In my last post, I talked about using our signature print piece to determine brand messaging and design for all other media. In this post, I’ll show you how we took that design to the web. At the end, I’ll comment on how I now think the process should be reversed.
While our communications team was in production on the viewbook package, a working committee was planning a new undergraduate admissions website. The committee was composed of representatives from Marketing and Admissions, and our web team (Trusted Web Solutions and Concordia).
This dual process was and is a necessity because of the different user experience (UX) for web vs. print. Both media should invite the viewer/reader to an engaging experience, but the user comes to each experience with a different set of expectations, behavior, and options.
We had our work cut out for us. We weren’t going to be able to build on previous admissions website success. The admissions site we had at the time–a leftover from the previous web team design–was starkly absent of branding. It was designed for function, but it wasn’t engaging at all for an admissions funnel that needs a website that can keep interest over the course of months and years–a reality of undergraduate recruiting.
We also had the challenge of transitioning a design to the website that was created for a print user experience. My direction was clear: the brand messaging had to be consistent, and the design had to come across sufficiently enough so that the website and the print publications appeared to be in the same brand family. Beyond that, I wanted the web team to have creative license to produce something special.
Out of the planning process came the following major recommendations:
- Build a microsite. We needed a site that would be specific to young Millennials. Just plugging content into our website template wouldn’t cut it. We needed an engaging experience.
- Bold design elements. Our web designers highly recommended bold elements in the design, a current and popular web design, and a clear departure from our print design.
- Sliding Screens. Our web design team recommended the use of six sliding screens relating to the viewbook sections about Concordia. These screens would allow us to carry across the brand messaging, and would create an engaging experience for the user.
- Connect prospects to real student stories. The new site needed to continue our successful storytelling initiative that largely relies on video. But we decided to go beyond that and shoot unscripted man-on-the-street videos asking students what they think about their major, something we hadn’t seen elsewhere.
- Responsive design. We made the decision to go with responsive design (RD) in spring 2011, and we launched the site in September 2011. For higher education, we were an RD early adopter and found ourselves defending our choice of RD over a mobile app to higher ed colleagues at marketing and web conferences. A year later, everyone was talking RD.
Our admissions microsite may be viewed at http://www.cui.edu/undergrad. Leading the creation of the site was Mark Merrick, team leader; Jesse Inman, lead designer; Casey Sousa, designer; and George Allen III, content strategist.
For comparison purposes, our viewbook may be viewed at http://www.cui.edu/admissions/undergraduate/discover-your-gifts/viewbook.aspx.
We’ve been very pleased with our site. It’s worked for us at all levels of the funnel. While we had to pare back plans because of budget–specifically, the complexity of the wireframe–what we were able to achieve was a huge step forward for our admissions and branding efforts.
But would I do it again this way? Would I use the print design to set the brand template for our web design? I don’t think so. While I know that print designers have traditionally set the brand design template, I think we’re now in a new era.
Virtually every single prospect who checks us out views our admissions microsite, whereas only a percentage of them ever see our viewbook. I think I want to give our web designers more freedom to create a design for all of those visitors. If we decide to go out of house again for our viewbook package, we’ll need an agency willing to collaborate with our web design team on the brand template.
In our undergraduate admissions communications plan at Concordia University Irvine, a viewbook still plays a key role in branding our university from the inquiry phase and down through the funnel. We send it to high interest inquirers, and applicants who have not received it.
Upon my arrival at Concordia in 2010, a signature print publication was high on my list of those improvements that would be critical to our success because we would use it to establish our branding for the University’s traditional undergraduate market, and then carry it out across all media. I believe we hit a home run.
Our viewbook package was awarded a bronze award in the Total Recruitment Package category in the 27th Annual Educational Advertising Awards sponsored by the Higher Education Marketing Report, and it was a cover story in the Report’s November 2012 issue. But more importantly, it’s been successful in establishing our unique brand position in our market, and has been a strong influence in our admissions growth.
Our viewbook and related collateral were produced by the Lime Twig agency, with important photographic contributions by our university communications team. But it was Lime Twig that came up with the concept, writing, and design that makes our viewbook an engaging read for prospective students.
