Embracing Location, Community, and Values

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Embracing Location, Community, and Values

University of North Dakota

The University of North Dakota has always been ahead of its time.

Founded in 1883, six years before the state itself was established, UND gave North Dakota its name when the former Dakota territories separated into two distinct states. Today, UND is a busy 550-acre campus, the state’s largest. It has emerged as an innovator in medicine, law, energy, aviation, and aerospace. The university is increasingly regarded as one of the top academic and research institutions in the nation. And, as any college sports fan will tell you, it’s an athletic powerhouse.

image of website front page image of program finder gallery of images from website image of page from website image of mobile pages from website image of homepage

Like many institutitons, UND initially built and grew its website piece by piece, without a unified vision. In 2010, the university introduced a content management system (CMS) in an effort to streamline branding and navigation, but it didn’t require everyone to use the CMS. Without centralized management, the site eventually ballooned to more than 30,000 pages that varied in accuracy, timeliness, and presentation.

UND’s needs were clear: a cohesive, comprehensive site that could serve more than 13,000 students in at least 250 academic programs –– and a way for its staff to manage all that content. Most important, UND wanted to reach an audience it hadn’t expressly prioritized before: prospective students.

“mStoner was on my radar because I view them as a thought leader in the industry,” says Tera Buckley, assistant director of marketing and creative services at UND. “I kind of had a crush on them,” she says with a laugh. “But they did have the best proposal at the best value.”

What unfolded was an 18-month project with an extensive scope, including more than 50 deliverables. “Tera and her in-house team were open to pushing boundaries and creating something together that would enhance the perception of UND,” says Ben Bilow, mStoner’s creative director. The massive redesign culminated in a strategic rollout of recruitment-focused pages that are already resonating with the class of 2023.

student playing trumpet
student with virtual reality mask on
grads in cap and gown
student with airplane

Storytelling as Strategy

North Dakota is a unique place, shaped by its geography, climate, and pioneer spirit. “You won't find a flatter place on earth, I can guarantee that,” says Buckley. “And it gets very cold. We consider it a badge of honor in a way.”

mStoner recognized that the university’s “North Dakota-ness” was a crucial differentiator, as were its stellar academics and reasonable tuition rates. “You're getting a top-tier education with an affordable price tag,” says Buckley.

In that spirit, mStoner and UND identified three major content strategy goals:

  • Infuse every page with a singular UND brand identity.
  • Demonstrate UND’s value to prospective students.
  • Embrace North Dakota — its location, community, and values.

To direct UND’s strategy with user experience in mind, mStoner developed a series of personas –– fictional characters that represent typical site visitors. These included a local high school senior seeking a high-value education close to home, a parent planning college tours with her daughter, and a graduate student looking for strong research opportunities. “We printed them out and had them physically on the wall for the first few months,” says Shannon Lanus, content strategist at mStoner. “We could look at our goals for particular marketing pages, and then look back at the key goal posts on the wall and ask, ‘Does this work for them?’”

Student-Inspired Design

Bilow says his design work was inspired by the students’ stories. “This is a very complex institution with a lot of competing properties,” Bilow says. “We needed to create a design system that was flexible enough to accommodate many aspects of the university's business, while also appealing to newbie prospective students who may have very little knowledge of how a university works. In other words, we had to create a highly functional design that was also emotionally resonant for people who had never heard of UND.”

To visually engage users, the new homepage showcases dynamic large-format photography and compelling, active messages such as “Drive the world forward.” A prominent social media feed celebrates students’ personal victories and the camaraderie of campus life.

A highlight of the new homepage is a storytelling module called “UND in Action.” This versatile tool, with options for video and large-format photography, allows the web team to easily create profiles of outstanding students and alumni. Recent stories include an aviation grad who now flies unmanned aircraft for a defense contractor and a pair of student athletes who launched a successful podcast. “It’s a way to bring rich and diverse stories from across campus to tell one cohesive story of UND,” Lanus says.

A Program Finder with Purpose

By far, the most game-changing aspect of UND’s new site is the university-wide, comprehensive program finder, showcasing the university’s more than 300 programs.

