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Wheaton.edu - A Website Birth Story

Launching a new higher ed website is a lot like giving birth – with all its joys and challenges. Here are a few takeaways from someone who’s recently gone through the process.

July 19, 2018
 
 

It’s a date I’ll never forget: September 6, 2017. It wasn’t my wedding, or the birth of my son. It was the birth of Wheaton College IL’s new website. Whether your new website is just a twinkle in your MarComm director’s eye, or you already have a bun in the oven, you will never forget the day you bring that website into the world.

In web terms, ours was a quick delivery. Just 18 months for research and personas, developing the IA, choosing a new CMS, migrating 8,000+ pages, and launching a completely new design. Some things went well. Others could’ve gone better. But like most parents, I’m happy to share lessons learned in the hopes of helping others.

Build Your Birth Team.

Internal Cheerleaders

Even before our ideas were fully conceived, we sought buy-in from College leadership — including the president — and found their support invaluable. When you inevitably encounter project challenges or pushback from change-adverse users, stakeholder support and cheerleading will be critical to get you to the final push – and through those first challenging months after launch.

External Coaches

It’s imperative to enlist a team of experts who are effective labor coaches. If you’re going out of house for design, be sure to contract with a firm that’s comfortable designing for your CMS. mStoner were already experienced with designing for our newly selected CMS, TerminalFour. This prior knowledge and partnership made our process significantly less painful.

Make a Plan. Then Change It.

Sure, we’d developed our birth plan, right down to the push mix. But we quickly learned that birthing a new website rarely goes according to plan. For instance, we had to abandon a potential partner just before signing a contract when we discovered a small typo on their proposal (a missing zero) that would’ve meant a big difference in the project budget. Expect the unexpected and roll with it. Oh, and read your contracts carefully.

Overestimate Your Time and Resources.

As we neared our delivery date, we were tired. And yet the big push was still to come: content review and approvals. This part will always take more time than allocated; there will be sleepless nights, short fuses, and a steep learning curve. So no matter how much time you think you’ll need for content, add another 30%.

Feather Your Nest.

Before your new baby comes home, take time to do a few important things prepare the nest: Create 301 redirects for any pages you’re moving or deleting from the old site. Yes, it’s a huge pain. Yes, you have to wait until the new site is basically ready to launch to do it. Yes, you’ll want to buy a lot of pizza and lattes for the people undertaking this herculean task. But your analytics will thank you later.

Prepare ahead to transition your analytics. If you’re using Google Analytics, create a test account and implement it on your site before launch to test. On launch day, simply swap out the tracking ID from your existing Google Analytics account, and, voila! Seamless, instant data transition.

It’s OK to Brag (A Little).

Our website was born a week late, but within our budget. And it’s even won a few awards. (We’re so proud!)

At last checkup:

  • Social shares are up 15 percent.
  • Session duration is up 8 percent.
  • Sessions per user is up 14 percent.
  • Pages per session is up 16 percent.
  • Bounce rate is down 13 percent.

Nobody likes to see too many baby pictures, but a little strategic promotion of the success of your new website is an important way to show the value of your work to the institution.

It Takes a Village.

Launching a new website is a significant event in the life of any college or university, and it really does take a village! Want to talk shop or need someone to cheer you on? I’m at [email protected].

Rebecca Larson is director of web communications at Wheaton College in Illinois and the proud parent of a new(ish) website.

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