TNT5: The ART of Content Management Training

George Thompson, Web Content Manager, Widener University

The audio for this podcast can be downloaded at

[Intro Music]

Announcer: You’re listening to one in a series of podcasts from the 2009 HighEdWeb Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

George Thompson: So thank you for coming. The Art of Content Management. Let me apologize upfront for Gail Semerad. She's not here today. She couldn't quite make it because she's in the process of preparing the same exact talk for another users group, a training group that she's a part of for next week.

We tried to work out something where we could just overlap between here and St. Louis, but it didn't quite work out. So we thought we'd split the difference. So Gail will be in St. Louis doing something with SIGUCCS, if you're familiar with that group, and I am here with you.

I'm not a big fan of presenters who ask people in the audience to introduce themselves, but I want to do that, but at least to get your titles.

You can give me your name and your university, if you like, but primarily just say your titles because I want to make this really sort of an interactive presentation. I think because we've been talking about that for a while and I know when I've been on that side of the room for presentations at about three o'clock in the afternoon, the attention span isn't what it used to be.

And I think that it's important to have a sense of everybody's title because it's usually such a mixed group and I always found that to be kind of fascinating as to how diverse it is, and to make this kind of like the class they teach of which this is a part. So to get that feel I'm going to roll up my sleeves like I usually do. And if you don't mind, can we start over here and either give me the full details or just your title?

[Audience Introduction]

George Thompson: OK. All right. Well I hope that what I have to say ties all this together in some way. I think it does. How many people are actually involved specifically in training? Some of you mentioned it. Right. Most of the room.

And how about, actually, other than your titles, content management? About the same amount, maybe not quite as much. But, anyway, everybody's somehow involved with some aspect of content management one way or the other. OK.

So I'll say a little bit about me now. George Thompson, I am the Web Content Manager for Widener University. Widener is a metropolitan university in Chester, Pennsylvania, so in the Mid-Atlantic area. We have about 6,000 undergrad students. And we have--our unique brand or vision, if you will, is to provide economic development or to help assist with economic development in the city of Chester, which is about 30 miles south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and also to get involved in various community activities, inform community partnerships, the helping theory being that if the university grows, then so will Chester.

And we have four campuses. Chester is the main campus, Exton is primarily our adult undergraduate campus, and then we have a School of Law located on two campuses, in Wilmington, Delaware, home of Joe Biden, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

So, is my domain, as well as the Widener domain, and this is a story of one content management system, one Web content manager, and 50-plus contributors. Sometimes it's 60. And just to put in a P.S., I'm currently part of the team in the process of finishing a relaunch in mid-November, and we had a bit of a meltdown this morning. So it's kind of an interesting time.

All right. So all these different contributors, these 50-plus contributors--it's obviously not all of them, it's just a sampling--and it ranges everywhere from folks who have titles, assistant deans, professors, administrative assistants, people in HR, and so on. Probably all somewhere with that. And then, of course, various groups of undergraduate and graduate students, sometimes more, sometimes less.

So, something that Jared said this morning during lunch I thought was pretty good and gave me some encouragement as to whether we were doing or I was doing the right thing. So I think he was right on. And I think we've managed to accomplish this at Widener, although that might not have been the goal when we started out, but to get them all in one place and talking to each other. And that's mostly in self-defense, if nothing else.

Because at Widener, my charter has been to decentralize the operation, not centralize it. And the 50 contributors and I are stuck with each other, as you might say, so how do we make that work?

So, the one place is under the auspices of the Office of Web Publishing, which I established. So before my arrival at Widener, there wasn't much of a Web presence, or none that they wanted to really speak about. And so they created one position, the content of Web manager, and that was about four years ago. In November, I'll be working on my fifth year at Widener.

So Widener being sort of in what we'll call an entrepreneurial phase, I was able to do this, and this includes all those individuals who are either designated, and sometimes they're not, or they just like to be involved, or by some twist of fate or willingness to do the job, they're involved in Web publishing or Web content management in some fashion, either before my arrival or since. And we meet regularly in various campus locations, and this is a combination of our IT Services team and University Relations.

