If you approach your next big redesign with some key principles in mind, it could be the last large capital investment you make on your website.

Clients and their constituents rightly focus on what their website looks like, how it works, and what they want to say about their institutions. These are essential components of a redesign, of course! But a bigger challenge for many institutions is recognizing that some of the issues that must be addressed as part of a big website redesign initiative really don’t have much to do with the website itself.

But overall communications integration, governance, and what and how analytics are captured and used must be addressed when you’re working on a big redesign website project: it’s the only way to ensure that the website continues to be relevant and vibrant over time. They’re often indications of flaws in web governance and other internal processes that manifest in many unhealthy ways on the most visible and important part of your communications, marketing, engagement and service ecosystem.

In fact, it’s fair to say that clients who successfully tackle these and related challenges are able to realize a goal of moving toward improving their websites over time rather than through massive projects every three to five years. It further allows them to evolve and limits the time and money spent on the much more common need to do those periodic major site overhauls every five to seven years. This approach means that staff can focus on keeping the website fresh and ensuring that it continues to produce meaningful results over time.

This is a key shift away from doing a huge website redesign. We call it a shift from project to process. If you approach your next big redesign with some key principles in mind, it could be the last large capital investment you make on your website. Instead, you’ll shift spending into budgets that accommodate ongoing improvements and the huge amount of time spent on a redesign toward evolutionary change guided by professional staff members who are informed by data about whether they’re meeting key goals or not. Sound appealing? It is. In fact, it’s the only way to operate in these days of leaner staff and tighter budgets.

The most important issues

Throughout our time in business, we’ve advocated for our clients to treat their websites as the hub of their communications and marketing ecosystem. That means taking them seriously as products in their own right and also recognizing that, like other significant communications, they need to be integrated into the rest of your marketing and communications; managed effectively; and resourced appropriately. And the better institutions are making sense out of the data they are tracking, the better they are at making changes that really improve their website’s performance — and getting meaningful results.

Step 1: Integrate communications

One key place to start is to make sure that the website really is central to communications and marketing. Is the look and feel reflective of and integrated with your other communications? Does the content and messaging on the site reflect your institution’s brand and positioning? Is it linked to the content in your other communications — viewbooks, magazines, emails? Does your content strategy include key web content?

Individual components of your communications may already be powerful and effective on their own, but when they’re closely connected to the rest of your communications they become even more powerful. That integration makes it possible to plan campaigns that link your print communications to your website and to digital advertising, or social media campaigns to a university event that takes place in real-time and online.

This becomes critical when you consider stepping up your digital marketing efforts. Making sure you’ve thought through your institutional brand personas, keywords, and have focused on making your web pages search-engine friendly will provide a strong foundation for more integrated and more effective digital marketing campaigns.

Centralizing content in your CMS can allow you to share it across your site — whether it’s a powerful and moving story about a student who went from homelessness to a degree or COVID-19 updates. Your website can then truly become the hub of your communications: a content calendar linked to goals and key messages can guide recruitment messaging and storytelling on your website, blogs, Instagram, and other social channels. These stories and messages can be amplified by your other communications — email and postcards, text messages, and other tools. In an environment like this, you’ll be able to tell stories more effectively and in-depth and make sure that people who want to see them are able to engage with them, making storytelling more powerful and sustainable over time.

Step 2: Establish clear governance

Perhaps the most important questions to ask are: Who’s really in charge of the website? And, do they have the resources they need to produce a first-class product that gets results for us?

Ultimately, success of your website depends upon identifying the overall web manager and team. Someone has to be tasked with making the strategic decisions about what happens on the website right now — and who’s making sure that it evolves as new needs emerge. And they must have resources and authority in their role, especially if the team is a small one.

Once authority is established, there’s actually a great deal that can be done to make content easier to manage and update.

Web editors dispersed through the institution are usually part of a plan for effective web management. But you should determine whether the right people are involved — and whether they’re managing the right content. You can also explore what guidelines, standards, systems, skills, and training they need to be motivated and effective partners in managing your website.

Finally, in rebuilding the site, you can stay laser-focused on making sure that areas of content that should be maintained centrally and then linked to by every page on campus. For example, every department site on campus should link to a central location for campus visit and travel information, rather than duplicating that information locally. That way, if a major road is closed for construction and directions to campus change, the information only needs to be entered in one place. Redesigned workflows embedded in a campus CMS can support these new content sources, enabling editors to update the content about their department. And members of the central web team can more easily review this information and coach their colleagues, if necessary. And you can build CMS templates to reinforce this process.

This process involves more contact and collaboration with dispersed editors, but it results in much more effective content — content that’s up-to-date, on-brand, and supports powerful storytelling on the site. While it’s a really big step at institutions where web content is maintained and updated by a team of editors spread across the institution. The most well-meaning editors will fail at their tasks if they lack a clear vision of their roles and don’t really understand how to create and deploy effective content for their areas of the site. We know this is a difficult challenge: it involves coaching, training, and periodic reviews. But it’s essential if an institution’s web content is to continue to meet standards that we should expect of a high-quality college or university.

For example, Purdue University Northwest’s web team consists of three people. When redesigning PNW.edu, they knew they had to be able to maintain their new site without adding staff. mStoner had this in mind when designing page templates and building the back-end of the site’s custom WordPress platform from scratch. Together, the PNW and mStoner teams made a few savvy decisions to help PNW manage the site going forward:

  • The web team identified many areas on the former site where there was duplication of content and effort: people listings, news items, events, and program blurbs. The new content management system gives the web services team the power to manage this content centrally and push it to different places throughout the site. “Now, if we make an update in one spot, it updates everywhere instead of us having to hunt for it,” James Seidler, PNW’s director of web services, shared.
  • The new toolkit of content modules is small. “We didn’t want a lot of one-off tools swelling the site with different components,” Seidler said. “Instead, we were cognizant of taking stock of what we needed during the content evaluation. Now, we’re able to represent experiences we might not have considered by using this small toolkit.”
  • The web services team also trained web editors throughout the university on the new system and continues to meet with editors one-on-one to answer questions. The editors are submitting more news, events, and people listings, giving the web services team more content to push to areas they manage. And, perhaps best of all, the entire marketing and communications team benefits because this process alerts them to exciting announcements and news that previously flew under the radar.

Step 3: Define goals and measure them

When tackling a major redesign, it’s essential to review your current analytics processes and ensure that you’re capturing the data you need to inform both the current redesign and ways you can improve your site in the future. You can use this data to connect digital performance back to strategic and financial goals.

Gathering the data is important, but what you do with the numbers you collect — the actionable insights you uncover for immediate improvements to your website — is what matters. Moving from big website projects to a sustainable process is a more effective and pleasant way to maintain a website. There are ongoing opportunities to improve brand perceptions, web content, site performance, conversions, organic search traffic, overall user experience, and much more. Using analytics as a driver of your process is a great way to prioritize and keep focused on changes that make a difference.

For example, our initial work with Elmhurst University involved a large-scale web redesign project that included a strategic analytics component: we worked with the university’s web team and others on campus to clarify important institutional goals and implement the tools and processes for tracking them. While Elmhurst doesn’t have extensive analytics resources, they’re very focused on using what they have to meet strategic business goals. And one important goal was to track the results from various campaigns to gain registrants for university-sponsored information sessions. These sessions are set up for programs across the institution and many departments on campus — and external agencies of various kinds — are involved in managing and publicizing them. The goal was to track conversions to these programs and be able to tell what media influenced the signups and to capture this information in the university’s CRM, Slate.

Accomplishing that goal involved coding on both the website, various microsites, and in Slate. But as Greg Zguta, director of client support at mStoner, who led the team, the complicated coding was worth it since Elmhurst can reuse it for new programs. The team now knows what media and campaigns are most effective and can make decisions that improve the reach of new initiatives.

As this example suggests, capturing relevant data that enables you to make necessary adjustments to your website or in programs that rely on it. You want to identify clear goals and then set up processes to measure the progress you’re making against those goals. You could be testing new designs for campus visit pages or seeking conversions from academic program pages to applications or boosting enrollment in key graduate programs. You’ll want to be as clear-eyed as possible about these as you look at capturing and reporting data.

Here are a few examples of how you can start to think differently about data you may already be capturing — and use it to start rethinking how you approach your own analytics. This is helpful in measuring the effectiveness of your own site but it’s critical in setting it up as the hub for interactions and conversions as part of a social media campaign or other digital advertising initiative.

  • Unique visits. Tracking new and existing users is a great place to start. But dive deeper to find out how many of these users are unique. Filter out internal audience IPs for a clearer understanding of who visits your .edu. Looking at unique visitors gives you a more realistic idea of the size of your audience. For institutional websites, audience size is important when setting conversion goals. If the goal is to increase online applications by 10%, for example, you want to make sure you’re taking 10% of unique visitors to the site, not 10% of all page views. After all, one unique visitor could view your application page three times.Unique visitors can also help you understand visitor behavior. For example, unique visitors who return to your site may be an indicator that your content resonates with them. This is key info for engaging prospective students and nurturing their journey to apply.
  • Organic traffic. For a good number of our clients, organic traffic is the top source of traffic to their website. Organic traffic describes traffic to your site that comes from search engine results and not paid ads. It’s the most important form of traffic you can get to your website for one main reason: it’s targeted. Targeted visitors come to your .edu for a specific reason, meaning they are more likely to convert if you can provide the solution to their query. You can make this easier by tweaking your site’s UX, but another, less popular but highly effective way to do it is to improve your site search functionality. For the University of North Dakota’s website, mStoner implemented a site search solution that gives users a way to quickly find what they're looking for, from academic programs to administrative offices. To make sure they see the most relevant results, the UND web team creates sets of preferred search results and makes sure that the ones that appear on top for a search are the ones that most people select.Driving more organic traffic to your site also justifies an investment in SEO. Build a keyword strategy that optimizes your site so you’re displaying on page 1 in search engine results. Make sure to include your academic programs, renowned faculty, and resources such as tips for applying to college. Download our 15-point on-page SEO checklist for some quick wins to strengthen your SEO game.
  • Bounce rate. Clients will sometimes ask us for a “good bounce rate,” but bounce rate can be a tough metric to interpret. Think of a “bounce” as someone landing on your website and leaving before they even click on any other pages. The bounce rate is, therefore, the percentage of people who leave your site immediately. As a general rule of thumb, your overall bounce rate should be below 40%. While a majority of clients meet that criteria for their homepage, they miss it for many other key pages on their sites. This is a great reminder to treat every page as a landing page. Make sure there are clear and direct calls to action on marketing-critical pages and use short and user-friendly Request for Information forms on every academic program page. Anchor your links to SEO keywords and help users find the content they need.

As you move to strengthen the links in your ecosystem and embed your website at its center, some of the most important decisions you make are behind the scenes. When undertaking a website redesign, give proper attention to complex processes, people, and policies that will affect positive change at your institution. Shift your thinking so your communications are sustainable and evolving to meet user needs. One of the most valuable steps of the process for everyone involves good old-fashioned conversations. Let’s chat about your communications ecosystem.