UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Which Will Last Longer: Hero.ac.uk or Facebook?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 June 2009

A Hero For Our Sector

Hero home page (from Internet Archive)One of the real strengths of the UK higher education sector is the way in which we can work together as a sector, meaning that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is undoubtedly true of JISC (which is envied in the higher education and research sectors around the world) but also applies elsewhere. One example of this is Hero:  “the official gateway to universities, colleges and research organisations in the UK“:  a gateway funded by the various funding bodies (HEFCE, SHEFC, HEFCW and DENI) and supported by other higher educational agencies and by the high educational institutions themselves (and note that I was involved in the technical advisory group for the “HE Mall” as it was originally called.

Indeed will a service such as Hero, why would higher educational institutions wish to use other channels for online marketing, particularly social networking service such as Facebook which, despite its popularity are, in some circles, regarded with suspicion in not hostility?

Our Hero Is Dead …

Alas for those who believe that the sector should own its marketing channels, the Hero.ac.uk service was closed on 4th June 2009 (and the image shown above was taken from Hero’s most recent entry in the Internet Archive, from 10th February 2008) I should disclose that last year I was interviewed by a consultant who had been appointed in order to identify future directions for the service, including whether the service was viable. I pointed out the flaws in the Hero service: it did not have the community aspects which potential new students might expect and it was a ‘walled garden’ – information could be uploaded to the service but there were no easy ways of getting the data out again. “Make ‘Hero 2.0′ a trusted service which could host structured institutional data“, I suggested “and provide APIs to allow developers elsewhere to add value to the service“. But this did not happen.

… Long Live a New Hero?

If the managed service to promote UK higher educational institutions is too costly to provide,  why don’t we appropriate popular social networking services to fulfil this role? This is an idea inspired by a Tony Hirst’s post on “Appropriating technology” which he described as “appropriating technologies that might have been designed for other purposes in order to use them in an educational context” but I would replace ‘educational context‘ by ‘marketing context‘.

And, if we’re honest, isn’t Facebook the new Hero? It can provide the popular service for hosting institutional marketing materials. And it can provide the community aspects which Hero failed to provide. Admittedly it may be a ‘walled garden’ – but then so was Hero, so nothing is being lost.

But if we wish to use Facebook in this way, don’t we as a sector need to  identify the best practices for making use of Facebook, including minimising the risks associated with the service? And shouldn’t we be exploring the benefits which might be gained by working collaboratively?

Some initial thoughts on  this:

Institutional URL: As mentioned in my recent post on “Have You Claimed Your Personal And Institutional Facebook Vanity URL?” we are seeing Facebook URLs being minted as a single string (edgehilluniversity) and words separated  by dots (aberystwyth.university). We might wish to consider whether there are advantages in seeking agreement on the form of the name – perhaps even using an institutional domain name in the URL (e.g. http://www.facebook.com/www.bath.ac.uk). However it is probably too late to do anything about this (which arguably demonstrates the failure in having not had such discussions previously).

Trademark disputes: We’ll want to avoid the possibility of trademark disputes. Might we see one between Leeds Metropolitan University and say, Loyola Marymount University over http://www.facebook.com/lmu?

Ownership of Facebook resource: Who has access to the institutional Facebook account in your institution? And what if they’ve left or you can’t find the owner? The information should be regarded as a valuable institutional resource and ownership should be managed appropriately.

Workflow processes: There’s a need to establish effective workflow processes for information provide on the institutional Facebook page. Ideally information would be hosted elsewhere and automatically updated in Facebook though use of, for example, an  RSS application in your Facebook page.

Will Facebook pages enhance or diminish Google Juice: Might not institutional content which is replicated on Facebook pages diminish institutional ‘Google juice’ as my colleague Paul Walk has suggested? Or, alternatively, might content held in popular services such as Facebook and Wikipedia (and previously, to a lesser extent, Hero) held to increase traffic to the institutional Web site? Indeed if such replication of content is felt to be counter-productive, shouldn’t institutions try to prevent Web sites having links to their content rather than seeking to maximise such links?

Facebook Terms and Conditions: It would be useful to gain a better understanding of the Faceboom terms and conditions and the implications for an organisation’s pages in order to inform appropriate risk management approach. If the concern is that Facebook will claim ownership of marking material provides, is that really of concern?

Explore Possibilities for Facebook Applications: Might there be benefits in developing Facebook applications to make the UK HEI pages more appealling?