And by the way, I am part of the University Relations team and our University Relations group is within the overall Advancement Group Division at Widener. And what I've tried to do is make this a forum for training, not necessarily training per se as training for a specific application, but training education and collaboration.

By the way, if you have questions, feel free to interrupt me.

So what are we talking about in terms of what is the art of content management? So, in trying to be able to, first, somehow explain all of these various duties and all the things that are involved in programming and development and everything else, you have to come up with some sort of simple platform so that people can kind of understand it readily.

And what I've come up with is 'ART'. So, all content has to be 'accurate', and by accurate I mean factually, grammatically, stylistically and visually correct. And maybe most of this sometimes seems a little too straightforward or too simple, but until you kind of begin to write it down and start talking about it, you realize that a lot of people may understand it instinctively but don't really quite get the whole picture.

And then R is for 'Relevant', and that is relevant content, whatever you're putting on the page. Whether that's text or graphics or video, it should be relevant to the audience and to the purpose of the page.

And then 'Timely'. And even that seems like it doesn't need any explanation, but when it comes to the Web, I found out that it does.

People kind of get--well, we need to post things before events or before information is needed sometimes, but they're not very good at taking it down after that. So that needs to be out there. Anybody have a different experience than that?

So, what we've tried to do was, then, well, how do we get this out there to folks, and how do we kind of make it consistent and put it together so that they can understand why they need to do some of these things on the Web and why we're asking them to do something? It's not just because we want to make it harder or because we just feel like we want to disagree with somebody. There are reasons we do these things.

And so we formed something called 'Content Management Professional Training' within the Office of Web Publishing.

Gail provides the ITS labs, so we held this particular training in the labs. And we did this a couple of years ago now, in '07 and '08. And it was one semester and there were two sessions. So, one for the first half of the semester and one for the second half. And there were six sessions, and they were 12 hours total, so about two hours a session.

And then at the end, we awarded them a certificate of excellence. So, if you're going to ask folks to take time to spend 12 hours to do something, and they completed all the hours, then we ought to at least give them something of note.

Now, some of you may think, or I thought, even, 'That's not quite enough. What do we do?' But we did this, and all the administrative staff who participated were very happy to get this as recognition.

And I was fortunate enough to have the assistant HR director as part of the class, so we made copies of the certificate for everybody when we awarded them, and they immediately sent them to HR. So the day we gave out the certificate and the copies, HR was flooded with everybody returning their copies to HR to put in their document as professional development. So we felt good about that.

And it also established the fact that there is some sense of professional skills necessary to do what we do with the Web. It's not just pushing a few buttons, or because we have a CMS, it makes everything easy.

So what were the--did I skip one here? Yeah, the course content. So, of the six weeks, we went through IT basics, which was just basic computer literacy. 

Then we went to browsers and HTML, Web design, editorial, CMS training, and marketing. So that covers just about everybody's title in here, from what I heard.

So one of the other things this does is begin to provide--at least, some attempt--provide a common vocabulary so that everybody can understand each other and perhaps understand the different pieces.

So under IT basics--and again, this is a very broad swathe. And it seems, again, like, well, do people really need to be told about hardware and software and menus and right-clicking? Well, some of them did. Yes. Yeah, some of them did. And this includes not only, you might think, at the administrative level, but also the faculty as well. Maybe more so for the faculty, because they didn't get the memo on some of these things.

And then, we'd take them to applications, Office applications that they're used to using, try to explain the consistency of the menus, and the browser menu is very similar to the Office menus. So we tried to find these similarities, the intersections to show people that they already know a lot about the Web and about doing this, because some of them think it's so complicated. Sometimes it is.

And then various keyboard shortcuts to help them if they didn't know, to be a little bit more efficient when they're working on the Web. And there's a lot of this going on, right? Anybody not know these shortcuts? You know, Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste and Undo-Undo? And there's a lot of copy-and-pasting going on out there, at least at Widener.

