Something I wasn't fully prepared for as an adult was having to do the very hard things again and again, both personally and professionally. For instance, at work do you ever get to the other side of a grueling project, pat yourself on the back for perservering, and naively assume nothing will ever be that big, hard, and complicated again? I've written previously on the undergraduate viewbook as such a project, but I'm going to posit that redesigning a college or university website and/or making big changes in your site — like moving to a new platform — is another.
It seems colleges and universities find themselves undertaking web redesigns or migrations every five years. Technologies change. User expectations change. Entire code bases are rewritten. The lean, mean website you launched at 5,000 pages has ballooned to 20,000. Layer onto that the ever-expanding digital ecosystem that includes CRM, marketing automation, learning management software, blogs, social media, and more which Matt Cyr addressed last year in Redesigning for the Widening Web, and you soon realize that you may be facing the biggest, baddest, mother of hard work things. But fortunately, we've got experience!
Matt had some great tips on how to prepare for a website redesign, but I want to offer two recommendations — two ways I'm approaching Fordham University’s upcoming web migration differently from a communications and planning point of view than the one five years ago, or the one five years before that. This will actually be my fourth website redesign project. While I have the scars to prove it, I also have insight into the psyche of the campus community we're about to be thrusting this upon.
Communicate Early and Often/Tell Anyone That Will Listen
Psst, did you hear we're redesigning?
I think in the past we've sat on our knowledge of an upcoming redesign for longer than we should have. We didn't have all of the details. We weren't quite sure about the timeline. We were afraid of engaging stakeholders too early in the process. While these reasons made sense to us at the time, we ended up doing much of our planning among ourselves, disconnected from the needs of our web editors across campus, their personal and professional timelines, and the upheaval our project would have on their daily routines.
We are more than ready for a new interface, new templates, and new features, but for our web editors, our current system may be the devil they know. They've invested hours in training, know all its quirks and workarounds. Their websites may not be perfect, but they are doted upon like children. I know that asking them to invest precious time and energy into our redesign project is bound to create anxiety, maybe even outrage. I also know that the earlier we talk about it, the more time they will have to become accustomed to the idea, to plan for it, and the sooner they can move from anxiety to anticipation to collaboration.
I’m also telling the entire community, not just communications staff or undergraduate admissions or IT. The website is integral to the functioning of every office and impacts every faculty and staff member, whether web editor or no.
Mobilize Your User Community/Recruit Beyond Them
In the past, our small web team hasn’t been able to fully engage departments in redesign efforts while simultaneously choosing and implementing a new platform. Departmental web editors usually heard from us when we had new templates to deliver and documentation on the new system. While we may still not have enough folks at our university with "web" in their titles, we do have much savvier web editors who probably have a couple of redesigns and a CMS or two under their belts themselves. More than ever before, they see themselves as partners in maintaining the website and are a group to mobilize. By bringing them in much earlier, we’ll be able to take advantage of their experience.
We’re having much more sophisticated conversations with all of our colleagues this time around. Even administrators and faculty that aren't hands-on in the CMS understand information architecture, scannable content, and web analytics. The web is ubiquitous, and it’s no longer any one person’s job. Also, gone are the days when web oversight duties caused campus-wide angst around rewriting job descriptions. In fact, it’s rare to see a job posting that doesn’t ask for some form of digital dexterity. We're all living in this expanding digital ecosystem and have collectively picked up some skills.
But that's not to say we aren't in need of a refresher and a summer to get our bearings before we go all out in the fall. In an effort to recruit content specialists more broadly within my own office, we’re launching a book club starting in June. Both web and non-web marketing staff will be reading a favorite — Ginny Redish's Letting Go of the Words — so that we’ll be in a better position to help schools and departments with their work.
There isn't a more important communications channel than our website — no brochure, no banner, no advertising campaign. As they say, it's the first building a prospective student or employee walks into. To call a web redesign or migration project a marketing project or IT project isn't giving it its due — I can't think of another project that impacts each and every one of our constituents. Engaging our campus community early on, keeping them informed, and arming them with the skills they'll need to contribute is not only the fair thing to do, it's the prudent thing to do. More collaborators means more help, and if past experience is any indication, we'll need it.
Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University, in New York City.