Our planning for the viewbook was critical, and it focused Lime Twig on the four key characteristics of the Concordia University Irvine brand:
- Our innovative and highly regarded Core Curriculum–required of all students–that shapes the Concordia Irvine academic experience, and places us in an elite category of institutions.
- Our Grace Alone, Faith Alone student experience rooted in our Lutheran identity, which sets us apart from other Christian universities that either tend toward fundamentalism, or that are less Christian mission-driven.
- Vocational calling. While other faith-based institutions may also talk about vocational preparation, we claim ownership of it from a brand perspective. It’s an important part of our Lutheran theology and heritage, thus giving us a rich and sometimes differing perspective for our students.
- Our Southern California location and beautiful hillside campus.
Put together, I don’t believe there’s another institution in our region or perhaps anywhere quite like Concordia University Irvine. So, our charge to Lime Twig was to incorporate our brand into a publication that connects with Millennials. We wanted our viewbook to be authentic in a way that is relevant to prospective students.
Lime Twig went to work and came back to us with a proposal that nailed each of these brand selling points with a Millennial-focused voice. The viewbook can be found and a PDF downloaded at:
Written by Judy DeVine, and designed by Ellen Laning, our viewbook begins with a cover page that speaks directly to the Millennial reader, simply and boldly asking, “What Are Your Gifts?” Turning the cover, the viewbook goes on…
“You have been given a particular set of gifts…a mix of talents, abilities, traits, and temperaments that are unique to you. At Concordia University Irvine, we help you discover and develop your God-given gifts, so that you can use them wisely in your future.”
What follows are sections that speak further to Millennials while also talking about the Concordia University Irvine student experience.
- Exploring Your Gifts
- Developing Your Gifts
- Sharing Your Gifts
- Using Your Gifts
In each of these section introductions, you’ll notice that there are “waves” of quotes that require the viewbook to be moved around while holding it in order to read the quotes. It’s a brilliant design choice. Millennials like to be engaged, and these pages invite the reader to engage the printed piece. Our focus groups loved it.
Of course, a viewbook is not just about the audience. It’s about the institution too. And we believe our viewbook establishes our brand category at the top of the funnel, while also communicating our student experience and brand culture for prospective students further down the funnel.
At the end of the day, any marketing decision must bring a return on investment, and our viewbook package has been important in increasing our admissions numbers. Currently, because of our viewbook and many other tactics, we are experiencing record numbers for inquiries, applications, and admits.
Our work, however, didn’t stop with our viewbook. We also carried out our brand message and design across other media. And what an adventure that was with a cool result. I’ll talk about that next.
It’s common to hear marketing consultants complain that there’s a lack of brand differentiation in higher education marketing. “Viewbooks all look and sound alike!” is usually the complaint. Well, in a sense, that’s just way too easy. It seems obvious upon examination. However, the criticism is both right and wrong. Viewbooks do look and sound alike, but that doesn’t necessarily mean universities aren’t positioning themselves uniquely. It’s just happening further down the admissions funnel.
In marketing higher education, similarities between institutions are categorical and are obvious at the top of the funnel, whereas the differences are nuances that should become more obvious–by design–as prospects proceed down the funnel.
Thus it’s our job as marketing and admissions leaders to paint a picture of our institution at the top of the funnel that distinguishes us from institutions outside our category, while at the same time communicating our distinctive brand culture–a culture that should be emphasized in multiple ways further down the funnel.
This all sounds rather theoretical, but it’s based on consumer behavior and the college search process. Most applicants proceeding down an admissions funnel have already figured out the general category of institution that will be best for them. Their application for admission is a signal to us that they are ready to further taste the flavor of our institution.
Strategies change as prospective students proceed down the admissions funnel. The battle inside the funnel is brand differentiation within category. As these prospects get further down the funnel, admissions is really all about fit–can they see themselves fitting in on our campus?
This is where admissions counseling, social media, phone calls from faculty, and blog posts by current students come into more significant play. It’s when our communication plan needs to be about helping students figure out if they fit at our university, and understand just how we’re different from the other institutions to which they’ve applied.
