To Redesign Your Website, Get Out of Your Own Way

Campus communities center around a mission of transforming lives through education. People on your campus are proud of what they do — individually and collectively — and to them, the website is a symbol of that pride. At the start of a website redesign, internal stakeholders simply want to be sure the website will reflect their passion for an institution that offers opportunity and makes a difference in the world.

With care comes conflict. People want to be consulted. While they dislike the status quo, they fear change and want proof that something new will work better. How do you transform your website when people don’t agree? How do you focus less on constraints and more on momentum? How do you create the future state on your campus — a clear and professional vision for your institution’s site?

You get out of your own way.

If you are a marketing leader planning for a website redesign in 2017, you already know that expectations are high and projects like this are inherently about risk and change. Position yourself for success by considering three principals:

  1. Remember, the website is about communication.
  2. Make the case for investing in the website.
  3. Count on the external partner to help you manage risk and change.

1. Remember, the website is about communication.

Back to basics: your public-facing website is your open front door, and its purpose is to communicate with external audiences. Concretely, the .edu website is the digital expression of your brand — it is the always-available platform for communicating what you stand for in the minds of the people you want to reach, influence, and move to action.

Concretely, the website is not about technology, it is of technology. The technology is essential and in a supporting role as you make choices about content and engagement. Your leadership of a website redesign will require you to respect this nuance. Specifically, you will:

  • Need a rock solid, easy-to-use CMS; but more importantly, you will need humans who draw from brand messaging while writing and selecting imagery.
  • Rely on a critical partnership with your campus IT team; but more importantly, you will carefully build your website experience as the primary way to share your campus ethos with all who visit.

Let engagement with the audiences you need to reach be the inspiration of your website redesign. Count on marketing strategy supported by technology to achieve your business goals.

2. Make the case for investing in the website.

I’m old enough to remember the shock of hearing a campus executive state, “Let’s wait and see — this website thing might not really take off.” Fast forward a decade, and it’s been a long time since I had to explain why an .edu website is important. What I do explain nearly every day is that websites require investment. Campus executives understand the priority of the website and know it isn’t “free,” but they need our help redirecting financial and human resources toward it in the midst of competing campus priorities.

We value what we invest in. The website is your 24/7 public face with a reach greater than all other branded channels. Absent enough resources for all channels, investment in the website must take priority. Sometimes this means making the case (or the decision) to stop spending dollars and time on less valuable communications channels when your .edu site is withering on the vine.

3. Count on the right external partner to help you manage risk and change.

Engaging an external partner to support you is a moment in time — but not for the reasons you think. Yes, consulting partners offer best practice, benchmarking, and deep expertise in strategy and digital trends. Certainly, their insights about your website are rooted in knowledge capital. That’s all table stakes — what you want is a partner who can jump start the website redesign project, creating enthusiasm and helping you develop a plan for success now and later as you evolve the newly-launched site.

Your website redesign project is inherently about risk and change. Managing both requires intention and careful attention. You need contributing experts at your side.

  • The right communication (and the right website) requires risk. You can mitigate that risk when the recommendations of an external partner are grounded in a commitment to you. They have to want that internal success as much as you do. They also have to accept your campus reality — the opportunities and the warts — and help you lead change.
  • Done well, your website redesign brings change. Admittedly, there’s some mystery around paying for advice. What you’ve been recommending for five years will miraculously be true when said by a person who “flew in” to meet with your president and peer executives. Leverage that! Expect your consulting partner to help make the case and position you for the change you need.

For a successful website redesign in 2017, you get out of your own way.

This means you plan for the future state, you educate internal stakeholders, you persuade campus executives, and you take risks with experts at your back.

This post was originally published on December 15, 2016. I have updated it for accuracy.

Where you lead, I will follow. #HigherEdLeadership

There are many talented and dedicated people working on campuses these days. Yet, in front of your laptop or while swiping on your phone, you might get a different impression. There is scrutiny on higher ed in particular, and often the emphasis is on the failures or inadequacies of individuals and groups on our campuses.

When I’m away from my devices, I am face to face with warm and engaged leaders who make higher education better. They inspire me. They talk about the ways in which education transformed their own lives. They recall students, by name, sharing their fascinating stories with detail. These leaders are working hard every day on creative and visionary solutions to chore challenges at their institutions.

For me, leadership and strategy go together. If you’ve heard me speak during a conference or webinar, or you’ve read my blog, you already know a few of my own catch phrases about strategic leadership. Here I pair up some of my thoughts with those of higher ed leaders who inspire me.

Strategy is difficult, it takes time, it involves risk, and it requires decisions. But there is a huge pay off.

A college president I interviewed recently said it better when she recalled the advice she got from her earliest mentor: “Write down everything that’s important and then put it all in priority order. And, by the way, all the items on the list can’t be priority number one.”

Without a strategy to guide your choices, everything you do (or are asked to do) seems like a reasonable option.

On HigherEdLive, Rebecca Bernstein, director of digital communications strategy at University at Buffalo, said it succinctly, “Everything I do is something I don’t do.” If you haven’t watched her appearance on HigherEdLive — “The Homepage is Dead; Long Live the Homepage?” — you should. You must. Please do.

Marketing and communication plans are easy to create when you don’t have to pay attention to the facts.

mStoner’s, Greg Zguta says, “Not everything can be measured. And not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.” The stakes are too high; we must evaluate the individual tactics in our marketing plans. Planning + execution + measurement.
Is strategy a buzz word? Not in my book.

Strategy is for thinking about, and planning for, the future.


This post was originally published on January 31, 2015. I have updated it for accuracy.

Great City, Great University, Great Website

mStoner recently partnered with Tulane University on a website redesign project.

When people think of Tulane, they think of New Orleans. Take a closer look, and you’ll find an institution deeply connected to its city and a university with public service in its DNA.

The new site is a fresh, distinct, and highly usable representation of this top-ranked research institution — one of just 62 members of the Association of American Universities. A new research landing page makes it clear that Tulane solves some of society’s most complex challenges by combining “intellectual muscle with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

Rachel Hoormann is the executive director of university web communications, and it was my distinct pleasure to observe her leadership of the website redesign at Tulane. Rachel has been the linchpin of since 2000, and 16 years of knowledge about her institution allowed her to be a masterful leader and visionary for the website project. She understood the challenges of a large, universitywide initiative and was adept at listening and collaborating. She also understood the needs of internal stakeholders and responded in ways that built enthusiasm for a new set of web templates for use by schools across the university. You can see Rachel in action on Higher Ed Live’s Centralized Decentralization.

Rachel and I chat regularly about our work together, and recently I asked her three questions to summarize her impressions about the redesign project.

Q1: What comments did you get on launch day?

Rachel: From a current undergraduate, 
“I like the new website. It feels more modern and updated. Also it seems that it has more flow and easy access to the links I want to view.”

From a staff member, “Congratulations on a GORGEOUS website!! OMG!! What a joy to navigate through it!”

From an alumnus, 
“Interesting, I was just going to look at the website to point out ‘how not to design a website’ to a colleague. But the new site is vastly improved. It looks simple, clean, and modern. Well done!”

Q2. You’re likely to give advice to others who are planning a website redesign project. What will you say about project leadership? What skills and characteristics are are needed to lead a redesign?

Rachel: It’s really important to have support from the top of your organization. It’s much easier to get all the other web staff around campus on board, when your president and other leaders are backing the project with the deans. Your job will require a lot of diplomacy as well as open-mindedness. It’s important to listen to people’s feedback and act on good ideas when you hear them.

 Being organized is also vital. The way mStoner manages a redesign helped immensely with that. It is a model I am following for the school sites that my team is working on now.

Q3. What was the biggest surprise during the project?

Rachel: In usability testing we explored how our target audience would respond to the Research section. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how engaged the testers were with that section. It inspired me to expand the section.

mStoner salutes the Tulane team for its fantastic work!

Kudos to:

  • Rachel Hoormann, executive director of university web communications
  • James Crump, web communications manager
  • Taryn Pusateri, university web designer
  • Kathryn Hobgood Ray, assistant director of web communications

The Marcom Team at Saint Louis University Walked the Talk

mStoner has an office in St. Louis. So when an RFI for a website redesign at Saint Louis University hit our inbox, we were pumped. We work six miles from campus! Three people on the mStoner team are SLU alums!

We got the project — right here in St. Louis. In late April 2015, we started our work with SLU’s Marcom team and had buckets of fun all the way through to the launch of the new site in July 2016.

The Elevator Speech

When asked to prep a summary of our engagement with SLU for the mStoner website, I wrote this:

“The new website for Saint Louis University tells the story of what it means to choose a Jesuit education. Building on a new logo and visual identity, the site design is clean, high-impact, filled with institutional pride, and stunning on mobile. Placing Majors & Programs front and center, the new gets right to the heart of the matter — exploring academic options.”

The Standout

When I finish a client engagement, I do some unofficial reflection. I think back to when we started. I recall the challenging and less fun parts — all projects have them. I think about what I could have done better. Finally, I identify “the standout.” In a nutshell, what was exceptional?

For the SLU standout, I had several options. The upfront planning by SLU’s Marcom team was strong; the strategic approach from the mStoner team was spot on; the key players at SLU were thoughtful and decisive. Upon further reflection, I knew that the  standout for the project was the Marcom team’s focus.

Demonstrating their laser focus, team members:

  • Engaged a website redesign committee during the RFI phase and kept the committee interested and involved through the launch. (That only sounds typical if you’ve never led a campus committee.)
  • Listened to our advice, but they also talked things over to get what they needed for SLU.
  • Were more prepared for the content migration phase than any client I’ve worked with before.
  • Paid attention to all the right things. For instance, they launched with new academic program pages for 190 undergraduate and graduate programs. (No typos here: 190)
  • Never said they were too busy, overwhelmed, or distracted by other priorities. I’m sure they were; but regardless, they didn’t let anything get in the way of action or progress.

SLU’s Marcom team started with the end result in mind. And, at the end of the day, this team buckled down. They wanted a great website, and they were willing to do the hard work to make it happen. They walked the talk.

The Proof Points

The copy on the new site is strong, smart, and refreshing:

  • On Research: “Discoveries — big and small — happen here every day.”
  • On Academics: “Your pursuit of greater truth starts here. We’ll push you to be better, to think clearly on your own and to seek higher meaning in the service of others. We won’t be shy about it.”
  • On Jesuit Tradition: “We educate the whole person — mind, body, heart and spirit.”

Flourishes throughout enhance the content and messaging:

The site has won its first award:

  • SLU’s Marcom team is celebrating the first award for the new site. Interactive Media Awards recognized with a Best in Class — the highest honor possible and given when judges award high scores for planning, execution, and overall professionalism.
  • The SLU site earned 494 points out of a possible 500.

I’m not done talking about SLU. Before the end of the year, I’ll join a couple of Marcom team members for an mStoner webinar about their redesign. (Keep an eye on the mStoner blog; you’ll be able to register for this session soon!) I look forward to giving them the attention they deserve.

Getting the Budget for a Website Redesign and New CMS

You know what you need to do. You know how you need to do it. You just don’t have the money to pay for it. Sound familiar?

A website redesign project requires funds. Usually, you need a budget for hiring the external partner who will collaborate on your digital strategy, design, content, and implementation. Beyond that, you may need cash to pay for a new content management system (CMS).

How do you do make it happen? How do you get the funding for a website redesign and a new CMS?

There are two steps:

  1. Prepare your case.
  2. Ask.

Prepare your case.

Make the case. There’s nothing like writing it all out as a way to force you to clearly and succinctly articulate what you want to accomplish and why. I recommend a visual slide deck to help organize your thoughts. Use concise language (no jargon!) to describe why you need to redesign your website.

Include the following nine proof points:

  1. Trends and best practice.
    Educate your leadership about the importance of the website. Connect the dots to help them understand the reach of your website and its value for recruiting students. Make it clear that the website is infrastructure that requires investment. It is the 24/7 enterprise platform for communicating with the audiences you need to influence.
  2. The importance of mobile friendly.
    Mobile is no longer just a trend. Your site must be responsive. Frankly, “going mobile” is one of those reasons that campus leaders pay attention to by default. Use that to your advantage!
  3. Metrics.
    Even the most basic analytics can confirm that your website is the flagship communication vehicle. Include the total number of off-campus visitors in a one-year period or the percentage of mobile traffic to your site.
  4. Institutional goals.
    Tie the website redesign project to your institution’s business priorities and, if possible, to a strategic plan. Make it clear that the website supports goals tied to enrollment, fundraising, alumni engagement, and reputation.
  5. Similar projects at other institutions.
    Campus leadership is often influenced by what competitors are doing. Reference redesign projects at institutions from your official peer set and at cross-app institutions.
  6. Deficiencies of your site.
    Summarize what’s really wrong with your site. Typically, you need a fresh, contemporary design, a new information architecture, an easier way to edit and publish content. Include specifics such as, “We have not reorganized the site since 2005,” or “The copy on the top-level pages is 10 years old.”
  7. Total dollars needed.
    Contact possible partners and CMS vendors to get a sense of the funds needed for your project. You will be more credible if you can talk with some specificity about costs.
  8. A real project plan.
    A high-level plan (including total cost) that you’ve vetted with others goes a long way toward making your case. (Be sure to enlist the support of admissions and development leaders.) Campus executives are looking for consensus. If you present an option already agreed upon by others, it’s more likely that your leader will agree and act.
  9. Possible sources of funding.
    Perhaps you can get an advance commitment of funds from IT, Communications, Development, or Admissions. Your case is stronger if you have agreements for partial funding from other campus units.


Don’t wait for it to happen — you have to ask. First, get in front of those who can support the request. Next, your boss. Then others with power and influence on campus — maybe the dean of one of your schools or a new executive everyone seems to be paying attention to. Ultimately, you need to go to the person who holds the purse strings.

  • Make it an in-person request.
    It’s best if you can look someone in the eye to make your case. Try to schedule an in-person meeting with the executive who can authorize the website redesign project.
  • Sell your plan.
    Make your presentation high level but also high impact. You are selling an idea and using your facts and preparation to get support for the project.

Good luck!

It’s Not About Print Versus Web. It’s About Reinforcing a Consistent Message.

Do conversations on your campus still revolve around print versus web? At mStoner we believe that print and web are key elements of an effective marketing strategy.

First, let’s summarize the facts:

Now, let’s talk about the part we haven’t figured out:

Consider this statement from Senior Creative Director Ben Bilow‘s recent post on Five Ways to Rock Your Brand Experience:

“You need the same group of people contributing design and stories to print, digital, environment, and customer services in order to consistently and repeatedly reinforce brand experience.”

I’m going to take a stand. The more centralized your marketing team, the more effective your marketing. Sounds obvious, right? Yet, in my consulting work, I still observe the institutional barriers and political considerations that hinder this kind of holistic thinking.

No one sets out to have wildly decentralized governance for a website. No one intended for the print designers and writers to be in a building a mile away from the team responsible for the website.

I have firsthand experience navigating the challenges of reorganizing and coordinating campuswide efforts. I know building a central team is not easy to accomplish, but the payoff is huge. A consistent and disciplined approach allows you to increase awareness about your brand through more effective marketing on what makes your institution distinctive.

Two Recommendations

  1. Centralize wherever you can.
    I understand that alumni relations is different from sports information, which is different from development communications or enrollment marketing. Still, we all know that silos on campuses make implementing an integrated marketing strategy very difficult. Frequently, even our central marketing teams have the magazine staff members working in one place and the digital team somewhere else. Organizing the people responsible for communications and marketing into a single team encourages holistic work and a consistent focus on the institutional message.
  2. Build a multidisciplinary marketing team.
    Ideally, you want a centralized team that blends capabilities across media. In other words, the ideal is taking a multidisciplinary approach to your marketing messages and campaigns. More specifically, you should ignore the artificial boundaries between print, web, and social media. By placing content at the root of everything you do, the focus becomes the message, not the channels. Then, designers will design for print, web, and social media. Writers will do the same, creating content for everything from print publications and websites to video scripts, tweets, and Facebook posts. Technologists will understand web architecture, content strategy, and how to integrate content from multiple web-based tools and systems.

Just a bit about your print and web channels…

When faced with decisions about your print and web channels, rely on three clichés:

  1. Use the right tool for the right job.
    Before designing that next brochure, stop and ask yourself “Is print the right choice or is web a better option?” Most often, you need both tools for the job. Try using the evocative narrative of a print piece for the romance of your message, while letting a website enhance the story and provide comprehensive information and details.
  2. Get the bang for the buck.
    When’s the last time you totaled the true cost of a print piece? Consider the design time, printing charges, and fulfillment. Can you reduce your cost by slimming down the number of pages? Do you have data to confirm that the actions you hope will happen after the print piece drops actually do? Would redirecting those funds to an investment in your website increase the reach of your message to key audiences?
  3. Timing is everything.
    Are you thinking about timing? True story from my many years on campus: I once overheard the anger of a person in the next office when he received a donation request from his alma mater on the same day his daughter received the letter informing her she was not admitted. #badtiming

More than ever, campus leaders are beginning to understand the importance of brand and marketing strategy. As marketing professionals in higher education, it’s our responsibility to remind them that the channels we use are secondary to what we want to say. It’s never been about the tools. It’s always been (and still is) about the message.

Making Your Website Memorable

With nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., standing out is a very real challenge.

With marketing goals that likely center around increasing the institutional profile, it’s not surprising that every marketing pro in higher ed wants a website that is distinctive. During my nearly five years at mStoner, most higher ed communication professionals I meet with take it a step further — they want a website that is different from every other higher ed site.

Different is not synonymous with great. Different does not guarantee more applications from right-fit students. Instead, I suggest focusing on making your website memorable.

Your website is a surrogate. It makes a first impression late at night when a 16-year-old is narrowing his college choices. It reintroduces you to a Class of ’68 graduate who takes a quick trip back in time after friending her college roommate on Facebook.

Here are four suggestions for a more memorable website:

  1. Make it work for exploration.
    The marketing team at Loyola Marymount University understood that prospective students explore academic offerings. They knew that a quick and convenient review of academic program pages was more important than organizing degrees by schools and colleges.
    Degrees & Programs at LMU
  2. Offer the right amount of detail.
    The graduate school teams at Tufts University understood that prospective graduate students have different decision-making criteria than undergrads. Knowing that location was a key factor, they created content that filled in the gaps about what it would be like to live in the Boston area.
    Tufts: Boston & Medford/Somerville
  3. Participate in the conversation.
    The web communications team at Tulane University understood that parents make comparisons between institutions. They wanted parents to know that, at Tulane, research “isn’t just the province of graduate students or faculty: Undergraduate research is an important part of the experience.”
    Research at Tulane
  4. Give it authentic personality.
    The marketing team at Saint Louis University understood that relevant and interesting visuals make a lasting impression. They knew that animated line drawings of iconic buildings on the SLU campus would catch the eye of prospective students and parents.
    About SLU

Those suggestions make sense, right? If so, why are marketing and web teams fighting an almost daily battle against sameness on the website?

Memorable communication involves risk.

In an effort to appeal to everyone (and no one!), we often sound like everyone else, and we avoid staking a claim. Here’s some advice:

Not everything is a differentiator.
Nearly three years ago, I wrote about the Monster’s University website and video as demonstration that our messaging to prospective students is so similar, we’ve become a stereotype. Remember, certain things are table stakes; for higher ed, high-quality academics, committed faculty, and a welcoming community are the minimum price of entry. You have to say more, and you have to talk about your differentiators in a different way.

“Wisdom, experience, morality, critical thinking, creative problem-solving. This is what Fordham students take into the world.” (About Fordham University)

“Your pursuit of greater truth starts here. We’ll push you to be better, to think clearly on your own and to seek higher meaning in the service of others. We won’t be shy about it.” (Academics at Saint Louis University)

Generic language is boring.
We tend to avoid bold statements in higher ed. But generic, vanilla language doesn’t reveal brand personality, and it doesn’t engage the reader. The right words and phrases are tools for creating an impression; they help you stand out.

“William & Mary is an academic powerhouse.” (William & Mary Academics)

“So, you’re looking for world-changing research. So, you’re looking to make a difference through service. So, you’re looking for a really good po’ boy. You’re in the right place.” (About Tulane University)


Key Takeaway? Let’s worry less about being different and worry more about being memorable to those who land on our websites ready to be influenced by the first impression.