Build your website from the brand up

by Brandon Comstock for Higher Ed Marketing Report

Build your website from the brand up. Pick your metaphor. Front door? First handshake? Tip of the spear? The meaning is the same: for academic institutions, web is the critical brand touch point for engaging and retaining the best and brightest.

For students, faculty, alumni, donors, partners and more, your website is the face of your institution. Some 80% of high school seniors view college websites as the most influential resource when researching colleges (Ruffalo Noel Levitz 2015 E-Expectations Report), and parents expect to find all the information they need online to validate their child’s choice. As digital natives, alumni and younger donors are increasingly turning to the web to connect with you. Prospective faculty and partners are keen on seeing how your digital presence might advance their particular agenda or vision (and more and more you’re likely finding yourself “selling” to them more than they to you!). The expectation is there.

Your website is not an “extension of your brand.” As leader of a major Boston academic institution said to me recently, in higher-ed, an institution’s website is their brand.

In other words, your website is not an “extension of your brand.” As leader of a major Boston academic institution said to me recently, in higher-ed, an institution’s website is their brand.

What does this mean for academic innovators? Simply put, the next time you embark on a web project, you ought to envision it as a brand project. Why? Because your institution’s brand is more than a set of HTML templates integrated with your CMS of choice.

Your website is the medium. It’s your antenna. Your independently run “media channel.” What you communicate via this channel—and how—is what brings your brand to life on the web. Your website may be the touch point, but a compelling brand experience is what ultimately sparks and sustains the relationships necessary for success.

Though prototyping, user-testing, semantically sound HTML/CSS and the right CMS/CRM solutions are all critical, it’s rigorous brand-focused thinking to inform the website development process that ultimately makes a difference.

Bringing your brand to life on the web

We all know the old analogy about the drill vs. the hole. For those embarking on a web project, don’t shop for a ”website vendor.” You’re not buying wireframes, HTML, and a database. What you ought to be buying is the embodiment of your unique value and values thoughtfully executed through a dynamic medium.

Consider the following…

Brand: mission & vision → Web: business requirements

As an academic institution, you’re charged with a particular mission, and guided by a particular vision. It’s not (hopefully!) just about accepting students and churning out degrees.

A recent collaboration with the Northeastern University College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS) was as much about touting its interdisciplinary programs and research, and changing the perceived “face” of computer science, as it was about attracting prospective masters and PhD students.

To advance these brand attributes, site requirements included interdisciplinary infographics, dynamic research area tagging, precise art-directed photography, new content types to elevate lab work, and more. This was not to be the off-the-shelf college website with an obligatory campus shot, image carousel, and big red “apply” button.

Defining our brand strategy and ensuring it was carried through our digital presence, not just in the graphics and photos, but in the entire experience of interacting with the site was critical to making our project a success. The environment at CCIS is one of the things that sets us apart from other Computer Science departments and colleges—our website needed to tell that story. — Gail Fitzgerald, Director of Marketing and Digital Strategy, Northeastern University College of Computer and Information Science


Brand: constituents → Web: user personas

Understanding your constituents from a brand standpoint is critical to informing meaningful, web-focused user personas. It’s the same folks, after all, who visit a college fair who later shift their research to your website. Don’t bifurcate the personas!

From a brand standpoint, who is important to realizing your mission and vision? (Hint: it’s more than just students.) What keeps them up at night? What do you want them to think and feel when they interact with you—either in person or online? The user experience should be the same, regardless of the touchpoint.

With an eye towards what your audiences care about most, what content, features, and functionality must you deliver through the web to elicit the desired thoughts and feelings? And—most critically—what’s needed to motivate the necessary actions to meet your business requirements and advance your mission and vision?

Not all actions are created equal; think in terms of macro and micro. A micro-action, for instance, could be a user clicking to follow you on social media, or opting into your e-newsletter. A macro-action is a more significant gesture, such as submitting an application, making a donation, or reaching out regarding an open faculty position.

When it comes to stewarding prospects of different stripes through the continuum of awareness → comprehension → engagement → advocacy & support, actions both big and small make a difference in building brand—and advancing your mission and vision.

