If Gandhi were the Sr. VP of Marketing & Communications, he might have offered this guidance for ascribing value to effective Higher Ed website design.
The ubiquitous but not faithfully quoted words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Be The Change You Want To See…” provide meaningful guidance for a model of planning, design, and budgetary allocation for a major website redesign initiative . That model might be called “Design The ROI You Want To See.”
The topic of measuring the Return On Investment for a large-scale Higher Education website redesign project has been written about thoughtfully and insightfully over recent years. And while many experts acknowledge that this most-important hub of institutional communications infrastructure should be evaluated based on the analytics of key metrics (pre- and post-redesign), you’ll also find many highly accomplished Higher Ed and agency professionals making a powerful case for a broader perspective on website evaluation. That perspective addresses so-called “qualitative indicators” of the vitally important returns on the investment in an institution’s website. These “returns” might include: amplification of brand, greater alumni engagement, diversity of applicants, more frequent and prominent media coverage—just to name a few.
In an excellent 2017 article, Michael Stoner talked about the challenges of “proving” ROI for large-scale website redesigns because “universities and colleges are complex institutions, and education is a complex and expensive product”. In a case study, he reiterates the importance of tracking measures such as data from Google Analytics, CRM, and social media and points to very impressive increases in applications and online donations after the implementation of a new website. But he adds, “while their redesigned website has delivered measurable results, it’s also delivered results that are just as important if a lot harder to quantify.”
In this thoughtful piece, Mr. Stoner suggests that “maybe we need to shift perspective, recognizing that a website is critical infrastructure and brings multiple benefits, only some of which can be measured and quantified in calculating ROI.” But perhaps that important shift in perspective should be the starting point, rather than the conclusion, of a new way to think about the return on investment in an institution’s website.
When it comes to planning for and evaluating such an important commitment of budget, time, and inter-departmental talent, doesn’t it seem that there should not be two separate worlds of evaluation nor disconnected frameworks for analyzing ROI? It is our belief—in fact, it is our strategic approach—that the divide between the quantitative and qualitative measures should be bridged by ascribing real financial value to the higher-level outcomes of a high-performing institutional website.
Bridging the Divide Between Quantitative and Qualitative Measures
It is often a high bar for some institutions to make a commitment not only to collecting but regularly analyzing the data on the performance of many basic website metrics. But it’s an even higher bar for many to develop, track and evaluate metrics for some of the most important outcomes of the communications efforts that clearly ought to belong in the realm of website effectiveness.
Of course, these higher-level, strategically important outcomes are impacted by a multitude of commitments and investments by a college or university—precisely because they are so important. Many resources, both internal and external, and significant budgetary allocations are often focused on delivering and improving such vital outcomes.
Elevating rankings, increasing diversity, improving yield, deepening alumni engagement, adding donors, appearing in trend articles, and providing a safe and enriching student experience—there are departments, teams, and major line items associated with the things that lie behind accomplishments like these and many other high-value outcomes of institutional investments.
It’s not difficult to see the everyday role of an institution’s website in supporting, operating, or driving improvements to these high-level strategic outcomes. So why is it hard to ascribe financial value to it?
Your Strategy Is Where You Put Your Resources
We’ve seldom heard university presidents or high-level cabinet members say, “We’ve got to decrease the bounce rate on our landing pages….” But we’ve spent many meetings focused on things like increasing donor engagement, or how to help prospective students hear directly from undergrads in their intended course of study. It only takes a minute in any of those strategy sessions before the website’s architecture, content, the CMS, or even web governance, enter the conversation. If strategy is about putting resources against your prioritized, high-level outcomes, then the ROI discussion about investments in the website begins to be seen in the right perspective.
There is no question that it takes investment of resources into many departments and teams, and often the engagement of outside consultants and agencies, to accomplish many of these higher-level outcomes. But one central part of the institution’s infrastructure—the website—will be depended upon to carry, integrate, and deliver key aspects of many of these initiatives. So logically, the website should have its ROI evaluated, at least in part, in terms of how it is helping the institution’s strategic initiatives make progress.
“Website redesigns call for stark clarity about an institution’s mission, values, and goals. The website’s messaging, look, feel, and design should all align with those factors in a well-thought-out and true strategic identity. ROI gets a lot easier to evaluate when you know why a website was built, how it is organized and expressed—and toward what ends,” – Pete Mackey, Ph.D., President, Mackey Strategies.
Creating a Framework for Evaluation
A typical model of website investment ROI might rely on pre-redesign/post-redesign changes in a number of metrics. For example: data from Google Analytics, tracking downloads and conversions, CRM correlations, and social media links. And of course, there are a great many important implications of improving performance related to the things these data represent. But without taking anything away from the importance of continuous measurement and improvement of these indicators, we suggest adopting a more strategic framework for evaluating investments in website improvements or redesign.
Every college and university periodically sets its “strategic imperatives” and prioritized institutional goal areas. And each of these areas of focus, and the concerted efforts of many teams, will unquestionably result in an agenda of desired “implementations” on the website. Whether it’s simply a load of new content, new response functionalities, or more-difficult-to-pull-off things like “make this place look more exciting and with it”—these are all dependent upon the design and functionalities of the website, and its ease-of-use by a wide array of institutional departments and participants.
It would be fair to say that many of the major strategic priorities or goal areas for the institution will depend on being able to deliver engagement, response, and impact through the website. A strategic framework for evaluation that correlates the value of investments in the website with the ambitions for goal achievement—by an institution’s numerous departments, programs, centers, or institutes—is a powerful approach to support decision-making. This sort of framework for evaluation will continue to evolve, but what follows is the conceptual approach that we are working on. We welcome all to help co-create the operational aspects of this with us and our clients.
Ascribing Value To Strategic Priorities For Defining Website ROI
If you start breaking down and ascribing proportional value of a website redesign to multiple strategic initiatives and intended high-level outcomes, a single, large investment becomes a shared commitment of many smaller-dollar investments into the things we must achieve. That’s where ROI should be measured.
In this framework for evaluation, we set three broad categories to begin ascribing value for website investment:
- Institutional Identity and Brand Development
- Specific Strategic Goal Achievement
- Internal Costs and Efficiencies.
Inside each of these “big buckets,” one institution’s sub-categories will differ greatly from another’s. These should reflect the priority areas where change, improvement, or focused attention are called for in strategic plans and management agendas.
Take, for example, the major category of Institutional Identity and Brand Development. A strategic research and discovery process might have uncovered the need for “a more effectively branded, overall visual presentation” on the website. Or perhaps “greater facility for storytelling…,” or “ease and efficiency of content creation and content management.” Each of these, and others, is critical to the ability to fulfill the goals of expressing and continuing to build institutional brand identity.
As another example, take the major category of Specific Strategic Goal Achievement. The college or university may have laid out a number of audiences within which greater engagement and response will be needed in order to achieve institutional goals. These might include Prospective Students, Current Students, Faculty & Staff, Alumni, Athletics, Media & External Community. Every one of these audiences, and the teams that are tasked with building this improved engagement, will find real value in a better-designed, more robust website that results in the best possible user experience and achieves desired impact. How should the investments in website improvement be allocated across the strategic outcomes intended for each of these goal areas?
Just as an illustration, say there are 8, 10 or 12 departments, programs, centers, institutes, within the institution each having one or more high-level strategic initiatives that depended upon a high-performing website to implement and accomplish their stated objectives. Would it be fair to allocate some portion of a once-in-five-years, major investment in a website redesign across those “business units” (to borrow a phrase from another sector)? If the new-and-improved website becomes a “contributing asset” for each of those constituent groups’ goal achievement, it becomes easier to see meaningful ROI, especially if the investment is apportioned to a number of strategic imperatives.
The Website ROI You Want To See
The range and scope of strategic outcomes that depend on improved engagement, response and impact through the institution’s website will provide a framework for evaluating ROI. Clearly defining those in advance of a major redesign project is the basis for determining that Return On Investment. Dollars invested, correlated with high-level outcomes achieved—that’s the foundation for designing the ROI you want to see.
Thinking about a higher education website design strategy? Let us know, we’d love to get started!
 Brian Morton, Falser Words Were Never Spoken
 Michael Stoner, Measuring ROI of a Website Redesign