What do you need when a web redesign is on the table?

I spend a lot of time with people who care about college and university websites. We talk on the phone, on Google Hangouts, or on campus during visits. I talk with people representing what happens in a day in the life of a university — the admissions dean, a web programmer, a professor, a fundraiser, a president. Still, in my two years working in higher ed consulting, I have not heard anyone say, “Susan, just tell us what we need to do. We have unlimited funds and unlimited staff so we can do it all.”

Communication options are driven by strategic priorities. You can’t do it all so you have to make choices. When you choose to relaunch your current website, what should you think about? What do you need when a web redesign is on the table?

To avoid writing a novella instead of a blog post, I’ll be narrowing my perspective as I answer this question. I’ll focus on the internal resources you’ll need, using two categories — the must haves and the nice to haves. My answer assumes that some flavor of web and/or communications team is in place, allowing me to highlight roles you may not have considered.

Must Haves
In my view, these are the must haves; the people most critical to the success of a campus-wide web redesign project:

A project manager.
One individual has to be accountable for the project. Typically, the project manager will manage the full range of tasks and be the link between the core project team and a project advisory committee or external partner/vendor. You need an individual who is positioned senior enough on the organizational chart to have credibility and respect on campus, but junior enough that he/she will dig in and help get the work done.

An internal communications specialist.

People pay attention to campus web redesign projects. Almost everyone is an “expert” with opinions, suggestions, and ideas about the institutional website. The best way to maintain momentum and get useful feedback from internal stakeholders is to keep them updated and informed. An internal communications specialist will emphasize project goals, and manage the feedback loop and expectations about the project. Use the communication tool that suits your campus best: a project website, a blog, email, a portal, etc. Remember: if you don’t tell people what’s going on, they will make up their own version of reality to fill the void.

An information architect.

First and foremost, the web is about content. Someone really, really good at IA can make sure that what people expect to find on your site is in the location where they expect to find it. An information architect understands how to organize information in a visitor-centric way. Without this expertise, the IA of a college/university website often ends up looking like an organizational chart.

A writer.

Speaking of content, you need someone who can write some stuff. No matter how beautiful or whiz bang your site is, you need authentic, compelling, and engaging content. The web is a storytelling platform and your effective communication with target audiences relies on copy. Nearly everyone I talk to underestimates the talent and time required for writing. Hire a professional.

An executive sponsor.

The job of the executive sponsor is to ‘have the back’ of the project manager and to take the heat. There will be roadblocks and disagreement about what’s best. Use the executive sponsor to send the message about project goals and demonstrate trust in those who are responsible for the redesign. Even the best project managers occasionally need someone to bring down the hammer or tilt the windmills on their behalf.

Nice to Haves
When the good guys are winning, someone offers you additional resources. If you can make it happen, here are the nice to haves during a website redesign project:

A campus photographer.
Images are content and web designs rely on high impact, large format photography for storytelling. New photos are needed in abundance for a relaunch and for a newly-launched website. Refresh the photography regularly; it’s surprising how quickly a photo is outdated. A tree gets cut down in front of an iconic building, a new building opens, hairstyles change. A regular influx of new photos supports a seasonal or thematic approach to your content strategy (e.g., start of classes, homecoming, snow!, fundraising).

Some student workers.
A web redesign project includes many, many routine and tedious tasks. Student workers can get a lot done, especially since they don’t have to go to meetings and answer email. They can migrate content, build out the IA in a new CMS, or upload photography. Student workers allow you to extend your team and they get some great work experience.

A digital evangelist.

Too many universities focus on the technology around a website. Here’s where we have something to learn from the newspaper industry: the web needs content, every day. A digital evangelist will direct the strategic vision for a cohesive web presence and provide the editorial approach for developing content, integrating social media, and keeping it all on message.

BONUS: A conference room you control.
If your website redesign doesn’t include a million meetings, focus groups, planning workshops, and brainstorming sessions, you’re probably not doing it right. Having a space that your project team controls is convenient and less stressful! Shared space where the team can come together leads to better communication.

Good luck if you are planning for, or midstream on, a website redesign.

[This post first appeared as a guest post on Chris Syme’s blog.]

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