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How to Build a Higher Ed Website that Achieves Excellence

It’s one thing to deliver an excellent student experience; quite another to build an excellent website. Between the two of us, Colleges of Distinction and its creative partner, Madison Ave Collective, have evaluated a lot of higher ed sites — the good, the bad, and everything in between.

In this guide, we’d like to share what we’ve learned, so that you can help your own higher ed website achieve excellence.

Got challenges? You’re not alone

Let’s start with some of the most common issues we’ve seen in higher ed websites. Does any of this sound familiar?

No message. Many higher ed websites lack a strong brand story. Also, they’re not sending targeted messages to defined audiences, prompting them to take specific actions.

No differentiation. What makes you different from other institutions? Whether or not you can articulate it internally, we’ve noticed many schools aren’t communicating it clearly online.

Internal focus. It’s easy to get so absorbed in the internal workings of your administration, faculty, and staff that you lose sight of what new students or donors need from your website.

Lots of sub-brands. Do you have a different microsite for each department? The ensuing chaos makes brand consistency a far-off dream — and maintaining all those identities is hard work.

Content clutter. Is your website a recruitment tool? an enrollment driver? a resource for students and faculty? … or is it a repository of all the information you’ve ever used, most of it out of date?

Best practices, to the rescue!

For every challenge, there’s a best practice to resolve it. Let’s look at a few of the most helpful rules we’ve noted from our experience.

Think strategically. A strategy is four things: a problem, a goal, a plan, and a result. Where is your website falling short? Where do you want it to be? Answer that, and you can plan a path to action.

Think like a user. Is the hierarchy of info logical? Are pages organized to meet the user’s most pressing needs first? Have you mapped the paths that users take and built a coherent journey?

Make action easy. Every call to action should be clear and convincing, and the conversion points — the places where users take those actions — should be easy to find and respond to.

Cross all those Ts. Every area of your website should be an extension of your brand. The design should be mobile-responsive, accessible from any device. It also needs to be ADA-compliant.

Establish metrics. Without a way to measure success, who’s to say if your efforts are paying off? We know it can be tricky to identify objective markers — but it can be done, and it’s essential.

Move forward the smart way

When it comes to choosing an agency, there are two options: the conventional route, and the streamlined route.

  1. The conventional route goes like this. You write a lengthy, time-consuming RFP, which may or may not provide candidates with the type or quality of information they need to write a meaningful response. You collect hundreds of pages of proposals based on their best guesswork, which you comb through carefully. After holding a series of interviews, you make a choice, and at last your new partner starts work. The process was costly, imprecise, and effort-intensive — and hey, it only took six months to get to the starting line.
  2. The streamlined route works through relationship-building, and as such, it’s much more targeted and timely. You put out an RFQ (request for qualifications), which are shorter and easier to evaluate than RFPs. You seek referrals. Once you have a short list of candidates, you pick up the phone or meet for lunch to discuss what you hope to achieve. The information and insights that emerge are more likely to fit your needs and propel you forward. At the end of the day, you’re launching your new website in as little as six to nine months, start to finish.

How to choose the right partner?

Scan for strategy. Many creative professionals make beautiful work — but the point isn’t just to look pretty. It’s to accomplish your goals. How do your candidates propose to do so?

Invest in discovery. Your partner should talk to internal and external stakeholders, perform a brand audit and competitive analysis, and research your history, values, goals, and competitors.

Avoid death by committee. When collecting initial input, ask everyone. But when making decisions, establish a small, tight-knit team with the judgement to weigh conflicting perspectives and make the call.

Be bold. Degree-seeking adults aren’t looking for the same old / same old. Don’t be afraid to look and sound different. We know standing out can be scary — but when you do, great things can happen.

The tips above may seem simple, but make no mistake: they’re game changers. After researching and auditing countless higher ed websites, we’ve seen these principles bear out over long and close observation. We hope they help you achieve excellence in your website.


Logan Hoffman is the Client Relations Director at Madison Ave Collective, a strategic branding and web development firm headquartered in the friendly Pacific Northwest. Prior to joining the MAC in 2015, Logan worked as a consultant in business development and strategy for more than six years, partnering with organizations from local governments and nonprofits to technology start-ups. Logan has also spent time working within athletic departments at four different higher education institutions, including his most recent position at Oregon State University. Logan earned a BS in Integrated Media from Drury University and an MBA from the University of New Hampshire. At the MAC, we believe that measurable results begin with deep research: the starting point for creativity that hits the mark. That’s why Colleges of Distinction trusted us to help it develop a successful brand and web presence: we achieve excellence together.
How to build a higher ed website that achieves excellence

Logan Hoffman
Client Relations
Madison Ave. Collective

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