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Owning your university's digital strategy

Joel G Goodman
/ 5 min read

When Bravery Media redesigns a university’s website, we always start out by asking about institutional goals. The thinking behind our method goes something like this:

  1. Your website is the hardest working piece of marketing you own, so we should maximize its potential value.
  2. To maximize your return on investment (ROI), we need to know what the institution considers its biggest revenue-influencers — is it donations from alumni? Is it admission deposits? Is it the lifetime value of a retained student?
  3. When we know, for instance, that your institution values a newly admitted student, we focus your messaging on converting a curious visitor into an applicant and design every facet of the user experience to guide those visitors to decisions that will meet your goals.

There’s Just One Problem

Bravery has proven time and again that our process works. Whether through virtually eliminating summer melt for Loyola Marymount University or driving millions of dollars in additional year-one revenue for National University, our track record can be put up there with the best higher ed agencies.

But the more websites we see in higher ed, old and new, the more we see the same common problem. Brendan Pittman, Bravery’s head of design, made the observation that most university websites bombard their visitors with way too many things to the point where “they all end up feeling like pawnshops.”

There are so many features, stories, videos, calls to action, social grids, and event feeds vying for a person’s attention that they get disoriented. It’s like walking into a store with high-pressure salespeople that pull you in multiple directions to get you to do something.

Jon-Stephen Stansel said it like this:

Higher ed websites: it’s ALL junk drawer.

Focus Brings Clarity

Clients often describe what they want as being “clean,” but in our profession, that term is losing meaning. When so many new university web redesigns still aren’t performing at their peak, we need to question what went wrong. The visual design might be clean, crisp, and logical. It might use negative space and typography to really lift the brand promise to new heights. But if that underlying page content architecture isn’t focused on that institutional goal or the pages take multiple seconds to load, you may have wasted your money.

It’s a tale as old as higher ed websites, though. We’ve all seen the issues:

  • Faculty want and are given input into what goes on the site despite having no knowledge of your analytics or of best practices in higher ed recruitment practices
  • VP/VC-level folks want to give their pet project visibility.
  • The institution doesn’t allocate proper wages to properly staff, train, and support their web team. Because they don’t pay enough, they get subpar talent. And because they don’t invest in developing the staff’s abilities, that staff stays subpar.
  • The institution has talented staff members that believe in the mission, but they are overworked, undersupported, and face burnout fast.

There are other specifics to list here, but it comes down to one core issue: No one owns the process. Every successful project Bravery has worked on has had one thing in common: a clear owner.

And to be clear, the most challenging projects we have worked on all suffered the opposite.

When we center our expectations around specific, defined goals, the results start generating returns immediately. That level of focus develops clarity, efficiency, speed, and cohesion across the entire product, and often permeates other work at the organizational level.

A clean design is great, but a focused user experience strategy is even more useful.

It’s a Question of Trust, It’s a Matter of Fear

I’m not going to claim that this is only a problem in higher education. We see it in every sector, but the issue of governance comes down to whether leaders trust their teams to create successful outcomes.

Personally, I have worked as the only web person at an institution, the only person on staff with the expertise to strategize, create, and support web marketing properties. And every day was a battle to do obvious things to help our online audiences, increase their engagement with the university’s brand promise, and get them into our admissions funnel.

And I’ve heard this story over and over from so many friends and colleagues across higher education. Their work becomes ineffective because of meddling from middle- and upper-management.

I think a lot of this is because higher education can become an industry driven by fear. There’s a fear of the unknown, no matter how small that unknown is. It is a sector famous for its risk-aversion that fails to understand what risk is and how to parse it correctly. And when multiple fears conflict, higher ed often makes the wrong choices.

In reopening campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions are choosing their bottom line over sustainable, hospitable care practices. During the last economic recession, institutions realizing they needed to offer online courses of study outsourced their signature product (an education) to OPMs instead of developing pedagogy tailored to their desired academic outcomes.

And when faced with declining enrollment, institutions spend money on agencies to help fix this issue but are afraid to manage the internal politics that affect major digital projects.

Governance As A Shield

The fix is actually pretty simple, at least for the problem of compromised digital projects… and apart from getting leadership to develop trust in their teams. Policies are often used solely as shields. Need to make sure a web project stays focused? Create a policy and direct those clamoring voices to it.

When clear boundaries are set, work gets done more quickly and effectively while paying dividends down the line.

In 2018 Bravery worked with National University to redesign the university system website. We worked directly with two NU marketing pros to push a full set of designs out in three months. While we took input from a wide range of other people during Immersion and Strategy, these two gatekeepers made the final calls.

The result is a website that had paid for itself eight days after launch, generated around $10 million in additional revenue in the first year, and continues to support the university’s marketing initiatives today in 2020. This was no coincidence. Instead, that success came from Marketing leadership prepared to lead with bravery. They owned the project, and as a result, we were able to do our best work for them.

Truth & Consequences

Other projects we’ve worked on have not had clear ownership, and they’ve come at a cost. These are just a few things that tend to happen:

  • Scope change orders (which means more money)
  • Timeline delays
  • Flat engagement
  • Confusing user journey paths
  • Dense content
  • Slow website load times
  • Decreased search engine ranking
  • Frustrated team members

We’ve seen all of these happen. Here on the agency side, we dislike it as much as our clients do. It means we have to put our name on work that we aren’t proud of. It means having to find helpful ways of saying, “I told you so” instead of “congratulations on the growth!” It means difficult conversations that don’t produce solutions.

This article, I guess, is as much about how to work better with a contracted agency as it is how to run an internal digital team effectively. Whatever the case, it demands trust in the expertise your institution has enlisted and courage to focus on institutional goals.

Want to hear more?

We’d love to have a conversation with you about your institution’s marketing governance, where you might need a few extra hands, or how Bravery can help you. Get in touch below or message us on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

Call: (512) 593-8094 / Email: