Sustaining Your Website With Stories

August 26, 2015

Storytelling as a practice is as old as time itself. From the oral tradition to mass-produced publications, stories are the currency by which we communicate our culture, our experiences, and our values.

So when seeking to communicate about our organization, stories have a high value. By relating authentic experiences in the words and images of those who lived them, we bring our brands and missions to life.

But while it’s easy to design a homepage with a box that says “stories go here,” it’s so much harder to create a system whereby an organization is collecting and crafting those stories. While they swirl all around us, they can be hard to capture, catalog, and convey in a systematic, sustainable way. Yet as we craft digital experiences, we increasingly need to rely on a steady, timely stream of stories -- be they video, quotes, feature stories, or other formats -- to bring them to life.

That means that on the backend, we need a system. I’m not talking about the backend of a content management system. I am talking about a story engine.

Fueling the Fire

Content strategy, as we know, is half content components (substance and structure) and half people components (workflow and governance). To acquire the raw material of stories we need to build our website into an effective, impactful communications tool, we need to create governance around how we gather and manage information about our organizations. That means building an editorial infrastructure that supports the ongoing discovery and development of those stories into strategic, structured content.

This is no small task. So much storygathering (the prelude to storytelling) occurs by happenstance -- a dean happens to forward an email from a professor talking about a student’s accomplishment, two directors have a side conversation in a managers’ meeting, and so on. How do we capture information when it is flying at us from all sides, and then leverage it to support ongoing storytelling efforts? And how do we turn happenstance into habit?

Here are some ideas for cultivating the sparks that will fuel your website with stories for the long haul.

Create Conduits, Build Relationships

If you don’t have a structure, you have a vacuum. So create meaning in the void. That starts, as always, with relationships. Identify and reach out to the key people who know what’s going on. Here’s how that looks in higher ed:

  • PR and news staff (they know a lot about faculty events)
  • Department chairs (they know even more about what faculty are doing)
  • Department administrators (never underestimate the administrative staff - they are gatekeepers extraordinaire)
  • Alumni magazine staff (they know what grads are up to)
  • Admissions officers (they know who the standout incoming students are)
  • Student leadership (student government is often funding cool, fun initiatives and programs)

Build and maintain those relationships through regular meetings. Find out what the key touchpoints are - faculty meetings, student government sessions, scheduling one-on-one meetings once a semester - and keep them up. Also, strive to avoid redundancy in contacts by teaming up and sharing information - no one wants three meetings on the calendar with the title “Story Idea Discussion”.

Identify when the recurring milestones are - grant award schedules, regular fall projects, competition schedules, annual service outings or other trips - and follow up on the outcomes. And perhaps, since omnipresence can be a challenge, appoint students to embed themselves as “story ambassadors” within departments to be the front lines of engaging admins, faculty, and fellow students to learn what’s going on.

Then look at your relationships and communications with fellow communicators. Establish similar relationships with communicators across campus and hold regular editorial meetings. Use those meetings not to report on what’s already in the works - because that’s old news - but to share ideas and information, then brainstorm on the best outlet and format to convey that story.

A good old fashioned editorial calendar can be the brain that organizes your storygathering and storytelling efforts. Whether you’re using a database app or a spreadsheet, by making it more than just a calendar and more of a tool that allows you to plan content in alignment with key messages and goals across channels, it becomes an engine not just for stories, but for strategy.

The key to using editorial meetings and calendars effectively is ownership. They will not self-perpetuate. Someone (maybe you?) needs to assume the role of owner. That means wrangling, cheerleading, following-up, organizing, and strategizing. It’s work, but it ultimately leads to an efficient and effective execution of your content strategy. Because information, as always, is the key.

Going Social

Social media has a huge role in both storygathering and storytelling. With an active listening program - tracking hashtags (both official and unofficial), monitoring key campus influencers (students, staff, and faculty), finding and following alumni - you will learn a tremendous amount about what’s happening on campus.

Your social managers should be in the loop with the broader editorial infrastructure, sharing tips and info at meetings and adding it to the database/spreadsheet, as appropriate.

In turn, be sure you are getting the most out of your social channels. Don’t solely relegate stories to your website -- adapt them for social by cropping short video clips, pulling out quotes, or however makes sense for your social content strategy. And leverage your platforms to ask your audience targeted questions that can inform future stories.

Story Campaigns

Contests! Free stuff! Wacky promotions! Everyone loves a good campaign. And you can try creating one around storygathering.

  • Create a branded campaign and flood campus with flyers, table tents, pop-up acappella concerts, whatever it takes to raise awareness
  • Send outgoing student workers around campus to ask their classmates two simple questions: “What cool thing are you up to? What cool things are your friends up to?”
  • Hold an “office hours” session in the campus center with a big sign that says “Tell us something cool and we’ll give you a cookie,” or something similar
  • Create a simple (like, stupidly simple) path for people to submit stories: a hashtag, a Twitter account, an email address, a box to collect slips of paper, a “tip line” voicemail box, whatever works - the less friction and the less work required, the better
  • Give out “brag swag” to people who volunteer cool information - people may be shy and reluctant to talk about their own accomplishments, so a little bribe can go a long way

The last mile of this is connecting people to the outcomes of their information sharing. Can you track who gives you content leads and then loop back with them to show how that tip led to a story, a popular Facebook post, and other outcomes? Showing people the ROI of getting involved in telling the institution’s story can be a powerful way to keep these systems rolling.

Setting Goals and Building Systems

There are tons of stories to be found. But what are the ones that you need? Which align with your content strategy? Be sure you have defined the criteria for what types of stories you are looking for, even ranking and prioritizing (by topic, school, or audience, for example), so you don’t end up drowning in ideas with no idea of how to apply them.

Speaking of applying them, define at the outset how you are using stories.

  • Do you have stories associated with programs? Are some featured on the homepage? On your social channels? In newsletters?
  • How are they structured -- do you know which content types require which pieces of information? Do you have a content template to aid in molding your stories to fit their designated structure?
  • Do you have a proper taxonomy in place? What is your plan for feeding or reusing content across your site?

Be sure you have your systems planned and built out to structure and support your stories the way you intend for them to be published.

And what’s content without measurement? By knowing what goals you want your stories to support, you will be able to measure their effectiveness. As always, be prepared for surprises and to pivot accordingly.

By surrounding your campus in an “informational mesh,” you can help cultivate storygathering and storytelling into a habit that supports your overall communications strategy.

How do you stay attuned to what’s happening on campus? And how do you leverage that information to tell great stories? Let us know by tweeting at @ohointeractive and we’ll add your tips to this post!

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