And this website that we're about to relaunch is the second one that I've been through in four years. So shortly after I got there, surprise, surprise, they were about to introduce a new content management system. And now--

Audience: Is that part of all that?

George Thompson: Yup. We covered that. Absolutely. Explained to them the similarities and, you know, they're more similar now than perhaps before, why in our case we use mostly Windows from a price standpoint, so this also begins--and this is Gail's area, because she's an IT, so she does a very good job at talking a little bit about the history of computers and then some of the basics, which she does on her everyday job as part of the help desk. So then that all ties in. And a lot of people took the advantage to ask about, "Well, how do I buy a computer?" So they were very interested in this.

And then, Alt-plus-Tab, everybody knows what that is, to switch between windows, right? So, very key for a person working on the Web because you absolutely have multiple windows open. Not everybody got that. People thought I was the guru because I knew this keyboard shortcut.

Yeah! Magic. And they adopted it, like, dust to water. They just love this thing. "Oh yeah, I can do that!" Now instead of having to go down to the bottom and click where usually they get a little confused, F1 for Help, Control-Enter, and I won't go into too much more of this, but then even more importantly, to talk about network drives. The C: drive versus their F: drive or how it's set up on the Novell network, telling them there's such a thing as a Novell network.

And then, one of the things I did was I created a Web repository on our Novell network where we put all the content. So for the migration, in particular, I asked everybody to create Word documents that we'll put in a shared network drive that was backed up instead of having it all isolated in a C: drive silo.

And then that allowed them to--or even others in their group--to go in and edit it, and it's all in the shared drive, and if I need access to it, it's there as well. But they didn't really understand, you know, M: drive isn't going away, I don't see it, what happens, how to log in into the Novell network, and then the internet Web.

Then we talked a little bit about HT fundamentals. And then, again, this is just the broadest slice. What a full HTML page looks like, what an HREF link looks like, so they'd really take a look at this because this might be something that they never wanted to edit before and they may have to tweak, so a better understanding of that.

And then sites that I found that were interesting for them to go to is HTML Dog. We'll learn more about this. And then, of course, WC3.

And then an intro into Web design. People think they can put any photograph on the Web including anything that comes out of their camera. They don't understand the file types and they think they can put any size resolution image on the Web. And then they try to resize it in HTML, which doesn't work, so we're trying to give them an explanation of why that's bad practice. And then cropping. If you're going to do any cropping, don't do it in HTML. Do it in an image editor.

And then the other thing we do, which again kind of goes back to what Jared said this morning, 'websites that suck'. So, we had the class, and there were about 15, 16 folks in each class for each semester, so that's about 30 people who went through this, which is a little more than half of the total, we take them through and we try to educate them on what is bad design.

So, not only do they get something from me, but when they're clicking on these websites and...we actually went to Brown two years ago, to that homepage, and I got a lot of feedback. So you're right there in the room with 15 of your own people who are giving you feedback about what they're experiencing on other people's websites, on other .edus. So that's invaluable.

And they begin to get, like "Whoo!" All of the sudden our site's looking pretty good to them. Right? There's not so many complaints after that. So, "Oh, God! Ours is bad, but look at that!"

All right? And then we get to the editorial. Now it gets a little bit more into the relevancy. This is the part that really people don't like. This is the part that really gives them the most problems. They're afraid of writing from whenever... Web writing is different, they all get that, but how do we do it?

And of course there's so many comments and critiques from the faculty and from everywhere else. It's very...let's just call it, not very encouraging to get people to write. So, again, trying to find the most pithy, shortest way to explain to people what we're trying to get at is, as someone explained it to me one day, is "Bright, tight, and to the point." Of course, there's more about all that, but those are the basics. That's the primer.

So, 'bright' could be in terms of style, and then that refers back to your style guide, if you have one, or you can at least begin a discussion about style. Second person, third person, all of that.

