Reining in the outliers for a university-wide cohesive Web presence

A prospective student does a Google search for “English composition [university name]” and is brought to your English department’s site. While there, they find the program that intrigues them, and decide to jump off course to learn more about tuition and fees, housing, and dining services. Along they way they bounce through three additional department Web sites, but the prospective student feels like they’ve been to three completely different university sites. Each step along the way they have to figure out where the navigation and search bar have moved, how their content is organized, what lingo they use, and likely have a completely different experience on each site. Sound familiar?

photo of a cowboy with ropeDeveloping a university-wide Web design template that is flexible enough for all departments, programs and units to use is one behemoth of a challenge. In the case of large institutions where there are usually multiple Web offices throughout the institution, it’s even more challenging and unlikely to find. Small- to mid-size colleges/universities with a centralized Web and/or marketing unit can make this happen – but it takes quite a bit of work, commitment and patience.

Five steps to rein in the outliers

1) Create a strong template
Create a visually appealing, yet flexible enough template that is customizable for each unit. The flexibility needs to range from having a small to large menu of options, the ability to manage rapidly changing content areas, and be able to use customized photographs and images that best represent the unit.

2) Create a strong policy
Create a strong, clear, concise policy that is enforced, endorsed and supported my upper management. Make sure this policy is brief, yet contains information about why and how using the standard design template will benefit them and their audiences.

3) Blame the law
Many states, as well as the federal government, have policies and standards related to Web accessibility. Some are more complex and intricate than others. Regardless, the average faculty and staff member who is not a Web developer for a living will likely gloss over these laws, and not be able to produce sites that are in full compliance of them. Let them know you and/or your staff have become experts, or perhaps have even attended seminars to learn these laws inside and out. Encourage them to focus on the content and messages they want to deliver, and to let you (and your staff) handle the technicals.

4) Make the case
Don’t make it personal. When initially communicating with the department, don’t make it personal, don’t be defensive, but do expect resistance. Always phrase your statements in ways that remove yourself, as well as the other individual, from the equation. Using the standard template is in the best interest of all parties involved – it supports the university-wide branding initiative, the users of the site will have a much easier time hopping around from site to site when a common template is in use, their site will be in compliance with local and federal laws, etc.

Talk about the benefits of cohesiveness. Talk about their audiences. Talk about the strengths of the overall university brand that will help their department/program/unit.

Compliment things they’re doing well. Empathize with them. Become their partner. Get them excited about the variety of options the new template provides – being able to use the content management system for quicker updates, being able to easily post and update news whenever they want, the ability to quickly and easily add videos, photo galleries, etc. Whatever the benefits are of your template – make them known. Make sure if they’re doing “cool” things in their current site, they’ll be able to continue to do them in the new template.

5) Don’t pull rank.
We all know universities are filled with politics. Tread lightly, but don’t pull rank. Avoid involving “higher ups” and keep it at your level and below whenever possible. If you’ve truly tried everything you can at your level, only then should you take it up one level to your direct supervisor. Doing this may give you a fresh perspective and approach to try that you hadn’t thought of previously.

Vassar College is an internationally known institution with approximately 2,500 students, but they made a strategic decision to not impose an institutional layout. Their college’s site is one of the most well-known in the industry. They have a centralized Web office with five staff members. What do you think about this approach?

As I mentioned before – I know this is hard, if not virtually impossible, to do at many institutions. But, it has been done. Tell us who you are – I know you’re out there. Are there steps or tricks I’m missing? Can you share any secrets you keep up your sleeve?


Flickr photo by sibhusky2


  1. You forgot ‘drink.’ A lot.

    But seriously, we’ve gone through this and probably the main shortcoming of the previous redesign was templates that were not flexible enough (this view is mine and does not necessarily represent the official position of the college). Obviously, things have evolved in the time since, with more media-rich sites now the direction, but we’re taking that into account moving forward.

    One good thing we did was pulling together a content writing team for major areas (admissions, academics, athletics, student life, alumni/development). That gave us an opportunity to stress the importance of content and user-centered mindset throughout key areas, as well as getting nice buy-in. Since the major redesign required writing more than 100 new pages, having a team approach was very necessary to make it succeed.

  2. I believe that there’s a strong case to be made that a consistent template is in the service of visitors to your site who care about getting the information they came to the site to find and want to link back to the main institution site, to admissions, or to other departments.

    Also, another consideration is that as you’re rolling out the template, you can work with the many departments who welcome a template because it saves them work. They can often serve as models for recalcitrant departments who resist templates and provide subtle peer pressure for adoption of these tools. Some of our clients have tied use of a CMS to use of templates: if you want to use the institution’s CMS, with all the advantages it brings (content sharing, etc.), you need to embrace the institution’s look and feel. Many departments consider this a small price to pay.

