An institutional website is not only often the first contact a prospective student has with a college or university but also a constant landing point for current students, faculty, and staff. “We looked at trends and research and realized that the website is very important to recruiting,” says Beverly Golden, director of marketing and communications at The University of Texas at Tyler. “It might be the first thing people see about your institution.”
Creating a site that will serve all those audiences is a careful balancing act. Internal demands make it inevitable that a website will eventually drift toward preferring one group over another. “It’s a blessing and a curse that you can’t do this cookie cutter,” says Stephanie Geyer, associate vice president of web strategy services at Noel-Levitz. “Every school has a different audience, culture, and location. You can’t just build a template and say, ‘this will work for every institution.’ ” But there are best practices to observe.
When it’s time to correct course, keep these tips in mind.
1. Make surveys and focus groups your friends.
“There is nothing like show-and-tell with the market segments who will use the tool,” advises Geyer. “They might not understand what we mean by a button, the word we use, or what it is for.” Information gathering can be organic or labor intensive. At Montgomery College (Md.), student Michelle Brinks decided to redesign the Communication Arts Technology Department website based on questions she fielded working as the administrative assistant. “She had done surveys without realizing it,” relates instructor Sheri German.
Feedback received after Friends University (Kan.) launched a redesigned website revealed the important fact that the request-for-information form was too hard to find, says Roman Rodriguez, web manager and graphic designer. They also have had a great response to the live chat feature they launched in September, shares Rodriguez. “We had a student from out of state apply online during a chat session,” he says.
The web team at Loyola University New Orleans had volunteers from each user group complete eight tasks on laptops outfitted with monitoring software that tracked mouse movements and recorded their voice comments, says Crystal Forte, web content strategist. The exercise showed that, while the new site worked well for current and prospective students, improvements could be made for alumni visitors.
2. Maintain control by using a steering committee.
To prevent a web design from getting derailed, it is important not to let any one group have a stronger voice in the outcome. “We were concerned about missing the mark and developing a website that was internally driven rather than providing information,” reflects Jim Blakeslee, CIO of Moraine Park Technical College (Wisc.). “We realized there is no department that owns either the portal or the .edu site.” A web content committee was established to guide the redesign and continues to keep the website up to date.
Create a road map by placing as many challenges and their answers on the table before the project begins, advises Ed Macko, creative director for higher education with Pipitone Group, a marketing company.
In addition to senior campus leaders, a steering committee should include both traditional and online students, says Mike Matthews, vice president of managed services for SunGard Higher Education. After all, these groups interact with the website in different ways. He suggests keeping stakeholders on task by presenting options, then giving deadlines so people have to make a decision.
The steering committee at Assumption College (Mass.) was responsible for setting priorities and then communicating those priorities to the campus community.
“We’ve found that, when websites are bureaucratic, it is because people got into the idea of being the center of their universe,” shares Jacee Brown, web communications director at Loyola. She has found impulses can be controlled by having everyone consider the student perspective before beginning a project.
3. Choose a primary audience.
“We’ve always known our main audience is prospective students,” says Brown of Loyola. “If we don’t have students we don’t have a job.” But it’s not always that clear cut.
“Unfortunately, there is no magic algorithm to decide who to cater to,” says Matt Kluemper, web design manager with Plattform Higher Ed, a marketing company. Reviewing where traffic is coming from and what keywords are being used can help determine the primary audience, says Joe Mulvihill, SEO manager at Plattform.
After completing a major redesign two and a half years ago, leaders at Assumption are now adding a virtual tour. A lesson they learned from the previous project is to help campus stakeholders understand that “the most important audience is the external one,” says Evan Lipp, vice president for enrollment management.
“Before I start a redesign project, I tell people the best websites are not democracies; not every user should be treated equally on the home page,” says Geyer. “You have to choose a lens and look through it. If you aren’t brave enough to do that, then you have too much information on your home page and no one is happy.”
That is an issue to which Friends U Communications Director Gisele McMinimy can attest. Before working with Plattform on its redesign, the old Friends website was “a brochure site that presented a lot of information. It wasn’t clear what audience it was servicing,” she says. “We are still working with that. We have people coming to us and saying ‘this would be great on the site’ and we have to decide if it will fit and, if not, how to distribute it.”
Still, flexibility is key because the target audience today might not be the same a few months from now. In the current economic climate, Oklahoma City
Community College is not having trouble finding students, says Paula Gower, director of marketing, “but that won’t always necessarily be the case.” Her team worked with Noel-Levitz to ensure its redesigned site, which launched in mid-November, works for current students, but still attracts prospective students.
4. Balance facts with campus culture.
While campus leaders might see the website as a way to tell students how great the college is, visitors have much drier goals in mind.
Referring to Noel-Levitz’s annual e-Expectations report, Geyer says, “We see this year after year; no matter how we ask the question, we see the same goals bringing students to the website: Do you have my major, can I see it, can I afford it, and can I get accepted.”
“The most important reason a student will select a college is academic program,” agrees Lipp. “But without a doubt, through design and images, the character will come through … to draw them in,” something they hope their new virtual tour will do.
“We found that students find more value in reading about actual events rather than stories that had been packaged and cultivated,” says Brown. Now, the Loyola homepage features general-campus news stories, which are still hand selected, but appeal to both current and prospective students.
“Regular” news stories covering campus events and student accomplishments are also conveying campus culture at UT-Tyler, says Golden. “I think that will give prospective students and their parents an idea of what our university does.”
5. Make a plan for ongoing upkeep.
There is no point in building a new site if no one is going to maintain it, because you can quickly go from “having an elegant site to having a hot mess a few months later,” cautions Geyer. “It’s an important thing and dangerous not to put these checks in place.”
“If I’m in a university where I can convince the functional groups to take ownership, I stand a better chance of seeing incremental changes take place,” says Matthews. But institutions that put it all on IT “are lucky to see changes every two years.”
Regular communication with Assumption faculty ensures information on the website is accurate. “As they update the course catalog, we ask them to review their webpage and provide us with updates,” says Renee Buisson, director of public affairs. “We remind them annually, so it can’t fall off their radar.”
Moraine avoids a bottleneck by allowing content owners in each department to make changes without going through IT, shares Blakeslee.
Everyone agrees regular reviews are key to keeping the website fresh. “We have quarterly post launch reviews,” says Gower. “That’s the great thing about the web; you can update on the fly.”