones feature allows you to go back in time and create Facebook posts from your school’s past. Honestly, I don’t know how much time someone who is already a fan of your page would spend clicking back through decades of milestone posts. But if you stay focused on a particular narrative and get a little creative, you can have some fun with these. For example, LSU uses milestones to track the history of their many tiger mascots, going back to “Mike I” in 1936. A fan page for a specific sports team could post a milestone with the records/stats from every season, creating a kind of almanac within Facebook and making their page a real informational resource for fans.

7.) Highlight posts to showcase great art or fans’ posts. The left-right/back-and-forth layout of the Facebook Timeline takes a little getting used to, but the Highlight feature I think makes it worthwhile. When you highlight a post, it breaks free of its left or right side of the page and spans the whole page, giving a really great photo a chance to shine.

One thing I have not gotten the hang of yet though is the fact that fans’ posts to the Wall are relegated to this “Post by Others” ghetto off to the right. I’ve already missed two questions posted there by parents of admitted students, finally replying days later. Not cool. You can highlight Posts by Others, but they are still stuck over their in their box. In the past when people would post questions to the Wall, I would sometimes re-post them so that fans would potentially see them in their News Feeds and weigh in. It will take some getting used to, but the new layout right now makes it harder for this admin to keep on top of these.

8.) Pin a post to the top of your page during important points in the academic year. Timeline allows you to “pin” a post to the top, so it doesn’t get pushed down when new items are posted. I think this concept works particularly well with higher ed’s academic calendar. Sending out your early decision letters and expecting a potential flood of new fans or visits to your page? Why not pin a “Welcome, admitted students!” post to the top of your page that week, with a link to the “Class of” group. Moving-in day coming up? Pin a post linking to a check-off list of last-minute things students should bring, accompanied by a fun video of current students showing how to pack.

Well, that’s all I got! Have you run into any other inspiring Timeline ideas, or are you working on any yourself? I’d love to hear more about them in the comments.



What George Washington Could Teach Higher Ed

I’m currently attempting to read a biography of each of the U.S. presidents in order; it’s a personal project that appeals to both my love of history and my linear, completist nature. And I figured perhaps these leaders of the free world might have some lessons to teach us about higher education, technology, or both. Plus, if car dealerships can celebrate Presidents’ Day for the entire month of February, so can I.

book cover of Washington: A LifeFour Things George Washington Could Teach Higher Ed

from Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life

1. Leaders listen. Washington’s entire management style was founded on a slow, deliberate decision-making process with input from as many experts and constituencies as possible. Unlike the British generals, who chose their staffs and fellow officers based on family standing, Washington chose self-made men like Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, and Alexander Hamilton as his advisers. These men were empowered to speak their minds to the Great Man, and he was open to persuasion, changing his mind when the weight of opinion was against him. In higher ed, we often stick with our own peeps — in Admissions, in Student Affairs, in Communications, in IT — because it’s certainly easier. But without listening for the big picture, as messy and uncomfortable as it can be, how can we make decisions that serve our students and faculty?

2. Leaders lead. After receiving as many opinions as possible — after taking his time and weighing all the arguments — Washington would make a decision and confidently stick to it, inspiring and focusing those around him to the task at hand. From the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse to Alexander Hamilton’s first bank bill, Washington supported his subordinates against swirling controversy and the buck stopped with him. And though he failed to take a lead in ending slavery, he did make the decision to free his slaves in his will — something that none of the other slave-owning founding fathers did. In higher education, the focus on consensus and process can make it seem as if no one is in charge, that no one is accountable. At the end of the day, someone’s gotta make a decision.

3. The non-traditional student is usually the smartest person in the room. Alone among the founding fathers, Washington had not attended college. He felt his lack of education keenly. In early writings, he adopted a highfalutin style that he thought sounded more “educated.” In gatherings, he tended to just stay quiet while orators like John Adams or Richard Henry Lee took the floor. Later in his career, Washington found the fact that people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison underestimated him useful. Washington was a life-long learner. One of the great advantages to working in higher ed is that you are surrounded by an organizational culture that values learning. Why not take advantage of that every day?

4. Leading is hard. Finally, over and over again, Washington lifted the weight of the country on his shoulders, at huge personal sacrifice: commander in chief of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, president of the United States — twice. He didn’t want any of these positions, but he also knew that if he did not take up the challenge, the things he wanted to see happen for his country would not happen. It’s not easy, but if you aren’t going to push and push and champion your own goals or vision, who will?