Web communications mixes technical with playful

January 17, 2010

To be good on the web, we’ve got to do everything from php scripts to Facebook posts.

It takes a systems administrator to think all about security and stability, a writer to think about stringing together great combinations of words and a graphic designer to give a site the perfect look and feel. A developer and programmer make the site smart and functional. You need communicators to decide if social media like Twitter or Facebook can be integrated. So a successful effort requires more than success in a single area.

Web professionals don’t just write and design the pages. We also code the site, write custom applications, test the pages, move them into production, and then, if we’re smart, we even do our best to see what, when, and how people are reading our pages and who they are.

So in newspaper terms, we’re the ones who lubricate a squeaky press and dive in when it breaks, meanwhile we’re reporting, writing, editing, laying out, sending to pre-press, press, collating, rubber-banding our papers and taking them to your porch – preferably a porch that uses Internet Explorer, Safari or Firefox. In a very figurative sense, we might even use web analytics to peer over your shoulder just to see what captures your interest.

Our tiny team has a designer, a programmer, a developer and me. When we sit down for our weekly coffee-house get together, the programmer might talk about exploring the best ways to migrate a WordPress site or WP plug-ins he’s written. The developer will chat about his ever-flattening learning curve in Drupal, and his progress testing modules and applying security patches. Meanwhile, the designer might talk about custom headers he’s designing, the intricate styling of a site or usability issues he’s tackling.

I’m the non-technical one. I’m the communications guy, the one who wears golf shirts and tries to explain the web to non-web folks. I’m the one who dabbles in Twitter, calls Facebook work, writes stories and edits homegrown video.   And I’m here to tell you, a good web effort takes a great team with a wide variety of skills and abilities.


To be a champion: “You have to be willing to suck…”

January 7, 2010

It’s a tough world for directors of web communications. I’m doing a job most places didn’t even have five years ago. It’s a challenge to explain it to friends and family and sometimes even to the supervisors who created the position. Finding resources on a college campus in a tough fiscal environment can be downright frustrating. But I just a read a great post about sharing your successes by Kyle James on doteduguru. It inspired me to return to blogging and to start talking about our successes.

All the combat with communication traditionalists about uses of social media finally paid off for us in the Grand Daddy of all ways. No, our web team didn’t help the University of Oregon into the Rose Bowl. Once the Ducks made it, however, we were poised to take advantage of the captive audience we’d cultivated on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube over the last 12 to 18 months, launching Celebrating Champions in Academics and Athletics.

See, we didn’t wait to generate momentum on those channels until we needed it. We consistently built our audience, moving runners around the bases with regular status updates, new videos and consistent — and fun — tweets. Then when it came time to swing for the fences, we hit more than a solo shot because we already had a loyal, growing and active community of fans.

The Celebrating Champions site captured all the enthusiasm around athletic success to highlight the university’s excellence in scholarship and service. We grabbed a feed from an existing — and fan-created hashtag, #goducks. We solicited fan photos on the UO homepage and Facebook and used some of the photos in a slideshow on the Champions site.

Fans jumped to answer questions we posed on Facebook and the Champions blog. We did all of this while also serving up stories and videos about award-winning professors and students. We’d planned to take the site down after the Rose Bowl died down. Enthusiasm for it is so great we’re now in the process of revamping it and keeping it alive. Now, we’d never have been able to do anything like this had we not dived into social media, had we not tried new things, had we not made a commitment to improving.

It wasn’t that long ago that I took part in a panel discussion at a gathering of science writers. Scientists and journalists boast some of the world’s most cynical, curious, and critical minds. Combine the two into a single profession and you’ve got a room full of people who are skeptical of even proven tools,  let alone new ones such as web video, Twitter and YouTube.

They peppered our panel with questions and even declarations. “How will you know it works?” “How do you justify the time?” “What’s the goal?” “What if you fail?” “I don’t know how to edit professional video.”

I’m frequently impatient with folks unwilling to taste everything from sushi to social media. I’ll get lucky sometimes and say the boldest and bluntest thing at precisely the right time.

“Sometimes,” I said in mild exasperation, “you have to be willing to suck.”

Denise Graveline expressed the same idea far more eloquently on her blog, “don’t get caught…”

Denise says anytime you try something new, gardening, golf, the violin, you’re going to fumble your way through it at first. And we did. We made rough videos. We had disorganized Facebook pages.  We were twitter-pated for a while. By the time it counted, we were ready.

And more than a year later, I can tell you that sucking for a while continues to pay off.

Your jokes bomb in Web 2.0? Are you a social media ass?

March 22, 2009

You know the feeling. The words slip out of your mouth before you realize they’re not funny — or better yet your phraseology is as funny as it is inappropriate to the moment.

You know, — at least I do — you get in one of those cringe-inducing conversations about stuff you’ve got no business talking about, asking questions like why do lactating mothers “express” milk?

Those moments are awkward enough in person. They can be downright painful on social media and networking sites, where you can bomb in front of the masses, in front people you hardly know.

Sometimes people have no idea if I am joking in person. I take pride in a dry delivery that sometimes people really hate. But it’s tough to be dry on twitter or facebook.

When an acquaintance updated her Facebook status to say that Dateline NBC was interviewing one of her co-workers, I of course had to comment even though it had been years since I’d actually spoken to my Facebook friend. “I hope your colleague is not the subject Dateline’s ‘Catch a Predator’ series,” I wrote, congratulating myself on sheer hilarity. I didn’t hear back for a while, and when I did she ambiguously wrote, “We’re all glad of that.” Can’t tell if she thought I was funny or if she was humoring a social media ass.

Cyberspace, like the water cooler at work or the theater for a comic, can be awful silent, especially without the sympathetic pity laughs. Then again, sometimes I don’t deserve the laughs. Sometimes I need to think before I type just as I have learned to muzzle my unusually large and blunt mouth.

Gotta admit though. Express is an odd verb when it comes to milk.

Newspapers may re-focus on ‘story,’ but online potential endless

December 12, 2008

Just today we learned that the Oregonian will all but end delivery to many parts of Oregon next month, offering same-day delivery only around the Portland area and a couple of other cities. The print product, apparently, will focus on Portland, but the paper’s online presence will continue to have statewide news coverage. There are also rumors that the paper will soon scale back the print edition to three or four times a week.

These changes could force the print edition to focus on longform narrative and news analysis. It’s a reality that matches almost exactly the kind of publication a deputy managing editor and narrative artist at a major western newspaper recently forecast in an e-mail.

That said, I think the future of storytelling is not on ink and paper but on the Web. Online journalism offers a bunch of options for combining media, not just in ways that complement a text story, but in ways where the media play off each other and actually combine to drive a narrative. For example, a writer might frame a story with words, but when it comes time to describe what or how someone said something, a little video of the subject in context and mid-narrative might be more powerful than a writer simply pounding a quote into a keyboard. Illustrating an action in the story with video or audio in way where it blends with the text might be effective. It might jar readers/viewers for a while because the idea would be that they don’t finish entirely one element in a single medium before changing mediums. The story might create a seamless narrative while stitching together various media.

I don’t have an honest grasp of what I’m suggesting or even a good example, although I am sure people are trying it. I just think that electronic storytelling offers ways to combine text, photos, audio and video in creative and powerful ways — more than simple complementary roles — rather ways that work together to tell a single story. I think we’ll see more of this as technology develops. Then again, I might be crazy.

The web’s “c” word: Five better monikers for web content

November 28, 2008

I hate the term web content.  Hate it.  There are TV shows, book chapters, newspaper articles, symphonic movements, poetry verses, stanzas, lines, couplets, and more. On the web, we throw everything together and call it content. And I am fit to be tied. Sure, execs and administrators love to say, “The web is where it’s at,” without funding it. At the very least, they could dignify the collection of words, pictures, video, audio, blogs, vlogs and microblogs with a better name than content.

Might as well call it hodgepodge. Brochure leftovers? Pasted and “re-purposed” from magazines, memos, and brochures, this static web content boasts no rhyme, no reason and no life.

With that, I’ll offer up a little reason if not rhyme with my top 5 alternatives for the dreaded “c” word:

1)      Web Ingredients: This requires a recipe, for example, combine  a dash of exposition, a touch of anecdote,  and a smattering of bullet points, then pour them not into a 13:9 baking dish but a tidy little 4:3 video and a 250-word feature.

2)      Web Packages: Feature story, video, audio and FAQ all boxed together and gift-wrapped just for you.

3)      Multidimensional web presence: Okay, so corporate it makes me wince, but every office has its king of buzzwords. A multidimensional web presence allows you to “leverage” your “position” combining  elements of narrative.  Some words, some  audio, a video or two and a blog? Instead of always telling people how you are, why not let them tell you how they see you? Word of mouth travels fast. Might as well let them describe the good and bad about you – to you on your blog. Might as well make your case via video and teach people using podcasts. Then you’re “leveraging” your “positions” using several “platforms” and reaching a “cross-section” of your  “demographic.”

4)      Web Masterpieces: Look, the web’s about being fast, cool, edgy, even if you’re selling antibiotic ointment. Could archeologists someday be mining caches of servers trying to decipher and restore aging, yellowing html code? Clean code might never land in the Louvre. But your web site is your canvas. Take care and time to be sure the right lighting, the ideal nuance, the perfect brush strokes tell your story. Treat your site like a self portrait. It might not hang in a museum or get translated by archeologists, but success on the web means telling a gripping story today.

5)      Web Storytelling: A narrative has everything life does. Character, conflict, triumph.  Think of your web site as your story, a personal one or that of a company or organization. What stories can you tell to illustrate your favorite themes or your brand? A few pictures, a few words, some talking pictures? What’s the best way to tell your stories? What conflicts have you triumphantly overcome? Tell those stories… Show the world who you are.

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Riots never end well: student video at University of Oregon

November 3, 2008

We haven’t had a video contest like Fresno State yet, but we are reaching students with their own voices. Hilary Jones, a student who works in the Office of Communications, produced an awesome video with students talking about how to be safe on Halloween. It was more effective than anything a law enforcement officer could have said to students. To film the piece, Hilary gave her friends police brochures and asked the students to put the text into their own words and to share their own party experiences. Her effort made local TV and the front page of PR Open Mic, but really was successful in the short term with students passing it on to other students on Facebook and on the UO’s YouTube channel. It was authentic and trustworthy and beyond the students, Hilary put her own touch on it with lines like, “Riots never end well.” Check it out below.

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