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What Brand Does Your Website Communicate?

Fran Zablocki shares four examples of how your .edu will either fulfill or break your brand promises.

November 3, 2016
 

Your brand is what you stand for in the hearts and minds of the people you’re trying to reach, influence, and move to action. Strong brands connect with people both intellectually and emotionally, and strong brand positions are aspirational, but grounded in reality. Your brand should feel like a better version of who you already are.

Your brand is a promise you are making to all of your audiences about what you will be. Your brand might include promises of exceptional service, great advising, and a willingness to support and nurture students.

Here are four examples of how your website can either fulfill — or break — these brand promises.

1. Organization online gives the impression of organization offline.

If student visitors have a difficult or impossible time finding information or taking action on a website, they can lose confidence in how organized the institution will be in other interactions. Web pages that reflect internal organizational charts and place resources for faculty and staff before those for students leave a very clear impression — that the institution thinks its internal needs are most important. They might wonder what the student experience on the ground is actually like.

Additionally, web pages that are a disorganized mess of unrelated information will leave the impression that your institution is … a disorganized mess.

Conversely, placing student needs front and center on a website in a thoughtful, orderly manner sends the message that the institution actually puts students first elsewhere too. Especially if your marketing materials say that you make a great effort to make sure every student is important and uniquely cared for, your website should back up that claim!

2. Mastery of process and procedure online gives the impression of mastery offline.

During the college search, prospective and current students face many complex experiences: applying to college; applying for financial aid; navigating course registration and requirements; and determining housing, dining, and working arrangements. It takes a great deal of thought and effort to organize this complexity and communicate it in an easy-to-understand manner.

Making online experiences clearer, easier, and perhaps even enjoyable has many potential benefits, including happier students, less stress on support staff, and less time spent resolving confusion and errors — but the positives don’t end there.

Great digital experiences also benefit institutional messaging and branding. When website content and structure help visitors to make sense of complexity and accomplish tasks efficiently, institutions telegraph an impression of strong support, help, attention to detail, and competence. A great experience using a website will leave students with positive impressions, building confidence that they will continue to experience competent, helpful, and thoughtful interactions in the future — online or offline.

3. Lipstick on the pig

At mStoner we often see a lot of work put into redesigning, restructuring, and rewriting the home page and major landing pages of a university website, only to have the many pages that lie below this top layer remain untouched. This is the equivalent of putting a brand new facade on an old building while keeping the poor plumbing, electric, and flooring that hasn’t been updated in years. It may leave a positive impression initially, but the truth of the matter will become plain quickly.

Why? Because websites don’t have a distinct front door anymore — every one of the pages on your website is a potential direct destination from a Google search and, in effect, is its own homepage. This poses a very real risk that universities will be evaluated first, and possibly only, on their very worst website sections and content. The only way to truly mitigate this risk is to provide a terrific experience on every single page.

4. What we say we do vs. what we actually do

Are your homepage and top landing pages an aspirational facade of who you hope to be, or do they accurately represent who you really are? Does your user experience reinforce the positive brand differentiators and qualities that appear in your marketing materials? Do you provide a shining, tailored online experience for prospective students right up until the moment that you get their enrollment check, and then ship them off to the land of poorly organized, poorly written, and poorly executed experiences? Or do you provide that level of care, excellence, and polish throughout?

Our collective call-to-action is to produce digital experiences that delight, inspire, and represent our best qualities to the world — everywhere, every time. It’s one thing to say, “We are a supportive, competent, thoughtful, student-first place” — and quite another to deliver concretely on those promises. If we can accomplish this task, our students will trust us to do what we say we will do — and trust is the most critical component for any relationship.

Fran Zablocki, strategist at mStoner, Inc., has worked with IA and content strategy in some capacity for his entire throughout his career.

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