Resolve to improve your web communications for 2003

Forget losing weight, getting more exercise, and being nicer to your neighbors. This new year, why not improve your web communications strategy instead? Grab your team for a brainstorming session, brew some java (or hot cocoa), and start spouting ideas. To jump-start your creativity, here are my top 10 eResolutions:

1. Think cool, not school.

I’m not sure what it is about educators, but a review of many school web sites shows an obsession with those trite, but true, symbols: crayons, school buses, apples, wooden rulers, little red school houses, brass bells, black-and-white speckled notebooks, and—my personal favorite—textbooks wrapped lovingly with a strap.

Talk about a time warp. Now’s the time to kill the cheap clip art cliches and start showing how cool education is today by using digital photos (see Resolution No. 2), clean graphics, brief video tours, “meet your teacher” clips with eMail access, online grades, and other interactive services. (If you’re still not sure what “cool” is anymore, snag some teenage computer whizzes to come up with some suggestions.)

2. Get closer.

Literally. I know, I know. It’s uncomfortable shooting a photo, even a digital one, while invading someone else’s space. While I’m heartened that more school and district web sites are adding the visual and emotional energy that only great photography can bring, please ask all of your webcammers to “Get closer!” Even with new technology, the old rules still apply: composition, light, scale, color, focal point, background, and balance, to name just a few. If all else fails, resolve to learn how to use Adobe Photoshop and start cropping and enhancing your own photos.

3. Hello, world!

Why is it that so many of us still think our web site is only going to be used by the people who already live in our town? Pure parochialism. While the majority of your users might (or might not—see Resolution No. 5) come from your neighborhood, your web site is your front door for the world.

So this year, resolve to make it easy to find out where you are and how to contact you. Include your city and state somewhere on the front page, make it easy to locate key facility addresses, and add ZIP and area codes. For those of you still hiding from your pesky constituents, add eMail addresses for key departments and employees, including the superintendent.

Then make sure someone actually monitors and responds to eMails generated from the site. Otherwise, you’ll solve one customer service faux pas only to create another one.

4. “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Now that “Dragnet” is making a comeback on TV, let’s do our part by making sure that web site visitors can access a basic fact sheet or FAQ (frequently asked questions) about our organization from our home page.

For starters, include the number of students, schools, and staff members; student-teacher ratios; SAT/ACT scores; graduation and dropout rates; percentage of teachers with advanced degrees or national board certification; student demographics; and basic achievement data.

And, while I certainly don’t laud long-winded messages from superintendents and board members, at least let us know who’s in charge of what, and how to reach them. The same goes for other top administrators as well.

5. Track, track, track.

Lace up your resolve and start finding out who is using your site, what they’re visiting, and why they like it. There are dozens of good products and services on the market; if you’re not sure where to start, scan back issues of eSchool News or do a quick Google search. (WebTrends is perennial favorite.) Add simple pop-up surveys to garner feedback about your web site, a hot community issue, or to build an eMail list for your new electronic newsletter.

6. Kill fewer trees.

Now that we’re drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, we need to make up the slack by killing fewer trees. Seriously, though, print newsletters—especially at the district level—have really gotten obsolete. No one has time to read “Dear Resident” mail anymore, and by the time they arrive in the mailbox, the news is as stale as your holiday leftovers.

Take the money and staff time you now waste on printing and postage and develop a series of one-page electronic newsletters targeting different audiences that are packed with timely information and news your readers really can use—or at least care about. One-size-fits-all marketing just doesn’t work anymore, so make sure you craft a communications tool for a business leader or elected official differently than one you’re sending to parents or realtors. Check out for assistance and ideas.

7. D is for Database.

Learning how to use a database, unless you are a true techno geek, is about as exciting as listening to a superintendent give an eight-hour speech. However, you can’t really be an effective eCommunicator without having one and knowing how to use it. Resolve now to start building a web-enabled database of opinion leaders—those “E.F. Hutton” types whom you need to stay in touch with regularly because they’re on your side and they influence the opinions of others.

Once you have your list assembled, eMail them your tailor-made newsletters and periodic, one- or two-sentence eMails about important news and information, from how many kids made the honor roll to why a new reading curriculum is going to impact student achievement in a significant way. Called “customer relationship management” in the business world, this approach gives you the ability to tell your story when the media, and other gatekeepers, won’t.

8. Interactive highway.

It’s not enough anymore to be on the information highway. To meet customer expectations, you need to make your site interactive wherever possible. With the typical web site now containing thousands of pages, a customized search function is a must.

Parents and students expect to be able to download homework, grades, school supply lists, forms, lunch menus, and other items. Teachers and support staff want to register online for professional development seminars and expect your seminar handouts to be posted online the same day you present. Taxpayer and citizen groups want online access to school board members, policies, and meeting minutes.

Staff directories, calendars, course schedules, and other daily tools are now available online in many districts, secured by passwords and sophisticated firewalls. Staff members also want to access their eMail and school or district intranet from home. The technology and security are available, and the bottom-line result of having a better informed staff is more than worth the cost.

9. News is timely.

Once again, some of the old media rules still apply in our new-media world. News, by nature, is fresh for only a brief time—that’s why they call it “news.” Strive to get there first, to the people who matter most, with your organization’s news—whether it’s good or bad. You’ll know you’ve arrived when most of your parents turn to your web site, and not the radio or TV, to find out if schools are closing early because of wintry weather conditions.

10. Ban “Under Construction.”

It’s been well documented in web research, and it’s just plain common sense. If it ain’t ready, don’t post it. “Under construction” equals a lost visit and might mean you lose a customer for good. Is anyone still doing this? Well, stop it, now!

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