What Higher Ed Sites Could Learn From Barack Obama

One of the main arguments I hear against my mantra of centrally maintained websites for higher ed is that a decentralized approach allows academic departments the flexibility to market their programs based on their students’ specific characteristics and needs. Academic department’s tell me that their particular students are special and different from all other departments’ students. Therefore, their website has to have a custom design in order to stand out.

My issue with that argument is that, taken to its logical conclusion, every single department at the university essentially gets a different website. House them all under the www.yourUniversity.edu umbrella and you get the mess that is the modern higher ed website of today. Upper management is glad to see that every department gets individualized marketing attention and department personnel feel good that they have the ability to communicate uniquely.

Of course, in none of this acclaim and back slapping has the customer — students — had a voice. From their point of view, they experience a hodgepodge of loosely associated websites all claiming to be the same university. They struggle to find information because there’s no single underlying structure. They’re frustrated, but have no recourse because there’s only one university site to go to (it’s not like they can click to a competitor school’s site to get the information they need- they’re a captive audience in this respect). 

A centralized approach to higher ed sites does take away the ability to have unique designs for every department, but I will argue that this is a minor inconvenience at most and a complete red herring at least. A single “look and feel” doesn’t equate to an inability to be unique. All you have to do is look to the Obama presidential campaign to see this in practice (hat tip to the Higher Ed Marketing Blog for the link).

Obama, running for president of the United States, arguably has to speak to many more diverse audiences than does a university. Yet, all of his communications, all of his messages and all of his marketing materials down to the fonts and color palette are all the same regardless of whether he’s talking to a group of senior citizens at a nursing home or to college students at a campus rally.

Any well planned strategy will transcend low level squabbles about “our students are special, give us a custom website.” It doesn’t matter that anthropology students as a group are different from math students. What is important is that they all share the same kinds of needs in terms of wanting academic program information, tuition and financial aid information, social activity information, sports and athletic program information, and so on as your research indicates. Those commonalities should direct how and why your website is the way it is. Obama successfully communicated a single brand to a giant melting pot of diverse people on a national scale. It can surely be done at a university.

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