So how did some of the most media-savvy professionals in higher ed redesign their website to better share their own story?
They followed the classic storytelling maxim: show, don’t tell. “We focused on making the site as visual as possible and keeping the text as short as possible,” says Beth Moellers, who oversaw the website redesign project at Medill. “mStoner gave us a lot of places in the design to show what sets Medill apart from others.”
The Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University has trained generations of highly respected journalists and advertising and IMC professionals for more than 95 years. The school offers undergraduate, graduate, and online courses and operates programs in Evanston, Illinois; Chicago; San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; and the Northwestern University program in Qatar (another mStoner client). Many people aren’t aware of the school’s programs in other regions and in disciplines other than journalism, so the new site had to make the full breadth of offerings immediately visible.
The former site also devoted much of its space to school news, which at first seems to make sense for a leading journalism school. This strategy, though, required constant updating and didn’t allow the school to show prospective students some of its most exciting features. “You don’t get to tell the story you want to tell if you focus on news, which is such a mix of things,” Moellers says.
Medill’s dean, Bradley Hamm, felt strongly that as a school at a top-ranked university, Medill should have a top website, too. On why Medill selected mStoner for the redesign, Moellers says, “We felt like they would listen to us. We thought mStoner would understand our vision, follow direction, and trust our expertise on Medill content, while still bringing best practices from the education industry. We liked the site they created for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.”
Ben Bilow, creative director for mStoner, recognized that showing the school’s leadership (instead of simply telling audiences about it) meant featuring powerful images and superior copywriting throughout the new site. The final design also had to comply with Northwestern University’s well-established branding. “We were working within some constraints,” he says. “I think that was good; it kept our work really focused. But we definitely pushed the boundaries as much as we could to help Medill stand out as a distinct and unique entity within the university.”
To approach storytelling from a design angle, Bilow also gave the homepage a narrative flow by balancing types of content and design styles. “Visually, we created a balance of light and dark, large and small, content and white space, which helps bring you down the page without overwhelming you,” he says. “Both the visual design and the narrative of the featured content are telling a story.”
Jane Flis, associate director of marketing for Medill, played a key role in reviewing the content strategy mStoner proposed. “We knew from the research, and mStoner’s work with us, that landing pages are often a user’s gateway to our site, especially via a Google search,” Flis says. “We wanted to make our landing pages robust and use them to tell the Medill story.”
Flis reports that landing pages are now receiving more views, especially for one program in particular. “We focused on building out the content for that program to make it more meaningful, and it’s seeing a big increase in page views, which I’m really excited about,” she says. “I hope that means people are finding the content more valuable and spending more time with it.”
mStoner talked about designing for ‘everywhere first’ instead of ‘mobile first.’ As in: the user experience should work across every device. As a result, time on site has increased across all platforms.
The new site also conveys Medill’s leadership by showing off one of the technologies developed by the Knight Lab, the school’s innovation center. A landing page features the lab’s popular timeline tool, used by The New York Times and other major outlets, to illustrate some of the program’s landmark moments. “Showing prospective students that they will use the same tools that modern journalists use to tell stories is a pretty integral part of discovering and understanding Medill,” Bilow said. “It shows that this is a cutting-edge place where new thinking happens — where journalism, marketing, and technology all share a core mission of telling stories that move people.”
Ben Bilow, Creative Director, mStoner
Moellers and Flis report strong findings. The landing pages for all of Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications programs — many of which struggled under the old site’s structure — are receiving more unique page views in a year-over-year comparison. Some pages now receive double the traffic. Session duration year over year for all devices has increased as well. Desktop session duration is up 45 percent year over year, and mobile is up 11.7 percent.
Medill’s undergraduate admissions office reports it received 24 percent more applications for the undergraduate journalism program for the 2018-2019 school year in comparison to the 2017-2018 school year.
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.