In 12 years of work in higher education, I’ve seen one issue consistently derail meaningful, strategic progress on digital communications and change management: an undefined sense of ownership and accountability around the website. Yup, we’re talking about web governance.

To create true accountability, we need consistent process, defined roles and responsibilities, and empowerment through tools and knowledge. But getting there requires significant cultural change, and you can’t achieve that overnight. After all, digital governance needs to be realistic and sustainable in order to be successful. We can’t just draft well-meaning guidelines, hand them down via memo or edict, and expect everyone to embrace them with open arms. Instead, employ these eight tips to get everyone on the same page and actually excited about web governance.

1. Wielding ‘Soft Power’ to Achieve Web Governance Greatness

Governance ensures you can apply your content strategy effectively by extending it to all the people charged with helping execute it, at every level in the organization. By the same token, there is a lot of “soft” work of education and relationship-building to be done across the organization (change management) before introducing the “hard” work of governance. Translation: You need to get coffee with a lot of folks.

To that end, here are a seven initiatives you can undertake to prime your campus community and stakeholders to understand and accept a web governance model and the structures and policies that may accompany it. This is not insignificant work, but it is critical. And it essentially boils down to helping people embrace change and understand not only why the web is important, but why their role in sustaining the website is invaluable.

2. Get the High-Level Strategic Perspective

Your website is a tool to help achieve the business objectives for the institution. So what are those? Is there a strategic plan to reference? Even if the website is not called out as a priority within the strategic plan, map out the role the website may play in achieving the other defined priorities. Drill down to the college, school, or unit level and determine what the executive priorities are. Beyond documented strategy, try to gauge general attitudes around the web. A helpful matrix may entail plotting web knowledge and web attitude:

change management

3. Back to Basics with Goals, Audience, and Messages

With a sense of priorities in hand, it’s time to think about the fundamentals of content strategy: goals, audiences, and messages. It is unlikely that you single-handedly can determine what the communications goals, top audiences, and key messages are for your institution, but you can begin to consider the possibilities and create a working draft to guide subsequent efforts.

4. Examine the Landscape

Arm yourself with a full understanding of the challenges you need to address. Using your understanding of goals, audience, and messaging, complete a content audit (if time is limited, target high-value sections or pages) to gauge how effective or ineffective current content is in supporting them. Dive into the analytics and weave in those findings. Layer on a competitor audit, if you feel that the jealousy factor may spur more motivated conversations. You can even conduct some low budget website user testing to get a baseline assessment of how members of key audiences use your website.

Here’s the kicker: In analyzing the results, consider what elements of governance (e.g., training around institutional style of web writing, access to clear content guidelines, etc.) could help address these issues, and map it out. Draw a clear line between website issues and governance solutions.

5. Take Stock of Human Resources

A major obstacle to effective web governance is that for many of the people entrusted with managing some portion of the website, these responsibilities are not an official part of their job description. That means that an important communications task that may take a significant amount of time is being assigned to individuals who are not allocated dedicated time, training, or resources to do that job effectively—not by any fault of their own.

Talk to human resources. Find out how job descriptions are written, get their take on how communications tasks are accounted for in job descriptions, particularly with those individuals for whom communications is a task but not a profession. Survey how web responsibilities are accounted for in the job descriptions of those for whom the web is a task. Are they specifically called out? Do they receive a percentage allocation of time? Are those tasks supported with training and professional development opportunities or budget? Do individuals with web responsibilities have a corresponding budget?

Begin helping HR understand the scope of web tasks and their importance to the institutional mission. This will be an important relationships in thinking not just about potentially rewriting key job descriptions, but also future training programs and offerings.

6. Start a Listening Tour

By sitting down and listening to people, ranging from deans to department administrators who update the website, you will go a long way toward building relationships founded on trust—and simply getting seen and known by a variety of people will help grease the wheels for easier conversations down the line.

Be transparent and forthcoming in communicating your intentions, be inclusive and collaborative in describing potential solutions, and be vulnerable and forthcoming about your own challenges and pain points. Ask thoughtful questions, and carefully consider the answers.

You will learn a lot, and that knowledge will shape future conversations and strategies. But some things to pay attention to in particular are:

  • Are individuals connected to or aware of broader institutional considerations around brand, style, goals, audience, etc.? Where are their knowledge or resource gaps?
  • How are content decisions made? Who is involved? Who is doing the work, overseeing the work, or influencing the work? Could this process be improved?
  • Is there any content planning process in place, through editorial calendars, editorial meetings, or other tactics?
  • Is there any ongoing review of content, through audits or other assessment? What does that process look like?
  • Do editors and site owners consult analytics? How are they referencing analytics data? Is there any meaningful feedback loop for measurement to inform content decision-making?
  • What is life like for CMS editors? What are their pain points? Is there an adequate workflow? Are roles, responsibilities, and timeframes clearly defined? Is there any consideration for content quality assurance?

7. Discover Champions, Recruit Guinea Pigs, Identify Threats

As you talk to people around campus, you’ll likely find three types of people:

  • Champions: These are the folks who get it, aka your new best friends. They understand the value of the web, ask thoughtful questions, and want to help in all the right ways. While it is great to have these folks as allies, it is important to convert them into evangelists. As your relationships with champions evolve, encourage them to speak up and down the chain about their experience and perspectives in thinking about the website.
  • Guinea pigs: These individuals may or may not overlap with champions, but you will hopefully come across an individual or unit who is willing to let their website be your living laboratory for governance. No matter how small, any digital property presents an opportunity for more effective decision-making and higher content quality. With these small wins, you can create and socialize mini case studies of how implementing web governance helps a website function more effectively as a strategic tool.
  • Threats: There are always going to be people who don’t get it, or for unrelated reasons will be obstacles toward achieving a more strategic, accountable website. Knowing who these people are from the outset will make it easier to figure out how to navigate the process, and come up with a game plan for how to get them on board.

8. Create and Sustain Community Structures

These early conversations may be one-on-one, but they present a great opportunity to begin making one-to-many connections. As you start talking to people, begin connecting them to one another. Informally, at first. (“Oh, you send a newsletter to alumni using platform XYZ? So does Sally at the music school.”) But let people know that they are not alone in doing this work, and that others across the institution share similar challenges. If there are broader meetings or discussions they are not aware of, invite them. If there are relevant resources that they don’t know about, share the links.

All of these tips and connections help lay the groundwork for eventually creating a more formalized campus content community, a way to connect individuals within your organization who are doing web work to best practices, guidelines, process, and most importantly, to each other. Especially given the limited resources of most central marcom or web teams, enabling both peer support and relationships up to the central team through regular meetings and active communications channels can help keep the governance engines humming. And as you, informed by all of your research and discussions, begin thinking through the training, guidelines, and workflows that can help get your web publishing operation in ship-shape, you can share drafts with the content community to get invaluable feedback and buy-in.

Change Is A-Comin’

Change ain’t easy. But standing still is not an option. If our institutions don’t mature as digital organizations, we risk losing our audience and failing to achieve our goals.

We can’t impose change overnight if we want it to last. By priming our community to understand and accept change, and in the process laying a groundwork for meaningful web governance, we are investing in the long-term viability of our website as a tool for strategic success.

Time to save up your quarters. You’ve got lots of coffees to buy.

The Author

With more than a decade of higher ed communications experience to her name, Georgiana Cohen is currently employed as Associate Creative Director, Digital Strategy, at OHO Interactive. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Boston University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Journalism. Georgiana is a frequent speaker on topics relating to web content and digital communications and a published freelance writer.


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