Upon my arrival at Westminster College, my first task was to finalize the implementation of a new college Web site. In fact, on the day before my official first day, I was called to a meeting regarding concerns over how the academics section of the Web site was being handled on the new site. The academics portion of a college Web site is a rather important piece of the puzzle.

To make things just a little more interesting, we were already live on the new, unfinished Web site. My predecessor — an interim director — wanted to launch the new site in order to push others to get content updates to us. As a part of this overall project, the IT department had created a Content Manager position in each department and had been working with departments to get this position’s information integrated into an existing employee’s job description. I was also told that the IT department was looking for a dotted reporting line from each of these people to the Web coordinator in the IT department. The idea behind this was that, by integrating Web content management responsibilities into someone’s formal job description and making them accountable through the dotted reporting line, content updates would happen more often and be on time.

Working on a site that wasn’t the sum of its parts

The new site was designed by a committee, but the design was ultimately controlled by a couple of people. In an effort to please all stakeholders, a lot of suggestions and ideas were incorporated into the new site, making it less than the sum of its parts. Further, the site had no true focus audience — it attempted to be all things to all people.

Procedurally, the software on which the site ran was less than spectacular. Although it was a commercial, relatively widely used product (which, by the way, has since been discontinued), we were missing some key features; this was primarily due to our budget constraints. So, in a sense, we limited ourselves to a point by not “going for the gusto” and getting all of the modules that we would need to meet needs across campus.

This 18 month long project culminated in a launch that took place on the Saturday before my arrival on campus. As I indicated, there were some concerns from key areas regarding content items and the site in general. I don’t know all of the history behind the process; some departments simply didn’t get content updates to the Web team, for example.

The first immediate task was to get the site to something that could be considered a finished state. By augmenting in-house staff with some outside help, we were able to get enough content moved to the site to give it a more complete look and feel. We also tweaked the design to make it a little more appealing to the eye.

Each year, the National Research Center for College University Admissions (NRCCUA) reviews about 3,000 college Web sites. In 2007, the site outlined above ranked at 1,648, or at about the 55% mark. While not terrible, it was certainly not an ideal spot.

Redesigning the Web site with a focus audience

During the process that I described above, it became very apparent that a “do over” was necessary. We decided to focus on a single target audience — prospective students — and to keep the overall design team small. This team consisted of me, our campus PR coordinator, the Vice President of Enrollment Services, the Web coordinator, and the President. Throughout the course of the design and implementation, we worked with the executive team on campus to assist in decision making in an effort to gain the widest support possible without involving every single person. Although I do believe in collaborative decision making, I also believe in the phrase “a mule is a horse that was designed by committee.”

The focus for the new site was on the prospective student not because of the NRCCUA contest, but because we are a very tuition-driven institution; more than 85% of our budget dollars come solely from tuition each year. Making sure that we get the right students in the door for our college is an incredibly important undertaking.

By focusing on the prospective student, we did not ignore the rest of our constituencies, including current students, alumni, faculty, and staff. I used a phrase I called “click tolerance” during the time that we were designing the new site. A prospective student will have a lower click tolerance than a current student. Whereas a prospect is researching dozens of colleges, a current student isn’t; the current student will take a little more time to locate their information than would a prospect. So, we did what a lot of colleges have done and implemented audience pathway links. The front page, however, is for the prospective student. We do have what appear to be ancillary links on the front page, including a link to our Winston Churchill Memorial and Library (Churchill gave his “iron curtain” speech on the Westminster College campus) and links to news and events. Those ancillary links are intended to help draw in the prospective student by identifying for them what’s happening on campus.

We relaunched our Web site in April 2008, and we received a ton of positive feedback. Some of that feedback even came from students and parents that were considering Westminster as their college choice. We feel that we have a lot left to do on the site, but we achieved the goal of launching a prospective student-focused site.

What a difference a year makes

This month, the NRCCUA released the 2008 ratings. We moved from 1,648 to 143; we’re now in the top 5% of the group. Westminster College is an organization dedicated to the prospective student — our target market for the site and a group that, as a college, we identify as a high priority in all things that we do.

It’s a great alignment story, too. We know that prospective students are critical to our success, and IT partnered with a number of other business units to make this particular endeavor a tremendous success.