I’m Over It, Now What?

It’s taken me a really long time to figure this out: web development is just not my thing. It used to be, but I’ve realized over the past couple of years that I enjoy data science and digital marketing (and not so much web development). I really am over combing through code and updating people’s contact information every day. My brain needs more exercise. Soooo, what do I do?

Several of my friends have jumped the higher ed ship & have started their own web businesses. I would like for consulting to be my full-time job, but I am scared to take the leap, mainly because of insurance and other benefits. The people I know that exited are happy and they seem to be successful. I am afraid that I won’t be able to find enough work to say adios right now.

Please, let me know about your experiences. Are there things you checked off the list of to-do items before you did your own thing? I need some advice!

#Highered Enrollment: Your Charts May Be Lying to You

The enrollment report is in your inbox, your college is right in the middle of enrollment for the Fall semester. There’s a moment of dread, a moment of excitement and you aren’t sure if you really want to look, but you know you have to. The charts look ok, down, but not by much.graph-what

Question: Down compared to _________? The numbers for the previous year’s Fall semester? Was the previous Fall semester miserably down? If your enrollment is higher than the previous Fall semester, does that mean that you’re actually doing well?

Warning, this is my own idea of actually measuring enrollment to determine if the charts you see give you a real idea of how things are actually going. It certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways, it just seems to make a bit more sense to me.

What if you look at big picture numbers; instead of measuring enrollment to a previous year, would it make more sense to look at the numbers for the last 5 years? What was the highest enrollment achieved? What is average enrollment over these years? If you compare the current enrollment numbers to these 2 numbers, how do they look? Are you still doing well?

In my opinion, 3 charts & numbers are better than 1. Current vs the previous year, current vs your highest, and current vs your average. This can work for specific programs as well. If you had 500 students enrolled in a program the previous year & you have 600 so far for the upcoming semester, it seems you’re improving, but what if the 5 year average enrollment for that program is 1000 and the highest you’ve achieved is 1500? *completely made up hypothetical numbers here.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t perfect & that every year has it’s own set of factors, that’s why I compare to an average. I’d rather aim higher than lower! I am also no enrollment or recruiting specialist, so please, if you have a different way of comparison for success, leave a comment.


Improving UI/UX on #highered Websites with Hotjar

I’m sure we all agree that college websites should be tested and evaluated continuously to improve user experience (UX) and increase conversions. As web professionals we need to know what works, what may work better, and what is just useless. I was fortunate enough to use Hotjar on our site in its beta.

features of hotjar to increase edu site conversionsWhat the heck is Hotjar?

It takes just a second to setup, you add a script to all of your pages (it doesn’t slow your site down and is easy if you’re using a CMS) & then it allows you to record visitor sessions, see clicks, scrolls, and mobile use. It also generates heatmaps, allows for A/B test, & can add feedback forms and surveys to your site. It also helps you recruit site testers and has a ton of other features. Go check it out (after reading this blog post, of course!). I believe it’s a GREAT tool that is reasonably priced.

I placed the hotjar script on the previous version of our college website and it helped us with many decisions that we needed to address on our recently launched redesign. After launching the redesign, it helps us to see where users were struggling and we’ve made several changes after checking out heatmaps and visitor recordings. We also put feedback popups on our persona dashboards to ask users what they were looking for, but had trouble finding, how we could improve and what we were missing.

User experience is crucial on college sites. Prospects leave in one hell of a hurry if they can’t find what they want immediately. We’ve become a society that’s used to immediate gratification, ya know, especially on the web. So, we test and make changes to our interface (UI) to keep our visitors from having to think (Shout out to Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think).

Using hotjar data combined with Google Analytics and your CRM or marketing data may actually surprise you.

Remember, what users say they want and how they behave online can really be conflicting. Improve your calls to action, test different placements, colors, see where your mobile visitors get stuck, answer the “what are they looking for” question and chop content that just isn’t helping your cause and replace it with something else to see if you get a better response.

I was amazed how quickly the Hotjar people responded to me when I had issues, they listened to feedback, and are improving the service all the time.

I am not one to endorse products often and I certainly do not get paid to do it. It’s a nice service that will help those of us responsible for .edu websites. Try it out, it may replace several tools that you pay out of your ears for. I’d love to know successes you have with it. We can definitely all learn from the insights of other #highered web (or marketing) friends. I plan on writing about a few things that we changed because of using the service (one thing is improvement of our mobile nav on pages other than the homepage).

