Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO


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This is a reprint of a chapter I wrote for Public Relations and the Presidency: Strategies and Tactics for Effective Communications, ed. by John Ross & Carol Halstead (CASE, 2001). I wrote this in late 2000; interesting to read the conclusions and recommendations a decade later.

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Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO

  1. 1. ReprintWeb Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEOBy Michael Stoner1Now is the time for colleges and universities to start acting as if all their importantconstituents use the Internet—because if they’re not yet, they soon will be. In thenext five to ten years, the Internet will become the single most important channel bywhich colleges communicate with their entire range of constituencies.Aside from this crucial role in communications, the Internet and Web will be centralto institutional management, learning and teaching, and e-commerce. In fact, how acollege or university responds to opportunities presented by these rapidly advancingtechnologies may affect the future of the institution itself. Developing aninstitutional strategy for the Web is one of the most compelling challenges facingturn-of-this-century CEOs.While it will take some time to determine whether the early promises for distanceeducation are real or so much hype, what should be an immediate concern is that,right now, an institution’s Web site influences the perceptions of a broad range ofconstituents—including prospective students, alumni, funders and donors, state andfederal legislators—for better or worse. Yet, because the Internet is a new additionto an institution’s marketing/communications tools, it is often underutilized andunderfunded—not to mention ignored in many institutional marketing plans.1 Michael Stoner is president of mStoner, a Chicago-based consulting firm that specializes in communicationsand marketing strategy, estrategy, content management, and technology, and develops marketingcommunications programs for colleges, universities, and nonprofits. Learn more on our Web site<www.mStoner.com>.Reprinted from Public Relations and the Presidency: Strategies and Tactics for Effective Communications,John E. Ross and Carol P. Halstead, eds. (Washington, DC: CASE), 2001.
  2. 2. A Snapshot of Current RealityTo give you a sense of where we are—at this writing (late 2000), more than 50percent of American homes have an Internet connection. In short, we have reacheda critical mass, as we did in 1953 when more than 50 percent of American homes hadTVs. Like it or not, the Web has become mainstream. The American publicincreasingly turns to the Web for news and information first, augmenting their Webresearch with print and TV coverage. Almost all journalists have Web access, and anincreasing number say that they use the Web to generate leads for stories; in fact,only 1 percent say they never go online.The current generation of college students does not remember a world withoutcomputers. Soon, teenagers will not remember a world without the Web, email,Amazon.com, and instant messaging. It is well known that young people have takento computers and the Web with alacrity, often teaching their older siblings, teachersand parents—not to mention university faculty.What may not be well known is how important the Web has already become instudent recruitment. According to the 12,000 students who have completed LipmanHearne’s Web Site Effectiveness Study (WSES), the college Web site is the mostimportant “published” source of information in their college search. The Webranked higher than traditional sources such as college viewbooks and guidebooks, aswell as letters from college representatives. What ranked higher than the Web site?A visit to campus and conversations with current students—neither of which thecollege can control.Furthermore—and what should be more alarming to institutional leaders—studentsequate the quality of an institution’s Web site with the quality of the institutionitself. A college’s Web site clearly shapes perceptions of an institution. A sampling:“I had no desire to consider this college as an option with the [paper] mail I received[from the college]–I do think more highly of the college now.”“The information on the site was very organized and complete and it was arranged ina very attractive manner. It makes me think highly of the college.” Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO 2 of 7 3/12/02
  3. 3. Last year, MIT reported that 85 percent of alumni had Internet connections at home.MIT’s alumni may be early adopters—but the fact is that many institutions will soonsee similar patterns of adoption of the Internet among their own alumni.Lessons for Institutions and their CEOsWhen I first began consulting with colleges on Web strategy and development, itwas often difficult, if not impossible, to schedule an interview with the CEO. Now,five years and some five dozen institutions later, I find the CEO one of the mostinterested participants on my schedule. (Board members, alumni, students, facultyand staff—among many others—are also vocal in expressing their opinions about theinstitution’s Web site!)While we have come a long way in five years, some of the basics of the Web are stillnot clearly understood, in part because the Web is different from othercommunications vehicles. Here are some important lessons about the Web and itsrelationship to institutional marketing. 1. A great Web site currently offers a competitive advantage, but one that will be short-lived.As more institutions understand this and start to develop great sites, the currentleaders will have to improve, creating shorter lifecycles for sites and a need forvigilance as to how an institution stacks up against its competitors. This meansongoing staffing, funding, and management of the institution’s Web site, of course.Furthermore, we have learned from other research that we have done that manystudents do not consider technology itself to offer a competitive advantage forinstitutions. Prospective students expect networked residence halls, a well-developedintranet, and abundant computers. If a college lacks these amenities, they will notice.But unless an institution can demonstrate effectively their relevance and importance,prospective students won’t care. 2. In an age in which so many relationships will be mediated by the Web, an institution’s brand will take on extraordinary significance. Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO 3 of 7 3/12/02
