Ed: Sam Nagourney of The Bates Student captured the essense of our vision for Bates’ online media in this article about our Home 4 project. I’ve edited for clarity (as shown by  and …), but the original is always available, so feel free to take a look. Thanks to Sam for permission to republish the story here.
The spirit of hope and change is spreading from Washington D.C. to Lewiston, Maine. In the next three to four months, the College’s online homepage will be entirely revamped.
“My vision is that within a year or two, we will be doing such good work … communicating Bates’ excellence, that we’ll be getting [national] recognition,” said Jay Collier, Web Communications Manager for the Office of Communications and Media Relations (OCMR), who is heading up the operation.
Seeds of change
Last December, the new Vice President for College Advancement Kelly Kerner charged Collier and other OCMR staffers to begin work on a project focused on the homepage…
The new homepage is “primarily a way to quickly present why Bates is distinctive…and worth [the] attention [of] people who don’t know anything about Bates,” according to Collier, who explained why the project will, for the moment, be affecting only the homepage and not department sites.
Objectives of the Bates Home 4 project
- Improve the online experience for first-time visitors
- Focus on connecting people with their interests
- Bring together content and services for current community members
- Sustain online experiences accessible to everyone
“The three primary groups of people who may be finding out about Bates for the very first time are future students and parents; future employees, faculty, and staff; and future contributors or philanthropists: people who want to give to the school and know really very little about Bates,” said Collier.
The homepage is due for a renovation; it was last updated in 2001/2002, according to Collier. At the time, the homepage was “state of the art” in web technology and communications, but it has since become “in essence, a snapshot in time,” said Collier, associating weaknesses in the current homepage with weaknesses in web technology from 2001/2002.
Nearly a year ago, Collier began holding open forums with students, parents, alumni, faculty, and staff to figure out what people wanted from a Bates online experience. While different groups of people wanted different things, there was a general consensus: the homepage should be more dynamic, lively, and exciting.
Principles of an effective online experience
- Be dependable – anywhere, any time, any device
- Be intuitive – simple publishing, searching, finding
- Be useful – helpful information and instructions
- Be engaging – appealing, personal, immersive
- Be personalizable – up to date feeds on personal interests
- Be sociable – online spaces for intellectual collaboration
- Be meaningful – insight into what matters to you
“Students want to be proud of Bates and they want their future employers and their parents and their friends to see a Bates online that reflects their experience of this great place, this cool place,” Collier commented.
A dynamic homepage could not come too soon. Recent research examining the ways in which students use the Internet to develop their knowledge about a school reveals that the presentation of what the school is about is more important than ever before. Web site visitors will leave a site if they cannot find what they are looking for within three or four clicks, according to Stamats, a company that assists colleges and universities to improve their marketing success. This is particularly relevant to the Bates’ Web site, which is filled with content that is often hidden.
Furthermore, a college’s Web site can affect its reputation. As part of a multifaceted strategy, [Collier has been] paying close attention to what is written about Bates on Wikipedia as well as Facebook groups. The College [manages a Facebook fan page and] started Twittering last summer to send out brief tidbits on the going-ons of campus.
Phases of online engagement
Step by step
Collier and OCMR plan over the next three months to move forward piece by piece, putting something out every two to four weeks for review. Collier believes in constructive commentary and feedback early on to ensure fewer complaints in the long run. Even though the goal is to have an up-and-running homepage by the [end of the] fiscal year in June, Collier opted for caution over speed.
“[I]t needs to present the essence of Bates and do it in a way that’s really engaging and sophisticated. So there’s the tension between moving [as] quickly as we can with our various partners and doing it right. And I have to say that caveat because if in June, we have something that’s not quite right, I’ll be the first one to say, ‘let’s take a little more time on it.’”
While there is yet to be a visual screenshot or markup of what the new homepage may look like, students, faculty, staff and alumni will first have the opportunity to review the language describing the College.
“The first thing we need to really be clear of is the story we want to tell and the window we want to open on to the school,” said Collier. “[Of] all the things that Bates does, some are like other liberal arts schools, some are like every college. [What] is it about Bates that is distinctive? The first thing that people are going to have a chance to look at is a draft of what that distinctiveness is. The next step is then how we organize that and how we present it.”
Interest from other schools
Surprisingly, the redesign of the homepage is affecting other schools. During conversations with colleagues at Cornell University, Collier discovered that both schools had similar interests in making the online experience more “usable, personable, customizable and institution-wide.” Other schools have expressed an interest in collaboration, but Collier feels that Bates is ahead of the curve.
“Bates is unlike [larger] schools [where] different departments have their own communications [strategies] … Here everyone is part of the big picture. So, in some ways, larger schools that have many strong sub-departments are actually looking to us. [They've] been following what we’re doing because we’re envisioning something that is more whole…. There is a whole Bates experience that they don’t necessarily have.”
Ethan Dahlin Magoon [was recruited for a position] transferred from Career Services to become the Online Media Producer and the second full-time employee to focus on the new homepage. Magoon will be responsible for working on the homepage as well as department, office and news pages in the future.
“So this is just the first phase or the first step in bringing the whole website up to date,” explained Collier.