With CMS systems, web browsers, and user preferences evolving at warp speed, your website needs to be revamped every 3-4 years, or you’ll be out-of-date. Finish one redesign and it’s time to start the next. That means that an efficient internal process for handling these redesigns is essential.
And while everyone accedes that getting broad-based buy-in for website redesigns is beneficial and important – more so in decentralized, shared-governance organizations like colleges – it presents so many challenges that communicators often throw up their hands in exasperation.
Consensus-building can gridlock the whole effort, resulting in an embarrassingly outdated site for months on end. Or worse, it can dilute the focus so that you end up with a blah, vanilla-flavored website.
Here’s the good news: If consensus-building is structured the right way, you’ll get the best of all worlds: Timely decision-making, sharply focused site design and purpose, and an internal community that enthusiastically supports and promotes the new direction.
Here are our four keys to successful consensus building during website redesigns.
1. Advisory Committee
Let’s face it, higher ed thrives on inclusivity, and an ad hoc Web Advisory Committee scratches that itch. By identifying people who represent different groups’ needs and interests, you establish credibility, transparency, and good will.
The committee doesn’t have to be huge, but should include representatives from major stakeholder groups. Say, an alumnus, a student, recruiter, several faculty members, administrator, IT staffer, web manager, and a communicator should do it. About 9 in all, more only if you need broader representation politically.
Setting clear ground rules at the outset is essential. The most important being that the committee is advisory only, not the decision-making body! It should be clear that they are not being asked to help design the website or decide on the actual content of the home and secondary pages.
You know a camel is a horse designed by a committee. You’re asking for a camel of a website if you allow your advisory committee to get involved in page design and content decisions.
The committee’s input should focus on advising on the overall tone, functionality, CMS structure and permissions, content manager structure, web policy, and navigational approach. Insights on different constituency’s needs and preferences are important in these areas. Input on research needed and discussion of what the data means are all part of the committee’s charge. But design and content decisions should be reserved for the creative professionals who have the authority and responsibility for creating the website
Each committee member should be charged with representing their constituencies’ perspectives, and should also be asked to carry updates on the project back to their own groups.
The bulk of the committee’s work should come at the beginning of the project – before you begin actual redesign – and members should be thanked and released once the website strategies are agreed upon, rather than having ongoing responsibilities over the entire site implementation and subsequent management.
2. Ship’s Captain
Make no mistake, the website is the single most important and far-reaching communications platform you own. It is the principal expression of your brand.
As a consequence, the decision maker for the redesign project should not be an IT specialist, or a webmaster, or a web programmer or content manager. These individuals don’t have the background, training, or political oomph to make the momentous decisions that will be necessary.
After all, you wouldn’t let a structural engineer design how a building’s façade and interior spaces should look and feel, would you?
The leader of your redesign effort and the chair of your advisory committee has to have solid strategic judgment, great communications and political skills, enough savvy to stay focused on institutional needs, and enough clout and credibility to make and defend tough calls balancing brand priorities with competing unit desires. So the decision maker should be the institution’s principal brand strategist. This is usually the chief (or one of the top) marketing and communications position at your institution.
3. Data, Data, Data
We’ll all agree on one thing, for sure: Data is essential. User groups and focus groups are best to help understand audience wants, needs, and preferences. This kind of qualitative data allows you to sidestep issues of individual “likes” or “dislikes” regarding the new approach. Documenting audience needs and preferences establishes internal credibility and trust. It convinces headstrong committee members to see web changes in terms of audience perspectives rather than personal preferences.
Assessment of best practices and other award-winning sites is also helpful in demonstrating what works and doesn’t. Another important strategy is to rank website content against institutional priorities to make sure your site is advancing strategic goals. And Google analytics data is essential, too, in examining where the existing site has been successful, and where is could use improvement.
All of these data points should be presented to the Advisory Committee for review and discussion. How does the redesign support strategic goals? What units require home page links? Who are content managers? Should navigation be driven by audience segments or content topics? Is the home page best geared to prospective students or the general public?
The committee’s input – based on data and framed by institutional priorities – should be weighed in the balance, but the project director has to be ready to make the final call.
Internal transparency goes a long way in building acceptance of a website redesign process. A great way to accomplish this is maintaining a project blogsite where stakeholders can access timelines, project data and participants, and react to design and navigational updates. Open process can be scary, but is always a good idea.
Just remember the purpose of the website redesign is transparency of process, not public approval. So while you may want to ask visitors to give their reactions to, say two page design options or navigational choices, it is counterproductive to suggest that important changes will be based on a “public vote.” Retain that for the professionals.
Love means never having to say you’re sorry, and building consensus means never having to say it’s unanimous. You can never please everyone all the time, and luckily, you don’t have to. It’s a plurality that you’re after. So don’t let isolated push-back lock your grid.
And by all means, if your Web team could use some help in data collection or implementing consensus-building strategies, let us know.