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!

Do you need a website advisory committee?

Who owns your website? A simple question that prompts many more: Who sets your editorial direction? Who controls access to your CMS? Who do you go to when you need a microsite? Who decides what goes on your homepage?

The best website governance models answer these questions by offering the right balance of oversight and support. Campuses need processes and policies for effective and sustainable website management. And individuals who write, produce, and edit site content need training and tools.

Website governance is a blueprint — an intentional, specific plan for who does what, when, and how. Be aware: figuring out the plan is only the first part of website governance. No model, framework, or structure will substitute for the ongoing communication between the people involved in your website.

Often, discussions about governance start this way, “Okay, I know I need governance but do I need a website advisory committee?

Three reasons you might:

  1. Your website is currently wild and woolly. After years of everyone doing their own thing, it’s time to relaunch your site and put a structure in place to keep it fresh, vibrant, and sustainable.
  2. You want to take your already solid website to the next level. You know the site is critical for recruiting students, raising money, and enhancing reputation. Maybe you have no budget for creating new positions, so you need a decentralized way to manage your site. You need to gain support for distributing website tasks to people in different units across campus.
  3. You have a website governance plan…that no one follows. The people you designated to update your site are busy with other tasks and responsibilities, and your website is their lowest priority.

Two reasons you might not:

  1. Your campus has a mature and talented communications operation and website relaunches are a thing of the past. People across campus understand that you have authority for your site, you are regularly updating your content, and you have a team of highly skilled people enhancing your site daily.
  2. You’ve just completed a highly successful website redesign project on your campus. The redesign team wrote policies, set up a training and support plan, and have gotten website editors across campus into a good groove.

Let’s suppose you decide you need a website advisory committee…then what?

Considerations when planning for a website advisory committee:

What is the charge of the committee?
The charge, or charter, is the purpose of the committee — it outlines what they do, and what they don’t do. You also will need to determine if the committee is truly advisory or actually the final authority for decisions about the website. The website advisory committee could:

  • Review and enforce the website governance plan.
  • Reinforce with deans and directors the importance of web page management as an official responsibility and high priority for staff in their respective units.
  • Provide feedback about enhancements and changes to your website and related digital communication initiatives.
  • Recommend the allocation of shared resources for future projects and enhancements.
  • Consult on policies, procedures, standards, and guidelines related to the website.

How large is the ideal committee?
Keep it as small as you can get away with. Avoid the typical Noah’s ark, two-by-two approach where every division has to send one representative. Large committees are typically not successful: they create more scheduling difficulties (nightmares!), require more time for getting feedback, and are more likely to resort to consensus-based decision- making. Committees get large because we view them as the only way to offer feedback and suggestions. If your governance plan includes other feedback options, you’ll be able to control the size of your website advisory committee.

Governance matters. Along with vision and staffing, it is how the sustainability of your website actually happens.

More on governance:

Project Managers: Be thankful!

I know first hand that our project managers have a direct impact on the quality and success of the work we do for our clients. I don’t say it as often as I should, but I am thankful that mStoner’s project management practice is mature and top-notch.

When I read Paul Boag’s post, Be proud of your digital project managers, it made me smile. It’s a timeless post about an important topic. He’s right, project managers help us offer great service to our clients. Paul Boag, I’ll see you and raise you. I go one further and say, “Be thankful for project managers.” We most certainly are at mStoner!

I know what it’s like on campus. Your day job is filled to the brim with email, meetings, unfunded mandates, and high expectations about more cool communication work your small team could do. Even when you hire a partner like mStoner—and firms like ours hope you view that as getting what you wished for—it means you are kicking off a complex project as an add-on. The project is critical and exciting, but it’s still more work. And no one says, “Stop your current job so you can focus all of your energy on this project.”

Here’s where I’m thankful on your behalf. When you hire mStoner, you get a team of passionate, smart, and funny individuals and that team includes a project manager. At mStoner, the PMs are super heros. Without the benefit of capes, the PMs at mStoner keep it all looking easy, seamless, effortless, and oozing wow. Every day, Jennifer Presley and Patrick Powers:

  • Build relationships by connecting often (and everywhere) with our clients.
  • Manage time lines, schedules, budgets, and daily tasks for both the mStoner team and the campus team.

Let’s dig into this PM thing a bit more. Here’s what we’re really talking about:

Communication and Customer Service

When you hire an external partner, you have questions about approach, you have concerns about how we’ll get it all done, you have ideas about what we should do and how we’ll work together to do it. Your mStoner PM knows all. They will put a communication structure in place; they’ll even modify that structure slightly to better suit your needs and for greater project success. Our PMs are available. They will be there via email, phone, text message, chat, and hangouts; it’s not unlikely they will get a sense they should get in touch with you and they will.

Technical PM

Think about all of the teeny, tiny details and all of the big strategic decisions that are essential for all types of communications projects. Now think about all of the stuff in between. The PM creates the plan to cover it all. The technical PM work will address who does what when. The PM will schedule people and tasks, monitor budgets, adjust and enforce time lines, lead meetings with clients, gently remind mStoner team members, and the beat goes on. I’m exhausted just writing about it. People, this is where the magic happens. This detail and technical approach is what gets you from an idea to done.

Thank you sincerely, Jenn and Patrick. We salute you today and always.

More from the mStoner blog:

Fordham’s New Website: Responsive, Fresh, and On Brand

Fordham University launched a new website last week. An important goal for the new site was to infuse it with what makes Fordham, Fordham.

“We’re a Jesuit, Catholic university. Our spirit comes from the nearly 500-year history of the Jesuits. It’s the spirit of full-hearted engagement—with profound ideas, with communities around the world, with injustice, with beauty, with the entirety of the human experience.”

A partnership between mStoner and the talented and dedicated digital team at Fordham—and a lot of work—resulted in a new site that is a fresh and glorious digital representation of the University brand.

Why did Fordham focus on brand expression for the new website? Because the senior leadership at Fordham understood the website as the University’s primary communications platform. And, the University Relations team recognized that fordham.edu is every bit as important as a campus visit in encouraging students to apply, a timely magazine or email in encouraging alumni to stay engaged, or a well-placed news story in raising general awareness and reputation.

Your brand is what distinguishes you and translating what makes you you into language for your website allows your college or university to:

  • Attract best-fit students.
  • Distinguish your school from the competition.
  • Influence parents about value and outcomes.
  • Help prospectives imagine themselves on your campus.

What’s the secret for successfully translating the brand for prospective students?

How do you do it? Listen and ask! If you listen to real people in the target market talk about the brand, you’ll learn what you need to know. And the only way to be certain you get it right, is to ask prospectives to respond to early prototypes and designs that express the brand creatively.

  • We used small focus groups of first year Fordham students to inform our work and we timed the focus groups to occur early in the academic year. So although we spoke with current first year students, they were only five weeks into their freshman year. Because of this timing, the individuals we spoke with were more like prospective students than current students. They were still very close to their college search process and to their decision to attend Fordham.
  • We surveyed prospective students to get their impressions about how well design concepts gave positive impressions about Fordham. We also evaluated their ability to internalize (and remember!) key messaging.

Translating your brand into creative is not for logos only. The best websites come for a tight connection between brand and content. Use photos, words, graphics, video, and navigation labels to make your brand real to the audiences you are trying to reach, influence, and move to action. Content is a creative expression of your brand and critical for communicating with your key audiences.



Digital Strategy for Campaign Websites

Campaign websites generally have two primary goals — to explain the priorities of the campaign and to build a culture of philanthropy by reengaging alumni. I have six pieces of advice as you develop the digital strategy for a campaign website:

  1. Let content be the navigation.
    Avoid meaningless labels and let content guide your visitors through your campaign site. Gettysburg College’s Gettysburgreat Campaign is a strong example. Focusing on communicating campaign priorities, the Gettysburgreat Campaign site navigation is clear, simple, and telegraphic. The five campaign pillars become the navigation for their site. So visitors explore the site by clicking on the five areas they can support:

    • Scholarships
    • A First-Class Faculty
    • Engaged Learning
    • Global Initiatives
    • Annual Giving
  2. Use clear, understandable language.
    Rely on succinct prose that is accessible and does not include (pardon us) “development speak” or fundraising jargon. Many people, especially young alumni, find a fundraising campaign intimidating; don’t reinforce this with language they don’t understand. Make the website copy conversational and concise.
  3. Follow brand standards for the visual design.
    The look and feel of a campaign website should be consistent with your brand standards. While a microsite approach can make the site distinctive and a bit bolder than the main website design, campaign sites should capitalize on the institutional brand. The Campaign for Harvard Graduate School of Education is fully integrated with gse.harvard.edu, providing a cohesive look and seamless navigation between the campaign content and the main site.
  4. Design for the life of the campaign.
    Keep in the mind that the campaign website design must be fresh and yet possess a shelf life that extends through the life of the campaign. Because fundraising campaigns are multi-year, a clean design that relies on high-impact photography is a safe bet. Using this approach, new photography can refresh a site over what is likely to be a five- to seven-year campaign period.
  5. Reconnect your alumni through storytelling.
    The best way to reconnect with alumni is to make it personal through the age-old craft of storytelling. The Competition Taught Me feature on George School’s Fit for the Future campaign website presents the unique stories of coaches and athletes. Demonstrating the lessons learned from athletic discipline and competition, these stories make the case for the importance of supporting athletics. George School alumni can share their own stories on this campaign site — the Compendium offers a rich history of George School athletes and more.
  6. Integrate your social channels.
    People give to people. The stories you tell through your campaign website make the case for private support, and your social channels can enrich the narrative through a fresh and authentic diversity of voices. Young alumni are an important constituency for most campaigns and they are more likely to use social. You need to find them where they are and let their peers help explain why giving back is important. Establishing and promoting a consistent social hashtag is key. A curated feed from a hashtag on Instagram is a source of dynamic content for the #Gettysburggreat campaign site. The emotional response to the Gettysburg College photography is clear from the hundreds of likes. Remember, your current students are your best ambassadors. In a flash, current students can make an authentic statement about your college or university with a quick photo, a caption, and a hashtag or two. Let your students be the best illustrations of your distinctive culture, value, and societal contributions.

I’m proud of recent mStoner partnerships with some wonderfully talented campus teams:


Digital Magazines in Higher Ed: We expect a lot, maybe too much.

I was a judge for the digital magazine category of the 2014 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards. As always, the CASE judging activities were fascinating, inspiring, and a wonderful professional development experience. If you ever get the chance, say yes. I was blown away by many of the 2014 entries and, in case you haven’t seen them, here are the CASE Circle of Excellence Award winners in the digital magazine category:

Because I had the chance to judge print magazine categories in 2012 and 2013, reviewing the digital entries this year felt a bit like closing the loop. Still a wonderfully complex hybrid of the print and digital mediums, college and university magazines typically appear in print at least a couple of times a year. (Alumni have come to love and cherish the mailbox version.) In my consulting work, the teams responsible for magazines regularly talk about ways to use the digital space for magazine content. Magazine editors and writers I meet have both a gleam in their eye and a knot in their stomach. They fully understand the opportunity that a digital magazine presents and the challenge for meeting the ever-increasing expectations of sophisticated alumni readers. They can all tell the story of the well-intentioned senior administrator on their campus who made this casual aside, “I’ve been meaning to send you a link to the _____ College’s online magazine. It’s really awesome and I think we should do something like that for our magazine, don’t you?”

My participation in this year’s digital magazine judging was eye-opening for an unexpected reason. I began to think and worry about the pressure digital magazines create for small communications teams. As a former director of a campus creative services unit, I have enormous respect for those who publish a magazine. Mostly because I know firsthand what it takes to manage the design and production process and, as a former colleague of mine once said, “In the print world, the word publish really means something.” Print ain’t easy, people. (The web ain’t easy either but I maintain you have control for a longer period of time and more flexibility when something goes wrong.)

So how does a small college or a leanly staffed university get the time and money needed to even think about launching a digital version of their magazine? Especially now, when the easy solutions of the past are viewed as way below the bar. People want what they want. And they want the New York Times experience.

My advice? Keep in mind readers are expecting you to:

  • Provide a rich content experience.
    The best digital magazines make a commitment to producing lots of regular content within a rich experience that is interactive and sensory. They let go of a traditional magazine publishing model, instead using a different pattern that doesn’t mimic print and typically means publishing every day. Rich media has to be a part of the content mix and requires a commitment to high-impact photography and well-produced video. The magazine experience should also include sharable content, predictive content, and dynamic, taxonomy-based options. In other words, allow me to comment and let others know what I’m reading, show me what you know I like, let me filter, and tell me what’s popular.
  • Make it available everywhere.
    I understand more resources are needed when trying to meet device-agnostic expectations but magazine readers want your content everywhere — on any kind of phone, and on any kind of tablet. And although apps allow you to control the user experience, lengthy downloads for an app require a commitment some just aren’t willing to make.

What’s a small team to do?
If you don’t have the staff needed for a Bostonia experience, consider using WordPress for your digital magazine. A few examples:

OH in Higher Ed Circles: 6 things that drive us mad (and a new webinar!)

Picture this: Six people working on six different campuses are seated around a round table having lunch at a higher ed conference. Before the salad course ends, they’ve figured out how much they have in common. All are facing similar challenges — and more relevant to this blog post — all regularly experience the same frustrations.

Next imagine this: 600 people working on 600 different campuses are members of a circle in Google+. These folks are sometimes even more direct as they selectively share their frustrations and the barriers to high-quality marketing and communications programs on their campuses. It’s been know to happen.

