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Meeting university goals and core audience needs with website strategy (webinar takeaways)

Meeting university goals and core audience needs with website strategy (webinar takeaways)

4 minute read

Meeting university goals and core audience needs with website strategy (webinar takeaways)

4 minute read

Meeting university goals and core audience needs with website strategy (webinar takeaways)

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent

This is a summary of our recent higher ed webinar, presented by Zach Purcell, Content Strategy and User Experience Manager at Illinois State University.

In the webinar, using a case study of their own double redesign of a university homepage and admissions website, Zach addresses and helps solve the problem that so many university web managers, webmasters and content managers have: 

How can you maintain a strategy for your website presence to really connect with a core audience and achieve the goals of the university? 

Here are the key takeaways, and lessons learned during the redesign:

1. Build for the audience and not for yourself

You might have lots of different audiences in higher ed, but identifying one core target audience and making sure you are serving their needs is crucial. Who are you building this website for? For Illinois, the vast majority of their audience are prospective students and more specifically, the first time in college. They are incoming freshmen, straight out of high school, and a lot are the first generation in college too. You have to make it real, and relatable for them.

Focus on providing answers, not solutions

Floating ‘apply’ links mean you’re trying to force people down a path they don’t necessarily want to go down. People are there to find an answer to a question, or for you to point them in the right direction. If you provide solutions, you’re deciding for them. By providing answers to their questions, at different stages in their journey, you build trust.

Provide ways to ask questions and communicate 

Everyone goes to websites to find an answer, so allow users the chance to ask questions. You need to find better ways other than ‘apply’ or ‘schedule a visit’. On all of their academic pages, Illinois added a form for ‘I want to learn more.’ This opened up huge doors for them. Previously on all of their academic pages, the only call-to-action (CTA) button was ‘apply.’

The best thing about the form was immediately after they had launched the new university homepage, within 20 minutes they already had two submissions to this form. So these were people who had questions that a few moments ago, would not have been able to ask these questions. 

Image shows 'learn more' form on the university webpage. Form fields include name, email, who are you and where would you enroll? dropdowns, address, birthdate, gender, what do you want to know? query box and a button saying 'send me information.' The page also has links to that particular school, and college, phone number and address


Lots of queries have come in since, which has really helped them generate leads. The departments are happy. If you’re an incoming freshman, it goes to admissions. If you’re a current student wanting to transfer it goes to that department. If you’re a graduate student it goes to the grad school etc. All of this is automated and has helped Illinois fill up their CRM. 

2. Let voices be heard and let professionals be professionals

As well as giving website visitors a chance to ask questions and reach out, it’s also important to let the campus community dictate what you’re ultimately going to do. Web managers, webmasters, content managers etc all have a voice in this too but they need other people at the table to help make the right decision. 

At Illinois, they had a core group within their web department which was:

  • Zach (content strategy and user experience)
  • a lead designer
  • a lead developer

Once you have the core group internal to the web department, you have to find friends. They found campus partners in places like admissions, enrolment management, student affairs, marketing etc.

This is where you have to admit to yourself as a web professional you don't know everything. Talk to the person in charge of things. Ask a lot of questions and listen a lot. You're going to learn more, but you need to lean on professionals in that area. And at the same time, they need to let the web people do the web.

If someone from the division of student affairs has some ideas for how they want their page laid out, let them tell you. We can frame this as ‘what's the hierarchy you wanna see on the page? What are the most important things? What do we need to break out into different subpages?’ This is where you’re letting their voice be heard and a chance to feel like they are part of the process. Then when you do a mockup or layout based on the content that they said they wanted, they can now see how this comes together and you can both gain trust.

3. You are all on the same team 

Although we’ve just talked about letting professionals be professionals, it’s important to remember that job titles only mean so much. You have to build an internal collaborative process.

In their redesign, Illinois State University had to establish an environment that meant they weren't afraid to overlap responsibilities. Now, this doesn’t mean the content strategist has to write the CSS or anything like that. But, they still (kind of) know what looks good, or what doesn’t. If you really want to succeed internally, you have to operate as one team. The designer can't just do design, content writers can't just do content the developers can't just do the development.

This has a very open process that allows for conversation. It doesn’t have to be criticism, but just a chance for voices to be heard. Remember, you are all in it to recruit and retain students. This isn’t department vs department, it’s the whole university working on the same thing.

4. Maintenance: websites are never done 

You need to keep working with your website after launch and tracking the data. Often you are making decisions based on one month of traffic, especially when in a HE recruitment cycle, the traffic we see today isn't the same as in September and October. It’s completely different traffic. At Illinois, they needed to wait a year after the redesign to get a real understanding of the data. 

You need a maintenance model, a chance to keep things fresh and moving. If something is not working, come up with a new solution. It's okay to change things. The launch is just a milestone. You will make tweaks, and things are definitely not done.

Watch the full webinar 

Head over to our events page to get the webinar, on-demand and free. In the session, Zach uses their case study to explore how the websites have improved since the redesign, and the problems, processes, strategy, people, tools and outcomes in depth.

Find out how Illinois State University increased their page views, pages/session, new leads and admissions (by impressive amounts!) and how they used GatherContent to help create content, build workflows and keep the project on track.

This is a summary of our recent higher ed webinar, presented by Zach Purcell, Content Strategy and User Experience Manager at Illinois State University.

