Web sites aren't about throwing some text and pictures onto a page anymore. Colleges, catching on to the evolving online habits of their prospective students, are starting to wise up -- and that often means making their online presence more appealing to Facebook-surfing high schoolers.
They can be demanding, this new cohort, and in the ever-intensifying marketing contest to attract the most qualified applicants, universities are turning to one of their most effective recruiting tools: their Web sites, often the first stop for those shopping for colleges and usually tailored for those off campus, not on it.
"I think that design is increasingly important," said Steven B. Lewis, the treasurer of a group of Web professionals in higher education called HighEdWeb and the Web manager at the State University of New York at Brockport. Universities, he noted, are "realizing that the Web is a primary marketing tool."
But now that most desirable of Web audiences has a name, and a set of characteristics that go with it -- and the so-called "millennials," we're told, have shorter attention spans than ever. They like pictures, have a knack for exhibiting themselves online and, more importantly, are tech-savvy and sophisticated.
College and university Web operations have been adapting to these realities incrementally for some time, revamping their designs and adding more pictures, interactivity and various other bells and whistles. But more recent redesigns suggest that when institutions go back to the drawing board, the entire process is informed by a more all-encompassing conceptual framework that views site visitors as content creators, values user input and emphasizes showing over telling.
In short, Web designers in higher education are starting to embrace the grab bag of technologies loosely referred to as "Web 2.0," a realm in which streaming media are readily available, people can share or remix content and communication is always a two-way street.
That goes for the design process itself. In recent years, a number of institutions began the ground-up process of rethinking their Web framework by asking students, faculty and others what they thought. Cornell University did it as early as 2004, with a redesign blog that attracted lively comments and feedback from people on campus, and whose contributors gave it a personality of its own.
"We knew that the project was much bigger than a design project, so we were really deliberate in trying to create a collaborative environment," said Jason Simon, the director of marketing and creative services at North Carolina State University, which recently completed a bottom-up redesign and also sought input during the process through a blog.
The idea of making the redesign process participatory signals that it's about more than just a Web site -- it's the college's identity that is being forged anew. "When we started, we knew that we wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just a design makeover, that we were really taking a look at how the university was presenting itself from a brand standpoint, from a tone standpoint," Simon said.
So the university overhauled its entire approach to the Web. No one at all had been responsible for regularly updating the old version of the site; now, Simon has hired four people for the new Office of Web Communications, which itself is under the university's marketing arm. "I think now people are really starting to understand the power of the medium," he said. It "shifts the way we really communicate about ourselves," from media relations to reaching out to alumni.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a greater focus on communication began with a shift to an easier-to-remember, more elegant domain: simply illinois.edu, rather than the original uiuc.edu. Underscoring what officials feel is the importance of the site name change is the effort going into it, which will involve months of converting links and e-mail addresses over to the new domain.
Often, boosting online marketing efforts also means a more "community"-centered approach, a central component of Web 2.0 that has permeated the thinking of institutions like North Carolina State, from the initial planning stages through online outreach efforts for alumni fund raising. The redesign blog, for example, came from experience. The last major overhaul of the site, five or six years ago, resulted in a backlash, Simon said. "It wasn’t accepted as well as it probably could have or should have been, partially because it was a surprise to a lot of people."
Lewis has seen similar results. If people "sense that the process is open and you’ve contributed to it, you might be more amenable to the result," he said. Now, at North Carolina State, added Simon, "people feel like the Web site is theirs, and they have some ownership of it."
As universities start to unveil the next generation of college Web sites, their efforts include a mix of approaches that tend to overlap. Lewis and other Web administrators note several trends:
- The Facebooking of college Web sites. Lewis said colleges were looking toward variations on social networking to keep in touch with students after they graduate and maintain databases for fund raising. "How do you keep in touch with your alumni when they leave?" he asked. The answer: "develop a presence for them [so they] keep coming back." Since so many students today use Facebook (or MySpace), though -- to the point where meeting one's roommate online and evaluating prefrosh prospects before even arriving on campus are becoming college rites of passage -- the issue is how, or whether, universities should try to supplant the social-networking powerhouses. The solution, Lewis said, is to "embrace prospective students where they are" by coordinating activities and setting up events within the existing interfaces. For Simon, taking the social-networking approach is "next on our list."
- Showing, not telling. Simon said that focus groups expressed a preference for more "showing" and less "telling": in other words, less text and more photos and video. For students more and more likely to carry an iPod in their pockets, that's a potentially winning strategy -- one that North Carolina State embraced. The site produces five to seven new videos a month that tell student-centered stories and offer a glimpse at life on campus. One recent offering shows (rather than tells) students packaging meals for a hunger relief effort.
- Blogs and more blogs. One way universities have found to more directly reach applicants is to find current students to blog about their lives on campus. The University of Texas at Austin, one of the first to experiment with the idea, has a site called Longhorn Confidential that features a "behind-the-scenes" look at student life through the eyes of several bloggers. The site design boasts a deliberate "unauthorized" feel, with the apparent hope that readers will find the content more appealing as a sort of "word of mouth" rather than official glimpse of what college is actually like. At the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, which recently revamped its Web presence, student bloggers have literally no content restrictions on what they can post. "We didn’t then, and we don’t now, monitor those blogs. In the ethic of blogs, we trust the bloggers and the people they correspond with ... to sort of establish a community of trust and credible information," said Tepper spokesman Geof Becker.
- Bringing lectures to your iPod. With iTunes U, institutions can post audio and video content at customized portals for anyone to download for free; with YouTube, they can create their own pages with streaming video. More colleges and universities are creating their own presence at these sites with the hope of reaching out to students at online venues they frequent.
- Leaving room for improvement. As redesigning Web sites becomes more of a multiyear, multistep ordeal, administrators are realizing that along with surface improvements, the content management systems underlying them need to be rebuilt from the ground up as well. As they design the foundations of their online platforms, the emphasis is on flexibility to make room for future additions. At Tepper, the system is equipped for features that aren't even implemented yet, like allowing user comments and supporting tools for sharing and editing links, such as del.icio.us and Reddit. But for unforeseen improvements in the future, the database is robust enough for developers to build extra functionality -- such as social networking.
Tepper's new site is a case study in adapting Web 2.0 techniques to its specific mission, while boosting its online marketing presence and making the site more relevant to its intended audience.
"Our belief is that the millennial generation really kind of wants to see and experience what they would get in a business school," Becker said, rather than just read about it or hear it from an admissions officer.
So the site emphasizes video, podcasts, photo galleries and student blogs in a simple yet elegant Flash-inspired layout. Like North Carolina State, the main page focuses on a limited number of feature stories and showcases specific professors and students, offering entry points into the site. And clutter is reduced by arranging the links in a logical fashion, with a prominent list of academic programs near the top and a box of news briefs at the bottom of the page.
Besides just posting official university-produced videos, though, Becker said students will be able to post their own content and collaborate with Web staff. One student has already approached the office with the idea of interviewing local businesspeople about entrepreneurship in the Pittsburgh area. Becker said they're now collaborating to post a weekly video podcast on the site and iTunes U to showcase startup CEOs who have found success.
"It’s really just up to the imagination of the people now using the Web site," he said.