Verging on App-Aesthetic

Colleges use quirky, game-oriented microsites to recruit prospective students and reconnect with alumni.
August 31, 2011

If you Google “colleges in Omaha” and scroll through the results, eventually you’ll find the website of the College of Saint Mary.

Scroll a little further, and you’ll find it again.

The two links have the same name and street address, and they are both operated by the College of Saint Mary. The only difference visible from the search index is the Web URL. One is relatively straightforward: Click through and you’ll find yourself on a fairly typical college home page.

The other is more provocative: Click and you’ll find yourself inside an interactive, animated landscape that looks more like a video game app. Here, you can take a diagnostic test that poses a series of hypothetical scenarios and recommends a course of study based on your answers (“People Person!” -- “Our programs in psychology may be the academic path for you to explore the possibilities ahead…”). You can mouse over different buildings on the cartoon rendering of campus -- and the Omaha skyline beyond -- and watch unscripted films of Saint Mary students talking about those places. And, of course, visitors are repeatedly invited to create a “profile” that includes their names and e-mail addresses.

This is College of Saint Mary’s microsite for prospective students. It was designed not by the in-house Web team at Saint Mary but by Phenom Blue, a firm that develops game-oriented promotional sites such as “McNuggets Olympic Village” and “Tums Food Fight” (also in the firm’s book: “Zombie Christmas”). Compared to the college’s website proper, the “Watch Me Bloom” microsite is designed to be more targeted, marketable, fun -- and effective for drawing in potential applicants.

Microsites are not new to higher ed Web strategy. But as the creeping aesthetics of the app world make traditional college websites appear tedious, some institutions have begun experimenting with more offbeat microsites to collect information from prospective students and alumni.

“While these have always been around, one of the big differences now is that these sites often have a more cutting-edge, radical design,” says Mark Greenfield, director of Web services in enrollment and planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a consultant at the higher ed consulting firm Noel-Levitz.

“It’s as if the creative folk living in a straitjacket of the ‘official’ design format suddenly find themselves with no constraints at all,” says Bob Johnson, president of the higher ed marketing firm Bob Johnson Consulting.

The College of Saint Mary says the strategy is working. The Watch Me Bloom microsite, which went live six months ago, was part of a marketing campaign built on that slogan that included radio, television, and billboard advertisements aimed at getting potential students to visit The activities embedded in the microsite, in turn, are designed to collect information about students and funnel them to for more details.

“Our main site experienced a significant increase in overall traffic, and our number of self-initiated contacts [has increased] since the launch,” wrote Joe Szejk, the vice president for enrollment services at Saint Mary, in an e-mail interview. “Particularly the Web inquiry and phone calls increased exponentially.” Half of the prospective students who have filled out profiles on the site, thus enabling the college to contact them directly, have wound up enrolling, Szejk says.

A similarly whimsical microsite at Nazareth College -- this one aimed at alumni -- has helped the development office update its address books and boosted attendance at its annual reunion weekend, according to officials there. Visitors to are greeted by cartoon animation and birds swooping to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The site invites Nazareth alumni to order stuffed-animal versions of Nazareth’s winged mascot, the Golden Flyer; take photos of the plush bird and submit them via the site, along with their locations and personal updates; then send the toys to other former classmates with instructions to do the same. The microsite pits different class years against one another to see which can accrue the most aggregate miles for their birds.

The objective of the game -- part Foursquare, part Flat Stanley -- was to reconnect with alumni using something more stimulating than a newsletter, says Kerry Gotham, the alumni director at Nazareth, in Rochester, N.Y. Gotham’s office has reprised the game four years running, during which time attendance at the reunion weekend has leaped from 450 to 750.

“I think that one of the reasons it was so successful is that it was a bit of a featherbrained idea, if you will,” says Gotham.

But Web marketing experts caution that when it comes to microsites, there can be a fine line between featherbrained and harebrained.

Decentralizing an institution’s official Web presence by adding quirky microsites can make it difficult for a university to stay consistent with its branding strategy, says Johnson. And having an “official” Web page for recruiting and admissions, and then maintaining a separate microsite, might be confusing, he says.

Greenfield agrees. “Users will view the ‘.edu’ site as a single entity, and the relationship between the main site and all microsites needs to be intuitive,” he says. “This can get tricky if, for example, there is both a traditional admissions site and a microsite targeted at prospective students.”

And then there’s the risk of poor execution. Greenfield notes that he "would be concerned if the whimsical approach gets in the way of usability,” adding that “focus [should remain] on the content and tasks that users want to complete."

Still, the ascendancy of creative microsites should prompt administrators to reflect on whether the conventional university website template -- which has been derided by some as cluttered and irrelevant -- needs a facelift, Greenfield adds.

“Creating new sites without addressing old and outdated content is a mistake,” he says. “…Every campus needs to answer the question, ‘Why do you have a website?’ ”

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