Maximizing Your Internet Presence: Is Your Website Helping or Hurting You?

25% of prospective college students decide NOT TO APPLY to a given school simply because of a bad experience on the college’s Website. Is your school, non-profit, business, church, or blog facing the same issues?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted Bethel University (where I teach) for our exemplary work in bringing our website into the 21st Century. Bethel’s Director of Web services, Michael Vedders, was instrumental in transforming our site from something, well, “horrible,” to “state-of-the-art,” and is quoted extensively in the article.

Bethel Director of Web Services, Michael Vedders: Overseeing a Web overhaul is "kinda like herding digital cats with a mouse."

Having overseen the overhaul of Act One’s Website, I know this process is critical for the success of any organization. Great content is not enough. Without eye-catching visuals, and crystal clear organization users can’t find what they want quickly enough to stick around.  Yet, I also knew how difficult and time-consuming it is to overhaul your site. Unless you’re convinced that it is worth the work-hours, technology costs, and consulting fees, you will never pay the price.

Josh Keller’s article in the Chronicle does a great job of spelling out what a life-or-death issue a Website overhaul can be. Noel-Levitz enrollment consulting firm discovered that “A quarter of prospective students decide not to apply to a college because of a bad experience on the college’s Website.”  As Bethel’s Michael Vedders discovered in overhauling our website, “We spend a huge amount of time in higher ed maintaining content that has little return on investment.”

I don't have a 'before' picture, but imagine a dark and bewildering page filled with text and devoid of buttons.

This is exactly what we discovered at Act One. We had AMAZING content—after all, we were founded as a screen writing organization—but no one was taking the time to read it. Web surfers hit our bewildering and, well, visually boring, front page and moved on.

I clearly remember the day we sat down as a staff and filled our white board with our “admissions funnel.” It was the beginning of a year-long redesign of our process of moving prospective students from curiosity to application.

It led to profound changes in our website. Thanks to the work of CNN En Espanol Anchor AnaMaria Montero, consultant Dorsey Dunn, Act One staffers Melissa Smith, and especially Genevieve Parker, we were able to greatly increase our Web presence and site effectiveness. We even had Madison Avenue execs calling to congratulate us! (Okay, they were also Act One alumni, but it still felt good.)

Whether you are leading a college, a nonprofit, a business, or a blog seeking greater web presence, odds are that you NEED to go through this painful Website overhaul process! The Chronicle of Higher Education article, and Video Interview with Bethel’s Michael Vedders below, do an excellent job of describing the “funneling” philosophy behind a website overhaul process. I highly recommend them!


Colleges Rehab Their Web Sites for Major Payoffs

Analytics tools, some colleges find, can transform ineffective pages into winners

By Josh Keller in The Chronicle of Higher Education

After noticing that visitors to Hamilton College's Web site searched more often for financial-aid information than they did about admissions, J.D. Ross, director of new media, prominently posted a letter from the admissions dean explaining why the college was affordable. (Photo: Michael Okoniewski)

Colleges spend dearly to maintain vast, ever-expanding Web sites. They tweet. They blog. They podcast.

But most colleges have no idea just how much bad Web design can cost. Kafkaesque online forms and pages that nobody visits, for instance, can have disastrous effects: A quarter of prospective students decide not to apply to a college because of a bad experience on the college’s Web site.

That loss (documented in a survey of 1,000 high-school seniors conducted last year by Noel-Levitz, an enrollment consulting firm) can add up to a lot of money. “Generally, higher education hasn’t ever had to think about that before,” says Shelby Thayer, a Web strategist at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus. “How much does bad design cost us, and how much does good design save us?” As colleges do more crucial business online, “that’s kind of my burning question.”

Bethel's 'after' picture is even more stunning in the complexity issues it so elegantly addresses.

For answers, a number of institutions, including Penn State, are now turning to Web analytics. Going far beyond superficial measures like counting visitors or hits on their Web sites, they track who their visitors are, what they are looking for, why they fail to find it, and­—a crucial measure to gauge advertising spending—how much a successful Web visit is worth.

Many of the techniques, such as closely monitoring prospects, are standard practice on e-commerce Web sites and among for-profit colleges, but they are just gaining a foothold in most of higher education.

The Chronicle talked to officials at several colleges that have set up sophisticated analytics operations in admissions, audience tracking, and public relations. They warned that data can be misused, and collecting them can be hard because responsibility for college Web sites is often spread among departments. Plus, many goals in higher education—such as improving reputation—are not easily measured.

But the officials also said analyzing their Web data to drive online decisions brings enormous rewards. “We spend a huge amount of time in higher ed maintaining content that has little return on investment,” says Michael Vedders, director of Web services at Bethel University in Minnesota. Analytics has helped Bethel spend money in the right places, he says.

Funneling Admissions

Mr. Vedders is blunt about Bethel’s old Web site: It looked horrible. But more important, the site for the liberal-arts college, in St. Paul, made it difficult for prospective students to find information that would encourage them to apply.

Many private universities spend upward of $2,000 to recruit each student who enrolls, and their Web sites often form prospective students’ first impressions. The critical path leading from prospect to applicant to paying student is known as the “admissions funnel,” and Mr. Vedders’s goal is to optimize it.

An analysis of Bethel’s Web data, drawn from Google Analytics, showed Mr. Vedders that the college’s funnel had some problem areas.

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Video Interview/Graphics with Bethel University Director of Web Services, Michael Vedders, “Flip this Site”: