The university recently engaged mStoner to help launch four new sites at once — a daunting challenge for both partners.
It’s common for many universities to redesign their main .edu site and then tackle their other subdomains after go-live. Undergraduate and graduate schools and colleges, online course sites, campaign sites, student portals, research centers: there’s never a shortage of areas needing a new web presence. Like many universities, Lipscomb had slated several of its major web properties for redesign. Unlike other universities, however, Lipscomb needed all of them to launch at once.
Lipscomb didn’t set out to launch four major sites at once. The original scope called for a redesign of the main site and their K-12 academy site. However, as these projects got underway, the university was also approaching the public phase of its largest-ever capital campaign and investing significantly in a slate of new, online programs. Like storm clouds, all four marketing efforts started to converge on the same horizon: Fall 2019. And suddenly, it was very clear that Lipscomb needed to build an ark.
Spoiler alert: they survived the flood. And emerged mightily transformed.
Although the strains on both teams were numerous, producing all four sites at once did open up notable opportunities and advances.
Chief among the advances was Drupal 8, the content management system (CMS) that mStoner implemented to power all of the sites. Many efficiencies flowed from this choice: content sharing across sites, reusable page templates, cross-functionality, better training programs, streamlined updating and governance, and the perfect platform for future expansion. Because each site had different audiences and business goals, almost every decision during the build process had to be examined from four angles. The result was a robust implementation.
Another opportunity, which the CMS facilitated, was the ability to share storytelling content across the sites, and in more places on each site, with a “create once, publish everywhere” approach. Take the incredibly moving profile of student LeBron Hill ’19, who overcame homelessness to earn his Lipscomb degree in journalism. The new site allows Lipscomb to share LeBron’s story on the main homepage, a program page, an alumni page, a campaign page, and a college landing page. LeBron’s story is about the power of community — how the local shelter, a local church, a devoted Lipscomb instructor, and even the president of Lipscomb University rallied behind this young man. So it’s fitting that the entire Lipscomb community can now experience his journey.
While the sites have different objectives, Lipscomb wanted them to share certain brand elements. In mStoner’s design, the fonts and colors and some of the content types (images, headings, teasers, links) follow a pattern that repeats across the sites. Yet each site accomplishes a unique visual representation of the Lipscomb brand.
Lipscomb Vice President of Marketing, Dave Bruno said a push for bolder images from mStoner’s Creative Director Ben Bilow made all the difference in bringing Lipscomb to life.
“Our old site didn’t feature our campus or students or faculty. Ben was pushing photo, in conjunction with the design, to be bolder. He said, ‘You need the images to make this site work.’ And the new site displays them fabulously. This is a really, really significant update for us. We have a beautiful campus and location, and it’s nice to be able to highlight that now.”
Bruno recalled hearing mStoner speak at an industry conference about the importance of program pages. “mStoner emphasized that students want a university that delivers a program they’re interested in. The program is the product. So we aimed for a website that was more ‘product-specific.’ The previous site focused on the colleges but didn’t provide a lot of information about the MBA program, for instance. We made sure we flipped that, so key programs like the MBA rose to the top.”
Moving toward a program page model required a heavy lift, with more than 300 programs to present and not much existing content for each aside from course descriptions. Lipscomb and mStoner arrived at a content strategy and design that standardized the individual program pages. Quick facts, career paths, and the same two show/hide sections display across every page. This strategy had two advantages: 1) it helps visitors compare and contrast programs in an apples-to-apples fashion; 2) these standardized sections also carry over into the online programs site for a seamless program-shopping experience.
A best-in-class, custom-built, and interactive Program Finder helps students navigate quickly to the programs they are most interested in. It also surfaces programs students may not have been aware of and visually demonstrates the breadth of offerings at Lipscomb.
“This was an interesting beast for us!” said former Lipscomb Director of Digital Marketing Kyle Gregory. As the only preK-to-12 school on a college campus in Middle Tennessee, Lipscomb Academy needed to communicate this differentiator through a solid content strategy. “We realized a parent’s journey is different from an undergraduate’s journey,” Gregory said. “We were also reorganizing the Academy internally from three to two schools. The new site meets parents where they are and also gives the Academy a lot of room for growth.”
“Whether through videos or static content or story sections, we knew we would want to integrate story really heavily into the site,” Gregory said. “We also needed a site that was practical. It had to relay detailed information about the campaign and tell donors about our priorities.”
Lipscomb wanted to make the transition between shopping the on-campus and online programs as seamless as possible for the prospective student. However, they had to work within the constraints of their service provider’s software and interface design. mStoner’s solution was to leverage the same core content across online and on-campus pages: quick facts, the “program foundations” show/hide, and a three-column row of marketing touts.
Then the team created an entirely fresh, edgy take on the Lipscomb brand for the site’s visual design. “We pushed it really hard,” said mStoner Chief Operating Officer Bill McLaughlin. “And the online site looks really modern in electric purple. We also came up with the ‘LipscombOnline’ wordmark too. It wasn’t part of the RFP, but rather than settling for something average, we kept pushing until we found something that worked better.”
The challenge for the campaign site was to balance very robust storytelling with long-form content. “Whether through videos or static content or story sections, we knew we’d want to integrate story really heavily into the site,” Gregory said. “We also needed a site that was practical. It had to relay detailed information about the campaign and tell donors what our priorities are. So the design system supports some longer-form content and makes it possible to impart that info to the donor more palatably.”
As with the other sites, the launch timeline necessitated putting some content plans on the back burner. “We created an experience we could grow into,” Gregory said. “There’s a lot of planned content, and we’ll build more and more of this as we progress in the campaign. We got what we needed for launch and we have a great path to build out in the future.”
Kyle Gregory, Former Director of Digital Marketing at Lipscomb University
This was a transformational project for Lipscomb. Having never attempted anything on this scale before, the team says it has been a game-changer in terms of their marketing and communications clout, as well as their team dynamic. They are delivering great results on a number of other important strategic projects, in addition to the high-quality products of this undertaking.
In terms of site performance, bounce rate is down while time-on-site and pages per visit metrics are increasing. Bruno said, “We had an order of magnitude in increased traffic to the online site compared to our College of Professional Studies,” which served a similar audience. The program pages are getting more hits across the board and now rank in the top 100 pages visited.
Kyle Gregory is sanguine about the future of the site. “With any project like this, you only get to 70 to 80% where you want to be with content generation. Having a framework flexible enough for the future is our greatest takeaway.”
Dave Bruno feels that Lipscomb’s web presence finally reflects its true caliber. “The reality of what it’s like to attend Lipscomb outpaces its reputation. These sites do a great job level-setting the brand of the university.”
Discovery report; content and web strategy; information architecture; user testing; responsive redesign; visual design templates; art direction; brand identity; program finder creation; thematic CSS development; programming and site implementation; content migration; quality assurance testing.