In our conversations with Saint Mary’s staff to date, we’re trying to talk less about “content” and more about “stories.” Content is largely static, and the process of managing it should be easy and painless. Managing content is essentially an adminstrative task. Stories are different; they come and go, they reflect where your school is at in the present moment and, collectively, they can reinforce Saint Mary’s key messages in a powerful and effective way.

One of the issues that emerged in conversation is that there are several ways of defining what a story is. In particular, many folks we’ve met have assumed that a news story ought to be about the same thing as a press release— researched, sourced, and written up. There’s certainly a place for those sorts of stories; in-depth feature articles are invaluable on the Web. But small stories are important too—in fact, sometimes a headline and a Web link are enough to tell a story.

Internet geeks like us, who already consume news in fairly bite-sized portions, take this for granted. And so do most of your Web site’s visitors, especially prospective students. But we’ve come to realize that this idea— that a headline and a link can sometimes be enough— can be a little foreign in higher ed news offices, which are used to considering a story as a 400-500 word piece, developed through interviews and rewrites over the course of a week or so, and approved and delivered to a specific publication. But for students who are looking all over the Web, and consuming information from many sources at the same time, short bits of information can communicate a great deal. Small stories can mean a lot to these visitors.

Everyone agrees that the new Saint Mary’s site ought to include more stories, and they should come from more people. But SMC’s communications team is small, and the College is quite large. Your communicators can’t know everything that’s happening at the grass roots, and that activity is what’s going to be most interesting to your community of prospects and peers. So we need to create pathways for stories to travel throughout the community. Self-knowledge is a key to survival in all organisms; what SMC needs, we think, is a way to learn more about itself.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. “What are you working on?” Saint Mary’s students and faculty should be invited to answer this question as frequently as they like, to help SMC’s communicators see an accurate and dynamic picture of what SMC’s community is exploring on a daily basis.

    The Web team should publish the stories it learns about— even short notices— on Twitter. This will expose more stories to the light, and also will create a unified content stream that can be syndicated via RSS and displayed anywhere.

    The stories collected in this manner should be available to Communications. When Elizabeth and her staff find something they’d like to pursue, they ought to be able to write up a story on their own. In the meantime, these stories can form a constantly refreshing stream of sidebar items, “Did You Know?”-type content, and blurbs for use throughout the site.

  2. The collection of stories should begin long before the new SMC Web site launches. Very early in
    the design process, we’ll be sharing some ideas about how to introduce the SMC community to a
    story-gathering process.
  3. Saint Mary’s has dozens of student groups, with affinities ranging from the religious to the service-oriented to the downright quirky; these groups can be a great source for storytelling. The prospects that come to the SMC site will bring with them a wide diversity of interests; exposing them to as many of these groups as possible will help them find something to identify with. This might entail providing small grants to student groups to create short videos detailing their mission; it might mean allowing groups to create profile pages, and exposing those pages to prospective students. And the groups themselves will appreciate the greater visibility; organizations like SMC’s
    Student Senate can help keep club lists current.
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