by Allison Banko
Boston is considered "America's College Town" for a reason. The region is home to more than 80 hubs of higher education that nurture a quarter of a million students.
But because there are so many options in Boston, the battle for universities to get those scholars in the door is a tough one.
Emmanuel College, a small liberal arts and sciences college, is one of the many institutions continually striving to differentiate itself to increase student enrollment. Molly Honan, the college's Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications, explained that Emmanuel's niche is appealing to the prospective student whose "priority is being in Boston."
With a student body of 2,000, Emmanuel boasts a residential campus within the city that is two blocks from Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.
"It's definitely a very full-time campus environment," Honan said. "Other schools that we compete with have much more of that urban feel, so we really feel like we have something unique here."
Emmanuel's goal, she added, is to communicate that the college's location provides its students with all the culture and activities Boston has to offer along with access to the city's internship opportunities.
Though websites serve as a key communication tool for colleges, Emmanuel's former site structure
was outdated, having been designed six years ago. There have been many technological changes within the past decade, Honan explained, especially when it comes to how people use and consume content. Emmanuel itself has changed as well.
"Because we were growing so much, we added buildings during that time period," she said. "We've added academic programs; we've added athletics teams."
Adding these items to the existing Emmanuel website muddled its architecture, she explained. The site also lacked central locations for key information. Instead, important information lived in many different places throughout the website, making the site's navigation quite difficult.
These pitfalls, paired with "too many pages" (including duplicates) and a setup that wasn't designed for widescreen desktops or mobile devices, meant it was time for Emmanuel's website to experience a change of its own.
Emmanuel's team opted to overhaul its existing website with a full-fledged redesign.
"I think it started as all websites do: with a really clean and logical architecture," Honan said of the existing site. "But things happen, so this was really an opportunity to rein that in."
The vision for the college's new website included making it both mobile-friendly and accommodating to widescreen desktops.
The site would host more multimedia content and integrate social media to appeal to its high school audience of prospective students.
On the backend, Emmanuel strived to make it easy for its small staff to update pages with fresh content.
Emmanuel wanted to keep its website's audience at the forefront of the redesign process. While prospective students are its primary audience, the website also serves current students, parents, Emmanuel employees and alumni.
No matter the visitor, the team wanted the site's new architecture to allow visitors to find the information they're looking for with ease.
Another key driver, Honan said, was to discover how the website could tell Emmanuel's story in a compelling way through the creative use of content.
After the redesign was complete, Honan said she spoke to colleagues at other schools, and they asked her, "How much content did you automatically port over from the old site?"
"None," she replied. "We really took it down to the studs."
Step #1. Form group of internal stakeholders
Honan had undergone a website redesign process prior to her time at Emmanuel, giving her some helpful know-how for this effort.
One thing she learned, she said, was to first gather an internal group of stakeholders to offer perspectives from Emmanuel's key areas.
These areas included:
- Alumni and Development
- Academic Leadership
- Academic Services
- Student Financial Services
- Web Committee
- Graduate Studies
- Student Affairs
- Web and Tech Core Team
- Campus Ministry
- Academic Technology
- Prospective students and parents
Honan and her team hired nearly a dozen individuals to form this group of stakeholders.
"Those [stakeholders] were really the heads of our key areas of the college who had staff that they were able to represent," Honan explained.
This "steering committee" helped Honan and her team answer key questions such as:
- From your respective areas, what are your thoughts on the website?
- What is the direction we need to go in?
"It really started there, and I used that group at the big milestones along the way as kind of a touch point," Honan said.
This group was first tasked with vendor selection for the redesign.
Emmanuel's team released a request for proposal and received six replies. The stakeholders then narrowed those down to three vendors who presented their redesigns at Emmanuel.
The team's final selection was based on an emphasis on research, strong project management capabilities, and a solid understanding of Emmanuel's challenges, opportunities and brand attributes.
Honan said she applauded that the vendor selection process was a big, collaborative effort instead of being solely based on her choice. Having this group involved throughout the entire effort also helped shape the redesign as a collaborative process.
"People felt like they were engaged throughout that process and could really rally around us when we were ultimately launching the site," Honan said.
Step #2. Conduct research
The team conducted a large amount of research to drive the direction of the redesign.
They first conducted a website usage survey via emails with parents, prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty and staff.
Survey questions covered:
- Perceptions of the current website
- Features they wanted to see in a new website
- Website habits
According to Honan, the survey elicited about 1,000 responses.
While the survey involved specific questions, the team also held "Discovery Days" on campus, which allowed for more open-ended answers.
"It was really both to get information and generate some buy-in and excitement about the project," Honan said. "People really felt like their voice was heard for the various needs of their department or their audiences."
During two Discovery Days, the team set up 40 interviews with:
During the interviews, individuals spoke candidly about their website needs, their perceptions of the current website and what they hoped the new site would offer, Honan explained.
"Everybody involved was very passionate about Emmanuel and excited about the direction we were going in," she said.
The team found that segmenting audiences during this research phase was helpful because each segment sought different information. For example, a current student or staff member would want quicker access to internal information, such as dining hall menus, than a prospective student or alumni.
However, there were also common themes for all of the audiences, such wanting to see more stories and videos and having an inside look as to what current Emmanuel students are like. There was also, of course, the universal need to find information more easily.
In addition to the survey and Discovery Days, the team performed some benchmarking to see the successes of other college websites and innovations on the Web.
Step #3. Develop a content strategy and architecture from discoveries
Next, the team utilized their research findings to develop a content strategy and site architecture, all of which would be presented to the steering committee.
This was captured in one central document that contained everything the team learned, what they knew needed to happen from a technology point of view and the specific details of the overall strategy. The team also drafted a high-level architecture to illustrate how the new website would present information.
"We really looked at, 'OK, what's important across all areas that really should live in one central place?'" Honan explained.
This helped create a new architecture that whittled down the old site's nine navigational buckets to four:
- Discover Emmanuel
- Admissions and Aid
- Student Life
was a section designed to uncover everything about the college as an institution, including information on its history and identity.
To speak to current students and staff who wanted quick access to internal information, the new website also featured a separate "EC Links"
section at the top of the homepage. This would provide easy access to information such as the academic calendar, dining menu and weather closures without having it featured for all visitors in the middle of the homepage.
For prospective students wishing to learn more about Emmanuel, the team implemented a modular look on the homepage with rotating "snippets," like statistics on Emmanuel.
These included numbers such as its student-to-faculty ratio or the number of students who participate in internships. The team also proposed that the new site's homepage feature an embedded video about Boston to, again, attract those students whose priority was being in the area.
"Boston is a really important part of who we are and a part of the experience," Honan said.
From the beginning, the team sought to create a website experience that could help tell Emmanuel's story. To achieve this, the team selected 14 topics that they thought people would be interested in based on their previous research.
- Our Catholic Identity
- Campus Life
- Global Outlook
- Our Alumni Network
- Arts and Humanities
- Mission and Service
- Graduate Studies
- Emmanuel Spirit
"From a content strategy point of view, we found, at the old site, we were producing a lot of content," Honan said. "But we would really only ever use it in one place."
These topics would allow the team to tag each piece of content so it could now be reached through multiple paths.
Honan and her department would create the site's content, whether it be news articles, photos or videos. Because Honan's team manages the college events calendar, they know what's happening on campus and can coordinate coverage, she said.
Faculty also reach out to the team for potential content. For example, a teacher could ask the team to interview one of their students who is partaking in an interesting internship.
Step #4. Conduct user prototype testing
The team conducted user prototype testing with the Discovery Days audiences to garner thoughts on the site's proposed new architecture. They then used those findings to drive new page designs.
The team created three homepage designs, which they tested with a focus group of 30 students at Boston College High School. These high school students represented the key audience Emmanuel wanted its website to appeal to.
The focus group gave Honan's team feedback about design and the types of content they want when conducting their college searches.
"It was so enlightening and helpful," Honan recalled. "If just administrators looked at the three pages and picked one, we may have picked a different design."
Following the focus group with the high school students, the team took the designs back to another focus group of Emmanuel faculty and current students.
The team discovered that there was one clear website design everyone loved.
Step #5. Launch website redesign
Once the design was approved, Honan and her team spent about four months building pages and developing content to prepare for the site's launch at the start of the 2013 school year.
Honan and her team worked within 15 different and flexible templates to build these pages — something that wasn't possible in the old structure.
"Part of what made our previous site a challenge is that the templates were very rigid," she explained. "There wasn't a lot that my staff could to do to customize."
The new templates boasted "different bells and whistles" that allowed the team to customize more freely. Honan and her team met with departments to discuss their content, showing them the shell of the new pages.
The team then built a giant site map, working with each department to develop their pages.
They also ensured that the backend of the pages had the right metadata to optimize the content for SEO. The website structure was optimized for mobile devices, as well.
After the design and technical pieces were complete, Emmanuel was ready to launch its redesign
in August. Before the students arrived, the team had an all-faculty and staff meeting to celebrate the site's launch.
"There was just a lot of excitement and pride that we were doing something different," Honan said.
When the site went live to the public, Honan said the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
One item Honan recalled was receiving social media feedback from Emmanuel alumni excited about the redesign, including tweets that read, "So proud of my alma mater!"
Emmanuel College's completely redesigned website resulted in:
- 12% increase in pageviews per visit
- 14% increase in length of visit time
- 6% increase in new visits
- 17% decrease in bounce rate
- 94% increase in mobile traffic
- 47% increase in tablet traffic
"Even though we have condensed information and actually have fewer pages, which makes it easier to navigate, we're still finding people are looking at more pages [and are] spending more time [on those pages]," Honan said. "We really wanted people to feel more engaged with this site."
Since the redesign, Emmanuel has also increased its campus visits and deposits.
"It was a very intense project," Honan admitted. "But now that it's done and we know we've done it the right way, it really alleviates a lot of stress on our end."
She added that the new site's malleable structure has made it easy for her small staff to keep content fresh, whether that's uploading a news story or customizing and making changes to pieces of existing content.
"In my mind, that makes it a success, too," she said. "My staff can realistically manage this and keep it fresh and interesting."
Every week, the team holds a "Web Refresh" meeting where they pull analytics on pages and identify areas of opportunity. This involves making adjustments based on what's working and what's not.
Honan credits the redesign's inclusive process to its success, too. She said the team could be confident in the site due to the extensive user research that drove the new site.
The team found that involving Emmanuel's steering committee, students and faculty have helped nourish the site's content as well.
"The ultimate success of a website is that people can rally around it and that they know what kind of content we're looking for, too," Honan said. "Because we worked with department chairs of academic departments, it's really at the top of their minds for them to say, 'I've got a really cool story idea,' or, 'I took pictures on our study abroad trip, and you could feature that.'"
For other marketers looking to redesign their websites, Honan advised making the process inclusive from the very beginning.
In other words, don't pick a vendor, develop a homepage and get others to weigh in on the design after the fact. Use the opinions of your audience and team to drive the project from start to finish.
Not only does involving others help to garner valuable feedback, but it also helps engage others in the redesign.
Through Emmanuel's website redesign, the team wanted to find a way to use creative content to communicate who Emmanuel was. They continue to tell Emmanuel College's story day after day, whether it's through a profile of a student
, a rotating statistic on the homepage or a video interview with the EC lacrosse team.
"People really feel like it's consistent with who've we've always been," Honan said of the redesigned website. "But it showcases all that's exciting and new."
- Old Emmanuel website
- Discover Emmanuel
- EC Links
- Redesigned Emmanuel website
- Student Spotlight
— Emmanuel College's vendor
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