Regardless of their institutional affiliation, when marketing and communications professionals gather they bond over similar concerns. And, when I consult with community colleges, multi-campus publics, music conservatories, or small liberal arts colleges, I observe a similar chorus. Six themes overheard in higher ed are:

  1. Committees
    Often viewed as the bane of the higher ed administrator’s existence, committees are unwieldy, slow to act, and sometimes set up to avoid a decision. Even when called by another name (task force), they present challenges; you must find ways to use them well.
  2. Feedback
    It’s exhausting when you are caught in a seemingly unending feedback loop while staring down a deadline. Worse, you find yourself responding to the personal preferences of internal stakeholders at the expense of the target audience. You need to control the fire hose.
  3. Resources
    Another week, another new task or set of expectations. Our teams regularly take on new initiatives and responsibilities but rarely stop doing the less valuable work we’ve always done. You need to make it stop.
  4. Change
    We’re pretty good at digging in within the academy. But some amount of change is needed for almost any great idea. Take off your blinders, stop pushing past the resistance, and instead use personal benefits to influence stakeholders.
  5. Turf
    Using softer language, we refer to silos when we’re really talking about turf. Regardless, we’re not farmers and we need to turn things toward a focus on business needs and the greater institutional good.
  6. Relationships
    Perhaps a surprising addition to this list, relationship building should always be a factor. Regular reflection about the approach and style you use with peers, members of your team, senior leaders, and your boss is never a waste of time.

Perhaps this post is spot on with its summary of concerns you have. Next up, let’s address those concerns. I’ll try to do just that on Thursday, March 27, at 2:00 PM ET, when I host a free webinar entitled, “OH in Higher Ed Circles: 6 things that drive us mad.” Talking through each of the six things that probably bug you every week, I’ll share tips, ideas, and advice for making your way around the barriers to excellent marketing and communications work on your campus. I hope you’ll join me for this free mStoner webinar as we discuss ways to cope and succeed!

Need research on social media?

Every day, on college and university campuses everywhere, dedicated people like you are making the case for effective communication with key audiences. On a good day, you get a brilliant idea about a new way to connect with the people you want to reach. Sometimes the idea is so gloriously brilliant you need to secure buy-in and approval. Remember, when you pitch new ideas outside the comfort zones of your leadership team, it’s good to go in with evidence.

Maybe 2014 is the year for stepping up your social media strategy. If so, consider data from the Social Media in Advancement Survey conducted by Huron Education and mStoner in partnership with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Annually, I’ve observed Michael Stoner committing time and talent to this important project and I know he’s grateful to the many of you who participated in the most recent survey.

In late March, highlights from the fifth annual survey will be released at the CASE Social Media and Community Conference. Until then, the 2013 research comes in handy. I reacquainted myself with the top-line findings from 2013 and they are the subject of this post. For fun, I decided to highlight a few of the questions asked and make some predictions about what we might see in the 2014 results. We’ll call these Susan’s Hunches.

My hunches about the 2014 results for a few of the survey questions:

Question 9. Which types of social media do you use (for any audiences you want to reach)?

  • In 2013, 27% of survey respondents used Instagram. I predict this number will be up by at least 15% in 2014.
  • Tumblr was used by only 9% of respondents. I predict the use of Tumblr will increase by about 10%.
  • Not even on the list in 2013, I think we’ll see Snapchat responses in the 2014 results.

Question 16. In what types of campaigns have you used social media?

  • In 2013, 41% of respondents used social media for admissions campaigns. I predict an increase of 5% for 2014.

Question 30. For which types of development and fundraising activities does your institution use social media?

  • Of respondents, 14% used social media for capital campaign solicitations. I think we will be see a 15% increase to this percentage in the next survey. (I know, it’s a big jump. This is the hunch I’m least confident about.)

Question 44. How many full‐time people does your institution have working on social media that are 100 percent dedicated to it (all of their job responsibilities relate to social media)?

  • In 2013, 67% of those surveyed had no one who was 100% dedicated to social media work. My hunch is that this number will come down by 8% in the 2014 results.

Here’s a convenient summary table of Susan’s Hunches:

  • Use of Instagram: +15%
  • Use of Tumblr: +10%
  • Use of Snapchat: on the list!
  • For admissions campaigns: +5%
  • For capital campaign solicitation: +15%
  • No person 100% dedicated to social media: -8%

Check back in late March if you want to see how I did. If I’m close on a lot of these predictions, you’ll probably see another blog post. If I’m way off, I’ll quickly move on to other topics. The point is, use research for pitching your ideas. It’s out there!

More on the annual Social Media in Advancement Survey: