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.

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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 tulane.edu 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 SLU.edu 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 SLU.edu 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 SLU.edu 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.

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.

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):

Web Governance: How do you get the right kind of feedback from your advisory committee?

One element typical of web governance frameworks in higher ed is a website advisory committee. If you are a digital professional on a campus, you may be facing challenges from a committee that is unwieldy, slow to act, or focused on the lengthy discussions needed to get to consensus decision making. Getting timely and useful feedback from an advisory committee isn’t easy. Here are some suggestions:

Create a structure for providing useful feedback.

A committee of non-experts might need direction on how to provide useful feedback. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that, absent a structured process, individuals will default to watered-down responses that don’t get you what you need. To structure the process:

  • Provide context. Present background and detail to fully explain what you recommend.
  • Allow a set amount of time for discussion and perhaps allow your committee time between meetings to process.
  • Consider getting feedback from individuals after holding a committee meeting for group discussion.

Make it a no-brainer.

Whenever you can, ask for feedback on ideas and recommendations grounded in research. Use best practice, benchmarking, and testing to inform what you present to your committee. The less the committee has to connect the dots, the more successful you’re likely to be.

Ask the right questions.

The way you phrase your questions during feedback discussions can make a difference:

  • Avoid open-ended questions like, “What do you think of this design?” or “Which message platform do you like the most?”
  • Instead, use more focused questions like, “How well does this copy explain the strength and uniqueness of our academic programs?” or “How well does this design communicate that our college offers high quality academics and a range of opportunities for students?”

Be sure you’re clear about your committee’s role in making decisions.

I think the feedback loop is endless because we aren’t clear about when a decision is required from the committee. If yours is an “advisory” committee, you don’t need a decision; get the best feedback you can, and move on. If decisions are made by the committee, structure your meeting agendas to indicate which meetings are for update and discussion and which are for a final decision. Also:

  • Make it clear you will sometimes need to decide even when all committee members aren’t present.
  • Take a vote. Sometimes, consensus takes too long and you need to force a decision.

Identify a release valve.

If you’re leading a website advisory committee, make sure you have an executive sponsor. If you’ve done the best you can, but the committee is stuck and needs to get back on track, ask your executive sponsor for cover. Avoid asking for help making the decision; just make sure your decision is in sync with the leadership team that charged you to lead the committee.