As a Web consulting company, we spend almost every day talking with college/university administrators about their websites. I might ask a prospective client, “how do you feel about your website?” or “is the site effectively meeting the university’s objectives?” Frequently, marketing directors will candidly admit that their websites ‘need help’ or ‘ought to be refreshed’, but they aren’t doing anything about it.

Often, these executives run into a common problem: they don’t know where to start. There may also be variations of this challenge. For instance, many colleges distribute ownership of the website across many different departments, so it can be difficult to get people ‘on the same page’; most university administrators have busy schedules during the school year and just can’t find the time to make long term plans for the Web.

Whatever the obstacle is, please know this: if you’re a higher education executive who’s responsible for the school website, you cannot afford to put an underperforming website on the backburner.

So how do you get started?

This post is not meant to be a complete guide for planning and executing a university-wide Web transformation project. Rather, my goal here is to provide a few simple steps that will help to get the ball rolling. Based on our experience helping dozens of colleges through these projects, we have found that the earliest, internal processes usually consist of the following actions:

  1. Form an Inter-Departmental Web Committee – this should consist of vice presidents and/or directors from Admissions, Marketing, Advancement and IT (or the equivalent offices). This may vary from institution to institution, but these administrative offices generally have the biggest stake in the performance of the university’s Web presence. To keep decision-making processes simple, keep the size of the committee around four to six people.
  2. Set a Meeting Schedule and Stick to It – once you’ve identified the key people who should participate in the committee, reach out to them and articulate your long-term intentions of improving the effectiveness of your organization’s website. So that this initiative doesn’t fall through the cracks, it is critical that you schedule recurring meetings to plan (and eventually begin) your project. This could be a half hour every other week in the early stages.
  3. Define Primary Organizational Web Objectives – think about real strategic impact, and try to agree on about five or six high-level objectives for the college’s Web presence. In our experience, these tend to boil down to goals surrounding student recruitment, alumni engagement, fundraising, external communications and/or internal communications. For inspiration, consult your organization’s strategic plan.
  4. Identify Areas for Improvement – once you’re focused on the big picture goals—the ones that directly impact the university’s strategic plan—it will be easier to pinpoint the specific gaps with your ‘as-is’ Web presence. For instance, if you’re fully aware of trends in the mobile industry (particularly among young people), it will be obvious why it’s a bad idea to have a website that isn’t optimized for tablets and mobile devices. The committee should be able to identify several specific problems with the site that can be used to justify a Web transformation project. A few examples:

    “The navigation is unintuitive, making it difficult for students to submit an application.”

    “The dated look and feel of our site limits our ability to keep alumni engaged with our university.”

    “Only one person in the entire school has the ability to update Web content, which is a significant bottleneck in our internal process.”

  5. Start Building a Project Plan – this doesn’t have to be as detailed as you might think. You’ve determined the main goals of the website, and have identified the biggest problems; now it’s time to figure out what to do about it. If you haven’t done a Web overhaul project before, you should be thinking about high-level deliverables like a website audit, new information architecture, a creative redesign and implementing a Web Content Management System (CMS).
  6. Justify Web Expenditures – this tends to be the most difficult step in beginning a Web redesign project (and any project, for that matter), particularly during tight financial times. Being able to hone in on tangible drivers for the website helps significantly to strengthen your message to the ‘higher ups.’ Of course, it helps to corroborate your message with data like this research study, in which 25% of high school students bound for college indicated that they removed a university from their list of prospects after a bad experience on that school’s website. Budgeting for this kind of project is also more feasible when different departments—i.e. Admissions, IT, Marketing—are sharing the costs.

Tip: In all of these activities, try not to focus only on the visual appeal of the public-facing website. The people and processes required to manage and maintain an effective Web presence are equally as important and also have tangible implications on organizational success.

Maintaining Momentum

In order to actually get moving, it’s important to bring all of your administrative colleagues up to speed on the progress that the Web committee has made. A 2-4 hour interactive presentation or workshop with key decision-makers—e.g. Vice Presidents and Deans who aren’t on the committee, the President, the Provost, etc.—is a great way to showcase your perspectives around the gaps and challenges with your current Web strategy and execution. Ideally, the thought and effort you have put into defining objectives and justifying Web expenditures will help you to garner the support of other leaders across the college.

The way to go about delivering a project varies from school to school. Some universities have large teams with wide creative and technical skills who can deliver the majority of tasks within a Web transformation project. Other colleges have one fulltime person dedicated to the website, and no one with any Web design or development capabilities. Whatever the case, organizations frequently end up looking to outside resources to help them deliver some part of their plan. So, be ready to seek out and evaluate consultants, agencies and software vendors.

Please use this post as a guide to get moving forward with your efforts to improve your Web presence. If you run into any snags, or find that you need an outside perspective, don’t hesitate to call us for help.

Please comment below with your questions and feedback, and feel free to add me on Linked In!