When it comes to websites, too many colleges and universities view theirs the same way they’d view a building on campus — something that requires maintenance once every 5 to 10 years. The process is all too familiar. A new president comes in and doesn’t like the website and messaging, so a rebranding initiative is born, a CapEx budget is carved out, and the fun begins. But this, to put it simply, is the wrong mindset. Let’s put aside the accounting justification for depreciating a large redesign project over time and focus on the prioritization of digital spend as a strategic initiative.
The days of the higher ed website acting as a digital brochure and repository for internal pages and links are over. They’ve given way to the website serving as a strategic vehicle for recruitment and engagement that drives enrollment and retention. This shift has been marked by an explosion of marketing technologies like personalization, marketing automation, and predictive analytics that, after proving their success in the commercial world, are now showing up at colleges and universities as the pressure to compete for students has become more fierce, and the challenge to meet enrollment numbers more critical.
This shift dictates a new model for the website redesign process. One which recognizes that change must be iterative and ongoing, a continuous feedback loop of data, tweaking, testing, and refining. The fact is, improving enrollment numbers and other metrics isn’t rocket science. For example, schools focusing on the inside of their prospective student funnel rather than pouring money into the top of the funnel can yield impressive results. It’s well within reach and it’s more cost efficient, so why isn’t everyone doing it? Because it requires a different mindset.
This change in mindset is a recognition that the college or university website isn’t just a “marketing” initiative, but rather one that must be supported by admissions, IT, development, and, most significantly, the Office of the President. Whereas these departments typically function in their own silos, these groups need to become cross-functional in order to create an institutional website that understands and engages with its audience, measures its results, and improves on itself all the time. There is huge value to operating this way as a regular investment in marketing that can be mapped directly to increasing enrollment is everybody’s win, not just that of marketing or admissions.
For many, shifting toward this new way of thinking about the website requires changing their content management system (CMS) (and potentially other systems), as many of them are outdated and don’t support the role digital marketing now plays in higher education and its breakneck pace. While these changes are by no means trivial, they are critical toward supporting this new mindset, which calls for the website to be treated as a continually evolving asset.
The past few years have seen a trend in which schools are bringing in people with experience outside of higher ed, from marketing and communications to the Office of the President, to help solve the problems colleges and universities are facing today. By adopting some of the practices commercial marketers use to build success, higher education can create strategies for long-term success.
So, what are the specific areas of your digital properties that need ongoing love and attention?
- Content Strategy, Messaging, Writing, and Governance — It’s not a one-and-done activity. Things change. People leave. Audience needs shift. The strategy and plan you implement will, inevitably, need to adapt to fit your changing goals, needs, and target market.
- Metrics — Analytics contain a treasure trove of valuable information that is often underutilized at colleges and universities. Your data should be reviewed on a regular basis as the insights gleaned are constantly in flux and will have a direct impact on your tactical action plans.
- Content Management System Updates — The CMS is a key engine for the all things digital. It requires ongoing oversight to ensure it is keeping up with high-value, cutting-edge user features and security updates.
- Personalization — While personalization is a great way to connect with prospects by offering them content they find valuable and meaningful, it is not a set-and-forget feature. It requires constant content creation, testing, analysis, and tweaking.
Starting the Journey
Changing mindsets can be a long process, but the payoff is worth the effort. Here are some guiding thoughts that can help you to navigate the often choppy waters.
- Make the Pitch For a Bigger Operational Budget — Use data to prove the return on investment on converting prospects in the funnel, rather than investing in more names for the top of the funnel.
- Get Buy-In — It’s definitely easier said than done, but it’s hard for others to refute the value of digital marketing when you can prove your success with actual numbers.
- Sell the Value to the President — Starting at the top to get everyone on board ensures alignment, cooperation, and support as you and the team work toward a successful website redesign outcome.
- Choose a Flexible CMS — A flexible content management system will allow website managers to add sections and features quickly, integrate with other systems, and move it all to the cloud (no more waiting for IT to do it!).
- Think Data — Own and understand your data. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds, and you’ll have so much insight into your audience’s behavior, preferences, and needs.
- Iterate and “Fail Fast” — These concepts are typically associated with commercial sites, but there’s no reason why higher ed can’t follow these practices and reap the benefits as well. When something doesn’t work as planned, acknowledge it as a team and adapt.
- Break the Wall Between Admissions and Marketing — Meet with the other side regularly to share information and ideas on how to obtain better insights into the student journey. Working together to analyze website data and improve conversions is a win for both groups. Start small, figure out what benefits both groups the most, and focus efforts on it.
- Teach Others Your Perspective — It may not happen overnight and there are some who may never see your way of thinking, but involving and educating others is a critical building block for change.
- Start With a Conversation — Identify your advocates and challengers. Get the advocates to join your movement and find out what the challenger’s concerns are. Address their issues as well as you can and try to convert them to your side. See how far up the food chain you can go.
- Consider a 3rd Party Facilitator — These conversations can unearth deep rooted frustrations and high emotion. Having an outside facilitator can help keep the process productive, professional, and moving in the right direction.
Changing mindsets in order to change the redesign budget process at a college or university can be very challenging, but the rapidly shifting landscape in higher education and the threat to its long-term success is opening up opportunities to explore new solutions. There is no better time to propose dramatic change, and while it may start with baby steps, those steps quickly become strides making the shift both surprisingly easy and empowering for everyone involved.