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)

Step 2: Understand What You Have

Both Hoang and Sheard noted that most institutions house an incredible amount of content pages, with CSULB at 900,000 pages and Westmont at 300,000.

“Don’t let every department have their say,” explained Hoang. “Otherwise, you’d get a front page cluttered like a community board with random tidbits from every department on what they feel is important. Choose what goes on the front page very carefully and focus on your priorities; which, for us, are community and alumni engagement.”

According to Josh Pennino, national sales manager for Acquia, Inc. (the cloud server hosting CSULB and KWALL’s website) it’s important to build the website—especially the front page—on solution-focused content and a user-based platform.

“Be sure to look at the whole site, too, not just the front door or first level,” said Sheard. “A lot of times institutions make the front page dynamic, but then when a user clicks to go deeper, the secondary content pages look like relics from the early 2000s. A user can leave a secondary page just as fast as they can the front page.”

However, Hoang said that there’s a delicate balance between static and antiquated, and being too interactive. “Don’t get so caught up in the design that there’s a disconnect between what your institution is and marketing gimmicks. You also don’t want super technical, information-filled pages.”

Step 3: Design around Mission-Based Goals

Elaborating on his suggestion to find the balance between mission and design, CSULB had a goal to better integrate their athletics programs with traditional academics.


“So instead of having athletics as its own separate department listed on the website, we created a scrolling, interactive header with athletics as the first interactive placeholder with a link to recent news. The other placeholders include traditional prospective engagement information, but also program-specific calls-to-action for funding,” said Hoang.

Hoang also noted that, in the spirit of viral journalism, one of the featured placeholders is a campus community-based article, “22 must-dos on campus.”


“The community-inclusive article is interactive and not too serious with animated GIFs and informal descriptions. It’s been our most clicked-on article for months now.”

Sheard noted that choosing a design and marketing firm that specializes in brand customization is also a good move. “We put out an RFP and ended up choosing Ologie for branding and Acquia for our web CMS, and both partners were more than willing to help us craft our website around our specific mission.”

(Next page: Get the campus involved)

Step 4: Get the Campus Involved

According to Sheard, getting community support is critical to a successful website redesign and launch. “You need to build a commitment to it within your college, so make sure the site has a strong connection to the mission, as well as a seamless management flow so that any decisions for the website are determined and approved quickly.”

“We sent out a marketing campaign in advance of the new website launch to get staff invested in the site, then sent out a campaign post-launch giving them a detailed overview of the site and our thoughts behind its design. We got a lot of positive responses, but be prepared for the haters who don’t understand why money should be invested in a website…that’s pretty normal,” said Hoang.

To better involve the campus community, Hoang’s team also decided to help the university’s publication, Beach, go digital. “Many of the design plans we incorporated for the website, we did for Beach, such as integrating video, interactive images, come-to-life-with-touch imagery, et cetera,” he explained.

For colleges and universities considering a move to new website design, Hoang said it’s important to know that the website isn’t just for students, but staff as well. “It’s a recruitment and engagement platform all-around—it can recruit and engage not just students, but the most talented, innovative staff as well.”

“Invest as early as possible in mobile, not just on the web,” concluded Sheard. “We spent six years developing our mobile app and we’re not done yet!” He also recommended continuous improvement to both mobile and web strategies by incorporating as much data into decision-making as possible.

See CSULB’s website here. See Westmont’s here.

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