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Brain Trust Recap: Wrangling the Ever-Growing COVID-19 Microsite

On April 15, 2020, we convened more than 25 higher ed professionals from schools large and small to discuss their approaches and challenges to wrangling COVID-19 information on the web.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on and the sparks of crisis yield to the slow burn of a new normal, colleges and universities are striving to maintain a useful, current, and accessible hub of critical information for multiple audiences who have been affected in a wide range of ways. 

What started as a page may have overnight become a microsite needing to address everything from remote learning to the needs of students still housed on campus. Keeping information current and well-organized while priorities and needs shift unpredictably — and partners across campus seek to add their own information to the mix — is a significant challenge in an already challenging time. 

On April 15, 2020, we convened more than 25 higher ed professionals from schools large and small to discuss their approaches and challenges to wrangling COVID-19 information on the web.

Case Study: RIT

We invited RIT’s Raman Bhalla, AVP of University Web Services, and Bob Finnerty, AVP Communications, to discuss their approach to managing the RIT COVID-19 microsite. The site has garnered praise for its clear organization, warm yet direct tone, and helpful presentation of key information like call center numbers and messages from both the university and student government presidents.

The key to rolling out something quickly and subsequently maintaining it over time was effective and efficient team collaboration, identifying clear roles at the outset and sticking to the defined process. Having a crisis manager on staff was also a plus.

Writers worked “beats” to keep FAQs up to date, using social monitoring in part to inform their substance. As info came in, they organized it into distinct persona-based buckets. The web team worked with the call center team to ensure they had access to the most current and official information — and that they knew it before it went live on the site.

The team was helped by a technical infrastructure that already divorced content from presentation, allowing writers to focus on writing instead of coding, and a site equipped to drive site visitors to the COVID-19 microsite via global alert banners. 

Case Study: UF Health

Jeff Stevens, assistant web manager for University of Florida Health, brought the powerful perspective of working within an academic health center at a major university with multiple hospital campuses across the state. The UF Health COVID-19 site began as a single page, which they quickly realized would be insufficient. They ended up using a recently developed template as the foundation for the site. 

The team has been all hands on deck to manage the site, with writers focused on creating and curating content to meet the needs of their users — in this case, primarily, patients and staff. Approvals and HIPAA compliance slowed up publishing in some instances, but in other cases they were able to publish more nimbly.

What About Smaller Schools?

Not every school has teams the size of RIT and UF Health. How can smaller teams manage a similar task? One attendee noted the time delay in relying on leadership to bring back messaging from meetings with the president’s crisis team, then having to distill that for the web. 

Another attendee noted that a new president at their institution means that a lot of the processes and workflows have either recently changed or are still in flux. While this has pros and cons, with things more fresh and less rigid, there can be a bit more of a nimble approach in focusing on addressing the problems that need solving and doing what they can with what they have.

While not every institution has the staff resourcing of RIT or UF Health, these principles can be applied to institutions of any size:

  • Collaboration is key — By clearly defining roles, defining how people work together, and working together across silos (e.g. call center and web team at RIT), a small team can function beyond the scope of its size by virtue of increased efficiency. 
  • Bring digital to the table — The website and social media, more than ever, are vital communications platforms. As decisions are made and key details emerge, the owners of these digital platforms need to be a part of the discussion so that information can be shared in not just a timely manner, but in a way that is helpfully organized and presented. 
  • Be resourceful — Owing to the fact that the website is a vital tool at this moment in time, pull staff who may typically work on print publications or other platforms to support the web in meaningful ways, and set aside expectations and timeframes for non-COVID-19 related efforts. Does another unit at your institution have a template that may offer helpful structures for organizing COVID-19 information? Don’t reinvent the wheel — borrow and adapt. 

SEO & Analytics Insights

OHO’s director of digital marketing Vanessa Theoharis shared some preliminary insights into search and web traffic patterns, gleaned via both our clients and broader emerging trends:

  • “Coronavirus” or “COVID” are key search terms (e.g. “[school] and coronavirus”] and should be in the H1
  • User behavior is changing, so ensuring you can understand traffic through distinct internal and external views is key. Generally speaking, site traffic isn’t down, but it has changed — for instance, desktop usage is way up. But patterns remain volatile and hard to predict.
  • Pay attention to search queries — are people searching for terms like “[school] and housing” or “[school] and refund”? This can help you identify where you need more COVID-19 specific guidance on your site. 
  • Your COVID-19 microsite is now a primary gateway into the rest of your website. How can you appropriately but intentionally create connections from your microsite to admissions, online learning, or other relevant sections of the .edu?

Google also recently rolled out a new structured data markup for special announcements related to COVID-19. The new markup helps Google distinctly render search snippets for this type of information. Whether or not this markup works on your site will depend on whether your CMS supports that schema tag.

Another attendee shared that they created misspelled redirects to anticipate users directly typing in, for example, They are also adopting the best practice of annotating their analytics whenever they make a significant site change and capturing screenshots, so they can review how things changed over time.

Other Types of Content

With the most urgent communications subsiding, there may be bandwidth to consider managing new types of content, like kudos for healthcare workers or others who are performing essential services during the pandemic. MIT is managing one such feature, to recognize members of its own community who are going above and beyond. Social media is another useful outlet for such content, since the general public responds very positively to such messages. On Wednesday, April 22 we’ll be hosting another Brain Trust on Social Strategy – sign up today.

Can We Help?

These are uncertain times for higher ed and we'd like to offer a strategic 1:1 session with Rachel Reuben Senor, our VP of Account Strategy. We’re happy to review your COVID microsite, updated admissions sites, or talk through process or any communication challenges. Schedule a call today.