Planning for Event Calendars

Events are a critical part of communicating the life of a campus, so how do you successfully solicit, create, manage, and promote that content? 

In higher ed web projects, one of the areas of greatest attention and concern are events. In one way or another, we always spend a lot of time thinking about event calendars:

  • Where will events display on the website?

  • What events will show up on the homepage?

  • What event calendar system should we use?

These questions come up because events are such an important way of communicating the life of a campus. As we direct photography, craft branding messages, and select news stories, events are a critical part of the mix.

But when thinking about events, there are many questions we should be asking about how to solicit, create, manage, and promote that content. Because events are not a design element on a sidebar or homepage. They are a complicated content type that warrant careful planning in order to maximize their value on our website.

Here are some points to consider:

Don’t Forget About Student Events

Institutional event calendars tend to be the domain of events organized by administrative units on campus — colleges, departments, the president’s office, student affairs - and not student groups.

But so much of the vibrancy of campus life that we would seek to convey via event content lies in student-run events. It can be tricky to harness that value since there may not be a centralized way that student groups use to promote their events. (At some schools, there are student-run calendars that administrations are reluctant to officially promote or acknowledge because they are “rogue,” but there is tremendous value to be gained both by promoting that content and potentially by forming a relationship with the “rogue” body.)

You can’t force students to use an official calendar, but you can lower the barriers of resistance, demonstrate the value, and offer support to encourage adoption. Or maybe you could import a feed from student-run third-party system, or curate select student events of broader interest and add them to your calendar manually. Either way, it’s worth exploring a way to reflect that significant aspect of your campus life.

Think Through Your Taxonomy

We may not think of events calendars as content management systems, but that’s exactly what they are. That means that when considering how to get the most out of event content, we need to think about taxonomy.

  • What categories do we need? How many categories?

  • What nomenclature makes sense for our audience?

  • Do we need subcategories?

  • How will we use tagging? What tags will we use?

Plan out the organization of your content in a way that makes sense for your users, which may not necessarily align with your org chart.

Create Internal Criteria for Events

Not to get all deep and meaningful on you, but… what is an event? Is a major campus lecture an event? What about the add/drop deadline? Or Commencement? Or the weekly meeting of the scuba diving club? Or an external organization’s event being held in an on-campus facility?

Not all events are created equal. How will you manage and moderate different types of events? Do you want weekly club meetings showing up on your homepage? Should deadlines be considered events? These questions may be gnarly, but are important to consider when planning how to use your calendar.

Create internal guidelines up front that answer these questions so you do not continually revisit debates about what an event is or is not, and what gets put on the homepage versus what doesn’t (and you can address complaints, if they arise, by pointing to a defined policy).

Spec Out Your Event Calendar

Just like a CMS, spec out your needs before you go shopping for event calendar solutions. Will events be centrally managed? How many types of users will you have? What kinds of social or community-oriented functionality do you need, if any? How much customization flexibility do you need for design or layout? What technical compatibility issues do you need to consider? Having the answers to these questions settled internally with all pertinent parties will make the selection and implementation of an events calendar system that much easier.

On a similar note...

Consider Events Promotion vs. Room Reservation

Event calendars and room reservation systems are like front of house and back of house restaurant staff, respectively. Do you want the busboy seating guests? Does the host know how to prepare steak frites? In both cases, the answer is “probably not.” But you need all of these tasks completed in order to successfully run a restaurant.

People like magic bullet systems, but in my experience, it’s tricky to find a system that does both of these calendar-related tasks well. All the more reason to spec out and prioritize your needs before committing to solutions, so you are solving the problems that need solving and not creating new ones.

Ignore UX at Your Peril

I’ve seen so many calendar systems implemented with out-of-the-box design and functionality, with zero customization done to bring the calendar in line with overall web branding or best UX practices. This can create a jarring experience for your users, especially if they are used to a consistent, sensible user experience across the rest of your website.

A key consideration is the form. If you are trying to recruit people on campus to populate your calendar with events (a perennial challenge), is a poor form user experience deterring them from doing so? Are the fields prompting users for content 1) in a way they will understand and 2) that you have deemed strategically essential to a good event listing? Can you cleanly integrate content guidelines into the form experience to contextually support appropriate content creation?

And don’t forget the layout of the calendar homepage and (most importantly) the event listing page. Eliminate extraneous or redundant elements, add content as appropriate, and consider doing some testing to understand how users use these pages and what modifications you may need to make, if any.

Any system will rarely do exactly what you need it to do out of the box, so take the time to customize to your institution’s (and your users’) needs.

Plan Event Coverage Holistically

Ideally, event coverage should be planned with all possible channels and outlets in mind, so the content complements one another and works in concert. That means considering:

  • The event calendar listing itself (title, content, visual media, and taxonomy)

  • Digital promotion (including social media and featuring on key homepages, newsletters, or other publications)

  • Offline promotion (ensuring it links appropriately to online details)

  • Media pitches

  • Internal news coverage (promotion and/or recap)

(A pet peeve of mine: if you have an event listed in your events calendar, you do not need a news story “announcing” the upcoming event by simply repeating all of the event details in a narrative format. There are more effective ways to promote an event via a news story, like an interview with a key individual or an in-depth look at the event’s historical context.)

The first hurdle, before even getting to this point, is introducing digital promotion (and recap/archival) as an early part of the overall event planning discussion. Whether you’re talking about a big event like commencement or a smaller lecture, it’s a critical topic to discuss at the beginning of the process. And that conversation goes deeper than “what’s our hashtag?”

The biggest value for your event content won’t necessarily be the block of your homepage where you feature event. It will be by promoting events in context - linked from related news stories, fed onto relevant webpages, tweeted with an appropriate hashtag, and so on.

Take Care of Your Calendar Users

I will repeat the mantra again: events are content, too! That means that people need training on how to create and manage that content effectively. Before people type into a form, create and share guidelines on how to create appropriate event content (even making those guidelines contextually available as tool-tips in the form, if possible). Hold training sessions that people need to attend before getting calendar access.

Relatedly, just like standard web content needs an editor or someone charged with managing it, so does event content. Who will moderate event submissions or be accountable for the content health of your calendar system? Is that person properly empowered to do everything they need to do to ensure event content is successful?