Redesigning for the Widening Web

Ready to redo your college or university website? Think about it in the context of your whole digital ecosystem.

January 17, 2018

If you’re like a lot of others at colleges and universities, you’re coming back from the holiday break and saying to yourself, “This is the year we finally redesign our website!” I applaud your enthusiasm and agree that it probably is time for a redesign. (Anecdotally, it feels like the average time between website redesigns in higher ed is about five years, which is too long when it comes to the school’s most important marketing tool.)

As you start down the long and winding road to a new website, however, don’t forget that your site is just one part of a much larger digital ecosystem that needs to be considered in its entirety in order to be fully successful. (To get a sense of the potential scale of this ecosystem, check out Eduventures’ infographic showing the higher ed technology landscape.)

It wasn’t always this way. Five to 10 years ago college and university websites functioned largely as stand-alone entities that could be redesigned independently and with a (relatively) small group of stakeholders making the decisions.

Those days are long gone. The rapid increase in the use of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and marketing automation tools to manage communications with prospective students, combined with adoption of technologies to manage the student and alumni lifecycles, means there are ever-more strategic, technical and operational factors to consider.

So as you begin this important process, here are five things to do to get started:

  1. Identify the main audience and goals of the redesign – Higher ed websites are notorious for trying to serve all of the needs of all possible audiences all at once, but this isn’t a recipe for success. Begin your redesign process by deciding who your primary audience is and what you want them to accomplish and experience on your website. This is a critical first step and will make all future decisions easier (What should be on the home page? What should the navigation look like? What metrics matter?), setting you up for long-term success. 
  2. Map the ecosystem – Get a representative group of colleagues in a room and whiteboard all the systems that your users interact with so you can fully understand the impact of the new website. This includes CRMs, marketing automation solutions, events calendars, student information systems, learning management systems, etc., and will help you determine where your redesign project begins and ends.
  3. Investigate potential technical roadblocks – If, as part of your redesign, you’re also considering a new content management system (CMS), it will be important to ensure that any product on your CMS shortlist will integrate well with your existing technologies. Some CRMs, for example, don’t allow data to be passed back and forth to a CMS, which will limit your ability to measure key enrollment metrics. 
  4. Understand the tracking and reporting implications – Speaking of measurement, in an ideal world, you would track key user behaviors at each stage of their journey so you could determine your levels of success and identify areas for improvement. But multiple systems means multiple data streams, so you’ll need to understand if, where and how those streams can come together into a single view that your organization can review regularly.
  5. Consider the wider creative impact of the effort – Your site visitors should have a seamless experience with you, which means you’ll need to plan for how a new design and a new content strategy (as two examples) will impact advertising, landing pages, feature stories, blog posts, emails, social media channels and even print publications.

One last thing: If you’re creating a Request for Proposal (RFP) to hire an agency to help you with any or all aspects of your website redesign, you’ll want to include as much of the information above as possible. This will help the agencies better understand the scope of the effort and respond with sharper proposals. It will also give you a clear set of criteria on which to base your agency decision.

If you’re undertaking a website redesign this year, congratulations. There are few other projects that are more visible and can have such a clear and measurable impact on your school’s ability to meet its goals. Spending time early in the process looking at your site in its wider digital context will be enormously helpful and pay dividends for years to come, allowing you to strategically iterate and improve your site over time rather than waiting the typical five years and having to do another wholesale redesign.

Matt Cyr is vice president of strategic practices and the higher education practice lead at Primacy, a digital agency with offices in Boston, New York, Farmington, CT, and West Palm Beach, FL.


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