March 3

The Evolution of University Websites: Becoming Adaptable

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In the 90’s, some schools needed convincing before launching their university websites. Fast forward to today, not only is it essential, it requires a superior level of content, keywords, and updates if you hope to differentiate yourself.

I’ve been involved with my alma mater’s school website since the 90’s.

And I remember what it was like with both the technical challenges of a nascent Internet and the long conversations trying to convince executives of its purpose and potential.

Thankfully, my alma mater took the leap and launched their website in the 90’s along with a few other early adopters.

Recently, on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, we had the privilege to speak to another pioneer in developing university websites.

In this interview, we speak with Cam Tracy, Web Development Agent at Union University, about his experience building a university website with the school catalog, how the website has changed since its start, and helping marketers deal with change.

The Origin Story of University Websites

Back in the 90’s, the Internet began to arrive at different universities at different times depending on their location, and how much they invested in new computer technologies.

When Internet capability was installed at a school, it was so brand-new that university department infrastructure really didn’t know how to handle it.

So at my alma mater, Anderson University, the website was managed by the IT department.

Without a formal background in communications, the website looked like a bunch of guys hamming it up like “Welcome to the University!”

But some university websites ended up in the hands of people like Cam.

I thought we needed something. Oliver Dawson had just gotten the internet instituted at Union. He had to go to Administration and convince them that the internet was going to be a good thing for us going forward. It seems kind of weird to think you had to convince somebody like that now.

I was talking to our PR office and just said, “Do you mind if I tried to put something together?” So I started with the Undergraduate Catalog. That was my content at the time.

At first, I spent about two months at night – not during the day because I had my instructional technology things going on – and kind of put it together. Back then it wasn’t a job to be the web developer of the university. It was a sideline thing.

It is hard to think of a time when someone needed convincing of the need for university websites.

Yet even now, we all need to be reminded of the need to pay constant, professional attention to our school sites to keep them safe from performance killers.

It’s an ongoing investment that pays back dividends.

Union University's webmaster Cam Tracy shares with us the origins of their university websites. and how he optimizes them for enrollment.

From Database to News Source

As we talked with Cam about how university websites have evolved, we noticed that he strategically helped shift the content focus from being a database to a source of news.

We started with “buckets” essentially. I think we had about 10 pages that you could go to. Then you could drill down to a department site and things like that based on what they put in the catalog. Since then, we’ve been through multiple iterations of our website. 

We sort of shifted to a news focus. First, it was like a newspaper about Union with links sort of off to the side. But as things progressed into the 2000’s, we started going with more of a marketing/admissions focus.

This is the first impression a prospective student or prospective parent will have. So we’re going to put that up front. 

You can still get to all the other stuff. But we started adding more layers, more sophistication, to it to make it more visually appealing and more functional to get to everything. 

Of course, everybody wants their [departmental] site on the link off the front page with all the content on the front page. But we’ve kind of gotten away from that now with the mission-focus. 

This part of the conversation may sound like old marketing guys reminiscing, but it’s packed with relevant, hard-won lessons for higher ed marketers today.

Be the place students go to for answers.

In a way, digital higher ed marketing can be boiled down to a simple formula.

Know your audience. Anticipate their questions. Answer their questions through your digital assets in a way they can easily find.

(Of course, it is more complicated than that. But this is a helpful way to simplify things).

The best performing university websites simply offer prospective students the answers to their questions.

One of the top questions students, alumni, and even donors will ask about your school is “What’s going on now?”

And so orienting your site’s content around news is a strategic content marketing tactic.

Keep your website admissions and missionally focused.

Cam is absolutely right: “…everybody wants their site on the link off the front page…”

The pressure to cram all the information from every department and program on the homepage is immense.

However, successful higher ed websites stay focused on two things: 1) admissions and 2) mission.

Secondarily, they offer additional navigation for other audiences like current students, alumni, and donors.

Another primary goal of university websites should be to convey your mission, or what you might call your education brand.

If you go beyond these two goals, you risk over bloating your website.

This can cause frustration for visitors who are likely to jump off your page and go somewhere else.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Cam Tracy to get even more insights into:

  • Cam’s professional journey background
  • The evolution of website content & keeping up with change
  • Helping colleagues adapt to change
  • Key takeaway for the audience

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