  4. 4. While it may seem impossible to compete with Harvard’s brand, we believe thatother education brands will continue to be valuable in their own markets. But alleducation institutions must focus on developing, managing, and extending theirbrands, ensuring that their messages are consistent across the media they use tomarket the institution. This is increasingly true because of the Web. Twenty yearsago, one audience segment (i.e. prospective undergraduate students) seldom sawcommunications developed for another audience segment (i.e. alumni). Now,however, the Web essentially invites side-by-side comparison, making inconsistencyin branding and in messages painfully apparent.And we know that the entire Web site matters—prospective undergraduates look atacademic department sites, faculty Web pages, and alumni Web sites. So having awell-managed site is essential (a lesson that businesses learned early on, reining inrogue Web sites and making sure that the external site was developed and managedby marketers, not technologists).We also know that audiences—especially prospective students—are very brand-aware. Your audiences will judge the clarity of your brand on your Web site againstthat of MTV, Amazon.com, and other commercial ventures, which means that youhave to differentiate your institution and do it quickly. In our research withprospective students, we hear comments like this: “What makes this place differentfrom any other college? This looks like a typical college Web site.”They will also judge your site against the savvy, convenience, and consistency ofcommercial Web sites. Does your site make transactions easy? Does you r staff andfaculty answer email promptly? The most successful commercial sites do. 3. An institution’s communications and Web site must be connected to the overall marketing and communications strategy.In marketing, everything is connected, and print, PR, and advertising must leverageyour Web site (and vice-versa). This requires a well-thought-out strategy, one basedon a clear understanding of the institution’s marketing challenges. This, of course, isa hard lesson for many institutions to learn and to manage when communicationsactivities are fragmented across many offices. Nevertheless, it is important tounderstand the communications and marketing activities of your institution as atotality and to use media for what they can best accomplish. In some cases, of Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO 4 of 7 3/12/02
  5. 5. course, this will require reallocations in budgets—for example, shifting budget fromprinting catalogs to developing a more effective Web site, for example. We don’tbelieve for a moment that emphasis on the Internet will cause print to disappear, butinstitutions will think differently about how to use print communications, includingviewbooks and alumni magazines. 4. Staffing and funding Web development will be an ongoing challenge since technology is evolving so rapidly.We believe that to develop and maintain an effective Web strategy, appropriateroles must be assigned to appropriate staff: content and the site interface are bestdeveloped by people who understand marketing, and infrastructure (hardware,software, the network) should the responsibility of IT staff. But neither of thesecomponents stands on its own—staff must work together and the CEO mustpromote a team approach. These and other site developers (including thosedeveloping academic sites and e-commerce applications) have to work together toachieve the best results for the college.Web development is not a one-time expense. While a college or university mayspend a large amount of money to rebuild or redo an existing site—developing a newsite architecture and interface, adding new content, providing some tools for peopleon campus to use—institutions must look at Web development as a recurringexpense, and budget for it. Web sites demand constant feeding, updating, andmaintenance—unlike print communications, which are done once and then revisedwhen they need to be reprinted some time later.Thus, funding Web development will continue to be an ongoing challenge, but onethat must be met. Well-managed sites cost money for technology and for staff. Agrowing number of institutions believe that this expenditure is essential if they are tobeat their competition.Some element of central coordination is essential to ensure that the institution’s sitemeets the needs of its main users—usually prospective students and alumni. Ofcourse, other users are important and their needs must be factored into the sitedevelopment. An effective Web team will keep abreast of new developments intechnology and ensure that an institution’s site will evolve, but avoid jumping onbleeding edge technologies that add little to a site’s value for key audiences. Also, Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO 5 of 7 3/12/02
  6. 6. CEOs must recognize that roles and responsibilities will shift across campus as theWeb assumes a more prominent role in campus life. 5. E-commerce will also be increasingly crucial as constituents come to expect services and transactions such as online tuition payment and donations.Currently most colleges are developing their e-commerce strategies piecemeal. Onevendor may serve admissions, clearing credit cards used to pay the application fee.Another vendor may serve the alumni association. A third may take orders fortickets for athletic events. Eventually, many of these niche vendors will disappear ascolleges and universities view credit card transactions as a cost of doing business.E-commerce becomes a marketing issue because here, as in other areas, colleges willbe driven by the expectations of their audiences. Prospective students, their parents,alumni, visitors to campus cultural or athletic events—all will expect the institutionto be able to manage commerce online, as do CD, book, appliance, and evenautomotive sites. 6. Expect tectonic shifts as alumni and others come to demand a deeper relationship with institutions because interactive communication allows them to have one.Alumni who once had to travel physically to take part in events and activities andinteract with friends, professors, and students, can now do much of this online.What will happen when they expect to be more completely involved in campus lifeand decision-making? What expectations will parents have now that they can haveongoing, daily relationships with staff members via email and the Web? Clearly,campus leaders need to be aware that as Internet access and use becomes interwovenin people’s lives, it may bring with it different demands stemming from a deepersense of connectedness to the institution’s key audiences.Underlying these lessons is a single force that’s particularly difficult to describe andachieve. This is the institution’s Web culture, its readiness to manage a tool that islikely to transform not only the way we market and communicate, but the way wethink about communicating, processing information, serving our constituencies, and Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO 6 of 7 3/12/02
  7. 7. doing the basic work of the college. That wider sensibility, that intangibleadaptability and excitement, almost always comes from the top and it is vital to asuccessful Web strategy. Web Strategy Lessons in Search of a CEO 7 of 7 3/12/02