Of course, the campus visit is hugely important. It’s when prospective students should experience our campus culture. Perhaps the most prominent voice today on the vital role the campus visit plays in communicating brand culture is Jeff Kallay. Jeff and his work with colleges and universities has been profiled by many publications. His ideas on ways in which an institution can tell its story through the campus visit demonstrate how creative we can become with other tactics. Jeff has made a difference with our campus visit program at Concordia University Irvine.
Of course, campus visits happen at all stages of the funnel because the college search process is not as linear as a funnel implies. Now more than ever, students at all phases of the funnel are looking to get a taste of your institution. So, at the top of the funnel and through every stage of it, you need to be finding ways to communicate your unique student experience. And maybe, just maybe, that will make your viewbook look and sound a little different from your competition.
We’ve done that with our viewbook at Concordia University Irvine, and I’ll be sharing that soon.
In building a marketing and communications program, as Jim Collins says, it needs to be “First Who, Then What.” It’s vital that I get the right people on the bus and in the right seats.
Fortunately, over the course of my professional career I’ve been able to do just that with teams that came together and made it happen producing significant results and multiple lifelong friendships. I now have another one brewing.
It’s a joy to work with my marketing and communications team. They’re talented, they have winning and differing personalities, they’re producing excellent work, and they’re making a difference at Concordia University Irvine while developing further professionally.
The challenge for us is to sustain the momentum we’re experiencing as we add new talent. Making a mistake in hiring is not an option. Thus, I’m asking myself these five questions while reviewing candidates:
- Do you have talent and are you motivated to get better? There’s absolutely no substitution for talent. We’ll be mediocre without it at each position. But you need both talent and the motivation to keep learning and developing your skill set. For a marketing and communications organization moving forward, there’s no neutral gear. The market continues to evolve. Your talent needs to as well.
- Are you a team player? If you’re talented but not a team player, you may bring us some wins but you’ll miss other collaborative opportunities. As our web designer, Casey Sousa, said this week–it’s tough for anyone to take credit for an idea on our team because of how collaborative we are in shaping the idea. You need to be able to thrive in that type of creative environment.
- Do you have integrity? Building a team is building a community and a culture. Without trust, there is no community, and the resulting culture doesn’t promote collaboration and teamwork.
- Are you active in social media? In hiring our second communications director, we had three finalists, all with differing but impressive professional backgrounds. But in looking at Lindy Neubauer’s tweets and blog posts, by her style, tone, and content, I could tell that she’d fit on our team and that she clearly understood Social–an important factor since Social is integrated across our team. However, your personal Facebook activity doesn’t really count. I want to see how you’ve been building a brand or your brand as a professional. And while the importance of being active on social media depends on the position you’re seeking, no matter your role on our team, you’ll be participating in our professional dialogue about market and media developments. You need to be current.
- Do you have a healthy sense of humor? I believe God gave us the gift of humor to enjoy life and deal with stress. We all need to laugh sometimes. And think about it, how can you do communications, social media, web design, PR, etc. for a brand without having a good sense of humor? Like creativity, humor uses both sides of the brain. A healthy sense of humor is a good sign.
Building marketing strategies for higher education requires building a sustainable marketing and communications program, which requires a talented team to produce results day in and day out. I’m blessed to have one. I hope the same for you.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on a conference of enrollment management and mission officers from Catholic colleges and universities designed to explore how Catholic institutions market themselves.
DePaul University hosted the conference. Its senior vice president for enrollment management, David Kalsbeek, is quoted in the article: “Mission officers often complain that their college’s viewbook looks like it could just as easily belong to a public or a Protestant college. What they forget, he said, is that a viewbook is not a mission statement.”
I couldn’t agree more that a viewbook is not a mission statement. But mission officers are also correct–the pendulum seems to swing the other way much of the time.
Is it because institutional leadership doesn’t care enough to find ways to brand their identity? Or, is it because they think their market segments just don’t care? Perhaps it’s both.
DePaul’s experience with exploring how to brand its identity is described in the article:
“DePaul also studied how various groups view it, and neither its Catholic nor its Vincentian identity made the top 10, said Deborah Maue, associate vice president for marketing strategy. The university debated explaining what its Vincentian identity meant as part of its branding, she said, but decided that this would be too big a challenge.
“For most organizations, a brand is the external representation of the mission, said Ms. Maue, whose background is in corporate marketing. DePaul defines its mission as Catholic, urban, and Vincentian, she said, but that doesn’t mean those are the messages its audience is looking for.”
That’s an interesting insight into why some colleges and universities of faith may fail to successfully brand their institutions in a way that connects their identity to the market.
While branding by definition is tied to market research, most of your market segments you survey won’t be talking about identity. They’ll be talking about your brand–what they’ve experienced or heard you to be.
And if your brand experience is not explicitly tied to your identity, the only market segments you’ll find citing your institutional identity as being very important are those whose lives are all about your identity (e.g., clergy, faculty, administrators, and perhaps older donors who experienced the brand when it was tied more closely to identity).
Furthermore, if most of your prospective students are not from your theological heritage, how would they be looking for it?
But even if market segments are not looking for your identity, does that mean the institution shouldn’t be communicating the key takeaways about how its institutional identity uniquely influences the student educational experience?
The role of branding is to strategically communicate identity, brand, product, culture, etc. to market segments based on what is important to each market segment. While research tells you what’s important, it won’t necessarily tell you the connection between your identity and what the market is looking for. That’s going to take some digging and a good dose of creativity.
Branding institutional identity requires an institution to find out and communicate in relevant terms how its institutional identity shapes its educational experience in ways that meet market needs. As you do so, you may find that your branding of your institutional identity provides for you a market position that will be advantageous as you compete against institutions that lack an identity focus.
In the coming posts, I’ll be sharing how we’ve been doing it at Concordia University Irvine.
When I interviewed 14 months ago for my current position, I was critical of the university’s website. After consuming it for hours, I still had no sense of the brand or the culture of the institution. Its website was transactional with plenty of call to action buttons. But while there were multiple identity statements, the website wasn’t telling the Concordia University Irvine story.
The previous web team had put a lot of hours in redesigning the look of the site. There was no need to start over, nor the institutional will to do so. So instead of starting over, my boss (Executive VP, Gary McDaniel) and I decided we would build on the work that had been done and take the site to a new level.
But to proceed we needed talent on the web team, and we needed it immediately. We were down to one web designer and had no programmer. We turned to a website agency with which I had worked previously, Trusted Technical Solutions. I valued not only their talent, but also their experience with higher education culture and web design. One of their partners, Mark Merrick, joined us in the office, daily leading our web team. Additionally, Trusted brought with it a stable of web talent who could be plugged in on-site and off-site when and where needed.
Together we determined our direction for the site would focus on key improvements:
- Implement our new branding strategy that included a storytelling initiative
- Replace the obligatory and problematic higher education flash slide show on the homepage, tweaking the website template and look in a way that would accommodate slides for videos and written stories, but not require the team to make massive changes throughout the site
- Redesign the lower third of the homepage to accurately communicate our brand and brand culture
- Tweak academic homepage designs to accommodate videos/written stories
- Clean up what turned out to be over 500 bad links and content errors throughout the site
Trusted’s designer, Craig Hastie, led the redesign that incorporated the following…
- Design Changes to Highlight Navigation. We made some changes to font and design making it easier to read navigational links.
- Storytelling. We began to tell the Concordia story focusing on stories of undergraduate, graduate, and adult students and alumni.
- Brand. Per my previous post on the difference between brand and identity, we eliminated the multiple identity statements in the site’s header and footer, and put our brand essence in the footer.
- Brand Culture. In the institutional absence of a PR program, we strategically decided to use our main Twitter feed as a type of headline news on the homepage, allowing our tweets about university life to convey our brand culture (in addition to our storytelling).
- Brand Position. We added a brand positioning statement to the homepage describing who we are and why we are a distinctive university choice.
- Banner Ads. Finally, we provided two banner ads that give us some flexibility with content on the homepage, and allow us to promote new programs, important events, university achievements, etc.
None of this is eye-opening stuff. But for a page that must be effective for a range of market segments, it values simplicity in design and navigation, and shows the varied potential of social media.
Most importantly, our homepage now reflects our brand as it communicates who we are and how our educational products and experiences impact lives. And because of the stories, engagement on the page has improved.
Given limited resources, we’re been making changes to the site in phases. An upcoming post will be about our exciting and engaging new undergraduate admissions microsite. Stay tuned.