One Voice, Many Audiences

The college Web site presents challenges to public-relations writers seeking consistency in tone

Brian Taylor

July 22, 2009

Just who are we writing for, anyway? A public-relations officer has to reach many constituencies in written communications. In some cases, such as an admissions viewbook or a letter to alumni, the audience is distinct and clear. We can tailor our verbiage to the intended readers without fear of working at cross-purposes. When it comes to the college's Web site, though, diverse groups have to be addressed in a single voice. Finding the right tone for multiple audiences can be a challenge.

There are at least a dozen audiences for your Web site. They fall into three main groups: the Nurtured, the Cynical, and the Naïve. Note that the Cynics constitute the largest category. Let's look at each group in turn, roughly in order of importance:

The Nurtured. We want these folks the most. To get them, we have to make ourselves sound relevant and attractive, hip without hype, across generations. The temptation at most institutions is to let youth lead, since incoming freshmen are a huge factor in a college's success, and the competition is so strong. But as we scramble to stay current with Facebook and Twitter to see how best to fold them into the recruitment mix, there's a fine line between sounding appropriately slangy and silly. We are, after all, institutions of higher learning, so it's crucial to uphold editorial standards rather than risk pandering.

High-school juniors and seniors. This audience is the bread-and-butter of most campus Web sites, which have become tremendous, passive recruitment tools. Increasingly, anticipating the needs and interests of this population of high-school students governs the design and content of most sites. As these prospective applicants are new to higher education, some basic information is recommended, even when it may seem obvious to most visitors to the site. What, for example, is a management major? Even for those who already know, how a college describes a program can say a great deal about campus quality and institutional culture.

Adult learners. Fewer in numbers than undergraduates at most institutions, perhaps, but no less important, are students working toward advanced degrees, taking courses part time, or taking them not for credit. Unlike high-school students, they usually have a good idea of the fields they are interested in, but they still need to hear what makes your program distinctive.

Transfer students. Older and savvier than the typical high-school senior, they require a different tone than a 17-year-old who has never lived away from home. While adult learners and alumni may have their own navigation buttons directing them to the areas of the Web site created primarily with them in mind, a transfer student visits many of the same pages as a prospective first-year student. If you have taken too long to explain things or entice the 17-year-olds, you could alienate the 21-year-olds in the process.

Alumni. A key constituency for fund raisers, who want to keep them connected to the life of the institution. The challenge here is the wide age range of alumni, from 23 to 93, with all degrees of sophistication when it comes to using computers and navigating the site. And it often seems as if they speak different languages. This, obviously, is more than a word problem, as any alumni-relations director planning events like homecoming can tell you. Typically Web sites are pitched to the lowest common denominator; at the risk of sounding overly simple or unsophisticated to the younger crowd, the language is calibrated to make the 70-year-old with a dial-up connection feel comfortable. It's the present (the financial strength and volunteer capacity of the older alumni) versus the future (keeping the next generation of stewards excited about the college as they mature personally and professionally).

The Cynical. This is a hard-boiled, suspicious bunch, seeing right through any hint of purple prose. They want information without frills, and their influence cannot be overstated. Many Cynics serve as close advisers to the Nurtured. Members of the news media fall into this category, and they, in particular, can affect a college's reputation, for better or worse.

Parents. In most cases, they are the ones who pay the bills. They also can influence their children'ss decision to apply —or not to apply. A parent may dig deeper into parts of the site, like the financial-aid section, and then interact with the business office when her child has enrolled. They are likely to bring a more jaundiced and practical eye to the Web site's language. They can also be critical of services, since they are the ones paying for them. If information on anything from meal plans to residential life to disability services is difficult to find or navigate, they will not hesitate to complain.

High-school guidance counselors and teachers. These two groups can be a great source of referrals, and they are well-educated and sophisticated readers of college Web sites, less susceptible to hyperbole than their charges are. They may be less interested in areas like financial aid and more interested in the application process and outcomes. Teachers are likely to know something about a smattering of colleges, including their alma maters and through word of mouth from past students. Guidance counselors, of course, are approached in person by admissions-staff members from numerous colleges, but the Web can be a user-friendly supplement to personal knowledge when a counselor is meeting with a student. Like it or not, if your site does not compare favorably with your competitors', you could lose potential applicants, regardless of the strength of your programs.

Current students. They will have many reasons to visit the college's Web site, including the obvious and pragmatic: course work and grades, registration, the business office. More and more syllabi include assignments on the Web. While that is the arena of the academic side of the house, it ensures that students visit the college Web site regularly. If the site is done well, students will stay longer after they log on to complete or post an assignment, or they may visit to stay current with campus news and information. They don't need to be sold on the institution, but they should certainly take pride in it.

Faculty and staff members. While Web sites have taken on a strong marketing function, they continue to double as online catalogs, with extensive resources for faculty and staff members as both advisers and employees. They are looking for no-frills language and can be skeptical of even the most carefully worded marketing messages. At the same time, many employees work in relative isolation, and at large colleges they may not even visit many of the buildings on the campus. The Web can be a vital source of news for them about what is going on at their own institution, but only if information is presented in a way that is easy to navigate and quick to read. With content-management systems, professors and administrators are also contributors to the Web site, posting events, revising their bios, and updating program descriptions. That increases their investment in the site and adds to its overall value, but their draft text must still go through a work flow so it can edited for style and grammar by someone in the marketing department.

The news media. As the content of a campus Web site improves and becomes more sophisticated, journalists will be likelier to seek it out for general information about the college and specific information about news and events. They are not interested in fluff, and are one of your toughest audiences. Journalists can save a lot of time when they can find information on your site rather than try to reach you by phone and ask you to track it down. Whether it is background information about your president, news of a faculty member's new book, or an announcement of a major event like graduation, the Web site's copy must be timely and credible.


The Naïve. Generally, the people in this group are a friendly, trusting bunch. They want something from the site but have less of a financial stake in the outcome -- even a prospective employee has the luxury of walking away. They seek information, usually for benign purposes. They are invested in the college but have less reason to be critical than do parents or students, who are laying out thousands of dollars a year; current employees, who are affected by college policy; and reporters, who serve as the public's watchdog.

Prospective employees. It's de rigueur these days to visit a college's Web site before you apply to work there. If a site does not look professional and attractive, it can turn people away (unless they are Web developers and see an opportunity to make improvements!). Most of these visitors are hopeful, familiar with academic life, and attentive to subtle indicators of the college's culture. Are the faculty bios relaxed or formal? How is the college's administrative hierarchy presented? Is it decidedly top-down, or is there an attempt at a more egalitarian feel? Prospective employees are looking at a potential long-term relationship extending beyond a typical student's four-year career, and are searching your site for clues about the working environment and future colleagues.

Other educators. The better your site is, the more likely that it will be consulted by other institutions or other educators. It could be a transfer counselor at a nearby community college, a public-relations officer looking for ideas or best practices, or a faculty member doing research on how other colleges organize academic programs. Those educators are seeking out your site with good intentions, but they can become frustrated if their search is thwarted. That's not the kind of reputation you want.

The general public. Large or small, city or town, your college is a cultural institution. It is viewed as a community resource, a mecca for all sorts of cultural and recreational opportunities. As the number of traditional news outlets declines, the role of the college Web site to publicize news and events increases. Basic contact information, room numbers, and directions are of greater significance for the general public than for most of the other groups visiting your Web site, who either will never visit the campus or else already live, work, or study there. Members of the general public who visit the site are usually fans of the college, although there are sometimes issues with town-gown relations. They can be great ambassadors for your institution, so it is wise to keep them informed and happy.

For all the differences among this polyglot of Web visitors, they do all have one thing in common: They're looking for an accessible Web site. Maintain an ear for the subtleties appropriate to each group, but for all of them, keep the rules of good writing in mind: Be clear. Be concise. Don't overstate. And always keep the end users in mind.

Russell Powell is a public-relations officer at Elms College, in Chicopee, Mass. He previously worked as director of public relations at Hampshire College and at Greenfield Community College, and as a consultant. He writes for On Message, our column on career issues in academic public relations. If you would like to write for the column, send your ideas to