'Tight'. We all know Web writing should be short. Content should be shorter rather than longer on the Web. And just to get everybody's estimating around, or the things that I've heard and my own instinct, 250 to 300 words. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.

Audience: The entire page or...?

George Thompson: An entire page. One page. As a general guideline, a target to hit. Depending on the purpose of the page, sometimes more, sometimes less. If it's at the higher level, my feeling is that it's less words, and if you go deeper, it can get a little longer.

And then 'to the point', understanding what your audience and your goals are, and the relevancy. So if it's bright, tight, and not to the point, well, it's not quite as what we want. But if you can get any one or two of these, you're doing pretty well for the academic area. But a lot of it doesn't really qualify for a lot of this, right? And we're guilty of it, too.

I'm not saying that we put all these things into practice right away, but at least we can begin to talk about it, and if they see other things that are not this, or as we continue to work on it, as Jared said, and practice makes perfect, maybe we'll get there. And we're a lot closer now than we were two years ago or three years ago, four years ago.

And then, link-writing. Has anybody ever thought about link-writing as an art in itself? Right? Because you don't want 'Click Here.' Sometimes you can't get away from it, but you don't want it all over the place. You want something that's meaningful in here.

And again you come back to standard writing. Choosing the precise words that go in that link. And from another conference somebody put it pretty well, I thought: "A link is a promise." It's a promise to the user that there's information that they may find useful and it ought to, when they click on it, first of all it ought to open, and when it does, it ought to be reasonably, relatively bright, tight, and to the point, so that they stay on the so-called scent or the path. Right?

Maybe it won't exactly answer their need, but that's OK. It may come closer, it may lead them off to somewhere else. But if you don't start with this, how can you make it all work together?

So, whether we actually produce this on a webpage remains to be seen in any consistent way, but at least we have a platform to talk about. To say, when you're creating a link, don't just pick anything at random. Pick some words that mean something to the user. That kind of brings it back to the user experience.

And the hardest thing for me to convince anybody is that the website is not about the internal organization. All right? It's everything but the internal organization. It's the user. So if that helps them to think a little bit more in that way, that's a good thing.

And then finally, a lot of people think when I said we're doing this class that we're training people to use the CMS, and I said, "Well, that's a part of it." But there's more to it than just that. The CMS is just the framework for how all this gets put together.

So pick your CMS of choice. It doesn't matter which one it is. And, again, we did a lot, and then there are very specific things depending on the particular CMS that you can talk about. But each one has an editor. And each one ought to have someplace where you can look at the HTML, right?

And so now, the HTML basics that we talked about makes some sense, a little more sense to those who had one level of experience and maybe a little more to those who had no level of experience.

And at least now I can talk to them hopefully about what HTML is and they're not totally intimidated and shut down, but they actually feel like they can get in there and do something. And at the very least, they ought to be able to understand the difference between a relative link and an absolute link. Right now, we're at the point in our relaunch where we're about to get ready to link internal pages. And I keep saying this over and over again, internal pages must use relative links, external pages must use absolute links.

And if they took the class, they already kind of get what that is. Maybe I only have to tell them once or twice instead of five or 10 times and I don't get the question, "What's a relative link again? How is it different than this?"

And the most important thing for me from the CMS is not really the editing part, because that should be fairly straightforward. The editor typically looks like Microsoft Word, something they're already been working in quite a bit, you know? Everybody understands the little chain link and you can insert the link with that.

But for them, and more so for me, is the management part of the content management. Who gets access and who has permissions to do certain things on certain pages?

And that's where things start to get a little unclear real fast, right? Because it's clear to me that most people don't want me mucking with their content because they're afraid I'm going to do something to it, like make it bright, tight, and to the point, or something else. So they have this ownership. And that's a good thing, really.

But from our standpoint in the decentralized system, we want to have some sort of coordination, if not control, sometimes.

And then last but not least, try to bring that whole package back together again into Web Marketing 101. So now the Web strategist, the marketing folks can talk a little bit more about brand and vision, which, again was one of the things Jared was talking about.

