You can’t buy that kind of love. Elmhurst, a small, private liberal arts college just 16 miles west of Chicago’s Loop, cares for its community so successfully and serves its many types of students so well that it is sometimes mistaken for a community college. The college’s former website did little to counter this. “When you walk on campus, you immediately get a sense of the community and the feeling of home,” said mStoner creative director Ben Bilow. “But when you visited the Elmhurst College website, you didn’t get any sense of the people or this beloved place at all.”
Elmhurst’s site had evolved organically over time and with varying sensibilities and priorities. The consequences of this stopgap approach were a diminished user experience, a diluted brand impression, and missed chances for serving target audiences effectively. With its sesquicentennial on the horizon, Elmhurst was eager to redesign its website, focusing on refined information architecture, a clean and modern look with engaging visual imagery, and dynamic content targeted to specific audiences.
Elmhurst’s executive director of marketing and communications, Jonathan Shearer, scheduled a website checkup with mStoner before tackling a full redesign. This preliminary audit gave Shearer immediate DIY suggestions for the site, a longer-term roadmap for a total redesign, and objective feedback he could take to senior leadership to gain buy-in for the big-ticket redesign.
“The site checkup with Voltaire Santos Miran and the mStoner team was a great way for us to find some quick fixes for the existing website,” Shearer said. “They gave us 15 action items that we could do to improve the site ourselves. When it was time to redesign the full website, we bid out to three different firms, but returned to mStoner. They were the best fit because their design style and strategies really aligned with ours.”
The website checkup also saved Elmhurst time during the redesign process. Bilow said, “Elmhurst felt very strongly and positively about a number of things in the site checkup that clarified for us what we needed to prioritize in the new site design.”
The new website empowers Elmhurst to provide cohesive storytelling to its most important audiences. The initial launch in October 2017 rolled out marketing-critical pages of the site — those with the most important content for prospective students and their influencers. By the end of December 2017, Elmhurst’s entire site featured the newly designed page templates, and Elmhurst content managers had a much-needed, modern, and easy-to-update content management system (CMS) in WordPress.
Shearer believed firmly that the new site could tell the Elmhurst College story if it could show the authentic, personalized Elmhurst experience via different student voices. “The student stories on the homepage really brought in the personal touch that was missing on the old site,” he said. “They get a lot of traffic; people are clicking through to read the full stories. mStoner also recommended that we provide unique content for each of our prospective student audiences on the admissions landing page. The large thumbnails on that page target each audience and lead to subpages designed specifically for them. As soon as you get there, you’re able to find yourself.”
To complement the new site, Elmhurst committed to investing in high-quality photography and videography. “We didn’t have the imagery for a larger site like this,” Shearer said. “The new site is almost high-def compared to the old site, which had small, pixelated images.” Shearer’s team organized a comprehensive, campus-in-autumn photo shoot, resulting in updated assets they could also use for other marketing initiatives.
Large video banners on all of the top-level pages in addition to the homepage provide visitors with an immersive glimpse of campus life. Shearer points out that they also further the visitor’s journey through the site: “The video banners really pull people in.”
Elmhurst’s new mobile experience accomplishes a major goal of the redesign: creating a consistent visual experience across all devices. Visiting the mobile site feels just as much like stepping on campus as the desktop site does now.
mStoner content strategists translated Elmhurst’s brand pillars into benefit-oriented messages that the marketing team can use when refreshing or creating new content. mStoner also suggested ways to articulate each message in different sections such as student life, academics, transferring, and admissions pages. Elmhurst’s writers then fleshed out full-page text for priority pages.
The content strategy on the homepage aims to cast Elmhurst more accurately as the high-ranked, four-year institution it is. “People have mistaken us for a community college because of our name,” Shearer said. “But we’re far from it. We’re very well-ranked and that’s why we brought the rankings to the forefront on the homepage.” The homepage highlights not just rankings, but also fast facts about Elmhurst’s Division III athletics, residence life, financial aid, and campus activities — all of which correct the misperceptions that Elmhurst is a community college.
The content strategy and visual design also give more prominence to the college’s social media channels, extending the brand story and user experience beyond the website. A social media aggregator runs across the homepage, highlighting the vitality and high volume of activity on campus in large photos and text boxes.
The new mobile experience accomplishes a major goal of the redesign: creating a consistent visual experience across all devices. For Bilow, the mobile-optimized design now has a vibrancy in color, typography, videography and photography. “Visiting the mobile site feels just as much like stepping on campus as the desktop site does now,” he said.
— Ben Bilow, creative director, mStoner
Under Shearer’s leadership, and with mStoner’s ongoing assistance, Elmhurst College has moved beyond the conventional idea of a website redesign as a stand-alone project. By making website development an ongoing priority and process, the Elmhurst team keeps its site fresh and its brand and institution front of mind for target audiences.
Post-launch, Elmhurst is working with mStoner to pursue analytics projects, user testing, a stronger governance plan, and additional web property redesigns. “mStoner helped us keep our post-launch projects realistic in terms of our staff size,” Shearer said. “They have also 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.”
Benchmarks since the site launch are encouraging:
Some of the most rewarding encouragement for Shearer came from faculty. “Everything just flows so much better on this new design, and a lot of people said they feel like the site breathes now. I actually had an email from a professor who said, ‘This is the best thing I've seen in my time here at Elmhurst’ — and she’s been here since the ’90s. When you get feedback like that, it’s really amazing.”
Content and web strategy; discovery interviews and focus groups; brand messaging; responsive redesign; five page design templates; art direction assistance; information architecture; WordPress implementation; thematic CSS development; programming assistance; quality-assurance testing; site governance, and sustainability recommendations