Rethinking the university portal

How to take the student portal from intranet to revenue generator.

university-web-portalColleges and universities are businesses, and like all successful companies, they need to present and maintain a positive brand image. Many universities have nurtured their “distinguished” brands for decades, but a budding trend among lesser known institutions to promote a stronger brand image has now exploded, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of institutions that are willing to invest significant time and money in brand management.

Why is this occurring now? Well-executed branding leads to increased retention rates, increased applications, and higher perceived value. What many institutions fail to realize, however, is that they don’t need to make a major new investment in order to begin promoting their brand. They likely already have the key tool for doing this: their student portal.

Typically used for class registration, grades, assignments, campus news, etc., this “enterprise portal” is really a gateway to a complete brand experience that can increase engagement and loyalty and increase the perceived value of the institution far beyond the existing student body. A recent University of Massachusetts Dartmouth study concludes that an effective and intuitive website should be considered the “ultimate brand statement for an institution” and that the portal should reinforce the brand image with seamlessly integrated customized applications.

(Next page: 6 essential steps to customizing your student portal)

Creating such a website is actually relatively simple. Here are the six essential steps to customizing your portal to establish a successful brand for your institution.

Step 1 – Roadmap. Determine your long and short term goals. Start by creating a project team tasked with understanding how the portal can support your brand. This includes defining the portal’s immediate needs, the longer term vision for it, and how it will need to evolve over time. By gathering input from all key campus stakeholders (i.e., students, their families, faculty, alumna, administrators, and the local community), the project team can shortlist the applications that need to be customized to support the brand and which applications need to be integrated with the portal.

Step Two – Branding. Clearly articulate who you are and what you have to offer. When your key audiences have a better experience interacting with your institution, you build brand equity. A key barrier to this experience—a mistake that typically only institutions of higher learning make—is the practice of promoting vendor and application names ahead of the institution’s, as if those names are more important than the capabilities that are added to the website. If your portal and your website are to be integrated and represent your “ultimate brand statement,” always reinforce the notion that your institution is responsible for streamlining the user experience and creating useful interactions.

Remember, your brand and the effort you put into bringing all your stakeholders together will have a huge impact on your student body. For example, by creating a branded virtual campus through your portal and tailoring applications to the needs of your students, you are creating a sense of community that you can promote in your college brochures targeted to hard-to-engage portions of the student body, such as online education students who will never set foot on campus.

Step 3 – The Cloud and your data. Decide what’s right for you. Are you planning on hosting your applications and data on premises or in the cloud? Can your current solution support unifying your public-facing website with your intranet? If you’re hosting on premises, you should have the ability to customize your applications to reflect your brand. If you’re hosting with a cloud solution provider, you’ll need to work with your provider to tailor and brand those applications so they reflect the look and feel of the rest of your applications.

Further, you must be able to unify your public-facing website and your intranet. Like every other business today, universities and colleges must be data-driven, that is, they must be in the business of collecting and analyzing information in order to better support end users. If your students are accessing one application via your portal, another on your website, and a third on a vendor’s site, you are doing both your institution and your students a disservice. Funnel everyone to your well-branded intranet, and you’ll be able to utilize the portal’s tools to collect and review data on usage, popularity, engagement, feedback, downtime, and much more.

(Next page: Steps 4-6)

Step 4 – Single Sign-On. Eliminate log-in frustration. Single sign-on is a very easy way to unify the user experience and funnel end users to the portal. With single sign-on, students log onto your branded portal and with one click can access all the applications your institution utilizes. It is a simple technology that eliminates the time-consuming and frustrating process of having links redirect students away from your brand and your control where they need to reenter their credentials.

Step 5 – Targeted messaging. Communicate effectively with end users. Today’s students suffer from email overload, and communicating only by email, or worse, snail mail, will undercut your efforts to engage your students and keep them excited about being a student. Your students already have enough distractions and will simply begin to ignore an endless stream of emails from the administration, clubs, classes, housing and more. Instead, create targeted messages in the portal that cut through the clutter and deliver a tailored experience to specific groups of students. The short-term benefit is getting the right information to the right people. The long-term benefit is increasing engagement by ensuring your communication channels and your messages are branded and driven by your institution.

Step 6 – Mobility. Support mobile users through responsive, adaptive, and native mobile apps. All campus stakeholders are becoming increasingly web-centric and tech savvy, and a huge factor in this is mobility. According to a comScore report, smartphones and tablets now account for 60 percent of all online traffic, and a Campus Computing survey found that 83 percent of campuses had either activated mobile apps or were planning on doing so as of fall 2015 to engage the 83 percent of students who regularly use their smartphones. While these native apps are important—and need to be branded—institutions just beginning to enter the mobile game can begin by making their public-facing website, and then their intranet, easy to use on mobile devices. Consider the importance of this: a potential student sees a number of “likes” for your institution on Facebook and clicks on the link to view your homepage. Will your public-facing website look appealing on a mobile device? If not, you have work to do.

Consistent and effective branding of your web portal has the power to increase your perceived value as an institution and thereby increase retention rates and new student applications. Fortunately, it is now relatively easy and affordable to transform an aging student portal into a hub of engagement and marketing.

Anjli Jain is the executive director of CampusEAI.