Monday, 7 July 2014

'The art of the pivot': 2014 RMIT Web Conference, part 1

Storey Hall. Photo: courtesy RMIT University.

This year RMIT hosted its second annual web conference at Storey Hall, the University's iconic lecture theatre/conference centre. It was the perfect venue, with its harmonious blend of 19th-century structural strength and radical postmodern restoration. Remember, that new facade and interior was controversial with the media and public when completed in 1995. Storey Hall, then, reminds us that change can be integrated with tradition, and that, over time, what was once disruptive can become fully accepted.

What better metaphor for RMIT’s Web Transformation Program, which the conference promotes? The Program introduces radical change to RMIT’s web presence, delivering a new content management system (CMS) and distributed content model (DCM). Naturally, this might seem disruptive to people used to a particular way of working, but ultimately it's a positive addition to the online RMIT universe. RMIT's web transformation blends the 'structural strength’ of the main RMIT website – content showcasing the University's global reputation in technology and design – with a ‘radical restoration’: the CMS and DCM. The result: design and content that reaches the widest possible audience.

In 2013, the conference introduced the new CMS and the changes it would bring – to workflow, content management, cross-channel curation. This year, it was all about digital trends in the wider world and how RMIT might prepare for a projected tsunami of change in the near future.

Jeremy Hodgson, RMIT's Director of Web Services and Information Policy, opened the event. He spoke about the primacy of platforms, focusing on the YouTube phenomenon and how the aura of the platform frequently surpasses content posted on it. His message: content must be more adaptable than ever before if it is to ride this new power dynamic.

It's a timely point, especially in light of a recent article by David Hepworth on digital distribution. Hepworth used Beyoncé's new album as a case study to show how new advances in digital distribution have become far more significant to consumers than the actual content being distributed – even if that content is produced by a megastar like Beyoncé, let alone a higher education providers. The speakers following elaborated various ways of delivering 'radical' content that could overcome this type of scenario.

Keynote speaker John Barnes, RMIT's Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Engagement and Vocational Education, focused on digital marketing strategy and the need for businesses to be in sync with user preferences. Metrics are the key for Barnes. It's all very well having a superb, fully operational CMS, but where's the value if the effectiveness of content isn't measured accurately? Other presenters would return to this theme, which, along with the notion of 'digital disruption', seemed to sum up the tenor of the event.

Brett Maishman, National Sales Manager for Fuji Zerox Australia, warned of the dangers of 'channel proliferation'. With a multitude of channel options available and 1-billion-plus connected devices pinging one another worldwide, how can organisations maintain consistent messaging? His answer: personalisation. Customers today demand a new relationship based on their specific needs. In Maishman's words, 'If you don't know them, you'll lose them'.

Yet unspoken in his talk was the downside of such a relationship. Get the balance wrong and you run the risk of stalking your audience. Many businesses trip themselves up in an effort to stay relevant on social media. A recent high-profile case involved McDonald's and its attempts to ingratiate itself into its customers' lives with a 'heart-warming', tell-all hashtag, only to watch in horror as it turned into a 'bashtag'. Let's add to Maishman's message, then. It's important to be nimble in a time of change, but also to retain a strategic approach: plan, create, listen, measure.

Cameron Owens, CEO of Symplicit, among Australia's largest customer experience consultancies, introduced the concept of 'digital disruption'. This is the threat businesses face when their market share is eroded by newer digital competitors. Banking, publishing and education are facing this, he warned, but the solution is relatively simple: 'Be curious and strong when responding to change.'

He presented a few core tactics. 'Whatever connection people have with your business,' he said, 'they also have with 300 other people.' Given this, social media must naturally be at the heart of any marketing strategy, but in a way that embodies differentiation: focusing on customer experience and service to set a business apart from the pack. Owens reiterated how RMIT has invested materially in different channels – web, mobile, video, social – but that in itself is not enough. The challenge is to 'sweat the assets', extracting full value from optimised digital channels. That can only be done through regular and rigorous review of analytics and metrics, analysing and assessing user journeys and behaviours.

John Riccio lays down the law. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

John Riccio, National Digital Change Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia, spoke about 'digital maturity': the point at which an organisation moves from being a novice in the digital space to becoming a trusted expert. Digital maturity is a journey with peaks and troughs; a business doesn't reach it overnight, and it involves much testing, re-testing and re-planning.

For Riccio, web policies are an enabler in that, but only if designed a certain way. In a digital environment, no one wants freedom of speech curtailed, so policies should be a 'bumper on either side of the journey so that people don’t go off the rails'. Then, if the policy framework is adaptable enough, you reach a point where use of a particular technology has become mature enough that you don't need the policies front and centre.

Policy then drops away to become a guide, implicit as a kind of background hum, but in order for that happen, it must be designed so it's responsive to new devices and new ways of working. That's not to say that governance isn't important. In fact, Riccio believes it's necessary to avoid what he terms the 'minestrone effect': silos doing their own thing on their own terms, without a centralised strategy or oversight in place, creating a soup of conflicting strategies that dilutes a brand. It's how governance is implemented, packaged and delivered that is important. That's a message RMIT's own web policy awareness campaign also endorses, with its central theme of empowering people to build an online presence and use it with confidence, resulting in that desired end state: robust digital maturity.

Shefik Bey, Managing Director of the U1 Group, explored the challenge RMIT faces in its plans to develop a responsive design for its mobile site. He highlighted the 'deep structures' within the RMIT desktop site and the difficulties in boiling this down to a responsive mobile template. He made the salient point that there are currently no best-practice principles for responsive design. By the time there are, he suggests, with the rate technology is progressing, a different technique – even a different delivery system – will have replaced it. 'If mobile is today,' he speculated, 'wearables are the future'. Google Glass, anyone?

Still, he offered a few handy tips for managing today's challenges. Reiterating points from earlier speakers, what's needed in any digital transformation, he reckons, is flexibility; in his words, learning 'the art of the pivot'. As did the other speakers, he emphasised the importance of 'success metrics' and 'success reporting'. Make sure your metrics are robust enough to ride the ever-shifting waves of the digital sea. Go back to core principles. Encourage experimentation through innovation. Bring silos together.

Importantly, keep your written content succinct. Make sure it translates from desktop to mobile. For Bey, the channel is not important; good content will endure, no matter the platform.

Shefik Bey faces the future. Photo: Simon Sellars. 

On that note, we'll end this wrap-up of the first half of the conference. Follow us to PART TWO, where we review the second half of the event. We discuss the importance of user research, the art of writing great online content the art of writing great online content ... and nothing less than the web's apocalyptic future.

More information:
> RMIT's Web Policy Awareness video
> RMIT's Web Policy Suite and New Websites Policy (relevant to the Riccio talk)
> RMIT's Web User Experience Policy (relevant to the Barnes, Maishman and Owens talks)
> RMIT's Mobile Channel Policy (relevant to the Bey talk)
> RMIT's Social Media Policy (relevant to the Maishman and Owens talks)
> RMIT's Web Content Policy (relevant to the Hodgson and Bey talks)


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