Best Practices in Building Award-Winning Websites for Institutional Brands
By Raffi DerSimonian
As a proud Mainer, I’ve always appreciated some of the funny ‘isms’ that are distinctive to Vacationland.“You can’t get there from here” (spoken in a heavy Maine accent), is one of them, said when giving directions as an observation of the impossibility of traveling a direct route between certain places. This classic idiom also happens to ring true when diving into any website project without having first conducted a thorough discovery process.
An effective website must reflect the organization's mission and values, while establishing its value proposition relative to the competition in multiple ways. This is challenging to accomplish, even by internal teams, unless it has been preceded by a discovery process. Guiding your institution through a website redesign can feel like a daunting task, especially if you do not have the right process and approach in place.
Let’s explore an approach that helps maximize the effectiveness of your next website re-design:
What does success look like in terms of best-case scenario results? Are you looking for more students? Certain types of students? A more intuitive user experience? Ways to drive donor engagement? A more intuitive application process? All of the above?
However success is defined for your institution, clarity of objective is paramount when doing the necessary pre-production work required to build an exceptional website.
Start by Listening
Triumphant outcomes are almost always informed by a thoughtful and strategic approach. While each discovery process is nuanced depending on institutional goals, priorities, and desired outcomes, one constant is that there is an inclusive approach that is broad enough to reflect your wide array of audiences and priorities. This requires an intentional listening effort to collect information, data, and insights from each of your core constituencies.
Start by evaluating each existing piece of marketing, communications, and advancement collateral – digital and print. It is important to assess each for its:
Continuity and cohesion
Clarity of mission
Sophistication of storytelling
User Experience & User Interface (UX & UI)
Having a strong sense of what already ‘is’, provides a strong foundation for defining what is needed, and making it consistent with what exists.
Materials usually reviewed for this step in the process include:
All admissions and advancement marketing collateral
Campus tour materials
Visual assets (inventory of existing photography & video)
Website, social media, and other digital properties
Any existing messaging/editorial/brand style-guides
Pre-existing research that yield market insights
When possible, it’s beneficial to also review:
Marketing and recruitment plans
Lead generation and prospect management activities
Staffing and organizational structure
Current web governance structure
Know Thy ‘Neighbor’
Conducting a peer evaluation can result in important information that will allow you to truly distinguish your institution from the pack. Understanding your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses helps you to clearly define your competitive advantage, making it easier to protect and expand market share.
One way to approach this is to identify your top 3 – 4 peers or competitors, and evaluate similar elements outlined above (see ‘Know Thyself’ ^).
A comprehensive SWOT analysis helps to identify the most critical messages to focus on relative to the competition.
Let’s Get Analytical
Your institution is much more than just what the data says, however it is important to take a measurable approach. Having data-driven benchmarks in place allows you to measure the impact of your work, which is essential if you wish to compare the new to its predecessor and determine whether it is effective quickly. A few examples of data inputs to evaluate as part of your strategic discovery process include:
Google analytics: Number of visitors, unique page-views, duration on site, most commonly sought pages, user behavior, etc.
Heatmaps and visitor recordings: The fast and visual way to understand your users behavior
Admissions data: Inquiries, campus visits, applicants, students, acceptance and retention rate
Marketing & Advancement reach: Social media, alumni publication mailing lists, email lists, reachable alum, annual giving (donors and gifts)
Successful institutional website launches depend on an inclusive discovery process. This means asking all constituencies affected by website content about their website related needs, preferences, and ideal outcomes.
This step is usually best done towards the end of any strategic discovery process because having a firm grasp on the fundamentals outlined above allows for more meaningful dialog.
While insights derived from face to face meetings and informal conversation with primary stakeholders are often the most accurate, digital surveys can offer a cost effective alternative. We recommend scheduling discovery discussions and/or conducting digital surveys with the following sample audiences:
Prospective students (if possible, this group always has ample valuable insight)
Other invested community stakeholders
Specific questions to frame the discussion will vary depending on the audience. Sample questions include:
What works well with the current site?
In what ways does the current site fall short?
What are the top messages that the new site needs to convey?
How could the new site make your life easier?
How do you interact with the site on a daily or weekly basis?
What role does the site play in your own institutional engagement?
What are your top ‘nice-to-have’ vs. ‘must-have’ features?
Regardless of how this information is collected (ie. via informal discussions, focus groups, or digital survey), carefully identifying the most common themes, as well as good ideas you may not have considered yet, is essential.
Telling Your Unique Story
Your website serves as your institution’s most valuable marketing and communications platform. Building a site that reflects your mission, vision, and core values well is imperative. Being able to point to research and information gathered throughout the strategic discovery process allows you to assert confidence and to articulate the why behind many of the important decision points.
Providing website visitors with ‘evidence points’, or specific examples that illustrate your institution, they can evaluate for themselves to develop their own understanding of your your institution's value proposition. This is always most authentically reflected through individual stories of students, faculty, alumni and members of your community who bring your mission to life in their research, pursuits, achievements, and exploration.
Putting All of the Ingredients Together
The Strategic Discovery Report organizes findings into an easy to read road map of next steps in creating a website that will serve your institution well for years to come. Sample elements included in the discovery report include:
Marketing assessment summary
Overview of peers and competitors (SWOT)
Key takeaways from stakeholder meetings and constituent focus groups
Features & functionalities
Wireframes and user experience flows
Most important messages to convey (where and how)
Governance plan for ongoing management
Marketing strategies & market positioning
Now, You Can Get There from Here!
Strategic Discovery is never really finished. As your institution and its competitors evolve, it needs to be regularly revisited. This is why building a website on a flexible platform that can easily accommodate the integration of new content types, features, and functionalities is so essential.
With all of the ingredients to develop a marketing communications strategy in hand, you are now in a much better position to invest time and resources into building a website that authentically reflects what makes your institution a place of true distinction.
DerSimonian guides institutional brands and organizations through strategic marketing, communications, and advancement initiatives. In partnership with digital development firm, Eri Design, DerSimonian focuses on driving measurable engagement through informed strategy, visual impact, thoughtful messaging, and effective use of technology.
To discuss a strategic discovery process for your institution, call 207.756.0916 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.