The UM-Flint Homepage Slider and U

The most powerful communication, marketing, and customer service tool within all of higher education is the university website.

Before they set foot on campus, receive recruitment material in the mail, or talk to an admissions counselor, perspective students first visit the websites of the schools they are considering. Online, the university website is the university.

The university website is also a critical resource for current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the community. It is the portal through which they learn, conduct research, ask and answer questions, find out what is happening, and stay connected to campus and each other.

It makes sense, then, that the most important part of the most powerful communication, marketing, and customer service tool is the university homepage. It is where first impressions are made. It is the point from which a clear path to desired information begins. It is the face of the university. And its most prominent feature is “the slider.”

The slider is intended to instantly convey the best, most illustrative, most distinctive aspects of the university through striking imagery and engaging storytelling. That may be easy enough to understand, but it is much more difficult to execute.

Again, because of its privileged perch atop the most important part of the university’s most powerful tool, the messages must always communicate the best, most distinctive “points of pride” of the University of Michigan-Flint. And we must do so in the best, most distinctive, pride-worthy way possible. The following are some ideas about how we can go about that undertaking.

Timeliness v. Timelessness

University Relations’ homepage content strategy calls for slider features to change every week, meaning such stories/content would appear on the homepage for 5 to 7 business days before being replaced with new stories/content. Fresh, relevant, websites worth returning to require fresh, relevant content to return for. This also means time-sensitive stories/content (i.e. event announcements for concerts, plays, workshops, etc.), with few exceptions (emergency announcements, closing campus due to weather, etc.), will not appear within the homepage slider. That is, at least not with the specific intent of driving attendance, ticket sales, etc.

This does not mean, however, that events, productions, concerts, and the like will never be the subject of slider features. Quite the contrary. If a particular event represents a unique opportunity, an innovative approach, a point of pride, or otherwise illustrates UM-Flint’s “Brand Promise,” a more in-depth exploration of the event/project is very much the type of story the slider was designed to help tell.

A great example of this is the multi-disciplinary project “Glen-Wood: Restoration of Spirit,” spearheaded by the Theatre department. It is described as “an original theatre production created from interviews and scholarly/historical research. The creative team is comprised of UM-Flint faculty and students (from Theatre, History, and the Master of Liberal Studies program), as well as community partners such as Flint’s Glenwood Cemetery and the Genesee County Historical Society.” It will be a tour through Flint’s history as told through the lives of individuals enshrined at one of Flint’s oldest cemeteries.

This is much more than an event to be marketed to boost attendance on specific dates. It exemplifies the very best of what UM-Flint strives for, stands for, and succeeds in accomplishing in the name of “learning, research, and civic engagement” – UM-Flint’s brand promise. It represents a unique opportunity, an innovative approach, and a point of pride. As such, it deserves a comprehensive telling of how it came about, what it aims to accomplish, and the academic and social takeaway for all involved.

In this way, efforts like the Glen-Wood project transcend mere “event listing.” They are, in fact, timeless proof of this institution’s principles, the achievements of its people, and the potential for and power of collaboration, creativity, and the courage to innovate. These are lasting ideals to communicate to all UM-Flint stakeholders, all prospective students, all visitors to the UM-Flint website.

Make Good on the Brand Promise

As we have shown, the Glen-wood project is an example of an initiative that embodies UM-Flint’s brand promise. But what exactly is a brand promise and what does it mean for you?

To a large degree, whether you are student, faculty or staff member, alum or community member, you already know UM-Flint’s brand promise because you help create it everyday.

UM-Flint’s brand promise is:

The University of Michigan-Flint is the premier urban center for learning, research, and civic engagement.

The 2008 Marketing Research Report conducted by Educational Marketing Group revealed that awareness of and agreement with this “promise” already exists in the minds of our most important audiences. They see each element of this statement as true, positive, and unique to UM-Flint. The attributes that comprise the brand promise set us apart from our competition in ways that our target audience (students) finds appealing.

The brand promise is not intended to be used for external audiences as a tag line, body copy, or slogan. It is better thought of as a mantra, or challenge, for the entire UM-Flint family––individuals and departments––to identify, develop, and share the kinds of initiatives that truly set UM-Flint apart.

Remember the Audience

The University of Michigan-Flint has many stakeholders. However, the most important stakeholders have always been students––current and future students. This reality has an impact on both the content and its presentation using the homepage slider feature.

Most of the concerns relating to slider feature presentation will fall to University Relations’ user experience (ue) and graphic designers. However, there are some important aspects of slider feature presentation with which individuals and departments can be extremely helpful.

This may actually fall more under the heading of “content” than “presentation,” but as it relates to our most important audience (students), creative content and creative content gathering techniques can make a big difference.

Once again, this is brilliantly illustrated by an innovative academic initiative launched recently by UM-Flint faculty. Last December, the music department’s Jazz Ensemble was accompanied in concert by Twitter. Music professor and Jazz Ensemble director Brian DiBliassio explained, “Having an active discussion about both the content and history of the pieces being performed will add to the audience’s appreciation and understanding of the music.” Fellow music faculty member Chris Heidenreich lead the online discussion on Twitter. He said, “In the past, I have seen students texting during concerts, and I wondered if I could find some way to bring them back to the event while making the program more meaningful and interesting.”

Their risk was rewarded. The new twist on the event prompted University Relations’ Mel Serow to do a preview piece on the project. Mel’s write-up brought out more students to the annual concert, as well as other media outlets. A Flint Journal story featured comments from ensemble members, a Swartz Creek music teacher, and Tom Glasscock, manager of the Flint Symphony Orchestra.

From the point of view of students, there are some important lessons we can draw from the Twitter Jazz Concert that apply to slider feature content and presentation. First, students respond to risk-taking – especially risks that take aim at convention, speak their language, and truly demonstrate an environment where attempts to expand possibility and innovation can become reality. Second, students like to see institutions of higher learning embrace and employ technology. As is often the case, students have a better grasp on technology and its potential than other groups on campus. For those seeking an education that will truly prepare them for everything the future has in store, knowing that their school or the school they are considering is actively engaged with the creative and meaningful application of “the tools of the future” is a very reassuring idea.

Final Thoughts

That more or less summarizes some the guiding principles and ideas to consider when identifying and sharing stories and content that could end up as a homepage slider feature.

Next time, we’ll outline guiding principles and best methods for using the slider feature on UM-Flint school/college and recruitment-oriented homepages.

Bob Mabbitt