Brand: messaging framework → Web: content strategy & information architecture

Central to building an understanding of your institution’s mission, vision and value(s), is a flexible framework of brand-focused messages.

Of primary important is developing a high-level positioning statement or “brand promise” message, supported by more specific sub-messages that drill down into critical facets of an organization’s focus areas.

Our team works to develop a high-level positioning statement or “brand promise” message, supported by more specific sub-messages that drill down into critical facets of an organization’s focus areas. These frameworks go a long way toward creating a comfortable, fluent corps of ambassadors across your organization who can pivot as necessary as they speak with different audiences who care about different things.

Because these frameworks provide a means to engage in different conversations with different people with different interests, they’re also incredibly valuable as underpinnings of website content strategy / writing and information architecture work.

For CCIS, a set of main messages regarding transformative experiential learning, a rigorous real-world, curriculum, cutting edge research, diversity, and the innovation hub of Boston gave the writer a palette from which to work as they drafted copy to meet the needs of different audiences–while continuing to reinforce a consistent framework of differentiating values.

For Sarah Lawrence College, the messaging framework we developed together was created to help convey the self-guided nature of the pedagogy—one that enables students to forge an educational experience in a borderless manner. Look at a particular student one way and you see what looks like a “theatre major.” Look at that same student from a different angle, and you might see a blossoming writer exploring a passion for LGBTQ issues. That same student might also be a great soccer player. And so on.

To bring this differentiating brand message to life on the web—and to show, rather than tell—, a new multi-faceted content type was developed that we dubbed “student constellations.” Rather than the typical long-form “student profile,” we created a means for multiple “micro” stories to aggregate over time around a particular student to create multi-faceted portraits of multi-faceted individuals.

Additionally, messaging frameworks inform navigation structures, dynamic content tagging taxonomies and more—and can lead to “aha” content and / or functionality approaches to help separate you from the pack.

Brand: visual system: → Web: achieving a meaningful digital mosaic

It’s about so much more than your logo, seal, or shield. Developing focused—yet flexible!—approaches to color, type, imagery, gesture, and composition is the only way to provide the “glue” necessary to hold communications (digital and print) together across schools, departments, institutes, initiatives and beyond—ensuring brand recognition across all touch points. At Sametz Blackstone Associates we call this Mosaic Branding™.

Web projects should never start with a blank whiteboard and an open call for wish lists.

Rather, make choices that will help your constituencies see you as you wish to be seen-—and give your staff the tools they need to effectively communicate by creating a set of resonant visual cues that hew to your brand mosaic.

Understanding how your entire brand portfolio fits together helps ensure that your main site, as well as sub-sites and micro-sites together, add up to a compelling whole that’s far greater than the sum of the parts. You’ll be better positioned to earn credit for all your endeavors, and you’ll have increased your ability to “cross-sell” programs and initiatives.

Without a robust visual toolkit, and without connecting your various sub-brands with intent, your next web project may only fracture or further diffuse your web presence, creating a jarring user experience for visitors looking to make a connection with, and gain insight into your institution as whole.

Okay, now what?

Do you need to undertake a full-fledged branding initiative before embarking on your next web project? No. Though launching a new website as part of a broader branding initiative can make a world of difference. But what you must do is ensure a significant portion of your web budget is dedicated to discovery, and that an ample portion of web discovery is consequently devoted to understanding who you are, how you want to be perceived, how your different moving parts relate to each other, and what you want visitors to then take away—and do—when they interact with you.

In other words, web projects should never start with a blank whiteboard and an open call for wish-lists. Instead, start your work from the inside out: branding should inform content, structure and features, not the other way around.

With the right priorities in place from the beginning, your website becomes your brand. Your navigation sends a message. Your functionality sends a message. The structure of your discourse sends a message. Design, imagery, and content are (obviously) imbued with messages.

Make your brand your client and your next web project will achieve its tactical objective(s) and advance your mission and vision, thus sharpening the tip of your spear, enhancing your front door, or firming up your first handshake.

Any metaphor will do. Just make sure you put in the work.