in Higher Ed

Four things to think about before your college redesigns its web site

I’ve been pondering what to blog about for a while, but my lack of creativity stems largely from what I’ve been doing for the past few months. As I prepare to pull the trigger on the 4th redesign I’ve been involved with (only two of these from start to finish, the others I either joined at nearly the end or joined in progress and left before it was finished) in higher ed, I can say that there are some universal themes I’ve picked up that are worth sharing:

1. Make sure you understand why you’re doing a redesign.
Everybody wants to change their look. That’s delightful, but if you splash paint on a house, is it a new house? No. You need to really look introspectively at your institution and understand what’s motivating you to make the change. If it’s as simple as “Keeping Up With the Joneses U.” then you should come up with better reasons and save your money.

No matter who works with you on the college or university web redesign, you’re going to need to make sure that you know your institution.

2. Keep your web project team small and nimble. (or Hire a chef, pick a menu and get the hell out of the kitchen and let the pros work.)

Higher education is a pretty political place. On campuses everywhere, each division, department, office or person thinks THEY are the most important component, for whom without [insert here] the school would fold up and die a horrible death. The fact lies somewhere along the margins.

So while it’s important to get buy-in, there is such a thing as giving people “too much” information. From the time I initiated my first redesign, to now, I’ve come to realize that maybe things aren’t as rigid as I thought and I’ve shed some of my former IT guy aversion for giving “end users” too much information at various stages of a project that they don’t really understand the totality of anyway. I’ve seen first hand how getting buy-in early and often is a good way to quell rancor on campus and to create allies in the process who’ll buy you room to breathe and space to do work your magic.

But the process can quickly become bogged down by letting too many people weigh in and give their “input” and this is something you need to avoid, lest your college’s web site project become bogged down by all sorts of people who aren’t ultimately responsible for its execution anyway.

Web site redesigns might need the entire community to be successful, but they’re not community projects.

3. Hire professional firms that know what they’re doing
While it might be preferable to after “all purpose” firms that have a jack of all trades knack for “doing it all,” you’re doing your redesign project a grave disservice by throwing all of your eggs in one basket that way. I’m sure there are lots of big box firms out there that do a delightful job at redesigns. I’m sure they’re endorsed by all sorts of your competitors too, which is why you went with them, lest you fall behind the pack.

Whatever the political reasons for your choice of firm, be sure to check out smaller, independent firms of good web people who know standards and employ them. These folks aren’t trying to rip you off, will relate well to your staff and the folks implementing the site and have links to the best and brightest in the field.

You’ll be glad you did.

4. Think outside of the box

Web sites need to communicate an idea and your content needs to be vibrant and full of life. If your web site is just a copy of your print materials, you’re wasting your time.

You need to have a tie-in, but more importantly, you need to be able to communicate an idea. For every prospective student that makes it to your campus for a visit, there are going to be two dozen who can’t afford to and will use your web site as the decider in where they’ll go to college.

Whether this is a fair criticism or not, I feel that we’re not pushing the envelope enough. Big schools with deep pockets are being bolder, but smaller institutions of all stripes aren’t keeping up as well. By and large, the admission process is almost exactly the same as it was twenty years ago. Think about how much has changed since then. You can’t buy records or tapes hardly, folks don’t use rotary phones and yet, we’re still driving our primary marketing through the Pony Express.

I’m not saying that mail isn’t effective or there is a replacement for it (Especially not the web…yet.) but there have to be bolder, more ambitious ways we can use the technology and social media in general to connect with people in ways we’ve never done it before.

I have some ideas about that, too. But you’ll have to get those another time.

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