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To say that communicating with our campus community during the early days of this pandemic was a challenge would be an understatement. Reporting on suspected cases. Sending students home. Transitioning to online instruction. Setting up remote work. Everything needed to be communicated at once, and it was all equally important. For some, urgent.

Years of experience with huge content migrations, wholesale website redesigns and converting employee manuals to HTML did not prepare me for the deluge of information that needed to be posted to our site, information that would become inaccurate in a matter of hours and change daily.

At this critical moment, we turned to a much-derided web practice -- the FAQ.

They Get No Respect

FAQs are unloved by content strategists because they are too often a dumping ground for questions that should be answered on well-written webpages. What’s worse, the information they contain often lives elsewhere on the site, so FAQs aren’t optimal for search engine optimization -- they dilute search traffic among multiple landing pages -- or maintenance, because you have to update information in multiple locations. FAQs can also be incredibly frustrating for users who invest time in scanning lengthy lists, most of which are “not my question.”

But in this emergency, they worked for us and for many other institutions and businesses for many of the reasons we love to hate them.

Crisis Content Centralized

There’s exquisite beauty in organizing web content within the bounds of a well-designed information architecture that can be trusted to direct users appropriately -- where there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. Time-off policies sit within human resources. Residence hall move-in and move-out dates sit within residential life. Descriptions of counseling services within the counseling center. With this crisis, however, all of our intuitive organization was superseded by one überlabel -- coronavirus. Changes in HR policies due to the coronavirus. Event cancellations due to the coronavirus. Room and board refunds due to the coronavirus.

Early on, we realized that web editors posting their own information on their individual pages would lead our users through a maze of inconsistent updates. Worse yet, it could potentially introduce misinformation, as some departments stayed abreast of new developments while others didn’t. We set a goal of centralizing all coronavirus information onto one microsite where we could speak in a unified voice to all our constituents. The FAQ became the tactic to address all their specific questions, concerns and needs.

It goes without saying that centralization only works if everyone can find the central location. In the case of COVID-19, making sure everyone is being driven to the same place has been relatively easy. Right now, there’s barely a website that doesn’t have a COVID-19 update/information link somewhere near the top of their homepage.

And, as we begin posting information about the months ahead, it will be equally important that FAQs and other content are centrally maintained and easily found.

Crisis Content Specialized

From the content creation side of things, the argument I hear most frequently in favor of FAQs is from those who wish to reduce the number of phone calls their offices receive. My boilerplate response is that well-written webpages will do that work and that it isn’t possible to address all of the case-specific questions a student or parent might have in an FAQ without it getting unwieldy. Unless it is.

Reducing phone calls was imperative in the weeks surrounding our campus closure. Every worker in every office was overwhelmed. Within our coronavirus microsite, the minutiae that our students, parents and employees needed could proliferate. Here, the veteran found out whether taking a course pass/fail would affect her GI Bill; here, the work-study student found out whether he would continue being paid; and here, the employee requested equipment for a home office.

While the need to offer this sort of detail makes for some very long FAQs, it’s also an opportunity to resurrect information architectural skills to categorize questions by subject, audience, type of employment, school/degree program, etc. Categorized questions can be listed on the same page using a “skip to” menu or on separate pages. Maintenance can still be tricky as every question must be re-evaluated in light of new information as it becomes available and pruning out-of-date questions must be coordinated across offices. Nevertheless, it is a comfort to know that we can provide specific answers to our community in a situation with so many unknowns.

In Gratitude for the Lowly FAQ

To tell you the truth, FAQs are still not my favorite thing, but I’ve come to see their effectiveness, especially in a crisis. While I look forward to a time when we can thoughtfully disperse information again throughout the website in a civilized manner, this isn’t the time.

Now the playbook around digital content is being rewritten, and sometimes you just have to get information out there and get it out there fast. Over the next couple of months as we prepare for the fall semester -- in whatever form it takes -- I believe FAQs may still serve us well. Returning to campus will likely be as chaotic as leaving it, and the FAQ is comfortable with a bit of a mess.

We’ve been told it’s good to practice gratitude in stressful times, and I for one, am thankful for the lowly FAQ.

Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University in New York City.

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