Style-wise, it's important to have a certain style. What is the style for the university? How do you refer to X University and how do you refer to it after you mention it the first time? Things like that. Is it B.A. or just BA?

And then again, more critically, as Seth talked about in the pre-workshop that I was in on Sunday, this becomes, I hope, more useful both for the marketing folks and also from the standpoint of the users. Putting it all together, why it's important to understand, write well, because the bounce rate in the campaign type thing that you can get from analytics only makes more sense in the context of the page and what's written on the page.

So if you haven't taken care of 'accurate', 'relevant' and 'timely' and tried to, at least for those three variables, tried to say, "All right, is it accurate? Is it relevant? Is it timely?" then you really sort of get at the bounce rate of why people might be exiting. Is it because they are not finding accurate information? Because things can be accurate and relevant, and that's really good, but if it's not timely, how is that helpful? They can be timely and relevant, but if it's not accurate, that looks bad.

So if you try to come to some common ground on those three things, at least, then you might be able to get at the bounce rate a little better. Why are they bouncing out? And then there's all the details after that.

And then for campaigns as well. You can get back into testing different landing pages, and then that might be because of design, not just the content.

And then, trying to get our marketing folks to understand the user experience again, because it's the outside user. And this gives us a clue into that. And we're just starting to get into the Google analytics and they'll be on the site when it relaunches. And then that's a whole 'nother world.

But then, this idea of usability and feedback, the other thing there was all about vision, feedback, usability. How does to one degree the coding affect the linking? Is there enough promises on the site? Is it all accurate, relevant and timely as much as we can make it that? Is everything sort of hanging together or not so much?

User experience partly comes out of the training itself or the education itself because you've got people sitting right there although they are internal. And I've often encouraged those folks. They keep saying, "Well, how do we know?" And I keep telling them, whether they're the administrative folks or the faculty, "If you're not sure, I'm not necessarily the best person. I can try to be as objective as I can, but ask a student."

I tell Admissions, "You've got prospective students coming to the campus for open houses. Try to get them in front of a page, whether it's a print page or whether it's itself and see whether that makes sense. Does the navigation make sense?"

So the other thing when we did the design, and we go back just a little bit, when we did the design class, it was a good time for us to introduce the idea of navigation and why is that important.

And then they can see the differences, how many different approaches there can be to navigation on other sites when they're reviewing them, and why navigation should be consistent across the site and not different for every academic department.

So then that all comes down to the culture. The culture has to change--again, trying to pick up what Jared said: vision, feedback and culture. So, this training experience, or this education experience, the Content Management Professional, has been important in beginning to change the culture at our institution. To let people know that these folks whose job it is not written down to take care of the Web, it's part-time, it's fast, it's vocational for some. The faculty adopt it with a little bit of a grudge.

But still, I hope it's been eye-opening for our folks, and I think it has been that there's more to keeping a website alive and maintaining it than just putting content up on a page or slapping content into a CMS. Yes.

Audience: How do you deal with the folks who are supposed to be the experts and do really well but then they can't give content. You don't need any new training cause you already have them.

George Thompson: Yeah. I've been there. The only thing you have is a conversation. Sometimes, you can get support, but I'm not at that level where it's totally supported, but you just try to--and I've had the same conversation many, many times. Like, the expert is just as dangerous, maybe more so, than the neophyte when it comes to the Web. Yeah, and we have plenty of those.

Or they come to one training class, and that's it. They've got all they needed, they don't need any more. Yeah, I'm sorry.

Audience: [Unintelligible 38:13]

George Thompson: Thank you, that's exactly right. It goes, I'm constantly asking for it and I point it at them, like I'm constantly asking for feedback. Again, we have those users in that group for that time. Otherwise, someone said this morning, "Communication doesn't get back to us." Because no one thinks, 'Well, that person got negative feedback. They don't think to inform me.' So I always beg them for it. "Please. You use it too, but I need that feedback." We all need that feedback. Here's a group in which to sort of allow that. Again, start a conversation.

