New Academic Year? New Website?

There’s just something about the start of the academic year. New students, new campus initiatives, and for some … the planning for a new website.

Are you starting the academic year with a website that has aged beyond the point of a quick spruce to get it back on track? Are you about to tackle (gulp) a redesign?

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote Thinking about a website redesign? for the mStoner blog. The advice in that post still holds. But 12 months later, I’ll add fair warning about three challenges you’re likely to face during a website redesign:

  1. The battle between external and internal content
  2. The importance of staffing for the web
  3. The need for messaging

1. The battle between external and internal content

We’ve spent years publishing information on our websites, right? “Make it available 24 / 7!” “It’s less expensive than print.” Well, no good deed goes unpunished. We’ve let a thousand flowers bloom and now — thousands upon thousands of web pages later — it’s time to weed our garden.

Most .edu websites are mammoth, mixing marketing-critical content and branded storytelling for prospective students with information about how to appeal a parking ticket and meeting notes from the committee on committees. On almost every campus I visit, the marketing team is planning for a smaller website focused on external audiences. One typical goal for a website redesign project is to move that internal content to a portal or intranet.

Separating external and internal web content makes a lot of sense. But, frankly, that decision births a parallel web project. Yes, moving internal content out of the public website narrows the scope (and complexity) of the redesign project. However, keep in mind all that internal content destined for the portal/intranet will need an intentional information architecture (IA), design, and content strategy.

2. The importance of staffing for the web

The web is not free. Your website is an always-on communication channel that requires an ongoing investment. The secret sauce is people! Exceptional websites require more than a project committee. The .edu website is infrastructure, and you need a dedicated team of skilled professionals to own it. Every campus needs people who get up every day and come to work thinking about the website.

Despite my many years directing web services in a campus IT shop, I know the purpose of your .edu site is not technology. Yes, a strong partnership with your IT team is critical, and yes, you need expert web developers and CMS administrators. My point is you also need people who focus on content strategy, editorial oversight, design, and IA for ongoing results that matter outside of a “project mode.”

3. The need for messaging

For years in faculty focus groups or meetings with campus leadership, the debate was about audience. Now, nearly everyone agrees prospective students are the primary audience for the website. But it’s not enough to be talking to the right people, you have to have something to say.

First and foremost, your website is for publishing brand-based messaging. I always keep “Marty Neumeier’s three questions about brand-building” in mind:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Why does it matter?

The messaging for your website should elevate your differentiators and talk about things that all education institutions offer in a unique way. Many .edu sites rely too heavily on mission and vision statements to make the case. (And as we learned from Gallup, mission statements are not a differentiator.)

We tend to highlight the features of our institutions, but not the benefits. There’s a lot of talk about the number of buildings on campus, but not a lot of talk about the benefits students get from those buildings. We assume the benefits are obvious, but often they’re not. For example, does your campus have a lot of diversity? Then tell prospective students how they’ll benefit from that diversity. With an emphasis on benefits, you’ll strengthen your brand.

You’re ready! Sure there are challenges. Going in eyes wide open, you have the opportunity to build solutions into the website redesign process.

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Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

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