Drupal for Higher Ed: Reflections from the Fall 2016 Intern Team

For the past four months we’ve been working at Sanmita as marketing interns. In the second half of our internship, we focused exclusively on building Sanmita’s sister brand, DrupalAnswers. Over the course of our internship we have gained experience in market research, higher education website audits, video marketing, the creation of social media and blog posts, and content curation.

We also learned how to create an integrated content strategy across different platforms. Throughout the entire experience, we worked as a team to complete tasks and brainstorm strategy, which we believe led us to produce even greater results than we would have alone.

When we started this internship we had basic understanding of what exactly web development involves. We understood there were multiple facets to the development process but our grasp of the topic was limited to design and the aesthetic aspect of a site. Throughout our internship, we gained a fuller understanding of what truly encompasses web development.

We now know the importance of the discovery process and why research is a vital part of a website’s strategy and creation. For instance, conducting proper research influences the development of information architecture, which plays a major role in determining the success and organization of a site. As we completed audits of college websites, we also learned several other aspects that contribute to a site’s success, including accessibility, page speed, mobile-friendliness, and how easy it is to navigate through the website’s content. One of our favorite quotes found during our research sums up what we learned perfectly:

“Pretty things can be useless, and ugly things can be useful. Beauty and quality are not always related.” ― Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody

Essentially, good design rests upon a solid foundation.

Since our company focuses on higher education institutions, we spent a lot of time researching best practices for mission critical sites. Without a doubt, we agree that Drupal is the best CMS for higher education. Drupal is powerful, flexible, and is built to handle the complexity of a higher education site– even the White House chooses Drupal as their go-to CMS. As we’ve learned, Drupal is the best option when stability and scalability are vital to the project, or if it requires close attention to detail and unique customization. An added benefit of Drupal is that most of their extensions and ways to customize the site are free of charge – perfect for higher ed institutions that might be working on a tight budget.

Now with just a week left in our internship, we feel that we have gained experiences that we can apply in the future. One of our favorite parts of the internship was having the opportunity to work on the company’s integrated online marketing strategy. We strategized and executed ways to drive traffic to the website and blog posts through social media, demonstrating the importance of consistent messaging across all platforms. Another aspect of this internship that we were thankful for was being able to see the full lifecycle of the projects we worked on. We were involved in each step of the way, from start to finish. This was a unique experience that we have not received elsewhere. Overall, the skills and experiences we have had working at Sanmita are invaluable to us and will affect the way we will grow as marketers.

 

 

What You Need to Know About Information Architecture

One of the biggest mistakes we see people make when it comes to their websites is not prioritizing information architecture. While the design aspects of a website are fun, glamorous, and ultimately vital to the success of your site, it’s important that you don’t jump straight to the design and forgo the important process of building a solid information architecture and understanding the purpose behind your site and its content.

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Improving Website Performance: A Site Manager’s Guide to Minimizing Downtime

Higher education institutions often have large, complex websites that cater to many audiences who depend on their successful performance: Faculty, students, prospective students, parents and the higher education community at large.

The importance of your institution’s website cannot be understated. The web is now mission-critical, meaning that if your web presence fails, your business operations suffer as well. For this reason, any downtime is an unwelcome hassle for anyone charged with managing the website.

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5 Tips for Collecting Feedback on your New Website or Feature

DO Start early

Ideally, feedback should be part of your production plan from the very beginning when you’re looking to release a new website or feature. It’s not only a useful marketing activity to manage your online reputation, but it also may help you find the areas of your business that need improvement. The earlier you ask for feedback, the easier it will be to correct any problems that exist. You can monitor activities manually, or use an all-in-one monitoring service such as Sysomos or Brandwatch.

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Not Found? 404 Error Pages

What is a 404 (Not Found) Error page?

A 404 Error Page is essentially a non-existent page that returns a status code of 404. The 404 error is generated whenever a server can’t find the specified page.

 

How do 404 errors occur?

A 404 page can happen for a number of reasons. These reasons fall into two buckets: user errors or website glitches. Either way, an informative 404 page is the most effective solution.

A web server will typically generate a 404 Not Found web page when a user misspells a URL or attempts to follow a broken or dead link. 404 errors also occur when pages have been moved or deleted, the page has expired, or the page was blocked.

To find broken links on your site, check out Google Webmaster Tools (Crawl and Fetch). Here, you can find tools that can scan your entire website for 404 Error pages.

 

Why are 404 Error pages important?

One of the biggest mistakes you could make when you launch a new website is ignoring all of the links, pages, and content from your old website. If Google has Site Links indexed and listed for a website and the navigation menu changes, Google considers these to be broken links. Google will then remove the links and lower the overall ranking of your website in its Search Engine. Any links to your site from other blogs or directories will also break, and you can expect your site to take the hit.

To avoid the headache, make sure to use error pages! Adding 301 Redirects and 404 Error pages can ensure that you don’t lose business because of an upgrade to your site. A 301 Redirect is a permanent redirect which passes between 90-99% of link ranking value to the new page. This is the perhaps the best way to retain online marketing efforts from old websites. If you have redesigned, added or removed content from your site, a custom 404 Error page is essential to direct site visitors to content on your new site when they’re looking for content from your old site.

A customized 404 Error page is an advantage for your site. It can help visitors find the information they were looking for and provides them with a much better overall user experience.

 

What should I include on my 404 Error page?

When a user lands on an error page that doesn’t contain any helpful content, it’s very likely they’ll navigate away from your site. To avoid frustrating site users and losing out on potential business, we recommend developing a custom 404 page.

The typical content a user sees when they reach a 404 Error page is a “page not found” message. This doesn’t provide users when any helpful information or instructions as to where to go from that point. To minimize visitor loss, a good 404 Error page provides a clear, helpful message that informs the user that the page they’re looking for can’t be found and points them in the right direction. You may want to ask the user to re-check the URL they’ve entered.

It’s also recommended that you use an error page that has been designed to look like the rest of your website. Maintain the main navigation menu, logo, fonts and colors. If the 404 page looks drastically different from the rest of your site, the user may become confused and abandon the site all together.

To prevent a visitor from leaving your site, include links or other elements that requires the user to take action. Include a link to your home page in addition to your main navigation menu.  You can also provide a few key links to your most popular categories or pages  on the site. If you have one, feature a link to your site map or search function. This will help the visitor find exactly what they were looking for. Here’s a good example of a 404 Error page with a search function from MailChimp.

To avoid having your 404 Error page appear in Google search results, make sure your webserver returns an actual 404 HTTP status code when a missing page is requested.

It’s also a good practice to ask site users to report a broken link on the 404 Error page so consider including a link to your contact page or email address.

 

Build a better website and stop turning visitors away with your 404 Error pages. To learn more, contact Sanmita today!

 

Let us know what you think of this blog post in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you!

Three Cool Drupal-Based Software Projects

Drupal has long been known for its incredible versatility and extensibility. Here are a few interesting Drupal-based software projects and solutions you should know about:

 

CiviCRM

CiviCRM is used by more than 10,979 organizations on a daily basis. This free and open source CRM solution is web-based, offers a complete feature set out of the box, and integrates with your website. CiviCRM is specifically designed for the needs of nonprofits, non-governmental organizations and civic sector organizations. The CiviCRM community envisions that “all organizations – regardless of their size, budget, or focus – have access to an amazing CRM to engage their contacts and achieve their missions.”

CiviCRM is built for constituency, or customer relationship management. This CRM solution is designed to manage information about an organization’s donors, members, event registrants, subscribers, grant application seekers and funders, and case contacts. CiviCRM can also manage volunteers, activists, voters and more general sorts of business contacts such as employees, clients or vendors.

CiviCRM’s core tracks contacts, relationships, activities, groups, tags and permissions, while its components keep track of contributors (CiviContribute), events (CiviEvent), member lists (CiviMember), cases (CiviCase), grants (CiviGrant), campaigns (CiviCampaign), petitions (CiviPetition), bulk mailings (CiviMail) and reports (CiviReport).

CiviCRM is currently used by many large NGOs including Amnesty International, Creative Commons, and the Free Software Foundation.

CiviCRM is a competitive, powerful piece of software, but like any decent software project, the core team has plans for improvements in future releases of the project. CiviCRM’s roadmap includes a new and powerful form designer built with modern tools to make it quicker and easier for users to customize screens. The team also has plans to improve the API as well as polish the look and navigation of the interface in order to put more of CiviCRM’s functionality within easy reach.

CiviCRM downloads are available from SourceForge, where it was ‘project of the month’ in January of 2011.

 

RedHen CRM

RedHen is a Drupal-native CRM originally designed for common nonprofit needs. It is a flexible CRM system with functionality for managing information about contacts, organizations, and their relationships with you and each other.

Although it’s fully-functional on its own, RedHen is also designed to integrate with enterprise CRM solutions suchas Salesforce or Blackbaud. RedHen is created and maintained by ThinkShout, who wrote the latest version of the Salesforce module.

RedHen also has capabilities for engagement tracking, customizable one-page donation forms, and website-integration for purposes such as event registration.

Because it can integrate with your website, you can use relationship and interaction information to change the way your site behaves and the way your users interact with it. For example, users who have logged in to your site can update their mailing address and that information is reflected in your CRM database.

RedHen allows you to customize your CRM data in the same way that you can customize Drupal. Its modular structure is similar to Drupal Commerce. The modules you get won’t give you an instant functioning CRM. This requires configuration and customization for your specific needs. It’s possible that one day, RedHen will produce “Features” and “Apps” that provide prepackaged CRM solutions for different use cases, but these don’t exist just yet

 

FarmOS

FarmOS is a Drupal web-based farm management and record keeping tool. With farmOS, you can manage areas, plantings, animals, equipment and more with a number of pre-packed contrib modules. The distribution also includes fourteen farmOS-specific modules including Farm Admin, Farm Asset, Farm Crop, Farm Equipment, Farm Map and more.