And that would probably be the best defense to the expert like, yeah, this is not me saying you can't do something. This is the users saying it, and they're... I always tell them the users trump everybody for the most part. Sometimes they're not always right, but generally I'm always going to side with the user as opposed to internal feedback or faculty feedback. Yes, sir.

Audience: Who would you decide would be a part of the curriculum when they occasionally just post content to the web. Is there some expert who you can get in to do some editing so many hours per week.

George Thompson: Well that would be one of the next steps. But usually, like I think in most cases, somebody was just there. Somebody just says--either no one says anything and somebody thinks, 'Well, I've got to be responsible for this somehow,' and so they become that person. No, there was no criteria for us.

Audience: So anybody could just show up and be part of the course?

George Thompson: Oh, be part of the course? Yeah, I offered it in two ways. For someone who just was interested, who thought they might want to get involved with us, so that gave me sort of access to people that I might not know about, that might volunteer, and we could get even more people involved, and there were other people who had nothing to do with the Web but they took the course.

And then there were the people who we knew or who I was already interacting with who took it as well. But you're right, the next steps would be now to a more formal recognition, because this is sort of an informal group, even though it sounds very formal, Office of Web Publishing, but also to start beginning to have the classes recur, because you know things change.

Certification, either internally or formally, that would then provide a set of criteria. Maybe someone who has to go to one of these classes before they even begin anything on the Web, and then to set up another series with advanced.

Thank you.


George Thompson: And I think we have maybe just a few more minutes for additional questions, if you have any.

Audience: Is the workflow in your CMS stacked yet?

George Thompson: Yeah. Again, next step, there's a lot of things I keep trying to have, and they work in varying degrees of success. One of them would be workflow. And, again, that's when you talk about the management of the content management system. What I would like to see in every department is a contributor or a Web--I'd like to call them Web content specialists, that then sends something up to the dean level or some responsible reviewer, and that they are the actual publisher.

So that's what I'd like to get to. But I don't think I could talk about that unless we do some of this conversation. Otherwise, well, this person has permission just because we feel like it or that's just the way it's evolved.

Audience: I was wondering cause you talked about one of the things I considered was to stay on top of this, you need to talk to the supervisor.

George Thompson: Thank you. Yeah, I've done that as well. I had the HR person in there and I've been lobbying--most of my job is lobbying for different kinds of things, and that's one of them is to create an official Web content position of some kind in each department. Right. And then in some way, as I give them recognition, give them extra pay, give them something...

Audience: Yeah, because it is a big duty.

George Thompson: Yeah. Right. And we go through that all the time. Anybody who has ever done it said, "This is a big duty!"

Audience: Right.

George Thompson: But, as you said, at the supervisor level, it's not. It's just supplemental stuff that they need--'work as needed', you know, in the job description.

So, one thing we have been--again, just tiny little steps, we have gotten the provost to say to the--or at least the feedback I've gotten says this, that she is encouraging the deans to know who these people are, because sometimes they don't or they don't want to know, but to also give at least the provost feedback that these people are doing what they need to do on the Web. So it starts that at the top. Right now the top part--the bottom is being taken care of pretty well, the top part still needs to get engaged, but just patience and persistence is paying off in tiny little steps.

Audience: Have you addressed voice?

George Thompson: My--

Audience: --you have so much different writing styles...

George Thompson: Yeah.

Audience: Or no style whatsoever.

George Thompson: Or academics who just don't write in the second person. We just keep trying, "Second person is the way we need to go." We just got to convince them and then feedback comes back in, like, where we could do tests, your academic style, not so many hits. That's more friendly, engaging style, many more hits. Yeah.

Audience: I'm interested in that now. We haven't started the program yet.

George Thompson: But, you're right, that whole thing comes back to legitimizing all of this inside the organization, as opposed to sort of ad hoc or what I call 'the coalition of the unwilling'.