“We laid the groundwork, the taxonomy, in terms of identifying what programs were assigned to what skills and program types,” says Lanus. Then mStoner’s design and development teams created a visually stunning, searchable grid that presents all its programs in one place.

The program finder streamlines the university’s messaging, Buckley says.

There’s a little bit of a marketing slant in the messaging. We tried very hard to differentiate each program, to give a prospective student a reason to want more information about it.

Tera Buckley, assistant director of marketing and creative services at UND

mStoner’s content team wrote 275 individual program pages, using the collaboration software GatherContent as a hub. “We created a tightly structured workflow that gave marketing and communications a chance to give feedback, but also allowed the department and faculty members to make sure the content reflected their program,” says Lanus. mStoner added more than 200 faculty members as users and assigned them to their departmental pages. “We gave them free rein to comment on whatever they thought was missing or inaccurate,” she says. “Sometimes they’d recommend language that helped home in on what makes their program distinctive. Giving them the space to contribute was definitely a win.”

The program finder also helped UND solve a rather analog problem: program fact sheets. “We had been developing one-page, printable PDF files of every program we offered, and admissions would take them out on the road,” she says. mStoner built a feature into the program finder that, as Zguta explains, “generates PDFs of program page content on the fly, as a visitor requests it. We solved the need for that content without requiring them to maintain something separate. It's never going to be out of date.”

Smarter Searching

Underpinning the program finder is a new site search function built with mStoner’s partner Funnelback. The company’s offerings include a search product specifically designed for higher education. “It’s what operates the search bar in the header,” says Zguta. This allows the UND team to create sets of preferred search results that are most likely to be relevant to its various audiences. “Each program might have keywords associated with them, and they can be managed over time. It's a nontechnical sort of thing to manage,” he says. “It gives users a way to quickly find what they're looking for, because the search applies to programs but also applies to things like administrative offices. For example, if someone searches for financial aid, we want [the page for the financial aid office] to be the first result every time.”

In Touch with Mobile Users

The mStoner team built a mobile-native site for UND. The result is a browsing experience that’s seamless and stunning, no matter the size of one’s screen. A mobile-first mindset isn’t just about screen real estate or images that load quickly, though. As Zguta points out, there are more profound paradigm shifts in our relationship with screens. “One that we talk about a lot is touch,” he says. “With a desktop design, we talk about about clicking. We ‘click here,’ or we hover over an item and have an interaction. But ‘hover’ doesn't exist on mobile.”

mStoner creates sites with an “everywhere first” mentality so that the user experience is seamless across all devices. “These types of decisions become part of the whole process,” Zguta says. “It's not just the technical things –– it’s the content strategy and the design. It requires our whole team to think about how things are going to work on all types of devices before we actually build or deliver anything.”

Rolling with the Waves

Visitors will never guess UND.com is under construction as the site undergoes an elegant transition through a strategic and feasible phased rollout. The first “wave” prioritized recruitment-critical pages, including admissions, financial aid and the program finder. The next waves build out pages for individual programs and schools, student services, and resources for internal audiences.

The phased rollout also gives the large UND community time to acclimate, to create new content, and, if necessary, to receive CMS training that empowers them to take ownership of their pages. “We decided that training would be mandatory to get access,” says Buckley. This ensures that there aren’t scores of inactive or insecure accounts, because everyone with access knows how to use the system.

Early Results

As the first wave ends and the second wave begins, Buckley reports that UND’s newly recruitment-focused site, with straightforward calls to action, is generating leads –– lots of them. “So far, we've gotten about 1,500 inquiries per month,” she says, noting that this is especially encouraging in the typically slower months of June and July.

Buckley also reports that the on-demand, printable PDFs from the new program finder are a hit. In the first two months after launch, almost 900 program PDFs were requested by site visitors.

With the site rollout still underway, Buckley reflects on the project with characteristic North Dakotan pragmatism. “mStoner was very good at helping us plan and stick to the plan,” says Buckley. “I know exactly how much money we spent, I know where we spent it, I knew exactly when things were going to be delivered. Everything was just completely on track. They’re very easy to work with, and they know what they're doing.”

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