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.


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.

Communications Audits: Let your cage be rattled.

Back before we called it disruption, I called it “rattling cages.” Originally defined as annoying behavior, rattling someone’s cage means getting their attention in order to get something accomplished. Maybe this seems less relevant to you because you are already doing exceptional work despite a high volume of meetings and to dos. The cage rattling is relevant to you. Shifting your focus and letting others influence your priorities can be a means for taking your own already high contribution to the next level.

Which one are you?

  • Are you annoyed when an outside expert gets your attention? Or do you embrace the unexpected idea because the result might be worth any potential disruption?
  • Do you discount a proposal because you were already planning to do it but just hadn’t gotten to it yet?
  • Are you committed to continuous improvement and always thinking ahead? Or do you shrink from guidance that stretches you beyond your own experience and impressions?
  • When you have a problem, or when you suspect you might, is getting advice the first thing you do?

Understanding communications audits.

If you lead a communications team, when’s the last time you stepped back and thoughtfully evaluated why your team does what they do?

A communications audit can help you answer these questions:

  • Are we doing work that is valuable?
  • Can we stop investing time in tasks that don’t really benefit anyone?
  • How do we prioritize projects and initiatives we could be involved in?
  • Do we have the right number of people in the right kinds of roles?
  • What should we do to gain support from the executive leadership on our campus?

In 2006, Michael Stoner wrote a blog post that referenced a Communications Consortium Media Center paper on communications audits by Julia Coffman. Strategic Communications Audits, written in 2004, offers an excellent overview for a leader who needs to understand and conduct a strategic communications audit. It’s a classic.

How to get started.

Go to Google.
At a minimum, research on the web can inform your path. Find out what others in situations similar to yours are thinking, planning and solving. Keep two things in mind: 1) You can make whatever case you want to make with your search results. Reading blog posts and white papers that support your current position and shying away from content that rattles your cage is not the best approach. And 2) You are interpreting what you read and sometimes translating what works for Fortune 500 company to the .edu context. Fresh ideas from outside .edu can be good and/or not applicable enough.

Create a visiting committee.
Ask a few individuals you respect to audit your team’s work. Pay them a small stipend and cover the costs of their travel to your campus. To begin, outline your goals and challenges for them, and share relevant research and background. Next, let them meet (in person) with your staff and a sample of those you and your team work with in other departments. The visiting committee’s discovery work, summarized in a report, should include recommendations, considerations, and points of action for you.

Hire a partner.
Identify a consultant who can bring higher ed experience to the table. I’m proud of mStoner’s focus on sustainability. Our deep understanding that it takes people and process to sustain communications work is one of the reasons I hired mStoner when I worked at William & Mary. People and process is the simple answer to sustaining your team’s work. But you’ll need to wade through a lot of complexity to get to that simplicity. Perhaps a collaborating with a partner is the best option for doing that.

Look for asteroids.

You need your cage—it represents your purview, your sphere of influence, and the resources you control. You can do exceptional work in your cage; but occasionally, let it be rattled.

One of my former bosses described unexpected ideas from outsiders as asteroids – for him, they were transformational projects that we couldn’t pass on. He embraced the opportunities, and because of my time working in his organization, I look for asteroids. You should too.

The User Experience of Scheduling a Visit

Scheduling a campus visit is common practice. Prospective students and families are regularly using .edu websites to arrange campus tours or sign up for information sessions. It’s an expected part of the college selection process.

Do we make it easy? Not usually.


  • The forms are dense and clunky. There are lots of fields to complete and what seems like a lot of unnecessary information is required.
  • The registration form doesn’t work well on a phone. It’s difficult to see the date and time options.
  • There’s lots of clicking to get to the right web page for registering for the visit.

Pretending I wanted to visit, I spent some time on a few .edu sites. Here’s what I found:

Clemson made it easy to get there from my laptop. From the Clemson homepage, Visit is in the global nav and Register for a Tour is obvious from the Visit page.

Clemson Visit

Cornell has an impressive mobile experience — works well and you can quickly get to a calendar with a list of tour times by day.

Cornell Visit

Paul Smith’s College makes it easy. Finding the visit dates is straightforward and completing the registration form on a phone was simple.

Paul Smith's

Virginia Tech offers a clear cut way to register for a campus visit. Each step in the path is presented and the experience is a very good one.

Virginia TechVirginia TechVT


In the broadest of terms, we need to do a better job on the user experience for scheduling visits and tours:

  • We are a generation of individuals who use our phones to book a flight, get a reservation at our favorite restaurant, and order shoes. Expectations about the mobile web don’t change when prospective students and parents get to .edu sites.
  • Fully accustomed to using the Internet to find information and do stuff, requests for too much personal data are barriers. High school seniors will do the digital version of never mind and bounce away from web forms that ask for too much.

Is your college or university offering a great user experience for prospective students and families? I’d love to feature your site’s approach to scheduling campus tours and visits. Use the comments to let me know what you’re up to.

Thinking about a website redesign?

We’re back to school. Fall will officially arrive in a few days. You can’t find a place to park, so you know your campus is in full swing. All that — and you really need to redesign your website.

At many colleges and universities, a website redesign is a campuswide initiative that is broadly inclusive and requires getting buy-in from multiple internal players and stakeholders. On other campuses, the marketing and communications team is fully charged with the redesign and can move swiftly, bringing in key partners like admissions and advancement. Regardless of where your campus falls in that spectrum, you need to prepare.

If a website redesign is on your mind in September, we have some advice:

Set goals.

Perhaps you want to infuse new messaging from a recent brand platform into the site. Maybe you need better navigational paths, but the site’s information architecture is pre-2004. It could be that students and alumni are regularly reminding you about the limits of your site on phones or tablets. Focus on what you want, not on what you have. Spend as little time as possible cataloging what’s wrong with your current site. Instead, spend that time identifying goals.

Start with content.

Pour a cup of coffee, silence your phone, and read through the top-level landing pages on your current website. Well? Does it reflect the school you know and love? Consider a more detailed content audit of marketing-critical pages. A look at 25 or so pages will tell you a lot about where you stand with content. You want your website to be authentic to your campus. Content can make it so.

Make it better.

We all start a website redesign filled with high expectations and excited by possibilities. As you’re working through the challenges of committees, tendencies toward the status quo, and vanilla content, keep in mind that you don’t want to end up with the website you started with. You will need to advocate for improvement and take some risks to get there. Don’t lose sight of what you set out to do.

Stop thinking about your website like a project.

It doesn’t make sense to focus on your flagship communications platform once every five years. The website is not a once and done proposition. Create a plan for staffing, funding, and governance to sustain and enhance your site into the future. Make this your last redesign project.

Related posts from the mStoner blog:

Measurement: Why do we fear it?

Does your direct mail piece result in annual gifts from alumni? Do prospective students use the hashtag that you include in a social media campaign? Does your website content for admissions lead to increased inquiries?

Marketing and communication plans are easy to create when you don’t have to pay attention to the facts. If you don’t measure results, all marketing tactics are equally reliable and successful. Measurement makes us uncomfortable so we claim that measuring results is too difficult, not an exact science, and not possible given our limited tool set. Frankly, measurement of marketing and communications tactics is anxiety-producing in part because it might lead to evidence that what we thought would work doesn’t work as well as we’d hoped.

In a time of shrinking resources and increasing expectations, marketing and communications professionals must rely on measurement to determine strategic priorities and make the case for pursuing particular tactics and opportunities.

First, we need to get SMART. We need to avoid creating metrics akin to New Year’s resolutions. A goal of “becoming a millionaire in 2015” is not as realistic as adding $10,000 to your savings account. Secondly, what we can measure easily may not tell us what we need to know. The truth is not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.

Start thinking pragmatically and concretely about measurement. Three ideas for getting started:

  1. Include links to custom landing pages in digital advertising to monitor the effectiveness (for example, clickthroughs and conversions) of your calls to action.
  2. Use event tracking in Google Analytics to record activity with particular website elements.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of print by reviewing accompanying website metrics (for example, this postcard will result in 500 visits to a companion landing page on the website).

As a real world example, let’s consider measurements within a recent social media campaign at Fordham University.

The goal of #Fordham4Me was to influence the yield of admitted undergraduate students planning to enroll in fall 2014. We knew that a measurement tied to an increase in the number of students enrolling at Fordham wasn’t realistic. Instead, we evaluated the success of the #Fordham4Me campaign using these metrics:

  • Reach 90 percent of all admitted students.
  • Prompt 100 admitted students to generate content.
  • Attract 150 new followers on Tumblr and Instagram.

The results for #Fordham4Me were strong. On Tumblr, we had 3,200+ page views, 900+ visitors, and 63 new followers. On Instagram, there were 6,238 public likes, 511 public comments, and 99 unique participants.

Measurement of marketing and communications activities over a period of time can offer insights for senior leadership as they plan for additional staffing and resources. Metrics can:

  • Demonstrate success in a particular initiative and make the case for funding a new position.
  • Prove that particular activities don’t have value. Data helps not only to establish priorities , but also to determine what a team can stop doing.

More on measurement from the mStoner blog:

Launched! Please look under the hood.

On launch day for any mStoner client, the big reveal is the new look and feel of a redesigned .edu website. Capturing the essence of the institutional brand, the new design “feels like us.” But visual design is just one aspect of our work with clients. I’ll use mStoner’s recent work with SUNY as evidence for the equally important — but under the hood — aspects of a relaunch.

My earlier post about the new SUNY website described the process and decision-making through the lens of the SUNY project lead, David Belsky. There’s more! Our partnership with this complex and fascinating educational system also included:

Governance for mitigating risk.
There are always challenges and risks within a website relaunch project of this magnitude and complexity. Early on, we worked with SUNY to identify ways to mitigate risks and to plan for a new governance model.

How content is managed and published was a consideration and, of course, the right content management system was key. Choosing and deploying a content management system is never for the faint of heart. The work is filled with choices about features and requirements and cost and technical architecture. With more than 175 CMS implementations under our belt, mStoner helped SUNY identify best-fit systems based on their needs. (The SUNY project team chose TERMINALFOUR for the new site.)

It also was important for the SUNY team to understand that relaunching the website within a new content management system was just the beginning. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes in web strategy is continuing to think about your website as a project. In fact, the day you launch the new website isn’t the end of a project, it’s the start of an ongoing process of assessment, adjustment, content creation, and enhancement.

Building a strong core team always belongs in the governance model. We helped the SUNY team think about roles, responsibilities, and oversight. Proper staffing for your website is needed and here’s where we all have something to learn from the newspaper industry: the web needs content, every day. All .edu websites need a “managing editor” who will implement the strategic vision and provide the editorial approach for developing content, integrating social media, and keeping it all on message.

Creative thinking about a range of content needs.
From the start, content was at the core of the SUNY project. A two homepage solution was a blended and effective response to SUNY’s unique communication challenges and opportunities; but it was also a response to the range of content types within the site. Because marketing and transactional content can be at odds, we wanted to balance the storytelling that appeals to larger audience groups with the transactional needs of 100,000+ faculty and staff stakeholders on SUNY’s 64 campuses.

We used the SUNY wireframes as a launchpoint for conversation about content! With a content-first focus, the wires showed not only the types of content but the relative importance and prioritization of that content. Early content discussions helped the SUNY team scope the writing effort that would follow and also put us on the right track for brand building.

A few content elements that demonstrate the impact and reputation of SUNY:

  • The Now at SUNY drawer on the SUNY homepage introduces off-screen, sidebar content.

SUNY Content Drawer

  • The social icons in the footer include the number of followers on SUNY channels (11,000 on Twitter!).
 SUNY Social Icons
  • The map-based campus directory in the footer uses tagging and geolocation for easy access to 64 campuses.

Campus Directory

An iterative process for developing the information architecture (IA).
The IA we proposed for needed to do two things: 1) quickly make the case for SUNY and 2) quickly engage the primary audiences visiting the site. We wanted the topic-based navigation to appeal to the broadest possible set of audiences. We tested our early assumptions about labeling and navigational paths using an online tool called Treejack from Optimal Workshop. Armed with real user behavior from 594 testing participants, we adjusted, relabeled, and confirmed.

We ended up with a slim topic navigation that appeals to, and encourages action from, visitors of all kinds. Just three simple options — “Attend SUNY,” “What is SUNY?” and “Why does SUNY matter?” — allow visitors (of all sophistication levels) a limited set of choices to explore different ways of engaging the site. This mobile-first approach to the IA (read: telegraphic, clear hierarchy) gives the site app-like simplicity and makes it highly usable.

SUNY Topic Nav