I hope this helps you, it certainly has helped me!


Big data in Higher Ed: Enrollment, Marketing & Student Success

In higher education, we have tons of data about our students, prospects and student success right in front of our eyes. If using an inbound marketing platform, you probably know more about your students & prospects than you’d really like to know! The problem, it seems, is tying all of this information together to make a complete profile of our students and prospects.

load-of-dataIn utopia, what would a perfect student or prospective student profile include (this is seriously a question)??

Most of the time we don’t know much about our prospects until we ask explicitly, whether it be information on a form submission for a download, a request for information, or a recruiter talking to someone at a recruiting event and hand entering info. On the web, it takes exceptional content and web navigation, but once we get to the asking part, most are interested enough to share a bit of information about themselves.

Once a prospect shares enough information to become a lead we know:

  • Demographics
  • Contact Information
  • Web downloads, web visit history, social media info
  • Program interests
  • Other stuff from your CRM

Ok, that’s a really good start. I may be missing some things, feel free to leave comments below!

For current students we have:

  • Demographic info
  • Test Scores
  • Majors
  • Grades – courses they’ve done well in and those they haven’t
  • Web Downloads, possibly web page visits and/or social media info
  • Usually a career center has information from different tests that suggest careers based on interests

Again, what am I missing? I’m sure I’ve left some things out, but those are things I can think of right off the top of my head.

If your college is like most, all of this information lives in a million different places, some of which are only available to certain departments. You have a major silo problem, that’s normal in higher ed, whether it’s data or something else. Usually, if you need information, you have to ask someone to pull it for you out of a system that you may or may not know the name of, you may or may not know exist, and/or systems that the college may have been using from the beginning of time.

data-quoteFor just a minute, consider how powerful all of this information could be to your recruiting efforts, marketing and student success. Where does all of this data live and what format is it in? What information would help boost enrollment, make the marketing department drool and HELP your students be successful (that’s why we’re here, right)? What are you missing that would be helpful? Think personas…think personalization (not only in marketing, but in their entire college experience)… What can you combine, from web analytics to grades, activities, etc. that would give you a clear picture of each student you serve?

Why does the thought of data warehousing scare the crap out of people?

Cost? Time? Manpower? The fact that there are very few, if any, higher ed specific services available to make this easier? It’s a daunting task, almost impossible for many people to wrap their heads around, but seriously, if you think the big money propritary schools aren’t doing this, you’re currently living in a continuous pipe dream. They have the cash, we don’t – we have to work smarter and a lot of times a lot harder!

I have seen a couple of interesting things that schools have done using the data they have, Austin Peay State University built a recommender system with a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant that recommends courses that a current student may be interested (and successful) in. The other is a community college system that created Sherpa, which incorporates some other types of communications to encourage student success and warns of students who need help.

However, it seems both of these projects have been going on for at least 5 years and I’m not able to find any evidence of real success or any sort of framework that they are using. Just as an advocate of open source for the greater good, I wonder if sharing the framework or code was part of the grants. In any case, these are the only 2 instances I am aware of that are putting their data to use in this way.

I’d love to know what other colleges are doing to bring all of their siloed data into one place. It’d make life so much easier and have ridiculous benefits for many departments and the college as a whole – predictive analytics, enrollment history, helping students reach their goals & many more! If your college has figured this out, from the hardware to the application layer, please comment on your successes below.

I have ideas, but they seem to be a building from the ground up approach and that would be insane to try to do in-house with the time it would take, available talent in the area for a team, and the cost. Who wants to reinvent the wheel if some of the work has been done?

Vendors – this isn’t the place to sell your product unless it would TRULY be a solution in the higher education setting.

I’m really looking forward to discussion!

A Higher Ed Web Redesign and a Space Shuttle

This is the first post in a series about lessons learned from the 
latest higher ed web redesign that I survived. What worked, what didn't and what I'll do differently next time.

Three! Two! One! Launch! Holy Crap! Hold your breath! Breathe! Celebrate! Hold on for the ride!

I’ve seen one space shuttle launch. The summer of 1994, the space shuttle Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center, it was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. When I hear the word “launch” it’s the first thing I think of, every. single. time.

How does that July day have anything to do with websites? I’m the kind of geek that ponders these types of things, so hang with me.

It takes the perfect team of astronauts for a successful mission. After years of college education, if someone is chosen to be an astronaut, they go through 2 years of intense training and then months of specialized training for a specific mission. A team that is completely in sync for a mission is critical for success.

Please, college admin people, do not put the responsibility of the most important piece in marketing your college on the shoulders of one poor soul! I am blessed to have a great team and support. I’ve been the lone wolf, make the investment in a team!

This was the first redesign that my young (and awesome) team had the pleasure of being a part of, and I learned a lot about myself – especially improvements I need to make in my style of work (remember, I’m used to being the wolf), leadership, project management, stress management, and communication. You name it, I learned I needed to adapt and continue to improve myself. I’m working on it!

Fabrication of the Columbia space shuttle started in 1975 and it did not launch with humans aboard until 6 years later. Thank God, it doesn’t take this long to create a website, but my point is that NASA never flung a spacecraft into orbit as quickly as possible and that should never be the case with an extensive redesign of a large website. No, there will be no lives lost if a website sucks, but it WILL crash or never get off the ground without a plan. Time wasted, money wasted, potential students lost. Patience, Jedi friends. Do or do not, there is no try.

The planning of a web redesign is the most important (and longest) phase. No, we aren’t talking rocket science, but you have to have a strategy and goals.

  • What do you want your web visitors to ultimately do?
  • Who the heck ARE these people visiting your website?
  • What do they want to do?
  • What are they having trouble doing?
  • What roadblocks stop them from completing their goal and yours?
  • Is the technology you are using helping you? Do you have the right CMS?
  • What content works, what content is useless?

Yes, many times this phase is the hardest to explain to people who aren’t doing the actual work. Get ready:

“What does it LOOK like?” (Answer: A bunch of spreadsheets, some flowcharts, some documents, scribbles, maybe a box?)

“What have ya’ll been DOING?” (Answer: Stuff no one wants to do, hear about at this point, or attempt to understand. The important stuff- getting ducks in a row so that we can explain the plan and execute it. Who, what, where, why, how, when….)

The best thing we did this go-round: We had analytics, concrete proof and answers to the who, what, where, why, how and when.

Google Analytics – I personally prefer 2 years of analytics (GA or whatever) from the retiring site to work with, but many times you won’t have this luxury. If you aren’t actively using and understanding your web analytics, start NOW. Don’t know where to start, or are completely overwhelmed or lost? – Hire a consultant to help. We hired a consultant to audit said retiring site, help us tie analytics to dollar signs, and help communicate why our site sucked and what we needed to do about it.

Another thing we did right: We used our inbound marketing platform to ask our users questions and to create personas of our visitors to map the journey they take when they come to our site. We also used heatmaps and session recordings to try to understand how we could simplify the road map to the visitors destination. A year or so of this kind of thing produces HUGE AMOUNTS of useful data that takes a lot of time to tie together and make sense of. It’s worth it, don’t fling a shuttle into space before it’s ready!

Prep for launch day and the following week is something we should all start thinking of faaaar before it happens. Yes, a strategy for issues is great, but ya know that saying about the best laid plans….yeah. There will be surprises and people will freak about change.

Lesson learned: Astronauts go through intense training and mental preparation for the confined area that they will be in, dealing with motion sickness and feeling horrible because our blood apparently does weird things when there’s zero gravity, and countless other things that will challenge their minds & bodies. I’m pretty sure all the prep in the world doesn’t feel like it’s done much good at certain moments to the brave men and women who have been and are high above the earth.
I can’t count how many launch days I have survived, you get MAYBE 15 minutes of celebration and pride, and then the motion sickness starts. I will never get used to launch week and it’s hard to prepare teams who haven’t been through it before. When you have a huge site that gets millions of visits and you change it…hold on to your seats!

5076525237_83a53e29fa_zThe pressure of handling emails, office visits, the people who are difficult on perfect days come out of the woodwork because you’ve given them something to be difficult about…it’s not fun. Criticism by people who truly believe there was a magic wand that changed the site overnight are tough, and they’ll never understand the work it took, the time put in, or anything else…they want their button back where it was and they want it NOW! Eventually it settles, it’s really ok if the button is in a different place, you fix the surprises (it sort of feels like you have a gun to your head while you do it), and the change becomes normal.

Soooo much preparation! If you’ve seen a shuttle launch, even on tv, have you thought about what the team behind that launch had been doing up until that moment? The plans, the tests, the problem solving, the changes, the failures…all before the launch and the actual mission…crazy. We aren’t astronauts, but I want to hug one. If you work in higher education and your college has recently launched a new website, hug your favorite web person the next time you see them.


Why I Choose to Work at a Community College vs Private Sector

photo of a roll of cash, money isnt everything, do what you loveIt’s no secret that someone with programming, data science, web development, marketing skills & experience could make much more money in the private sector, working anywhere other than a state funded community college, or any state job. I get asked all the time why I choose to do what I do where I do it when other opportunities arise with alluring salaries.

There are several answers that I usually give, the first being that I could never use my skills or talents to help sell a product or service for a company who’d do anything to make a sale or a profit, not caring about anything else or the people they sell to. Not my thing. It’s a requirement for me that whatever I do with most of my time HELPS people.

I tend to have a different view than most, of what I can accomplish using the information I can gather for marketing efforts, web development and other uses across the college. I don’t do what I do for the money, I do what I do to help people who aren’t aware of the programs and services we offer that can better their lives and the lives of their families. If someone needs a GED, we can help and we can help them get into the workforce quickly, many times at no cost. I use my skills to make people aware of opportunities and to help figure out what workforce needs are out there, and what programs our students are looking for – even if we don’t have them. I do what I do to HELP. I know I’ll never be rich & that’s ok.

I was a victim of the “I have no idea what I am doing” student loan trap when I went straight to a university from high school – young with no clue and with little access to anyone who did have a clue! For the love of all that is Holy, I want to save anyone I can from needless debt. We offer all of the core courses needed for someone who wants to go to a 4 year college and they’re guaranteed to transfer. Why pay twice as much (or more) at a university when you can get what you need and save money? Time travel, please? I wish I knew then what I know now.

Today, web, data and programming work hand in hand in everything from marketing to business intelligence. In higher ed, it’s traditionally been difficult to measure marketing success, workforce needs, student and program needs, etc. Marketing budgets (as well as all public college budgets in general) have not risen much, if at all, in many years. Although some schools across the country are at least partially funded based on student success, enrollment currently drives our budget. Our college is extremely affordable, we don’t fish for veterans just for their GI benefits or take advantage of students, like I once was, with no clue about the cost of college – we’re all at work for the success of our students. I honestly get angry when I see fancy commercials for proprietary schools that exist to make money and take advantage of people in any way possible to bring in the dough. I want to help keep community colleges able to compete with the proprietary schools that invade communities with their insane marketing budgets. We can’t compete with that kind of money, but we can use what we have in smarter ways than they do. I like to figure all of that out, it’s like finding the golden needle in a haystack. It’s like a chess game and when it works, a win feels good.

Sometimes community colleges get a bad rap. Some people think they are for people who can’t go straight to a 4 year college, or call them “13th grade”. After my educational experience, I wish I could’ve seen the future and had known that the smartest choice I could’ve made would have been to get every course I could take at a CC before heading to get my bachelors and eventually, my master’s degree. I pay the price for being young and dumb every month when I make that student loan payment!

I have worked at a public university, the workplace is completely different. I felt like I had a lot of freedom, but I was also lost in a crowd, a cog in the wheel. Even though I work for a large community college, most people know each other. When I have an idea, it’s heard, I don’t have to get lucky (or use 3 wishes) to get people who can help in the same room. I have access to the people that listen, get behind the good ideas and help make them happen. That’s rare. Hello, my lone wolve clan, you can’t change things alone.

Where I work every day is a community, it’s a family, and it is rewarding. Yes, like any job, there are times you forget that- days that suck, days (or months, or years) that are really stressful, times when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, times when you feel like no one gets or cares about what you are doing, days when gray hairs grow immediately in mass quantities . News Flash – I’ve been doing what I do for a lot of years, in a lot of places….all of those things are part of work, even when you work for yourself. During those times, I try to remind myself WHY I do the job I do. I hope that colleagues and other people in doing this work, can remind themselves of our why: to help people, to improve our communities, our state, the economy in general, but most of all to give people a chance to make better lives for themselves through education.