  3. This is my major criticism of university sites so I’m glad the topic has come up again.

    Our university is about to launch a site that provides a single experience for prospective students. Of course, as you’ve stated, it’s a monumental task. We have many standalone sites (no one has done a full count, but the number easily exceeds 40) so reigning them in will be an ongoing endeavor. For launch, we’ll only have the foundations of this idea in place. After we get the initial bugs solved, we’ll begin to absorb the academic sites and, over the long term, build similar single experiences for our other major audiences.

    If you want my take on all of this, you can start with a couple of my blog posts:

    Why Decentralization Doesn’t Work
    The Case for Centralization
    Centralization Around Audience
    A New Take on How to Find a Higher Ed Degree– this is a screencast of the mechanism we’ve built for prospects to find their degree program. It’s old at this point and has been tweaked a bit in our launch ready version, but the basics are the same.

    Aside from the mechanics, the politics to get it enacted have been immense. Even our own team isn’t 100% convinced that the approach will work. And it won’t be pretty at launch. As you might expect, there are lots of cooks, lots of competing agendas, lots of competing goals and so on. Our new site will have holes, but the basic premise will exist.

  4. For the first time EVER… I totally disagree with you. I enjoy each department having a unique heart beat. I’m not a huge fan of sweets, perhaps that’s why I hate the cookie cutter concept.

    If I want to get an Art degree I’m looking for a site that could never ever ever be used for a Business Administration program, just sayin.

    Plus, by making it confusing, it gives the future student a taste of what’s to come. I kid, sort of.

  5. Prospective students, certainly undergrads, don’t think in terms of the art department versus the business department (according to our research and my own personal experience). They think in terms of “university X”- the totality of the school which not only includes the program of study, but also the social aspects, sports, surrounding area, housing, etc. We find they prefer a universal experience because its easier.

    Differentiation can be done through content or linking off to student blogs or other types of unofficial (but related to the university somehow) sites.

    Also, an art student would ever go to the business school’s site (or any other program of study they’re not interested in) so they’d never notice the similarity in layout/colors/etc.

  6. Rachel – great post! SO MANY institutions that struggle with this so I’m bookmarking this to share with them. It’s very frustrating to have to re-familiarize yourself with whatever navigation a department has deemed necessary OR become trapped because there is not a link back to previous tiers (or even the home page).

    Can you think of exceptions to this rule? Sometimes institutions have a much more “edgy” admissions site or the graduate school has its own look and feel. Like Todd mentioned, Art is always one that tends to push back on this because they want it to be a representation of the work they produce. I would definitely have to have my arm twisted hard because I’m not convinced it’s a good approach unless done well…and not by a graduate assistant or whomever who has a knack for HTML and Photoshop.

    I also just noticed the stat you posted that “38% using a site to match them to us like Zinch, MyCollegeOptions, College Board.” Do you think it’s because these sites provide consistency and to the point information? Are institutional sites offering too much info that they go elsewhere to get the basics?

  7. I agree with you Rachel. I think that the branding, messaging and experience should be consistent across the board. That being said, I think that certain areas like Athletics, Admissions, etc. can have an experience that is set apart from the rest of the experience providing that there is continuity. At our college we use CMS and have a consistent template across the board but are looking at the possibility of mini-sites to promote various key areas of the college. These mini-sites would maintain the experience and messaging but provide some variety.

    I also think that this ‘Reining in the outliers’ could be applied to social networks to ensure consistent messaging and branding is applied to Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    My question I would like to pose is this: How to you handle the reining in when the product is considered an academic product (i.e. a student run radio station) and is being developed outside the web team by the academic courseware team?

    Great comments by the way and I’ll be passing this on 🙂

  8. @Mike McCready I have a part-two post coming Thursday called “Reining in the outliers for a university-wide cohesive social media presence.” 🙂

    I don’t think a student run radio station falls under this umbrella. I don’t think they should use the university-wide template. They should, however, make it clear they’re part of the university, but there are other visual ways to accomplish that. I think the template is best for academic/administrative programs and departments.

    If you don’t have a central Web team, this gets tricky. And messy. Do you have a campus-wide Web committee of some sort? The academic courseware team would benefit from using common elements – but are likely dependent on the product they use.

  9. Rachel – thanks for this article (your post about @tsand agreeing/disagreeing brought me to it). This is strong advice that can be applied even outside of higher ed (although he is rather famous for fragmented sites 🙂 )

    On an odd note, one of the few (the only) sites in Canada that have a consistent template through their entire site is the Ontario College of Art & Design (but it helps that they only have two faculties to deal with … art, and design).

  10. Great post, Rachel. All of those issues we face in this context seem to fall into 2 camps – the technical, and the cultural. The template falls into the technical… and whether is is designed for flexibility is critical… , and then for the various providers of content, creating an environment, or culture, where content can flow in.

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