In the webinar, using a case study of their own double redesign of a university homepage and admissions website, Zach addresses and helps solve the problem that so many university web managers, webmasters and content managers have: 

How can you maintain a strategy for your website presence to really connect with a core audience and achieve the goals of the university? 

Here are the key takeaways, and lessons learned during the redesign:

1. Build for the audience and not for yourself

You might have lots of different audiences in higher ed, but identifying one core target audience and making sure you are serving their needs is crucial. Who are you building this website for? For Illinois, the vast majority of their audience are prospective students and more specifically, the first time in college. They are incoming freshmen, straight out of high school, and a lot are the first generation in college too. You have to make it real, and relatable for them.

Focus on providing answers, not solutions

Floating ‘apply’ links mean you’re trying to force people down a path they don’t necessarily want to go down. People are there to find an answer to a question, or for you to point them in the right direction. If you provide solutions, you’re deciding for them. By providing answers to their questions, at different stages in their journey, you build trust.

Provide ways to ask questions and communicate 

Everyone goes to websites to find an answer, so allow users the chance to ask questions. You need to find better ways other than ‘apply’ or ‘schedule a visit’. On all of their academic pages, Illinois added a form for ‘I want to learn more.’ This opened up huge doors for them. Previously on all of their academic pages, the only call-to-action (CTA) button was ‘apply.’

The best thing about the form was immediately after they had launched the new university homepage, within 20 minutes they already had two submissions to this form. So these were people who had questions that a few moments ago, would not have been able to ask these questions. 

Image shows 'learn more' form on the university webpage. Form fields include name, email, who are you and where would you enroll? dropdowns, address, birthdate, gender, what do you want to know? query box and a button saying 'send me information.' The page also has links to that particular school, and college, phone number and address


Lots of queries have come in since, which has really helped them generate leads. The departments are happy. If you’re an incoming freshman, it goes to admissions. If you’re a current student wanting to transfer it goes to that department. If you’re a graduate student it goes to the grad school etc. All of this is automated and has helped Illinois fill up their CRM. 

2. Let voices be heard and let professionals be professionals

As well as giving website visitors a chance to ask questions and reach out, it’s also important to let the campus community dictate what you’re ultimately going to do. Web managers, webmasters, content managers etc all have a voice in this too but they need other people at the table to help make the right decision. 

At Illinois, they had a core group within their web department which was:

  • Zach (content strategy and user experience)
  • a lead designer
  • a lead developer

Once you have the core group internal to the web department, you have to find friends. They found campus partners in places like admissions, enrolment management, student affairs, marketing etc.

This is where you have to admit to yourself as a web professional you don't know everything. Talk to the person in charge of things. Ask a lot of questions and listen a lot. You're going to learn more, but you need to lean on professionals in that area. And at the same time, they need to let the web people do the web.

If someone from the division of student affairs has some ideas for how they want their page laid out, let them tell you. We can frame this as ‘what's the hierarchy you wanna see on the page? What are the most important things? What do we need to break out into different subpages?’ This is where you’re letting their voice be heard and a chance to feel like they are part of the process. Then when you do a mockup or layout based on the content that they said they wanted, they can now see how this comes together and you can both gain trust.

3. You are all on the same team 

Although we’ve just talked about letting professionals be professionals, it’s important to remember that job titles only mean so much. You have to build an internal collaborative process.

In their redesign, Illinois State University had to establish an environment that meant they weren't afraid to overlap responsibilities. Now, this doesn’t mean the content strategist has to write the CSS or anything like that. But, they still (kind of) know what looks good, or what doesn’t. If you really want to succeed internally, you have to operate as one team. The designer can't just do design, content writers can't just do content the developers can't just do the development.

This has a very open process that allows for conversation. It doesn’t have to be criticism, but just a chance for voices to be heard. Remember, you are all in it to recruit and retain students. This isn’t department vs department, it’s the whole university working on the same thing.

4. Maintenance: websites are never done 

You need to keep working with your website after launch and tracking the data. Often you are making decisions based on one month of traffic, especially when in a HE recruitment cycle, the traffic we see today isn't the same as in September and October. It’s completely different traffic. At Illinois, they needed to wait a year after the redesign to get a real understanding of the data. 

You need a maintenance model, a chance to keep things fresh and moving. If something is not working, come up with a new solution. It's okay to change things. The launch is just a milestone. You will make tweaks, and things are definitely not done.

Watch the full webinar 

Head over to our events page to get the webinar, on-demand and free. In the session, Zach uses their case study to explore how the websites have improved since the redesign, and the problems, processes, strategy, people, tools and outcomes in depth.

Find out how Illinois State University increased their page views, pages/session, new leads and admissions (by impressive amounts!) and how they used GatherContent to help create content, build workflows and keep the project on track.

Webinar Recording

How your website strategy can meet University goals while maintaining focus on a core audience

Actionable steps for identifying and writing for your target audience both now and for the future.

February 19, 2019

3:49 am

Register now

Webinar Recording

How your website strategy can meet University goals while maintaining focus on a core audience

Actionable steps for identifying and writing for your target audience both now and for the future.

February 19, 2019

3:49 am

Watch now
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About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is responsible for managing all of the organisation's content output and for their content operations. Rob also works on audience research projects and strategic initiatives to ensure their content meets both business goals and user needs.

He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and has written for industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, UX Matters, UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and content operations at leading industry events or on podcasts.

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