Reexamining Your Institution's Web Presence

What makes a college or university stand out from the crowd? Is it a beautiful campus? A dedicated and engaged faculty? A good mix of relevant degree programs? These qualities and many others are shared by so many institutions that they’re hardly differentiators that will spell the difference between a school being a prospective student’s finalist or fallback.

That’s where one large challenge comes in for college marketers: How to identify and effectively communicate what makes your institution exceptional. And in the always-on digital era, your website is now the primary tool for conveying these messages, particularly to the world beyond your immediate geography.

This raises a second, related challenge. The key to getting that messaging right, as well as other important aspects of a website redesign, is soliciting input from across the board, engaging all disciplines and departments in the process. Unfortunately, not many projects cut that wide a swath in a largely siloed, decentralized environment.

In an age when digital has become such a key channel, the colleges and universities hat embrace this concept will outpace those that don’t. It’s not a financial question anymore, a bifurcation of the haves and have-nots; it’s more of a mindset issue. While having the vast resources of a major institution certainly helps, it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a website project if it’s not seen as the central hub of your overall communication efforts. And if it isn’t used as a chance to engage an inclusive set of stakeholders from across campus, it’s a huge opportunity missed.

A reexamination of your web presence can be just the kind of exercise that can serve as a catalyst for honing and improving messaging around your mission, values, differentiators, and strengths — everything that makes the educational experience at your institution unique and vibrant. This is because such a project cuts across silos and forces participants to unify around the common task of how best to present your school to the world.

Through this process, a school can identify and surface topics and themes that become the connective tissue as well as part of the genuine storytelling that effectively gives voice to the school’s identity, transcending any silo of the organization.

The Discovery Process

Because a website redesign is able to bridge the divide between silos, project team members are able to uncover valuable information and insights that normally would stay tucked away in corners.

First, ask the senior leadership team of the institution point-blank, “What do you  believe in so deeply that you’d be willing to go out of business rather than sacrifice that core value?” The more often big questions like that are tackled, many times using the website project as a catalyst, the better the end product of the improved web presence will be.

That’s not to say that just because a school’s leadership team hasn’t completely figured this out, they can’t engage in something on the scale of a redesign project. In fact, it may be figured out, but just not well implemented throughout the organization. No matter where you are in the process, it can help spur a candid dialog about where you are, fostering that type of inward reflection and discovery that helps you define your core mission, values, priorities, and differentiators.

Three important elements in the discovery phase are fact-finding, vision creation, and consensus building. The first is fairly straightforward, involving a gathering of information from stakeholders and research efforts already in place. The next one requires some deep thought and serious discussion. The third is often the toughest one: How do you get an institution that is filled with committees and large, entrenched structures to get on board and onto the same page?

A focus on inclusiveness is one way to do effective consensus building. Colleges and universities are filled with lots of smart, talented, opinionated people, many of whom can parachute in at the last minute and say “no.” The best approach is to identify those people and engage them early in the process, so when you get three-fourths of the way through they can’t parachute in and say, “I didn’t have a say.” Rather, their input is considered and valued.

The Differentiators

The discovery process will quickly surface distinctive qualities that set the institution apart, as well as identify outstanding assets that are under-marketed. For example, Quinnipiac University has a nationally recognized polling institute; this is a real differentiator to be celebrated and showcased.

While every school isn’t going to start a polling institute, each should understand what assets help separate it from the pack when prospective students and their families (and even prospective faculty) are in the evaluation process. The University of Puget Sound has “theme houses;” Rice University’s 11 residential colleges celebrate the unique personality of each; the University of Redlands has its “Och Tamale” chant; and Stonehill College has a unique asset: a shovel museum! Certainly no one is going to decide on a college because of its shovel museum, but quirky assets like these — when presented properly online — can attract attention and interest from prospects. In an age of increased competition for students, these kinds of things are memorable and can help tip the scales.

Creating a Multiyear Strategic and Tactical Road Map

Too often when it comes to a web redesign project, schools are too focused either on strategy or tactics without tying the two together. They have either a very strategic thinking organization that isn’t strong on producing an end result, or a very tactical-oriented focus that implements a series of one-off deliverables that have no tangible connection to meaningful business outcomes. Someone coming from a tactical orientation might say, “We need to have a mobile site, or this microsite, now.” While there’s nothing wrong with that statement, all too often it’s not made in the context of a strategic plan that asks: What do we need to accomplish independent of the tactics themselves?

Having a multiyear road map for developing the institution's web presence and online communication plan allows the team to develop a series of tactics that are directly connected to strategic initiatives and measurable business outcomes. In the setting of a college or university, those outcomes are tied to three key areas: efforts in advancement, admissions, and academic reputation. When the university leadership hears how the project can positively impact all three, it gets their attention.

Related to the road map piece, this section of the overall process often acts as a catalyst for other objectives. For example, Regis University needed a website redesign concurrently with a period of major transition that included the hiring of a new president, a new CMO, and brand marketing team, and changes within the IT department including the departure of the CIO. The website project became a sort of foundational backdrop, a framework that helped them work through this period of transition.

The Decision Process

Often, a school will form a web committee to oversee the project, then spend time trying to figure out what the committee should be called. What they really need to focus on is, “How are we going to make decisions, given the context of our situation, our institution’s organizational structure, and everyone who wants a say?”

The successful decision process happens on two levels: An all-inclusive portion that gathers input from every stakeholder group, and a smaller group that is empowered to make final decisions based on careful analysis of all the input.


If an institution sees its website work as merely a look-and-feel or technology project, they’ve missed a significant opportunity that’s going to prove detrimental almost immediately upon launch. They need to view their web presence not as an important communication tool but as the primary hub for all their external and internal marketing and communication efforts. In many cases this specific undertaking can have a positive impact on parallel initiatives. A college's or university's website then truly becomes a digital platform, making the whole greater than the sum of its departments, programs, and offices.


Jeff Johnson is vice president and managing director of digital agency Primacy. He can be reached at

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