Who Are Website Project Stakeholders in Higher Education?

February 08, 2019
different colored game pieces spread out on a table

Stakeholders are the people or groups that have a vested interest in the success (or failure) of a project. Typically, a higher education website project is led by the marketing group. With increasing pressure on enrollment, most college or university website redesign projects are focused on reaching prospective students, making the key stakeholders for a website project the admissions groups — undergraduate, graduate, online, and continuing education.

Other stakeholders for higher education website projects typically include:

  • The college or university president
  • Provost, deans, and department heads
  • Faculty
  • Student life — residential life, dining, student services
  • Financial aid
  • Career services
  • Alumni and development offices
  • Athletics
  • ​Information technology

Understanding Website Stakeholder Input

Let’s break down the information that we typically look to gather from each stakeholder group during our discovery.

Marketing and Web Team

The marketing and web team members are the project and product owners — they will make the relaunch happen and keeping it going. The site must meet the marketing and publishing needs of the team, and the site CMS needs to align to those needs. Plus, it needs to promote the brand and, for their success, meet the needs of the following stakeholder groups.

The Most Important Stakeholders: Admissions, Enrollment and Financial Aid

Admissions Stake: Will the website accurately portray the school? Will our school website look better than the competition? Will the website help me recruit students? Will the website forms work with my CRM?

Admission groups are on the front-lines of student enrollment, and since most higher education websites have the mandate to solve student enrollment problems, admission groups are the key stakeholder group.

Admission counselors are presenting the school and answering questions from prospective families everyday. We like to organize longer meetings with admissions stakeholders to understand:

  • What gets prospects excited about a school?
  • What are objections or misperceptions they need to overcome?
  • What are the admissions process and requirements, and where might students or parents get hung up along the way?
  • What are parents and families concerned about?
  • ​How do they tell a story about ROI and outcomes?

Since financial aid is often critical in meeting enrollment goals, we seek to understand how the institution supports prospective students and families through the aid process, what sorts of aid are available, and the overall philosophy and approach.

In addition to learning about prospective students, we learn about the admissions goals and targets, specific recruiting priorities, and how the CRM and other recruitment systems might need to integrate into the website.

The President

President Stake: Will this website be a sound fiscal investment? Will it help drive enrollment and engage alumni? Will it accurately convey the essence of our institution?

It’s important to gather from the President the high-level business and strategic goals for the website. If a multi-year strategic plan is in place, we review this beforehand and follow up with questions. We also seek to understand how she or he would like to be involved in the project and at what points she or he would like to check-in.

Deans and Faculty

Dean and Faculty Stake: Will this website excite prospects? Will the website allow our department or school to promote events that are important to it? Will the faculty be able to promote themselves professionally? Will the website help further my research through professional connections or grants?

The line of questioning for academic stakeholders varies by school size. For larger universities — with larger, decentralized schools or colleges — we interview the dean like a President. They are the heads of their own “business units” and we like to get their perspective across: brand, market position, admissions, research, and academics.

For smaller universities and colleges, we look to the deans, department heads, and faculty to help us understand the academic student experience. We also keep our ears open for stories that could help bring the academic experience to life on the website. And, finally, we look to gather general requirements for the departmental websites.

Student Life

Student Life Stake: Will we be able to better communicate with students? Will it help them find relevant information to answer their questions? Can the website and/or the website calendar get more people to my event?

During discovery, we frequently speak with all the departments that touch enrolled student experience — housing, dining, student services, career services, student groups — as one large group. These groups provide critical information about the student experience on campus outside of the classroom. Some of these groups have unique content needs or third-party tools that need to be integrated into the website. We’re also looking to speak to these groups about the unique traditions on campus as these can become “choice factors” and storytelling moments on the website.

Alumni and Development

Alumni and Development Stake: Will our audience be able to find our tools and information? Will this site work with our existing donation and community tools?

Alumni and development groups typically look for smooth integration or entry points into their existing community systems, email, and online donation systems. Typically, alumni departments want to ensure that they can effectively communicate their message to their audience. They are also interested in understanding how they can leverage the calendar, student stories, and news stories to engage alumni and donor audiences.

Information Technology (IT)

IT Stake: What responsibilities will IT have for maintaining the site? What are the integration points? Who is responsible for hosting?

Our conversations with IT tend to focus on practical and tactical issues — integration, hosting, and ongoing support and maintenance. During discovery we like to engage IT in conversations to make sure that the launch of the site goes smoothly and we follow any internal protocols.

Athletics

In the over 75 higher education web projects we’ve completed, we have yet to build a single athletics website. Every athletic department works directly with third-party vendors to implement a website that is tailored to the needs of athletic departments.

Even so, athletics are an important stakeholder as we work to integrate the athletics calendar with the main calendar, share content between the sites, and tell a comprehensive story about the opportunity that sports plays in the life of the school.

For NCAA D1 and D2 schools, the athletics directors and key coaches are critical to consult because of the role they play in recruitment. They — like admission counselors — have firsthand knowledge through speaking and working with prospective students. They understand what resonates with those students and why they are successful (or not) in recruiting prospects.

Are Prospective Students Stakeholders?

In our view, no. Prospective students (and their families) are the customer and usually the primary audience for the website. As such, we want to learn as much about their desires, customer journey and needs as possible — and our typical process includes meeting with prospective and current students multiple times during the project to collect insight and feedback. However, prospective are not stakeholders in so much as they don’t have a “stake” in the success of the site. Stakeholders are people who need to be consulted for the project to be successful — stakeholders need to contribute to the project or process.

Selecting Website Project Stakeholders

If you’re not sure which groups to include, the pertinent website stakeholder groups can be determined through the following criteria:

  • How relevant is their function to serving the core business goals of the website?
  • How relevant is their function to grasping the essence of your institution’s mission & community?
  • ​How politically prudent is it to give certain individuals or units a voice in the discovery phase?

Related Reading

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The State of Higher Education Web Teams

We surveyed marketing and communications professionals at 130 different higher education institutions to better understand the current state of higher education web teams. How are they structured?

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