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MORE AND MORE HIGHER ED institutions have started using blogs to engage prospective students or alums; inform current students, faculty, and staff ; promote events, and even communicate with project stakeholders. Blogs can be powerful channels for institutions, but it's not always the case.

TO PRINT OR NOT TO PRINT? That is the question more and more institutions are contemplating when budgeting for their publications targeted to prospective or current students. Whether they are called digital natives or members of the Net Generation, there is no question that teens and young adults are superusers of the internet.

LAST JANUARY, MICHAEL Wesch, assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, created a great audiovisual illustration and explanation of the power of Web 2.0 technologies. Produced in the basement of his house, this video was only 4 minutes and 31 seconds.

To be or not to be on MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking websites? That is the question. With the growing interest in these online marketing and PR newcomers, higher ed leaders are wondering about making the leap and setting up a presence in such uncharted-and often described as dangerous-waters.

You might call 2006 the year of the redesign for institutions of higher education. Duke University (N.C.), Brown University, Ball State University (Ind.), Humboldt State University (Calif.), Virginia Tech, and Centenary College (N.J.) are among the group of IHEs who redesigned their sites. Over the past few months, many other new website looks have been announced or unveiled.


Expect some opposition and criticism from staff, faculty, students, alumni, and even donors for changing "their" website.

If you haven't redesigned your site yet, chances are that process will come your way soon. Selected from the suggestions of a few higher ed web professionals behind recent successful website redesigns, the following tips should help in the endeavor.

Don't embark on a website redesign only to keep up with the neighbors. You should expect some vocal students, upset faculty and staff members, angry alumni, and even puzzled donors to criticize, oppose, and fight you for messing with "their" website. That's why you need to come up with quantifiable goals for your redesign. "Clearly define the purpose of the redesign, and put it in writing," advises Andrea Arbogast, web manager at Humboldt. She rolled out a redesign this August. "I have found a short document with the redesign's purpose to be invaluable. There is usually a very concrete reason for taking on a redesign, and being able to articulate it easily has saved me a lot of grief," adds Arbogast.

You wouldn't renovate your house without researching the city code, thinking about the needs of your family, or browsing magazines for inspiration. So, do your homework as well before jumping into a web redesign project. Find out as much as possible about the current state of your website by analyzing web traffic data and feedback from users. Also take the time to learn more about your target audiences' needs and expectations by setting up online surveys, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, or usability tests.

"Before we began any work on site architecture or design concepts, we devoted several months to research," explains Michael Dame, director of Web Communications at Virginia Tech. "We interviewed members of our primary audiences-students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni-to find out how they use the university's website. Our findings informed later decisions regarding site architecture, navigation, and design."

If you plan to tear down the walls of your website, make sure you rebuild a compliant and functional web presence for your institution. Technologies, standards, and user expectations have changed a lot over the past few years. Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act defines ground rules to assure your website is accessible to disabled users. Make sure your redesign is compliant.

A website redesign is a project and should be managed as such with a defined scope, a given budget, and a defined set of resources. Set up a realistic schedule and manage expectations. Aggressive timelines will force you to cut corners or bypass necessary consultation. "You need at least one person who is a wizard at organizing people, details, and workflow," says Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, program manager of developer relations for the Office of Web Communications at Cornell University, who worked on its 2004 web redesign.

A website redesign is the best time for a content audit. Once you know more about your users' expectations and needs, start to review and reorganize your website content. After auditing your web content, you'll be able to assess the gaps between the current state of your website and the information architecture that will best serve your users.

Any change in the design of your institution's website will get noticed. That's why it's so important to get as much buy-in as you can before and during the process. "Real transparency is key," says Ben Riseling, web operations manager at Duke. "Was this audience group consulted?" is the question that he heard repeated the most.

While communication and buy-in are critical to the success of these projects, redesigns by democracy or by committee should be avoided. They don't work most of the time. "Our redesign blog was a crucial tool in showing our audience what was in the works and establishing a conversation about the new site. You have to be careful to set the tone of such a blog, though. We made sure it was very clear that we would listen to all ideas, but that the site was not being built by a democracy," says Cameron-Norfleet.

Make sure that the new design works by having a few members of your target audiences test your ideas and layouts as soon as possible. Test your paper or interactive wireframes (the documents showing the information skeleton of your pages) before picking the fonts or the photos. Try to launch your redesigned home page in private or public beta first. "About six weeks before launch, we posted a 'sneak preview' section on the university's website to inform and solicit feedback. And, a month before launch, we opened up the staging site to all faculty, staff, and students for testing and further feedback," says Dame.

If you plan to fix your website information architecture, navigation, design, and content, you might want to kill two birds with one stone and couple your redesign with the implementation of a web content management system. "Getting a site on a good CMS makes it easier to maintain and also enables it to seamlessly syndicate content," says Riseling. Beyond the power of syndicated content, a good CMS will make your next redesign implementation a breeze by separating content from design. Next time around, you will be able to focus only on redesigning the templates used by the application to produce on the fly the thousand of pages composing your website.

When it comes to redesign, bigger isn't always better. Major overhauls often generate a lot of resistance from constituents and can even upset your most fervent users. That's why some major names on the web, such as Amazon and eBay, don't redesign their websites anymore. They prefer to roll out any major changes slowly. Small changes prevent these companies from disorienting or losing their customers. Another benefit of the incremental approach lies in the eyes of your budget holder: Most of the time, small changes can be implemented quickly by your team and cost less.

If you're looking for more tips, you can read all the information and advice gathered in preparation for this column at www.collegewebeditor.com/redesign.

Student blogs that are sponsored by Admissions offices have quickly spread all over the country. If you haven't started a blog like this yet, you are probably looking at what other institutions are doing with great interest, envy, or fear-and definitely with some pressing questions.

Should you launch your own student blogs to support your recruiting efforts? How can you ensure these blogs about college life will end up generating more applications as well as bigger and better classes of freshmen? Beyond the media hype, can these interactive diaries translate to better yields?

Consider why they can help attract the best prospective students and persuade them to attend your school. Everything comes down to the Holy Grail of authenticity-or at least a perception of authenticity.

Whether you call them Millenials or NetGeners, today's prospective students just don't buy marketing messages delivered on glossy brochures. They've spent their teen years watching all sorts of reality TV shows and fallen in love with their "transparency." They rely on their peers' opinions and recommendations on music, movies, and education. And, according to the report "Teen Content Creators and Consumers" (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2005), 38 percent of all teens who are online say they read blogs.

Student blogs have
become sought-after commodities in the
college selection process.

Already fueled by the prosperous college guide market, this generation's yearning to find out the truth about college life has made student blogs sought-after commodities in the college selection process.

Some corporate players have noticed, taking advantage of this new trend.

There's TheU, for instance. Founded by Doug Imbruce, a recent graduate from Columbia, the company produces and sells DVDs created to reveal the "real" college experience at different institutions.

Recently, current students have had the opportunity to set up blogs and share the lows and highs of their college life. "Bloggers for TheU.com are incredibly aware of the many different shortcomings of their schools and help students enjoy a happier, less stressful college transition by preparing these kids for challenges, big and small," says Imbruce. "The bloggers are also on hand to document and illustrate the many different ways in which some schools cater to specific needs better than others."

With TheU's blogs getting several thousand visits per month, chances are a lot of information about your institution is already available on this website, which is promoted to high school counselors. On these blogs, visitors can find good feedback about college life as well as not-so-good takes-as in this post dated April 24, 2006, by Judy L. from MIT:

"It is lonely up here, and that is why so many of us drink or get depressed. Some, maybe even most, of the heavy drinkers at MIT never even touched a drink in high school-but they can pound a 30-rack [of beer] away in one night without even blinking here."

So, what's a school to do when this type of testimonial is available and promoted on the internet? Join the fray, add other viewpoints, and make them easily accessible to high school seniors and their parents (which MIT does, with its student blogs sponsored by the Admissions office).

"Interaction between these audiences is inevitable and already occurring elsewhere, so why not facilitate the conversations and take advantage of it on our own websites? Prospective students and their families are visiting RateMyProfessor.com, LiveJournal.com, or TheU.com to learn 'the truth' about our institutions," says Bob Robertson-Boyd, web manager at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Since its first student journal in February 2003, the institution has offered several blogs. Administrators there even pushed the envelope further last fall by featuring the latest posts right on the university's home page-without any preliminary sort of content editing.

While student blogs can help prospective students find balanced accounts of college life at a particular institution, they also complement or further the benefits of student-guided campus visits.

Any well-rounded campus tour led by an engaging and interesting freshman can work wonders on undecided admitted students. Similarly, good student blogs inform, engage, and give a glimpse of student life. At Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., 82 percent of the student body is from out of state, with 48 states and 42 countries represented. So campus visits aren't always possible and L&C student blogs have been an excellent substitute since 2003.

"Our student blogs provide insight into L&C and give the college an added dimension that can be difficult to convey over the internet," says Michael Sexton, dean of Admissions.

Blogs can also help admitted students zero in on their final choice school. "Prospective students, and certainly their parents, watch with a critical eye when we show them beautiful words and pictures depicting a perfect campus life. What these decision-makers need instead is a way to understand what life is like on a particular campus to help them decide if that is the right place for them," confirms Nancy Prater, web content coordinator at Ball State University (Ind.), where 12 students started to blog last fall.

Capital U featured its latest student blog posts right on its home page-without any preliminary editing.

Finally, good student blogs can help high school graduates with their last-minute questions or doubts at decision time or even earlier in the selection process-without disclosing their identity. That's exactly why Beloit College (Wis.) launched its blogging program last year. Since a third of its applications had been sent without any documented first contact, officials began offering another option to this type of prospective student.

"Blogs are a good way to invite the attention of students without asking them to make a commitment. Our marketing goal was to provide a way to observe Beloit in a comfortable, non-threatening way," explains Nancy Monnich Benedict, vice president for enrollment services.

All this does make sense. But, what kind of return on investment can be expected from these student blogs?

That's where things get tricky. Launching and maintaining student blogs doesn't require a huge investment. From staff time to a few thousands dollars covering bloggers' compensation and/or technical gear, the necessary budget remains low compared to other tactics. So most early adoptors didn't spend too much time setting up processes to measure their ROI.

While e-mails, application forms, or conversations with admission advisors have expressed positive feedback, measurement data generally isn't available yet, even in schools with three-year-old initiatives.

"As soon as the right tools are available, I fully intend to look at our blogs to track views, time spent on each post, comments posted, on-campus interviews with families, and effort to publish, to try to extrapolate some form of ROI," says Robertson-Boyd. "I want to be able to say that Capital's blogs were responsible for 12 undergraduate students and three newspaper articles in 2007. Assuming the best, of course."

Ball State invested more in its blogging program, essentially in the form of promotional postcards mailed to high school seniors. Just a few months after their September 2005 launch, their 12 student blogs resulted in lots of press clips and received more than 11,000 visits per day. "We have not tried to quantify our ROI but can say confidently that the value we have received has far outweighed our cost," says Prater.

To determine the impact of the blogs, staff have conducted intercept interviews of prospects and parents during campus tours last spring. They're also surveying incoming freshmen and their parents during summer orientation. (Hint for prospective blog program launchers: If you plan to start your own student blogs soon, don't forget to borrow these ideas.)

It would be a mistake to think student blogs will work all the time. The success of these programs depends on institutional culture, the talent of the bloggers, and the efficiency of promotional efforts.

At George Fox University (Ore.), MBA student blogs, tried for nine months and then discontinued, never developed a real audience. Graduate Admissions Director Brendon Connelly (who personally blogs with great success at SlackerManager .com) says, "We wanted the blogs to be so compelling that they would be a recruiting tool that we could highlight. Blogs can be and do all that, but, we now know, there's much more to a successful implementation than simply selecting smart and witty students with impressive titles to blog for your school or program."

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Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

It's 10 a.m. Do you know how many messages are sitting in your e-mail box and what's happening on your campus, in your state, or in your professional field? So much information, so little time.

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