FarmOS allows different roles to be assigned to managers, workers and viewers. Managers have access to the entire system while workers can use the record-keeping tools only. Viewers have read-only access.

Because farmOS is built on Drupal, it is modular, extensible and secure. Both Drupal and farmOS are licensed under the GNU General Public License, which means they are open source. You can download and set it up yourself on your own web server, or you have the option of using a farmOS hosting service called Farmier.

The lead developer of the project, Mike Stenta’s inspiration for farmOS came from software he developed for a CSA program. He says, “If you can think of it, you can probably build it in Drupal – and chances are someone already has.”

FarmOS is currently looking for beta testers and other contributors to the project.

 

Let us know what you think of these Drupal-based software solutions. We’d love to hear from you!

Is Your Company Up To Speed With Mobile Apps?

sanmita blog handsEarlier this year, HuffPost Business published a compelling blog article entitled, “Mobile Apps Will Transform All Business Processes — Is Your Company Ready?” In it, the author, Daniel Burrus writes about a survey he conducted of over 700 companies, asking whether they’d developed any mobile apps to help them with such things as supply chain management, logistics, purchasing, maintenance, service or sales support. Although there was unanimous agreement that at least half the businesses in their industries would have their own mobile apps within the next two years, he was surprised that only 4% answered that they had actually developed any such apps, considering how widespread smartphones and tablets are used by businesses today. Mr. Burrus concluded that in order to gain a competitive edge, businesses will need to develop their own mobile apps rather than relying on generic, off-the-shelf products.

“The rise of mobile apps for all business functions is a hard trend you can’t ignore.” — Daniel Burrus

So, what is your business or organization doing to get up to speed with mobile apps?

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Automatically Better! A Look At Automating Website Functions

SHORPY_8b29345a.previewYour website should be making tasks easier and more efficient — not slowing you down!

Yet this was exactly the problem facing our friends at the Cornell Alumni-Student Mentoring Program (CASMP).

The CASMP program fosters personal and professional relationships between enrolled students and alumni at Cornell University, with over 900 alumni and 2,000 students matched so far. Making an appropriate match requires not only collecting detailed information from applicants, but compliance with security protocols required by the university’s Risk Management Office. The cumbersome process involved an online registration form, answered with a personal reply and waiver form sent via postal mail. Signed waivers had to be returned to CASMP by mail, which were then scanned by an admin and delivered to the Risk Management Office. Missing signatures or errors on the forms, which were not uncommon, required a further round of personal follow-ups for corrections, again via mail. Variance in mail delivery and follow-through from applicants meant that the process typically took a couple weeks at best to complete, and in one case, almost two years! As a result of all the tedium and repetition involved in the application process, registration rates for the program were staying lower than expected.

Sanmita was asked to find ways to streamline the process and make it more efficient. Our expert team was able to quickly assess the site’s functionality and implement automated processes, resulting in dramatic improvements — here’s how we did it:

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A Little Something To Think About: Microsites

One of the great things about the open-source CMS solutions we work with here at Sanmita is that they’re so easy to use. With a minimal amount of training, anyone accustomed to using a computer for word processing or email can be shown how to update content on their website. And keeping content fresh and up to date is crucial for your users and SEO!

Leaving content management all in the hands of one person is fine for a smaller organization, but when you start talking about a complex site such as for a university, the sheer amount of continual updates to personnel, publications, events, etc. can become cumbersome, if not impossible, for one person to deal with.

little thingsOne way to make it easier to keep a complex website up to date is to create microsites — smaller, multi-page sites with their own dedicated navigation within the larger website.

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Engage With Your Web Visitors By Providing Interactive Web Elements

I recently attended a seminar with a variety of different presenters and topics. I was really excited about all the different workshops I’d chosen to attend, but at the end of the day, one really stood out from the rest. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a good way!

All the workshops followed a somewhat similar formula: there was a presentation, followed by an activity, ending with sharing among the participants. All the workshops except for one, that is. In that workshop, the presenter simply gave a lecture without any interactivity or sharing. And despite dealing with a fascinating topic, the consensus was that particular workshop stood out as weak and boring in comparison to the others. Attendants felt that interactivity and sharing within their groups, on any level, made the workshops much more rewarding.

The appeal of interactivity is especially strong in the web world. Think about it: even little things like mouseover effects or drop-down menus somehow make your visit to a site just a bit more personalized and interesting, don’t they? And consider having the opportunity to express your opinion — whether in the real world or in the social media world, being able to express yourself makes a visit more meaningful, compared to just watching or listening, right?

So when one of our clients asked the other day if there were ways they could incorporate more interactive elements on their website, we were happy to help!

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