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University's website is key hub for communicating distinctive qualities

When you think about what makes a university distinctive, what kind of qualities comes to mind? Is it their beautiful campus, or maybe their dedicated faculty? So many institutions share these fine qualities that they’re hardly difference-makers that will prompt prospective students to the decision point.

College marketers, therefore, face the challenge of identifying and effectively communicating their exceptional assets – and culling input from across the board is the best way to do this, but it’s not always easy to facilitate.

A website redesign is one of the few projects that touch all aspects of a university’s largely siloed, decentralized environment in order to accomplish this task. While being able to tap deeper financial resources afforded by some institutions certainly helps in this regard, it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a website project if it’s not seen as the central hub of your overall communication efforts.

A holistic appraisal of your web presence is just the kind of silo-busting exercise that can serve as a catalyst for honing and improving messaging around your mission, values, differentiators and strengths. It can surface themes that effectively give voice to your school’s unique identity.

Start with the discovery process

Because of the broad reach of a website redesign project, team members are able to uncover valuable information and insights that normally would stay tucked away in corners.

When we meet with a school’s senior leadership team early on, we like to ask, “What do you believe in so deeply that you’d be willing to go out of business rather than sacrifice that core value?” It’s not unusual to be met with blank stares because it’s an issue they haven’t fully addressed as an institution. But the more they tackle the big questions, many times using the site project as a catalyst, the better their new web presence will be.

That said, having this all figured out isn’t a prerequisite to tackling a redesign project. In fact, you may have it figured these types of questions out, but perhaps the action items that arise from them haven’t been fully implemented throughout the organization. No matter where you are in the process, a website redesign can help spur a candid dialog about the current state of affairs, fostering that type of inward reflection and discovery that helps you define your core differentiators.

Three important elements in the discovery phase are fact-finding, vision creation and consensus building. The first one is fairly straightforward; the second requires some deep thought and serious discussion. The third one is often the toughest: How do you get an institution filled with committees and entrenched structures to get on the same page?

We’ve found that a focus on inclusiveness is one way to build consensus. Universities have many smart, talented and opinionated people who can parachute in at the last minute and say “no.” Thus it’s best to identify those people and engage them early on, so they can’t object late in the game that they didn’t have a say.

What are your differentiators?

The discovery process will quickly surface distinctive qualities and outstanding assets that set the school apart, which are often under-marketed. For example, Quinnipiac University has a nationally recognized polling institute, a real differentiator to be celebrated and showcased.

While every school isn’t going to start a polling institute, each should understand what assets help separate it from the pack. For example, The University of Redlands has its “Och Tamale” chant, and Stonehill College has a shovel museum! Certainly no one is going to decide on a college because of these things, but quirky assets, when presented properly online, can attract attention and interest from prospects.

Developing a multi-year strategic and tactical roadmap

Too often, when it comes to a web redesign project, schools are either too focused on strategy or tactics, without tying the two together. Having a multi-year roadmap for developing the school’s web presence and online communication plan allows the team to develop a series of tactics that are directly connected to strategic initiatives and those outcomes. Usually, three key efforts are in play here: admissions, advancement and academic reputation. When the university leadership hears how the project can positively impact all three, it gets their attention.

This section of the overall process often acts as a catalyst for other objectives. For example, in our work with Regis University, they didn’t hire us to help them get through a period of major transition that included the hiring of a new president, a new CMO and brand marketing team, and changes within the IT department including the departure of the CIO. But because they also needed a site redesign, the project became a framework that helped them work through this period of transition.

A smooth decision process

When we work with a university on a website project, it’s important to help them understand how to make decisions. Often, a school’s web committee will spend weeks trying to figure out what they should be called. But the focus needs to be, “How are we going to make decisions, given our organizational structure and stakeholders?”

The successful decision process happens on two levels: An all-inclusive portion that gathers input from every stakeholder group, and a smaller group empowered to make final decisions. Having an external agency is invaluable in helping a school to navigate through this process.

If a school sees its website work as merely a look-and-feel or technology project, it has missed a significant opportunity that’s going to prove detrimental almost immediately upon launch. School leaders need to view their web presence not as an important communication tool but as THE primary hub for all their external and internal marketing and communication efforts. It then can become a true digital platform, making the whole greater than the sum of its departments, programs and offices.

Jeff Johnson is Vice President and Managing Director of digital agency Primacy.