Truth: Your next website redesign can be your last large-scale capital investment in your web presence.
It’s time to break the cycle of overhauling your institution’s website every three to five years — or five to 10 years. When we treat our No. 1 marketing channel as a recurring capital expense, we open up our institutions to a painful pattern of major effort and investment followed by dwindling attention and insufficient resources that leads to a recapitulation of all the issues that drove the previous redesign. Rinse, repeat.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can shift your institution’s approach from project to process by establishing a regular rhythm for implementing changes and enhancements to your site.
1. Commit to ongoing improvements.
Focus on a few strategic changes every quarter or every six months. Establish a regular rhythm of implementing changes and enhancements to your site. Make improvements and learn from mistakes on an ongoing basis.
Ben Bilow, mStoner’s creative director, offers three things you can do in between a redesign.
He writes, “Let’s make a pledge … If it’s time to plan for your next redesign, we will build it to last. Your new college or university website will be maintainable, flexible, and modular. It will evolve along a continuum, where changes to design and content are responses to audience needs and institutional goals.”
How do you know what site improvements will move you closer to hitting or exceeding your goals? Test and experiment!
For example, you might create and test a couple of variants of key page elements, such as the color and the text that you use for a call to action on specific page. Deploy an A/B test and discover what combination of words and colors works together best. Based on the results of this experiment, cascade changes across the rest of your site.
3. Find insights in your website data.
During the past 17 years of building websites for higher ed, we’ve found that well-intentioned people can make really bad decisions based on good data. Learning how to draw insights from data is part of the paradigm shift. It’s not enough to scan a high-level audience report from Google Analytics once a month — you need to figure out the why behind the what. Your analytics will help you identify existing issues, but it’s your job to diagnose the cause and to generate potential solutions.
For example, web managers often debate how far visitors scroll down key pages, and whether visitors need cues to help them see important content. Gaining insight on visitor scrolling behavior requires tracking scroll depth on key pages and reviewing the data to determine how visitors scroll. Equipped with this knowledge, you can make important content placement decisions.
4. Focus on what will best serve your site visitors.
By focusing on data and experimentation, you’ll be able to base your decisions on what will best engage and serve your target audience(s). Don’t base your choices on internal politics or individual preferences. Instead, focus on the people you’re trying to serve.
Usability testing is a structured process for evaluating how well a visitor gets from point A to point B for a particular task or series of tasks. You can do this internally or hire an external partner. You’ll learn a lot and receive actionable information from conducting a handful of one-on-one sessions with members of your target audience. (We recommend testing eight to 10 individual sessions per study.)
Are your conversion rates lower than you want them to be? You may have a usability issue. Construct a usability test that focuses on the prospective student’s journey to requesting more information, researching programs, or applying. The firsthand feedback you receive will help you diagnose how well your website is hurting or helping the admissions process.
If you need to build the case that your site is not representing your institution well, there is no better ammunition than a clip from a website usability session featuring a prospective student discussing how bad the site looks. This helps your institution’s leadership understand at an emotional level that change needs to happen.
2. Conduct a site checkup.
Hire a consultant to provide you with objective feedback and recommendations for near-term, mid-term, and long-term improvement. A good site checkup will contain feedback on information architecture, content, visual design, user experience, and actionability. As a result, your team will have a prioritized roadmap for immediate design updates and content improvements to your most marketing-critical pages, and for long-term priorities.
3. Perform an accessibility audit.
Accessibility is one of those things that everyone wants to care about. But for most, accessibility compliance usually falls on the “to do as you have time” or “somebody else is responsible for that, right?” list — that is, until the first complaint or lawsuit arrives. An accessibility audit will allow you to identify specific issues proactively on your site that you need to address.
Kim Ward, mStoner’s front-end developer, wrote a terrific post on the seven user characteristics you must consider when developing accessible content. She also details the five fundamentals of accessibility, if you’re looking for a checklist to help you evaluate your site.
An accessibility audit also provides a foundation for ongoing training. The more you know about your website’s accessibility issues, the more you’re able to develop specific training for your site editors and publishers. For instance, if you discover that content editors are not entering ALT tags, then you know to better explain the purpose of an ALT tag, with examples, during training.
4. Get your analytics in order.
Collecting data is important, but it’s what you do with the data that matters. Getting your analytics in order provides a baseline so you can better set goals for your site improvements.
Consider developing a dashboard for your most meaningful metrics. Of course, you first need to figure out what your meaningful metrics are. We recommend focusing on some combination of the following:
Once you’ve identified your key metrics, collect them on a real-time unified visual dashboard designed to display data and context clearly, and then facilitate interaction. The dashboard should be easy to extend and to tailor when sharing information with key stakeholder groups such as senior leadership.
Take the four steps outlined above to establish the beginning of data-driven decision-making for your website. As a result, you’ll take decisions outside of the realm of, “I don’t like that shade of green,” or “The dean thinks that this is important to put on the homepage,” to “What will best serve our audiences? What do our site visitors need and want, and how do we get our site to best support their journey?”
Voltaire Santos Miran EVP, Web Strategy I've developed and implemented communication strategies in education for more than 20 years now. I think my team at mStoner is the smartest, funniest, and coolest group of colleagues ever, and I can't imagine being anywhere else. Except Barcelona. Or Paris. Or Istanbul. To quote Isak Dinesen, "the cure for everything is salt ... tears, sweat, and the sea."