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At a recent meeting, I and a bunch of our decision-makers were trying to make changes to how we use some of our brochures. Costs are rising, both in terms of printing a piece and the cost of postage to distribute them, and budgets are being cut back, so it was time to take that hard look.

And I finally heard one of the sentences I’ve been waiting for out of our Executive Director’s mouth:

People are looking for this information online.”

. . .

Thank you. And darn right they are.

Even putting aside the fact that we created this piece because the colleges stopped printing their own pieces with similar information, there’s the doubles and triples that students get of the same brochure, not knowing it’s in their folder already or that there’s one in the mail to them, etc.

And besides which, they’re getting the information the way they want to already. The related pages in question on our site are our most popular pages. We know people are accessing this information there. Even our Knowledge Base entries show it’s the most popular question people have in mind when they get to our site.

So I presented a mock-up of a new landing page for the subject in question. I poured all the information we had about the subject onto a page and then faithfully trimmed it by half.  I did not go the half again that Steve Krug recommends because–frankly–this was just a mock-up. I didn’t have the go-ahead to spend more time on it, really.

And the first response? “Awfully cluttered,” and “wordy,” to quote the two folks in question. Absolutely right, and I’ll admit it. I could certainly spend more time and cut it back more.

And thank you for recognizing what people want on the web: clarity and simplicity.

Be succinct. That’s my best web writing tip.

This is, however, super difficult to do when you’re dealing with a multi-campus system that’s truly (more or less) integrated in terms of curriculum and admissions. With 12 academic colleges at this campus and another 6 throughout the rest of the other 19 campuses scattered across the commonwealth. And especially when multiple campuses offer majors that have the same name, but are different programs with different curricula and options.

Not an easy task. But one I have to tackle.

But tomorrow. I almost missed today’s post-per-day due to midnight hitting, and that just won’t do, now will it?

Prompted by an excellent post by Shelby Thayer, as well as a meeting today with IntelliResponse, our knowledge base provider, I’d like to dig into what you can find out from and how you can fine-tune a knowledge base.

I personally find it fun and entertaining to track our top ten over time and see how things shift. Yes, I’m a strange bird. I know this and embrace it. But watching “how do I apply” crawl up over inquiries for our academic calendar shows the shift in the year again: that shift in what students and parents are thinking about. Likewise, inquiries for campus tours.

And I was thrilled to see “is Penn State a multicampus system” actually gain enough traction to make it to one of our top tens (the one that people actually type in, rather than browsing the provided questions). Thrilled. Essentially, that means that the message that Penn State is not one place has gotten out there.

But I found, when I looked farther, that “2+2” goes unanswered if someone enters it. Likewise, “campus offer.” And these oversights (my own fault, mostly) are pretty egregious.

Now, those not familiar with the Penn State system might say “huh?” But both those questions should likely point to the “is Penn State a multicampus system” answer, or one like it.  (2+2 is what we call our system of two years at a smaller campus, followed by two years at a larger one to finish an undergraduate degree; campus offer is an offer of admission to one of our campuses.)

As much help as we’ve gotten from IntelliReponse (and we’ve gotten a ton: they’ve been great), you really need someone who knows the institution and office in question pretty much inside and out to evaluate your answers on a regular basis. I’ve found miscategorized questions, questions that don’t get answered, and quite a few that are really just garbage–often someone with a juvenile sense of humor trying to see what they can get the system to answer to pretty ridiculous questions.

The miscategorized and unanswered worry me the most. That said, we’re almost at a 90% response rate, and haven’t been up and running too terribly long, so I’m not losing sleep over it. Yet.

I’ve seen as many misspellings as I think might exist for “Schreyer” (referring to our Honors College), including “shriars,”  “shryer,” and “scyers” (virtually never capitalized, I might add), as well as referral to the aforementioned as “honros colelge.”  I also know the Penn State system is confusing, but I really wish we could get enough info out there that people wouldn’t be so bewildered as to ask “what college is the university campus on?”

I’m also sincerely hoping that “convicted of a felony” does not become a common question to turn up.

Examples aside, paying attention to these and getting them categorized appropriately not only helps your numbers, it helps your community, and that has real results when it comes to customer service. I’ve found that it’s not just prospective students and parents using our knowledge base: it’s also Penn State staff and faculty, some of them internal to admissions.

And people are using it all hours of the day, from all around the world. So rather than staying up until it’s business hours on our side of the world, a student from Thailand or China can get the answer they need right then. Likewise those that are in our time zone and don’t want to pick up the phone or write an email. Not to mention those right at any one of our Penn State campuses.

So in the end, to serve your customer, you have to find out what they want or need and try to deliver it to them in the way that’s easiest for them to use, not the easiest for you to manage, although the two often intersect. Keep in touch with your community and serve them well, and you’ll find the benefit is enormous.

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