6 Effective Change Management Strategies for Higher Ed Websites

Many higher education website projects involve an immense amount of change management for internal stakeholders. These projects can be fraught with fear about losing functionality, retraining, or just making things harder to maintain. To smooth the transition, we offer six strategies to engage stakeholders and turn critics into champions.

As you start a website project and consider new approaches to the site structure, CMS, and governance, it is important to engage internal stakeholders and inform them about these changes along the way. This can include: 

  • using surveys and holding focus groups to solicit input, then connecting future decisions and deliverables back to those insights
  • identifying upfront who your internal champions might be, ensuring they are fully briefed on the new approach
  • inviting key stakeholders into meetings and presentations throughout the project to provide relevant input
  • sharing internal communications about project status and milestones with the internal community throughout the project to ensure awareness, build excitement, and solicit input

We’ve laid out six strategies that we use in our website redesign projects to ensure that the project is successful and embraced by the community. Underpinning these six strategies is a philosophy of empathy and listening to user needs from each stakeholder group. In other articles, we’ve outlined the key issues and concerns of each of the major stakeholder groups. Keeping these concerns in mind will be helpful to encourage active listening and problem solving.

1. Prioritize the Website Audiences

A higher education website serves many audiences — prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, media, and external vendors. It is important to rank the audiences and clearly state the primary audience at the outset of the project. In the past ten years, most higher ed website redesign projects focus on orienting the structure of the website around the needs of prospective students and their families. Prospects are the primary audience. Many conflicts over the site map and homepage that happen later in the project arise as a result of stakeholders arguing for their audience to be the primary audience. If audience prioritization is settled early, the project can move forward smoothly.

2. User research and insights

Once a primary audience has been identified and agreed upon, user research will provide the necessary insights to create a website that aligns to the user needs. Research takes the form of surveys, one-on-one interviews, or focus groups. The outcome of user research should define the customer journey, identify the marketing touch points, prioritize the user needs, and clearly outline the content preferences for each audience. If user research is not conducted, each stakeholder group brings their own biases of “what this audience needs.” User research — and especially videos of user engaging with a higher education website — are the most compelling tool to build empathy for the primary audience among stakeholders. These videos will reveal the user perspective, the challenges with the website layout, images, and content, and demonstrate how the website is not meeting expectations. Using a “show-don’t-tell” approach can overcome stakeholder objections and biases in just a few minutes.

3. In-Depth Discovery with Internal Stakeholders

When defining a primary audience, it is critical to listen to the needs of the internal stakeholders. Each stakeholder group brings a unique point of view and a communication or business objective they hope to achieve on the website. As outside consultants, we’re able to listen to both sides and facilitate conversations. In these discussions, our aim is to understand the communication goals, the current frustrations, and the staff and resources available to support the website. 

Through discussion, active listening, and workshops, we’re able to facilitate a two-way conversation to determine design and technology solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholders. These conversations are most successful when the audience is clearly defined and the insights about user needs have been identified through research. These foundational assumptions and insights provide a context for a productive conversation.

4. Website Analytics Offer User Insights

Web analytics can provide helpful insights into user needs and desired content. We recommend looking at:

  • User pathways
  • Most viewed content
  • On-site search terms (these reveal what users can’t find by browsing)
  • Landing-pages reached by organic search — these show the intent of users
  • In-bound organic search terms offer a quantitative look at the content users want — these can be found using Google Search Console or an SEO tool such as Moz or SEMRush

This quantitative analysis is helpful in understanding the audience behaviors and can help bolster the findings of the user research

5. Keep Everyone Informed Throughout the Process

Presenting the strategic direction for the website — through research findings, strategy, site maps, designs — is critical to help all stakeholders see how the solution will meet both their needs and the audience’s needs. Sharing these project deliverables also communicates that the process is thorough and thoughtful. One school we worked with kept an internal website redesign blog to provide open communication about the process to internal stakeholders, document the immense effort involved, and humanize the experience.

6. Socialize the Site Before Launch

Once the site nears completion, it’s time to plan a “road show” to reveal the new site (before it launches) and talk about the plan to roll it out. These presentations can include a timeline for the launch, a plan for content migration, a schedule of content entry training sessions, and clarity about any expectations. As we’ve noted above, it’s important to bring people along throughout the process and begin socializing these ideas early.

We recommend leaning on internal champions during this time to help support the roll out. It’s also important to tie back the design and technical decisions to the listening sessions and surveys conducted at the start of the project.

Winning with a "Both-And" Approach

In the end, there are usually cases to be made for multiple ways of presenting and organizing content and a “both/and” approach can work. 

For example, the presentation of majors or degrees is usually one of the more complex information architecture portions of the site. Our research shows it is easiest for a prospective student to see a full list of majors in a single location without having to navigate through the institutional layers of schools and departments. At the same time we acknowledge — for other audiences — it also could be useful to the school or department to have majors and degrees listed on their website. We can do both.

Duplicate content, however, can present a challenge for on-going maintenance. To solve this new problem, we typically leverage the web content management system to enter majors into “one location” and use coding to share the content across the site. This technical solution makes the content consistent, reduces errors, and makes it easy to maintain.

This both-and approach is a win-win — the primary audience gets the best UX experience, schools and departments get to promote the majors and degrees, and we simplify content governance and content management and reduce the burden of content entry on staff. 

Successful change management can be achieved by defining and understanding the website audience, listening with empathy to all user needs, and seeking solutions that are a win-win.

Jason Smith, Managing Director and Founder

Jason Smith

Managing Director and Founder Published: