Partner selection is the crucial first step for many colleges and universities embarking on a website redesign. It’s likely one of the most significant decisions a higher ed marketing leader will make. And it’s a high-stakes decision: The website is your institution’s most visible and accessed marketing and communications channel for most of your audiences.
Most importantly, your creative partner must understand the strategic vision of the institution, bring the right creative and technical expertise, showcase past success with similar projects, and instill trust among senior leaders and the project team.
When we conducted research this fall with senior marketing leaders responsible for choosing their institution’s website redesign partner, they reinforced the above criteria. And they identified another equally important factor that weighs into the decision but is harder to quantify: chemistry, or a desire to partner with people you actually like and a team that aligns with your values.
As one marketing director put it, “We have to know: ‘Do we click?’ Because, honestly, we have to work with these people for at least a year. We need to understand what their personality is like.”
We recently shared four ways mStoner will support your decision-making and six recommendations to help you get the most from your selection process. But the right fit is critical, so what are the signs to look for early in the process?
Conversation: A Valuable First Step
One of the most valuable steps of the process for everyone, whether or not a formal RFP is required, involves good old-fashioned conversations.
We recommend conducting one-on-one phone calls with potential partners instead of (or as an alternative to) a written Q&A process. These meetings will help you form a first impression — you can learn a lot about the quality of an agency and suss out their interest in working with you during these conversations. (If your university requires a procurement-driven RFP process, consider speaking to your short list of agencies before releasing the RFP.)
During our research, a marketing leader shared that the pre-RFP conversations they had with potential partners gave major, early clues about who would ultimately be the right relationship fit. Her team captured how the conversation went and their feelings about chemistry after the phone call by jotting down quick notes.
Trust your intuition and make it count. Alongside scored selection criteria such as cost, previous experience, and ability to fulfill project requirements, consider reserving points for chemistry.
We understand how time-consuming it is to meet with even a handful of agencies, so here are five items you can document and share upfront or in your RFP to result in more efficient and effective meetings:
- Recent research or related projects: Tell potential partners what else is happening on campus. Is strategic planning underway? When did you last conduct brand or market research? Have you recently audited your website content? Are you in the process of rebranding? Have you contracted with a new CMS provider? Shed light on any projects or processes that impact your redesign needs; it may highlight some efficiencies or gaps that need to be addressed.
- Staff capabilities: Understanding your team’s expertise helps smart agencies scope projects better so there aren’t frustrating or costly surprises halfway through the redesign. Do you have terrific content writers or developers on your team? Are there photographers or videographers accessible on staff or as freelancers? Are you well-positioned to handle content migration internally?
- Institutional goals: Chances are you’ve known for a while that your college’s website needs an overhaul. So what finally kicked this project into motion? Alongside details about current site challenges, share the “make-or-break” factor that led to greenlighting the project and what you expect on the other side. Are you hoping to recruit a larger or academically stronger class in your next enrollment cycle? Do you have a capital campaign shifting into the public phase? Have you been hit with a warning that your site isn’t ADA-compliant? When you meet with potential partners, listen to how they talk about measuring success to see if it aligns with your vision.
- Qualities of your ideal partner: What one client values most may be a deal breaker for another. Figure out what matters to you, your project team, and your institution. Do you want a partner who collaborates with you? Do you want one with expertise in the industry? Is this project an opportunity for your team to learn new skills? Articulate this early on to help set expectations and build rapport.
- Budget and timeline expectations: Transparency saves you time. Share your budget ceiling and ideal project time frame. This helps you stay focused on potential partners who can meet your requirements.
It Takes Two
From the moment you reach out to mStoner, we also begin to determine if the makings of a great partnership are present and if our team’s values are in alignment with yours.
We have five characteristics that we look for to help determine a good match:
- Support from leadership: As a marketing leader, you know how essential a great website is to your institution. Are senior leaders on board too? A successful redesign involves stakeholders across the institution, open dialogue, and shifting of resources. Without vocal backing from leadership, the process can sputter and stall. We want to ensure you have the support necessary to embark on this work — and we’ll arm you with resources to get them on board if they’re not quite there yet.
- Alignment in expectations: We carefully consider your timeline against our own calendar to make sure we’re best able to support you in accomplishing your goals. And we’ll put careful thought into how we can best align your outlined scope within your budget expectations. If the fit isn’t there, we’ll be transparent with you about that as early as possible.
- Value of a project-to-process mentality shift: We want to help you break the cycle of embarking on a website overhaul every five years or so, so we take note when you recognize your university’s site is an investment. How are you tracking and reacting to what resonates with your myriad audiences? What drives your decision-making for the current site? When institutions tell us they’d like their website to be part of their annual budget, it’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction — toward ongoing testing, experimentation, and iterative enhancements to evolve the site in response to audience needs and institutional goals.
- Signs that collaboration and collegiality are highly valued: We believe that the best solutions are those that we develop together, and we value open, honest communication with our clients. We strive to make our work together an enjoyable and exciting experience for all parties. When reviewing an RFP or chatting on the phone, we pay special attention to your anticipated engagement in this work and your team’s interest in collaboration to result in the best solution for your institution. We love to share our experience and best-practice recommendations with you — but no one knows your institution and its needs better than you and your team.
- Success criteria: While page views and time spent on the site are valuable, they’re not the only (or, arguably, true) indicator of success for your new site. When reviewing a project opportunity, we want to understand your institutional goals. Some common ones are increased engagement, important conversions, brand alignment, and even a massive paring of site pages — whatever puts you on the best path toward an improved digital experience. When you indicate goals and criteria for which we have a demonstrated success record, we’ll share past results with you through our case studies.
Resources for Your Redesign Next Steps
Here are five helpful resources to help you prepare for your redesign:
- Webinar: Redesign Done Right
- Webinar: Digital Admissions
- Webinars: Break Up With Your Homepage
- Blog Post: It’s Time to Put Your Audience First
- Blog Post: Get the Most from Your Partner Selection Process
And of course, we’d love to brainstorm and chat with you about your upcoming projects. Here’s how to get started and options for getting in touch with our team.