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.

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Higher Ed Website Redesigns: The less fun and perhaps uncomfortable parts

It’s easy to write a blog post about a website launch. There’s the expected excitement about something new and wonderful. And let’s face it, finishing a campus-wide redesign project brings a certain kind of euphoria that almost anyone is willing to write about. At launch, everyone celebrates the victory. After all, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.” (I now know anything is possible: I’m using an Ann Landers quote in a blog post.)

But this post isn’t a typical announcement about a website relaunch. If you want to read about the UNCSA.edu launch — and you should — we have a portfolio case study on mStoner.com that says it all. Based on early metrics, the new UNCSA.edu is getting stellar results and already achieving the project objectives.

This post is about the less fun and perhaps uncomfortable parts of higher ed website redesigns. It’s about the aspects we tend to sweep under the rug in the glory of the new site launch. In this case, It’s about two things you’ll learn along the way.

Revealing your brand in a website redesign requires change (and sometimes change management).

The best websites reveal the brand. They are filled with brand messages that influence the decisions of the audiences you care about. Yes, proclaiming the essence of the UNCSA experience was important — We Promise This. You’ll Do What You Love. But getting there in all areas of the site requires change:

  • Campus units need to commit to messaging that speaks to the whole and collaborate on ways to demonstrate the unique and wonderful nuances of their own school, conservatory, or academic unit.
  • Internal stakeholders need to adopt the ideas that resonate. They need to understand a little brand strategy to shift their own ways of communicating to key audiences. Writing for the web is real and you may have to change your communication style to be effective.

Big changes require change management. Humans need help understanding what’s happening, what’s coming next, and what’s going to be different for me. In higher ed, we often feel the frustrations that come from the time required to gather and review campus feedback. It is the precisely the communication you do to get the feedback that leads to understanding about why the change is necessary and why the change is good.

The content beast cannot be ignored (if you want something great).

The UNCSA team understood the power of visuals and the impact of video for storytelling. Together, we created and developed a digital platform filled with opportunities to engage and influence key audiences. We all knew the words mattered to and the mStoner team wrote some of the landing page copy and alumni stories as models for a new approach to copy. During the “build,” it was the campus team who fed the content beast. With skill and commitment, they:

  • Directed the photo shoots
  • Wrote faculty profiles and prepared faculty head shots
  • Collaborated with student filmmakers for video
  • Described academic programs (like BFA in Acting)
  • And on and on and…

The truth is: Preparing enough high-quality content for a website relaunch takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of talent. Walk the walk! Prove your understanding of content as king by putting in the work to make it happen on your website.

mStoner salutes the UNCSA team for incredible work!

Thanks to:

  • Claire Machamer, director of digital media
  • Ward Caldwell
  • Elizabeth White
  • Dave LaVack

Want to know more?

Claire and I appeared on Marketing Live to chat about the UNCSA relaunch. Listen in to our conversation about some of the challenges and realities.

Another audience for your higher ed brand?

Every mStoner client engagement is about brand and every brand is about audience. Brand strategy is an important topic and our blog and other thought leadership activities demonstrate our commitment to helping clients engage with key audiences and move them to action.

Let’s face it: your integrated communication strategy already requires you to communicate across many platforms with a large number of audiences. Your magazine, website, social channels, email campaigns, viewbook, and more are your opportunities to connect with prospective students, parents, donors, alumni, legislators, current students…and the list of audiences goes on.

Frankly, the work is complex and you don’t need another audience to add to an already long list. But here it is: prospective employees. Consider the idea of an employer brand — your reputation as a potential employer to the talented people who could work at your institution.

Campuses are like small cities and you are recruiting for all types of positions needed to offer a solid experience for students and to make things run smoothly. Your reputation as a place to work can influence the decisions of faculty members who are the best teachers and researchers, IT professionals who have many private sector choices, nationally-known student affairs leaders who are willing to relocate, and skilled individuals who live within commuting distance of your campus.

If you are already underway with a brand strategy project, be sure to develop messaging for the prospective employee audience. I recommend these articles about employer branding to inform your thinking:

Review the digital content on the HR site.

Short of an employer brand project, I have a few suggestions for getting started. Consider partnering with your institution’s human resources team on digital content:

Conduct a careful review of the information architecture on the HR website.
Let the content serve as the way to navigate the HR site. Remove lingo and reduce the number of acronyms. Use clear language to help prospective employees explore web pages that explain the application process. Boise State University’s How to Apply page works well.

Consider a landing page for prospective employees.
Nearly all .edu website footers include a link to some variation of Jobs, Careers, or Employment. From that footer link, a landing page for applicants can represent an employer brand. Here are a few examples:

Talk about what people care about.

Content on the HR employment pages should focus on the benefits of working on your campus. Mission statements aren’t personal enough to connect with prospective applications. The Benefits page on the Johns Hopkins University site and Elon University’s About Our Region are strong examples.

What is the employer brand of your college or university?

Are you thinking about your employer brand? Does your .edu website include content for prospective employees? Perhaps it should.

Research Landing Pages: Take Two

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about research landing pages on university websites. As background for that blog post, I visited the websites of many large, research-focused universities, including Georgia Tech. I was drawn to (and shared) some compelling copy from Georgia Tech’s Research landing page. At the time, I didn’t know Georgia Tech was about to launch a newly-designed research section!

A few days after publishing that post, I heard from Kirk Englehardt, director of research communication. Kirk pointed me to Georgia Tech’s new research web pages and I want to share this follow up post as an additional resource for those who may be planning for new research landing pages. The team responsible for the new site:

  • Relied on market research for planning.
  • Tied decisions to the university’s research strategy.
  • Created content targeted to the industry audience.

For the big reveal, here’s the old landing page:

Georgia Tech Research Before

 

Here’s the new one:

Georgia Tech Research After

 

Gems from the new Research site @georgiaatech

  • The site’s simple navigation set creates a focus on industry collaboration and core research ideas. It makes external audiences a priority.
  • The amount of copy is reduced by about half from the prior site. The new content is more visual and more engaging.
  • The externally-focused Industry Collaboration page presents the idea of recruiting top students.  Georgia Tech’s “next big breakthroughs” are presented well on the Core Research Ideas page.
  • Pages for each of the core research areas include information on partnerships and outreach, sidebar content about research facilities and institutes, and related news. See Manufacturing, Trade, and Logistics as an example.
  • The News includes links to a research magazine and an undergraduate research journal. (The landing page for Georgia Tech Research Horizons is also well done.) The latest content from Research Horizons also appears on the homepage and is sprinkled throughout the site.
  • The Creating the Next video is a storytelling piece featuring researchers talking about how they’re creating the next….

Kudos to the team @georgiatech!

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.

Research Landing Pages on University Websites

I did some research on research landing pages. Why? Because Research is typically the topic of a top-level landing page on most university sites, and I wanted to get a sense of the content strategy for these pages.

You may already know that Carnegie classifies 108 universities as having very high research activity (RU/VH). I looked at about 17.5% of these by randomly visiting 19 homepages and navigating to the research landing page on each one. Here’s a quick summary of what I found:

  • 10 include navigation to information about student research; most of these use the “undergraduate research” label.
  • Only four use infographics or type for bragging points or to highlight key pieces of information.
  • Only four include video.
  • Some have a presence on social media: 5 use Twitter (@AUSResearch, @CU_UndergradRes, @osuresearch, @umichresearch, and @uvavpr); 2 have Facebook pages: OSU Research and ASU Research Matters; and one, ASU, uses Instagram.
  • 13 include links or content for research centers and institutes.
  • 16 link to internal content about research administration.
  • The landing pages of three focus almost exclusively on internal, research administration content.

My Thoughts about Research Landing Pages

I think research landing pages are an opportunity. Done well, they are content-rich pages where you make the case for your institution’s research impact. Because landing pages are often the primary points of entry, you should think of them as secondary homepages. When a prospective graduate student or faculty member at another university googles “research University of __”, will they find what you’d like them to find?

Also consider there is limited understanding by the public of the value of the research mission. Landing pages allow us to connect the dots for key audiences. Engaging and assessable content will help prospective students and parents see the value of research — in terms of educational opportunities, career preparation, and reputation. We want to position a university’s research activity to demonstrate impact and how scholarship betters the world.

Research at Georgia Tech inspires game-changing ideas and new technologies that help drive economic growth, while improving human life on a global scale.

Repurposing stories about research from university magazines is a worthwhile investment. Research features in these two magazines are fine examples of digital storytelling and superb sidebar content for research landing pages:

When creating or re-envisioning a research landing page:

  • Limit the amount of internal content. Detailed information for researchers should be placed elsewhere in the IA.
  • Use stunning photography that tells a story.
  • Use infographics and microcontent to make the impact of research understandable.
  • Include news and announcements but also include evergreen content about your research mission and its benefits to students.

Gems I Uncovered

The 19 Research Landing Pages I Visited

Arizona State University
Boston University
Columbia University
Cornell University
Dartmouth College
George Washington University
Georgia Institute of Technology
Johns Hopkins University
Ohio State University
University at Buffalo
University of California Riverside
University of Chicago
University of Michigan
University of Miami
University of Rochester
University of Texas at Austin
University of Virginia
Vanderbilt University
Virginia Commonwealth University

More about landing pages (on the mStoner blog):

What about you and the leaders you meet?

The fact is, when you have a job, you are going to run into bad leaders. Why? Because leadership is difficult. Even for those with natural leadership ability, it is not easy. As the saying goes, “People quit their bosses, not their jobs.”

In earlier posts, I wrote about two extremes of leadership: the good and the bad. This post is about you and what you do with the leaders you meet: 1) Be reasonable in your own expectations; but 2) Remove yourself from a bad situation when you can.

Don’t expect your boss to be able to do your job.
Often, people have the belief that, in order to supervise a [occupation here], you have to have worked in the trenches as a [same occupation here]. It’s a mistake to think the leader must be able to do your job before earning your full respect. The right kind of leader — and I hope we are all trying to be that kind — can lead individuals in all types of jobs. I can name several web programmers who would serve as references for my leadership, and, to this day, I don’t know javascript or PHP. Leadership is not about performing the specific job duties of individuals on the team you lead. We all need bosses who lead, not people who would know how to do our jobs when we take a day off.

Don’t expect every good idea you share to be acted upon.
A leader is listening to you even if she chooses not to act on your idea. If your leader doesn’t follow through on a suggestion you make, it doesn’t mean you weren’t heard. When you’re the leader, people regularly come to you with advice about the problems you face. From the outside, it probably appears easy to solve a particular problem. Give your leader the benefit of the doubt! Assume there is information, detail, or context you don’t have about a situation. Given full information, your easy-to-implement solution might not be the right one. By the way, the worst thing you can do is stop expressing your ideas. I have watched people do this as a way to get back at the leader for not accepting an idea or two. It is your job to have good ideas, to share them with the leader, and to realize what you have to say is not the be all to end all in every circumstance.

It’s not you, it’s them.
I am keenly aware that bad leadership is a serious problem — it can ruin careers we love and organizations we are otherwise passionate about. I’ve worked for my share of bad bosses and I don’t minimize the effects on us as individuals. At the risk of sounding trite, I suggest staying true to yourself when faced with a bad leader. Draw from internal motivation but don’t internalize the negatives from your situation. And, when you are able, you should change jobs.

This post appeared originally on Start Smart Career Center, a virtual mentoring network that helps women navigate their nonprofit careers and thrive as leaders in the workplace.