In Trust editor Jay Blossom tells a story about the starkly different perspectives people have concerning the Internet. When he arrived at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia one day last year, president Phil Krey asked him if he'd had trouble finding the place. Blossom, who doesn't go anywhere without going to the Web first, replied that it had been no trouble at all and that the directions on the school's site had been quite clear. Suddenly curious, Krey responded, "You've been to our Web site?"
While no president has time to greet every campus visitor, online he can. As chief executive, the president is the seminary's face, and in his public interactions, his personal presence is augmented by the weight of the institution he embodies. This power — this weight — is easily and effectively conveyed through a Web site, provided he can break through three common online traps: "institution-ese," ineffective main page promotion, and not being there in the first place.
"Institution-ese" is best illustrated by a typical "message from the president." Now, your site should absolutely have a page in which the president takes all the space he needs to express himself. But contrast this with the approach taken by Edward Wheeler at Christian Theological Seminary, who greets the visitor with a picture and a disarmingly genuine first-person quotation right on the site's homepage. Also prominent on the CTS main page is a link to a longer statement by Wheeler, an effective use of the site's most popular page to direct the user to important content.
A president can also breathe life into his seminary's site by translating his more quotidian efforts into virtual space. William Imes of Bangor Theological Seminary breaks through by putting a link to his schedule on Bangor's main page, while links to sermons and articles also make for interesting reading and genuine presence.
Additionally, sermons and articles can be presented as items in a site's news and announcements section, as can any formal action taken by the president. Most schools' Web pages underutilize the news section and the calendar of events section, which is unfortunate, since they offer a valuable point of entry for those who already have a stake in the institution's life.
Special attention should be given to the sections dedicated to capital campaigns and online donations. George Durance of Canadian Theological Seminary has a special message in the capital campaign section of his site, and his byline at the bottom transforms the page into a personal appeal with a voice that comes clearly through the words.
Of course, none of it works if the president's presence is absent, and there are plenty of sites out there that seem to indicate that there's no president at all. While your Web site will never be all things to all people, and though a president's absence from the site may have come in the context of a decision to emphasize other things, the question bears asking: What advantage does your seminary gain by excluding the chief executive from its site?
It's also important to emphasize that, as you begin to become more of a presence on your site, "breaking through" to your constituents doesn't include doing anything showy or inauthentic -- in fact, the more genuine the presence, the more likely it is to make an impact. But the trick is to stop thinking about your Web site as a thing (yet another thing on your list perhaps?), and begin to use it as a way of speaking directly to the real people who visit your seminary's Web site every day.