I began my higher ed career in early 2008. From the outset, colleagues talked about the “core” site and how we would re-design it that year. I had no idea what core site meant so I asked (in my interviews, the term core was not used, just the generic “site”). They told me it was the homepage, the landing pages for each of the global navigation areas, a couple of pages below those landing pages and all the featured news stories (not to be confused with regular news). After a short while, I came to realize that the core site was, essentially, all the pages left over once you took out all of the other sites — the academic departments, administrative departments, athletics, clubs and orgs, etc. The core consisted of maybe three dozen pages, if that. It was those three dozen pages that were to be re-designed by the team during the course of 2008. This struck me as odd given that I came from an agency where a three dozen page site with nearly no functionality would take maybe two months to complete even with other projects on my plate. How could such a small portion of the site take so long to re-design? And, why did the re-design project only include the “core” pages? What about the rest of it? Why did everyone talk about the site as a loose confederation of smaller sites instead of as a comprehensive, cohesive whole?
The answer to those questions revolved around the university’s decentralized management model for the web. It meant, and still means, that each group on campus inherently controls their own website independent from everyone else’s. Similarly, the web team (my team) controlled the core site. To put some context around this, let me state the web team’s two fold function:
- To market the university through the so called “core pages.”
- To offer our web expertise, via a client-vendor relationship, to university groups who need help.
The key to this post is the word market. It’s our job to sell the university — to attract new students and then convince them to apply and enroll. In this regard, our audience is prospective students. However, the admissions department is also charged with attracting new students and marketing the university. So too is the brand marketing group. On top of all that, the bigger schools on campus, like law and business, also house a team of marketing types to drive their enrollment. Do you see where this is going? None of these groups are part of the same team nor reporting structure. Only the brand marketing and web groups live under the same vice chancellor, but on a day-to-day basis they are wholly independent from one another. You can see how this decentralized model creates duplication and a potential for groups with the same mission to work at cross purposes.
If you combine the problems of multiple groups doing the same thing independent of one another with the notion of each one managing and controlling their own sites under the university’s umbrella website address, things become even more confused. Finally, add to the mix all the other campus units — the academics departments, administrative departments, etc. — controlling and dictating their own sites and you have the confusion that is a higher ed website.
And so we arrive at the title to this post. If the job of the university’s site is first and foremost to attract and convince prospective students to apply and attend our institution, then shouldn’t the entire site be managed under a single vision and with a single plan? I realize there are other audiences that a higher ed site needs to address, but that can be accomplished through audience segmentation. For our purposes here, the only audience that matters is prospects. In those terms, what’s the difference between the admissions website from the overall website? I don’t think there is a difference either from a website management perspective nor from a prospective student perspective. So I offer up some advice: end the confusion of all these multiple sites and simplify down to one — The Site — with the address www.yourSchoolName.edu. What are the characteristics of The Site?:
- The Site is focused on the needs and wishes of potential students. There is no obvious overlap or inclusion of information intended for any of the other audiences. That only confuses what should be a straightforward pitch. Other groups have their own place tailored to their wishes and needs.
- The Site is about presenting the true value of the institution in honest, proactive and engaging terms. It’s not about marketing what the university wishes it could be or hopes people will like. It’s the difference between authenticity and spin.
- The Site is about presenting a single design / a single brand / a single experience for prospective students. It’s not about communicating as many different sites as there are groups on campus. That’s just confusing and divisive.
- The Site engages people in conversation, connects them with the information they want and creates desire within them to act. It does not create hurdles, try to be clever nor put itself ahead of it’s customers.
- The Site is confident in itself. It doesn’t pretend to be 18, doesn’t attempt to sound 18 nor want to be 18. It does have confidence that 18 year olds can speak on its behalf to other 18 year olds. It is confident that site visitors and current students can interact with one another in positive ways. It is confident in providing the necessary tools and platforms for those interactions to take place.