Successful digital strategy must begin with your website

by Meg Fowler Tripp for Call to Action (Inside Higher Ed)

Article six in an eight-part series on how to craft an authentic, differentiating brand.

Now that you have an understanding of the process behind building a compelling brand, have gotten calibrated through thoughtful research, have crafted resonant messaging, developed a visual toolbox, and made strategic choices around methods and materials to increase the impact of your print communications, it’s time to map out your digital strategy—starting with the foundation for all of your digital efforts, your website.

Put your users in the spotlight from the start

The process of creating, refreshing, or updating your website can be an exciting one, but it can also become stressful in short order. With multiple voices weighing in on how the site should look, sound, and function, and competing lists of “must have” features and content types jostling for attention, even the most patient user experience pros, designers, and developers will face some major hurdles in moving your project forward.

The best way to ensure you’re making the right choices is to put the focus on your website users.

The best way to ensure you’re making the right choices is to put the focus on your website users. If you’re developing a website for a college, users could include everyone from your prospective applicants, to parents, to students, to faculty, to alumni, and so on. Beyond those audiences, you’ve also got internal teams who will be using your site to complete their administrative and communications tasks. Their needs are important, too.

Once you’ve come up with a list of your internal and external users, take some time to work through the following questions with each one during your discovery process:

  • What level of familiarity does this user have with our institution?
  • What types of information do they expect to find?
  • What types of tasks will they expect to accomplish?
  • How will they get in touch if they don’t find what they need?
  • How can I make it easy for them to pick up where they left off, if they return?

Some of the answers to these questions will invariably overlap, while others will demand a special section or feature. Regardless, you’ll have the information you need to start working on your digital blueprint and developing a site that truly meets the needs of the community you want to build online.

Choose your off-site channels wisely

There’s certainly no shortage of digital platforms available to communicators today beyond your website, including emails, SMS, social media accounts, and even app-based media and messaging. In fact, the sheer range of opportunities could quickly become daunting—unless you focus on choosing the right channels versus using all the channels.

To ensure the focus is on your web audiences and users, you’ll need to make choices that correspond to their digital habits, including where they spend their time online, the types of mobile devices they’re using and how they use them, and the types of information they’re looking for in various places. You’ll need to figure out how they want to interact with you online. There’s no point in ramping up a Snapchat presence if the vast majority of your audiences don’t even know it exists.

Here are some options for your discovery process:

Internal audit

Take a look at the channels you’re using now, and the response you’re getting on each one. Are there particular channels where your audiences tend to engage more? Do they respond more to certain types of information than others? Focus on the channels that garner the best response for your content.

Competitive audit

Choose three or four of your competitors and take a look at the digital channels they’re working with: sign up for their emails or text alerts, check out their social media channels, and download any apps they offer. Is their use of particular channels aligned with your efforts, or are they doing something unique? Where are they seeing the most engagement? Do they have a bigger following one place versus another? If you recognize a strategy or opportunity that you haven’t capitalized on quite yet, consider how you could make it happen for your own organization.


A quick survey of your website users could yield some solid insights about which digital channels you should take on—and which you could stand to skip. You could distribute it through a post on your site itself, via email, or via any social media channels you’re using now. Ask your respondents what platforms they use, why they go there, what types of information and interaction they’re looking for, and where they’d appreciate interacting with you. If you keep it brief, you’ll collect more responses, and get a better picture of your landscape.

Once you have a sense of where your audiences spend time, consider the time you have to give to the channels you’ve identified. If you don’t have the resources to put a channel to good use, it’s probably not worth your while to plant your flag there (though you may want to reserve your organization’s name for a future effort).

Take a “hub and spoke” approach

If your website is your digital hub, then every other channel you use should function as a spoke from that hub. Provide your users with a full list of all the other digital resources and channels you offer on your website, front and center, and let them know what they’ll receive in each spot. From there, ensure that each of your social media accounts, emails, etc. directs your users back to your website for more information, to get in touch with you, or to follow up on a call to action.

If your website is your digital hub, then every other channel you use should function as a spoke from that hub.

And it might seem like an obvious box to check, but it trips up digital communicators all the time: the information they provide on one channel doesn’t match another, or isn’t as up-to-date in one place as it is in another. It might be tempting to ignore your website in favor of channels that are easier or quicker to update, or more direct or timely in nature (like emails and texts), but the hub and spoke approach demands that every aspect of your digital presence is equally fresh and up-to-date—and your users will appreciate the effort.

Simply put, your website should always be your first priority.

This doesn’t mean you have to post the same information everywhere, mind you—but any gaps or conflicts can lead to digital hiccups.

Finally, focus on freshness

Which would you rather have: a gorgeous, bells-and-whistles website that hit peak freshness the day it was launched, or an attractive, easy-to-use website that keeps users coming back for more with frequently updated content? If you picked the latter, then you’re well on your way to providing a great user experience.

Just as with dormant social media accounts, or conflicting information on your website versus your other digital channels, a website laden with stores of old, stale content can turn users off quickly.
Not only will your audiences appreciate frequent updates and new media and content, but search engines will find them quite compelling, too. And if your users and Google can’t wait to stop by, you’re clearly doing something right!

Articles in this series