What’s the ROI of a university website redesign?
That’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the years -- it’s a question I ask clients and a question prospective clients often ask us.
Lately I’ve wondered if that’s even the right question to ask. Of course you should expect results from these projects. But maybe we need to shift perspective, recognizing that a website is critical infrastructure and brings multiple benefits, only some of which can be measured and quantified in calculating ROI.
Quantitative and qualitative measures are important to consider when determining success.
Consider webby-nominated UNCSA.edu, which launched in December 2015. Some major changes included a revised information architecture that made it easier to move through the site; a design that showcased the exciting creative opportunities at UNCSA; and new content about these programs.
In a post a year later, the university looked back on the impact of their site. Indeed there were results that couldn’t be quantified.
For example, Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Ward Caldwell noted that the site was able to tell UNCSA’s story more effectively. And the dean of the School of Filmmaking, Susan Ruskin, said, “The deans started to think about who we are as a whole rather than who we are as individual schools. Storytelling at UNCSA is in essence who we are and what we do. I think the design process for me was one of the most useful ways of thinking about the overall brand of the school.” From the university’s point of view, those are significant accomplishments. But they are directly attributable to a bottom line.
This isn’t terribly surprising to those who think more deeply about websites and their role in marketing.
Assigning proper “credit” when myriad touchpoints are used is difficult.
Simple tweaks to an existing site can often dramatically affect the results from the site itself: research by the Nielsen Norman Group indicates that e-commerce sites can double their sales by following e-commerce usability guidelines. But many university web projects involve more than a few tweaks: they’re complex and take a relatively long time.
It's harder to "prove" ROI for large-scale redesigns because colleges and universities are complex institutions and education is a highly complex, expensive product. Purchasers want information to assist them in making decisions — and they want to make emotional connections with an institution. When the “purchaser” is an applicant to an academic program, we know they use many touchpoints, many times, in their search for information through their “customer experience journey.”
For example, research with teens indicates that they use many sources to help inform their decisionmaking about what college to attend — among them college rankings and ratings websites, various social media channels, and college and university websites. All of them are consulted at various times through a teen’s “customer experience journey” of research, application, deciding, and committing to a particular institution.
When a prospect decides to apply, which touchpoint she used gets credit in an ROI model? The first? The last? All of them? Determining the right model for attribution is a topic large enough for its own blog post, but it’s worth noting here that this is hard to measure without the right tools in place and contributes to why it is so tough to quantify the impact of a redesign.
It’s a fact: A highly functioning web presence is critical for the success of any business or institution in 2017.
College and university websites play a unique role in this particular journey: they are used persistently throughout the process, at much greater levels, than any of the other sources. The website is also one of the few information sources that is fully owned and managed by the institution.
Therefore, a high-functioning website is absolutely critical to student recruitment and should be central to most recruitment and marketing activities. And, of course, a university website serves the needs of other very important audiences: influencers of prospective students, alumni; donors; and others. Again, this adds to the complexity of determining ROI.
So it’s important to ask how a new website is helping student recruitment, development, the Annual Fund, alumni relations, or athletics to be more effective. And it’s essential to pay attention to data from Google Analytics, CRM, social media, and other measurable activities to identify where changes were successful and where further improvements are needed.
From UNCSA’s standpoint, there have been measurable results. A year after the redesigned site launch, they reported a 518 percent increase in admission inquiries and a 48 percent increase in the number of online donations.
But UNCSA’s Chief Technology Officer, Claire Machamer, noted, “Our investment in information architecture, content templates, and user experience was critical to create a dynamic delivery method for authentic stories about UNCSA. Since the launch, we’ve gained momentum by surfacing stories of our talented faculty, current students, and alumni. Audience numbers are growing, but the overall reach and impact of these stories is hard to measure with that data alone. The content has elevated the reputation of the school, increased internal pride, and generated conversation.”
In other words, while their redesigned website has delivered measurable results, it’s also delivered results that are just as important, if a lot harder to quantify.