But have we, in the UK, missed the boat? Looking at the timetable for the forthcoming Eduweb 2009 conference I notice sessions on topics such as “Facebook — a case study of building virtual relationships“, “Cheap, Fast, & Out of Control: Brand management & recruitment..” and “Recruiting and Marketing in the Web 2.0 World“.  We’ve nothing along these lines planned for IWMW 2009 – but as the bar camp sessions can be submitted at the workshop itself, perhaps there’s an opportunity to build on these ideas?

Oh, and if you think it is inappro[oriate for an organisation to make use of a social network in this way, look at what companies such as Starbucks and McDonalds are doing on Facebook.

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10 Responses to “Which Will Last Longer: Hero.ac.uk or Facebook?”

  1. Mike Nolan said

    On the small point of edge.hill.university versus edgehilluniversity, Facebook, like Gmail, treats both as the same username. And since Facebook usernames must – at the moment – be five characters or over, neither Leeds Met or Loyola Marymount will get facebook.com/lmu

  2. Paul Walk said

    I don’t follow – how is Facebook going to serve as a replacement for something like HERO? Who at Facebook cares about marketing UK Universities?

  3. Hi Paul – an aim of Hero was to deliver traffic to UK HEI Web sites. Facebook can also do this. And as nobody at Facebook cares about marketing UK Universities we (the sector) will need to take responsibility for doing this.

  4. Paul Walk said

    Thanks Brian – but still not quite following…. do you mean that the UK HE sector (represented by?) adopts Facebook as some sort of platform for delivering centralised access to HEIs? HERO failed because of lack of demand….how does adopting Facebook change this?

    Paul

  5. Daniel Newby said

    The loss of an independent collaborative marketing channel for the sector is indeed something to lament.

    Collaboration across the sector online will become increasingly hard in future given that the UK funding councils are beholden to the BIS (DIUS as was) imperative to consolidate all web content on official, somewhat restrictive channels ie. Directgov and Businesslink.

    Indeed, it has been mooted that the funding council websites themselves could be closed in favour of “transformational government”.

    Given these restrictions could you imagine a HERO or a JISC being set up afresh today? Surely that’s the real shame of the throwing of HERO (straightjacketed for years) to the Directgov pyre.

  6. I’m not sure I agree Facebook is or will be come the new Hero. I think they are two different things.

    Hero provided centralised ‘managed’ marketing content for Universities – Facebook pages are much less formal. I too spoke to the Hero consultant (so feel I had a hand in its demise!) and I wasn’t particularly positive about the service. I didn’t think Hero offered a particularly engaging experience for users and it was unclear who the site was aimed for (in my opinion).

    Facebook is completely different. I don’t think it will or should become a central marketing channel but for some Universities it can complement marketing activity by encouraging the conversation and sign-posting.

    Rather than focussing effort on Facebook I’d be more inclined to look at UCAS and Unistats (for UG) and see where we can add value by working collaboratively there. If there is a gap to be filled for centralised HE content I am unconvinced that Facebook is the answer.

  7. Thanks for the various comments.

    In my post I suggested that there was a need to share emerging best practices for exploiting Facebook to market one’s institution – and I’ve just discovered that Mike Richwalsky (who is facilitating a session at IWMW 2009 on “Using Amazon Web Services (AWS)“, is today giving a Webinar on
    Facebook & Twitter Recruitment Tools to Engage Prospective Students
    . It seems to me that in the US they are more willing to embrace such new services, whereas here we tend to focus on ownership and technological issues and are more conservative in exploiting possible solutions provided by the commercial sector.

    But I wonder whether in the UK we could exploit the marketing opportunities for the sector as opposed to the individual institutions. Could a Universities UK Facebook presence, for example, provide an interface to the type of data which was provided on Hero?

  8. Paul Walk said

    Facebook would seem to offer little of particular value as a platform for this kind of service…. the problems of funding management, effort etc would still apply….

  9. […] (Higher Education and Research Opportunities) service. However, as I described in a post on “Which Will Last Longer: Hero.ac.uk or Facebook?” published in June 2009, Hero, “the official gateway to universities, colleges and […]

  10. […] is in decline and this is likely to impact grandiose plans for large-scale IT developments. Indeed, as I pointed out recently, we have already seen the recent demise of the Hero gateway to UK higher educational […]

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