Tulane University is widely known as one of the country’s most well-respected research universities, but its former site didn’t convey this as well as it could have.
- A legacy site from 2007 was trying to serve all audiences equally with a kitchen-sink navigation.
- An admissions microsite, while polished, was carrying most of the responsibility for representing Tulane to prospective undergraduates.
- Social media integration was all but absent.
- For a top research institution, it had no real estate dedicated to research.
- Staff members knew that the web design didn’t reflect the institutional caliber.
- They also knew they weren’t fully leveraging the rich imagery of the New Orleans campus.
Executive Director of University Web Communications Rachel C. Hoormann understood that building a beautiful, distinct, and effective prospect-centric site required a comprehensive redevelopment strategy. Hoormann already had the backing of senior leadership as well as strong relationships with campus stakeholders because she and her team support department websites on a daily basis. All she needed was a partner to create and guide implementation of the right solution. Enter mStoner. “Being able to say, ‘mStoner is developing this,’ really helped me with buy-in around campus, since they’re known as such a thought leader in web strategy,” Hoormann said.
In coordination with Tulane’s exceptionally driven web communications team, mStoner began the process by conducting brand research, interviews, and data-gathering. The site’s priorities emerged organically from this data, giving Hoormann and the stakeholders confidence that their strategy was based on evidence from their own user groups.
- Position prospective students as the primary audience for the site.
- Relaunch with more branded content that effectively represents the caliber of Tulane.
- Bring cohesion and consistency to Tulane’s web presence with one Tulane.edu with multiple sections.
- Leverage the university’s investment in Drupal, making it easier to edit and publish content.
- Establish a governance structure that increases collaboration throughout campus.
The key thing is to have strong buy-in from your leadership in terms of that consistent look and feel throughout the university. I know the people above me will back me up, which gives me a mandate and more confidence when I talk to our schools.
— Rachel C. Hoormann, executive director of university web communications, Tulane University
Setting the Strategy
Hoormann’s preference for data-driven decision-making dovetailed well with mStoner’s strengths in research, testing, and best-practice knowledge. Our meetings and focus groups yielded useful insights, such as how much prospective students valued the flexibility of the curriculum. Tulane is one of the few universities of its size that allows students to major across different school. For example, it’s not uncommon to find a finance major with a music minor.
mStoner’s 200-page strategy for Tulane went beyond IA, content, tech specs, and design recommendations. Using results from a competitor site review and its own research and expertise, mStoner applied best practices to landing pages, calls-to-action (CTA), imagery, and other components. Detailed sustainability, governance, and staffing recommendations helped the Tulane team ensure the strategy could be implemented and maintained over time. The strategy document also tackled key questions such as:
- How can a sense of place permeate the site, and what’s the best balance between campus and New Orleans imagery?
- How do we best highlight Tulane’s strengths in research and where?
- How can the current team provide improved, immediate support for decentralized units?
- What’s the relationship between design, structure, and university messaging, and how can the site express it consistently?
- What is the five-second experience the site gives to visitors?
Everyone agreed the university’s web presence should have a unified look and feel across all units — but each had slightly different audiences. One of the questions we addressed was, ‘What is the ideal level of individuality?’
— Ben Bilow, senior creative director, mStoner, Inc.
Testing the Strategy
Hoormann also counts the various stages of testing mStoner led as an essential part of the project. The team tested some design directions early on and shared the results with the campus community to help bring stakeholders on board.
Hoormann leveraged the user testing report as an evidence base when communicating with Tulane’s leadership. “Having data to stand behind in terms of the decisions we made was key. That’s a practice I’m going to continue as the site evolves. Everyone wants to tweak the design of the page in some way, but now I can test their suggestion to see what’s truly effective. And if their suggestion works, then that works for everyone, and if it doesn’t, then I have the data.”
Setting It Free
The finished site makes a strong visual impact, prominently highlights Tulane’s research, conveys the rich culture of its New Orleans campus, and offers visitors a streamlined navigation. CTA are performing well, driving new inquiries and traffic to admissions and giving pages. Taking the strong stance that prospective students had to be the primary audience has paid off internally: The feedback from the admissions office has been “so enthusiastic — they feel like its really helping them tell the Tulane story,” Hoormann said.
For Hoormann, one of the greatest successes was the project’s management. “This is not the first redesign I’ve done or the last, but it is the one I’m the most pleased with,” Hoormann said. “Usually with a project like this, there’s a point where I’m just not happy with it anymore. But that just didn’t happen with this project.”
Hoormann and her talented team aren’t wasting any time carrying their strong site management skills forward. She checks every page once a month for any stale content or broken links by dividing the site into four groups and tackling one group per week. The hefty communications department at Tulane churns out three to four news pieces a day, from which Hoormann selects relevant new ones every week.
Tulane is a top-drawer institution, and the way they manage their site is top-drawer as well. The site is clean, and they publish new content all the time. Many new sites don’t work as well.
—Ben Bilow, senior creative director, mStoner, Inc.
Just weeks after launch, the web communications team was already collaborating with Tulane’s many schools to offer new templates and access to the university’s Drupal environment.
“Everyone is really excited about the new design and move to Drupal,” Hoormann said. “We’re working with five schools and many departments right now, with several more waiting in the wings.”
The Tulane web team had the buy-in of senior leadership and the campus community for a new website — but they needed a data-driven, comprehensive strategy for how to go about it.
Brand, content and web strategy; brand research; brand focus groups; project management strategy; concept testing; responsive redesign; competitor research; content development; usability testing; information architecture (IA); content management system (CMS) implementation; thematic CSS development; programming assistance; quality assurance testing; CMS training; analytics consulting; site governance; sustainability recommendations