Your .edu site for 2016 looks like this

EDUCAUSE panelists say a dynamic university website is becoming critical for recruitment and sustainable alumni support.

university-website-designAdd together social media strategy and digital marketing tactics, sprinkle with interactive design flare, then let rise in the hotbed of a campus community and you’ve got a .edu site that not only improves student and staff recruitment, but keeps alumni engaged.

Just ask the website wizards at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) that helped the University win the prestigious interactive media award.

“Today’s successful university website is not a static site with a sole banner image,” explained Andy Hoang, associate vice president of Marketing and Communications at CSULB during a recent EDUCAUSE conference panel. “It’s taking a marketing perspective and integrating multiple verticals into a user-personalized website.”

According to information presented at the panel—and supported by research from the 2014 Social Admissions Report, a survey of college-bound high school students designed to identify trends in digital, social and mobile tools represented in a student’s college search and enrollment process–nearly two-thirds (67 percent) of students use social media to research colleges, and nearly 75 percent find it influential. Also, the percent of students who like or follow a considered college on social media increased by 23 points from 2012-13.

“What’s incredible is that there’s research showing that the time it takes a prospective student to decide whether or not to look at the university website for information is mere seconds,” emphasized Hoang. “That’s a lot of pressure to make sure your website is as engaging and informative as possible; especially because the marketplace is crowded! You need to distinguish your brand and one of the best ways to do that is through a website.”

Step 1: Look to Social Media

According to Reed Sheard, vice president for College Advancement and CIO of Westmont College, branding the institution means reacting to platforms.

“Building a brand for colleges, like with businesses today, means developing a goal-oriented website, being mobile-enabled, having an active social media presence, becoming search-optimized, producing targeted email campaigns, promoting commerce, and supporting a call center,” he noted.

“Just be careful you don’t actually use jargon like ‘branding’ with your institution,” he continued. “Words like ‘marketing’ and ‘ROI’ never go over well in academia, so instead we like to use the word ‘storytelling.’”

And step one of building a branded, successful website is looking to the success of a social media strategy, said Hoang. “We took a look at how students are engaging with websites and how they access social media. One of the major takeaways is that students are more engaged with the inclusion of digital media content, especially video content.”

Hoang related the story of how his team at CSULB took lessons from Under Armour’s recent ad campaign featuring Gisele Bundchen that led to 1.5 billion media impressions, $15 million in earned media, a 42 percent increase in visits to the company’s website, 4 minutes on average spent on the site per user, and a 28 percent sales increase for the brand.

What makes the campaign unique, noticed CSULB’s team, was that the ad was interactive, meaning the users could manipulate Gisele’s image within the ad and have her do different sports activities. The company also integrated real-time tweets into the ad.

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“Obviously, we’re not going to have Gisele on our university website, but the idea of having an extremely personalized, interactive site to keep prospectives on-site by feeling engaged with the mission-specific content is a large component to success,” said Hoang.

From that point, Hoang’s team came up with a list of site must-haves, including stand-out first impressions; authentic, emotional images and content; responsive, intuitive design; and calls-to-action based content.

“We really wanted the university website to feel like a destination. So we also looked at sites like Airbnb. By looking at these sites, plus the Under Armour campaign, we knew we had to seamlessly integrate social media and web design.”

(Next page: Know what you have; design around mission)

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