The Meaningless Homepage

[Cross-posted in part at the Online Communications Blog]

Good article today forwarded to me by Jenny Darrow asking whether sites like keene.edu are becoming increasingly irrelevant as marketing tools.

The answer is obvious to anyone that’s ever looked at their Google Analytics: yes, absolutely. You can see this clearly in the statistics — students come in and do a couple things in very fast succession:

  1. Check tuition cost
  2. Check financial assistance information
  3. Maybe, though hardly ever, check to see if we offer a specific degree. (They almost never look for information about the degree — the question is simply whether we have that degree).

Then it’s to a decision point — send me the application, apply online, or, in the case of Keene State — schedule a campus tour (the option we really push, since it seems to be the most beneficial to the student and to us).

Why this surprises people I have no idea. But it continues to surprise people, who wonder why we don’t put reams of material about program X or Y in between that student hitting the home page and the link to the campus tour.

The answer is that the student applying here has already made their decision before they hit the home page — or at least made enough of a decision to schedule a campus tour. Marketing information has to be done well on a site like keene.edu — but it’s in broad strokes — they’ve come in sold on taking that tour, assuming you handle that last five yards well.

[This isn't always the case with parents, who are often perusing the materials looking for the general "tone" of the college, but that's a post for another day].

So what is that decision based on? This decision to give you a chance that’s made before they even type “Keene State College” into Google?

It’s reputation. Word of mouth, the comments on Facebook or MySpace, Livejournal articles, what they saw on YouTube, what their high-school friends that came here last year told them. And maybe even importantly for this generation, it’s what their parents may have heard on NHPR, or seen in the Concord Monitor, Newsweek, or USA Today.

And eventually, if we let it, it’s through perusing the artifacts of the truly Visible University — YouTubes of recitals, videos of football games, discussion boards of classrooms, student projects posted online.

So in a world we we cannot control what prospective students (and donors) see about us, what’s left for us to do?

I believe the key is to engage those channels in an honest and helpful way, through embracing transparency and creating a culture of engagement. In a post .edu world, that’s where our message has to go.

More on how to do that later. But give the article a gander, it’s five paragraphs, and a good starting point.


Forums vs. Blog Posts in Ning: A Plea for Unification.

The amount of stuff Ning gets right is impressive, but they’re still blinded by tradition — and few things demonstrate this more than their forum/blog division.

Want to know the question my members on my local Ning site ask me most often?

“Should I do this as a forum or a blog?”

And all I’m able to do is throw up my hands in frustration. By maintaining weird divisions between blogs (which are posted text + discussion) and forums (which are posted text + discussion) the creators of Ning have created a dilemma where there should be none.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just duplication. But the hidden ways in which these are different require just too much understanding of how Ning works:

  1. Forums give you 15 minutes to edit your comment before it is locked (a fact which initially led me to use them for everything), blog comments are locked against changes immediately.
  2. Blogs ping services like Technorati, forums don’t. This is particularly annoying in running a public information site — it means the time sensitive comment in the educational funding forum is unlikely to get indexed when it matters, where as the blog post about one’s new cat goes out immediately.
  3. Groups can only do forums, so if you want your thing categorized under a group name, a blog post is out.
  4. Comments on blogs are called comments, on forums they are called “replies”.
  5. Forum comments can be nested, blog comments can’t.
  6. On the front page, forums show who the last reply was by to the forum — a great tool to get you to realize there’s more to respond to than the original post. Blogs just tell you the number of comments.
  7. Blogs on the front page say the exact time they were posted — forums just tell you the day.
  8. Clicking on a member name on the forum blurb on the front page lists all posts and comments a person has made. Clicking on a member name on the blog post blurb takes you to their profile page.

This is barely scratching the surface. As a person with quite a background in blogging and forums it’s confusing to me — so no wonder people with less background are tearing their hair out about it.

I understand the idea that Ning must be working with — that blogs are somehow about authors, and forums are about commenters.

But IMHO, that’s a 2006 understanding of blogging. The point is, most of the time at the point you post in a community you don’t know whether the value will end up being about the post or the comments.

That “in a community” bit is crucial. Look at the stuff that has grown up around Daily Kos, AutoblogGreen, and other community sites. Sometimes it’s a conversation, and sometimes it’s people dutifully responding to the meat of a post. But you really don’t know which it is until it all shakes out.

So why not unify these two things, instead of maintaining this false and confusing seperation? Make it all blogging, and incorporate some of these differences into admin settings?

Feel free to respond to the post in the comments, or just discuss it among yourselves. Whichever.


Salamander Crossing

So it’s weird moving from managing a high-profile political community to managing a local information site. One minute you’re spinning your way into the front page of the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, and the next you’re talking about salamander crossings.

But there is a point here, trust me.

Salamander migrations occur here in New Hampshire every year, and a local organization helps get them across the road on the big nights they move. There are known migration paths, and hundreds of volunteers sign up to assist gathering them up and taking them across the road.

When you start digging into this locally, you find almost everybody has heard of this.

Here’s the point — there’s varying degrees of success, mostly depending on the weather. The right rainy weather forces a big migration that can be managed– less than that, a trickle. How it works out is news.

One of the crossing coordinators posted a beautiful comment on Citizen Keene last night, right after the attempt to help, and I think it’s a great example of what local information can be: legitimate up-to-the-minute news, but passionate and personal at the same time.

I’m really curious to hear how the salamander crossing went tonight at all of our sites….at my site on Route 63 in Spofford, the rain mysteriously ceased from 8 until almost midnight — prime crossing time — so we had a frustratingly slow night. A big disappointment, since the weather forecast fooled me into thinking we’d have a Big Night on our hands. Still, the seven of us crossed 19 spotties, 20 peepers, 8 wood frogs, and 2 red efts. On the way home, I decided to take it real slow, stopping to cross every living amphibian that wandered across my path down Route 63 and over on 119, on my way back to my farmhouse apartment in Ashuelot. What would have been a twenty-minute drive turned into nearly two hours; I moved 10 more spotties, 6 additional wood frogs, 7 peepers, and one wayward toad, several only moments before a vehicle would likely have struck them. Several folks stopped to see if I needed help after seeing my hazards flashing, which was awfully nice: when I explained what I was doing to a Hinsdale police officer on 63, he told me that his wife crosses spotted salamanders too (!)

The carnage, of course, was sobering; nothing will make you HATE automobiles like hearing the “pop” of a wood frog being crushed under a tire, or seeing a spotted salamander with its crushed back cemented to the pavement.

I killed a woodfrog on my drive home, too. It leaped in front of my tire before I could swerve to avoid it; when I got out of the car to see if it had survived the encounter, I almost burst into tears. Then I heard the quacking of chorusing woodfrogs nearby, and discovered a vernal pool almost immediately adjacent to the road. I wandered down to the pool’s edge with my flashlight, and witnessed the merriment in full force: wood frogs EVERYWHERE, a riot of quacking and swimming, a few couples already in amplexus, and a spottie (the odd one out!) swimming around too. SO MUCH LIFE! SO riotously beautiful….and a small comfort, I suppose, that the wood frog I had hit was heading away from the party, eggs already laid perhaps?

There’s a lot different between running Blue Hampshire and Citizen Keene, but one thing remains the same: the key is to get people to participate — and to discuss things that might otherwise have gone unrecorded. In the weeks to come I’ll probably be droning on about why Ning is better than Soapblox, WPMU, phpBB and Zope for running a local information site — but the key here is always participation and quality of discourse — and if you’re dithering on your own local information site because you can’t decide on platform — well, don’t. Just get going with it. Life’s just too short for us to miss these stories.


Citizen Keene

After a very confusing vote on a local school bond, I’ve stepped down from my old project Blue Hampshire, to start a local information site, called Citizen Keene.

There were an number of other reasons for stepping down — as a newly promoted Director at a public college, I wanted to move away from being a prominent figure in partisan politics. Additionally, the workload of running Blue Hampshire was significant, and did not fit into my new job.

But those are more reasons for stepping down from Blue Hampshire.

The reason I started Citizen Keene is I felt the flow of local information was broken. Talking to people after the school bond failure, I found time and time again that the people who hadn’t voted, or had voted in a way that they later regretted once they learned the facts — these people were often good friends with people who had the facts.

But for whatever reason this information just was not transmitted.

And it was significant information. Almost no one understood what the rejection of the bond meant. The rejection of the bond didn’t save money — because a stay against enforcing certain code violations at the current middle school was predicated on the new school being built.

The upshot? The town will now spend $7 million dollars on band-aid fixes in the next two years, the school auditorium and industrial arts wing will close for at least three years, and current 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders will likely spend their middle school years in portable trailer.

The turnout was 16%. The bond failed by 24 votes. Now that the vote is over, there’s no end of people that didn’t vote or voted it down who believe they weren’t provided the information they needed to make the decision. No one would have voted this way had they had the facts.

It’s easy to look at that and say, well, you should have just done your homework.

But I’ve never seen that response solve anything. On the whole the amount of time that people are willing to put toward these things is constant. If you can get that information to them more efficiently you can change things. But you’re not going to shame them into spending more time to become informed. It just doesn’t work that way.

So Citizen Keene isn’t about technology, or Facebook coolness, or IPOs. It’s about the fact my 3rd grade daughter is likely to spend her middle school years in a trailer while they fix fire code issues in a school the town had been trying to move out of since 1968. And that’s going to happen because information flow is broken, and I want to fix that.

In coming days, I hope to explain why I chose the technoogy I did to build the site, and what the relation of this experiment is to academic technology and online communications. So please stay tuned, even is this doesn’t seem like it ties into the traditional subjects of this blog. It all ties in I promise, and will be useful to everybody from professors to college web editors.

But it does start with my daughter’s future, and it has a deep meaning to me. That’s step one.


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