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It’s Time to Put Your Audience First
It’s Time to Put Your Audience First


It’s Time to Put Your Audience First

Jun 25, 2019By mStoner Staff

Three Strategies for Building an Audience-First Website

1. Focus on making an emotional connection

The elements on your site’s pages must encourage and support an emotional connection between visitors and the institution.

Let’s face facts: People form impressions of your college or university based on their experience with your website. These impressions form in as few as three seconds, as site visitors respond to the quality of your site design, photography, video, and general ease of use.

Before embarking on a redesign project, one higher ed marketing leader confided to us her biggest pain point: “I don’t think anyone believes our website reflects the quality of our institution or the reputation we have among our peers.” She was worried that the site experience was harming the connection process with key audiences more than it was helping. (You might not be surprised that we hear similar sentiments all the time.)

In order to connect with audiences, you need to be telling great stories about struggle and success. You need to be listening to your audiences. Find out want they need and give it to them. Harness the power of moving images, and don’t underestimate the importance of graphic design. Color, shape, space, scale, and typography can influence people in powerful ways.”
— Ben Bilow, creative director, mStoner

Many institutions try to build this connection by focusing on features such as having expert faculty, an ideal location, great facilities, or small class sizes.

While these facets of the student experience are important, they’re not differentiators. To forge an emotional connection with your audience, focus instead on the core values and ideals that define your institution. Express those values in written stories, engaging videos, and impactful photography, and the odds of engaging your audience emotionally will increase.

The homepage show reel on wcmo.edu is a great example of showcasing the Westminster College student experience through photography.

Westminster shows students graduating and celebrating a new chapter in their lives, gathered at a football game cheering on the home team, hard at work in the classroom, and participating in different student organizations on campus. This student journey-focused show reel is coupled with the transition of three phrases — Westminster is:

  • Finding your purpose;
  • Making a difference; and
  • The start of your journey.

Visit the site.

2. Find your story

Finding your institution’s story starts with your brand strategy based on both qualitative and quantitative research.

Competitor research is also an important step. If every private, liberal arts college in New England is promising the same student experience and outcomes, then why should a prospective student pick one over the other? (Hint: “Because we’re in <enter cool city>!” is not the right answer.)

Again, we see many institutions rely too heavily on features or promises that many can claim:

  • Rigorous academics and experiential learning.
  • Professors who are scholars and researchers in their field and are also committed to your personal success.
  • An ideal location, a great campus, and awesome facilities.
  • The start of a rewarding, long career.
  • An interdisciplinary approach to learning.
  • A strong and loyal network of alumni.
  • Fulfillment, leadership, and a global worldview.
  • Friends that you’ll make for life.
  • Really, really, really (our personal favorite). Spoiler alert: An adverb does not make your brand distinctive.

Over focusing on these promises will contribute to watered-down stories that any institution can claim.

Challenge your team to think of the things that make your institution different. Back to that cool city bit: Showcase the local traditions that offer your students new experiences. Highlight unique academic programming that delights and surprises students once they arrive on campus. Or find those cultural elements that make the experience at your college or university unique. For example, Carleton College lists its nontraditional traditions, such as The Cookie House and Rotblatt. These kinds of examples will fuel stories that drive emotional connections and help your institution stand out.

We helped the University of North Carolina School of the Arts develop the tagline “We Promise This. You’ll Do What You Love.” to support their storytelling and brand strategy.

uncsa homepage image

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) website is one of our favorites. During discovery meetings, we learned that choosing a conservatory is an enormous investment and a huge commitment for students. Conservatory education is different than the education you receive in a traditional, four-year college. Students told us they didn’t want to spend the first two years of their education in classrooms learning theory.


Students want to be creating and producing from day one — and they truly are at UNCSA. That insight and promise was why we put “We Promise This. You’ll Do What You Love.” at the top of the UNCSA homepage. As part of the content strategy, all of the video on the site focuses on students in the act of creation and in the process of doing. Other institutions can’t own this the way UNCSA does.

Visit the site and read the case study.

Supporting better digital storytelling and creative brand expression were goals for Lipscomb University’s website redesign.

Lipscomb University has done a terrific job of owning its brand. Lipscomb is an unabashedly Christian university in Nashville, Tenn. As soon as you get to the University’s new homepage, Lipscomb makes the promise “Together We Lift the World.” Even the site navigation makes it clear that Lipscomb’s focus is on spirituality and Christianity. Its website passes the test: You can’t slap on another institution’s logo and have the promises and content ring true.

Lipscomb’s homepage is full of great, ownable stories. For example, when describing the location of Lipscomb, the homepage states, “Nashville, the capital of Tennessee and country music, home of the Tennessee Titans, and the world’s best hot chicken. A place that arguably has more guitars and more churches per capita than any other place on earth.”

Visit the site.

3. Leverage data and research in service to your audience

The most effective way to manage decision-making and opinion-sharing with your internal stakeholders is to point back to data to inform your decisions and promise ongoing refinement. Three ways to accomplish this are with analytics, usability testing, and trusted research.

People will have endless opinions about your website (we promise). Back up your strategic web and content decisions with data, research, and usability testing results and you’ll have an ironclad way to defend the digital choices you make.

Elmhurst College fully embraces the use of ongoing testing and incremental improvements on its .edu.

From the very beginning of our work together, a site checkup that preceded a full redesign, the marketing and web team at Elmhurst began to embrace the shift from project to process.

Elmhurst changed its mindset from looking at the website as a conventional, stand-alone project to making website development an ongoing priority and process. Post-launch, Elmhurst is working with mStoner to pursue analytics projects, user testing, a stronger governance plan, and additional web property design updates to keep its site fresh and its brand and institution front of mind for target audiences.

Jonathan Shearer, executive director, marketing and communications, said, “mStoner worked with us on what we should be tracking and what we can do in Google Analytics so that we’re much more data-informed in our future web decisions.”

The proof is in the numbers. Since launch:

  • Bounce rate decreased 18.57% across all devices.
  • Mobile traffic grew 102%.
  • Heat-map testing confirmed that new call-to-action buttons, such as the “Apply” button, attract more clicks.
  • Student stories now rank highly in click-throughs, and the marketing team plans to develop faculty and alumni stories as well.
  • Organic SEO traffic is rising due to a number of important fixes for keyword usage, link strategies, and page layout.

Data is everywhere. Use insights from data to implement smaller, incremental changes on an ongoing basis. Need a place to start? Focus on quick wins. Keep it simple by pulling data that is lightweight and useful, and that most people will understand.

Approach Your Site Differently Than You Did Five Years Ago

We love to work with clients who are ready to break the cycle of overhauling their website every three to seven years. If you’re ready to do things differently, here are some ideas:

  1. Get your analytics in order: Our recent blog post, Moving from Project to Process Using Analytics, offers seven ways you can start to make incremental changes on your website.
  2. Run a site checkup: A site checkup provides objective feedback and gives you and your team actionable information for improving your site immediately and identifying priorities for long-term development. Our clients, such as Elmhurst, tell us that site checkups help them gain internal buy-in with senior leaders and funding for more website projects.
  3. Commission a design sprint workshop: A design sprint combines higher ed knowledge with design expertise to bring the best ideas forward fast, pushing the team toward implementing those ideas and testing those ideas with real website visitors. By the end of the sprint, you and the team will have the ability to address problems immediately and create opportunities that result in a shared vision and real progress.