All posts in Web Design

Launching a New Homepage

kl

Putting together a new university homepage is daunting. It’s the first impression you make on your audience, and it may be your only impression. There’s a lot at stake. And thinking about it gives me nervous sweats.

But here at Bethel, we pushed through our nerves and spent the fall building a new homepage. We rolled out the first phase back in November with the launch of an updated header and footer. Then we went to task revamping the filling.

To create our strategy, we did a lot of prep work. We looked at what other schools were doing. We examined analytics. We analyzed the current homepage to figure out what needed to stay and what was tough to maintain. We looked outside our industry. We read blog posts. We thought about the future, and we thought about our users. We thought about how we could deliver that meaningful first impression.

Then we set out with two priorities in mind: design and content.

Design Goals

Bethel University homepage

I had our talented designer, Jake Johnson, put together some thoughts on what he wanted to accomplish.

Here were Jake’s top five goals (in his words):

Give it space - I wanted to give everything plenty of breathing room, to use white space to create cohesion within an element and separation between elements.

Break into small bits - Instead of one big page, the content is sectioned off, hopefully making it easy to focus your attention on one content area at a time.

Use a big feature - Using big pictures grabs attention and makes it more personal.

Add more imagery - I wanted to mix in more imagery to the page overall to ratchet up the visual interest.

Balance new and returning visitors - I tried to balance useful, fresh information (news, events) for returning visitors with overview information for new visitors.

When I look over the new homepage, I see Jake’s goals come to life. The site design feels fresh and open. It’s easy to scan the content with his clean section breaks and heading styles. The big feature does feel personal. When I hit the photo of Tyler Esau behind his video camera I feel as if I’m entering his professional site or online portfolio.

Jake also did a fantastic job making the homepage feel like the same Bethel. He morphed the foundational groundwork laid by mStoner nearly 3 years ago without making visitors wonder if they’ve landed on the wrong site.

Content Goals

We also had three big content goals for our new homepage.

First of all, we wanted a flexible, collapsible feature zone that could disappear when we didn’t have something crucial to broadcast. We didn’t want to be stuck filling the space with billboards that weren’t relevant for the majority of our homepage audience.

Second, we wanted to showcase what makes Bethel different from other universities.

Now, I understand this is the big hairy goal for every institution. We want people to hit our homepages and feel the unique life of our university. We want to say something about who we are that isn’t what all the other universities are saying.

This is tough. This is what keeps our minds awake and whirling at night. All higher education institutions say they have rigorous academics. They’re all committed to excellence. They strive to create a unique community and a transformative experience.

That’s what college is about, after all!

So we needed our homepage content to go further. We needed space to use more specific language about how we do college at Bethel.

“Our academic programs will help you find your passions, develop your strengths, and prepare you to enter the world as a servant of God.”

That’s a bit more specific than simply saying “faith-based academics.” Through Bethel’s programs, we want you to find your God-given strengths and develop them so you can go out and serve. Now we’re getting somewhere.

“From Welcome Week to Homecoming to broomball tournaments and on, it’s in our nature to build relationships and stay connected.”

Where else will you find “Welcome Week” and “broomball” all in one clause? These are hallmark traditions at Bethel—the stuff that makes up the quirky fabric of our community.

“Bring Christ’s love to life.”

This was the brainwork of my skilled colleague Erik Gruber. We needed to go beyond the phrase “Christian institution.” He worked hard to come up with a statement that wasn’t wishy-washy and showed our heart for spreading Christ’s love.

We certainly didn’t hit perfection with every word, and we’ll definitely make changes down the road, but it was an awesome exercise to stretch ourselves to describe Bethel in new ways.

For our third content goal, we wanted to feature the voice of Bethel students. A student’s voice carries more authoritative weight than the voice of any marketer. Erik elaborates on this in his post Bethel Storytelling: Who Are We? He explains that we didn’t want to feature the editorializing of staff writers; we wanted to hear from our students.

Lesson Learned

At some point you just have to stop your planning and put something out there. So in December, that’s what we did.

In the end, I believe we met our goals and, ultimately, learned to get over the fear of trying something new. That’s the beauty of what we get to do on the web, isn’t it? We get to try new things and see how they perform. We can always go back to fix and adjust, and then we can try something new all over again.

It’s a lovely, challenging cycle that sometimes gives me those nervous sweats, but most often fills me with gratitude for being able to do the work that I love.

Bethel Storytelling: Who Are We?

gruber

For those of you who are familiar with Bethel’s homepage, you know that at the top of the page we have a feature called Begin. Belong. Become. Clicking on any of these images brings you to profiles of students, alumni, faculty, and staff. Ever since the website redesign, we’ve used these profiles to tell the Bethel story to site visitors.

You’ll notice changes to Begin. Belong. Become. in the next few days. I wanted to give you all the inside scoop on our new storytelling feature.

Why Tell Stories?

The idea of storytelling is extremely important when we’re trying to communicate the things that make Bethel unique—our community, faith, academics, etc.—to outside audiences. Think about a visitor who wants to know more about Bethel, particularly prospective students and their parents. They could go to our About section and read up on our mission, history, and values. They could learn about our Majors & Minors and get a glimpse of specific departments they might be interested in. They could find out about Spiritual Life and Student Life on campus.

All these sites are great for learning about Bethel. This is what we value. This is what we study. This is how we live. Those things are helpful and important, and we communicate those things well. But they’re all examples of talking the talk.

Storytelling is our chance to walk the walk. Here are real people in our community. This is how they’re acting out our values, representing our community, investing in our academics and campus life.

These stories give prospective students a picture of Bethel as a real place, as a community. And they can start to imagine themselves amongst us.

The challenge of storytelling

Most of the stories on our site are written in the third person—“She traveled here…”, “He studied this…”. Telling our story this way creates distance and a level of remove between the subject of the story and the person reading the story. The person writing the story, who is typically a Bethel employee, fills that distance. Unfortunately, outside audiences are inclined to see Bethel employees writing about the Bethel community as marketers representing an institution.

Our target audience for these stories—young adults exploring their college options—has been trained to be skeptical of things they read online. They’re very aware of when they’re being marketed to and have a low tolerance for market-ese.

So when I—an employee of Communications & Marketing—tell stories about Bethel folks to an audience that has no reason to trust me, the defenses go up. The cynicism they’ve learned from years of advertising saturation makes them question my honesty and my intentions.

It’s a problem faced by all websites. It’s a matter of building…

Authenticity

How do you earn that trust, build credibility, share the story in a way that will convince your reader to give you the benefit of the doubt? How do you get your audience to see the real people in the story and behind the story, and not just an “institution” marketing a product?

Companies have dealt with this problem in different ways. The history of advertising is one attempt after another to form deep, genuine, emotional bonds between customers and products.

One recent example that comes to mind is Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign and Microsoft’s response. Mac portrayed PC as out-of-touch and clueless. Mac, in contrast, was the cool kid. Fun to hang out with, easy to use, solving problems instead of creating them. Microsoft said “wait a minute, that’s not who we are” and developed their “I’m a PC” ads. In these, Microsoft profiled PC users who are innovative, creative, and hard-working. Perhaps most importantly, the people in their stories were genuine folks doing good things in the world.

What made these ads work?

They have a personality. There’s a face to go with the story, and a unique voice. Perhaps most importantly, they’re told in the first person. They go directly from the source to the audience. It’s people telling stories for themselves, not marketers telling stories about them.

How can we be authentic?

Here’s the good news: we already are!

I’ve never met a person at Bethel who isn’t authentic. I truly believe that everyone here is genuinely invested in making Bethel a life-changing, welcoming, and supportive community. People here are passionate about making the world a better place. We don’t need to spin it. We don’t need to get out the marketing thesaurus or tell any tall-tales.

We just need to figure out how to communicate it.

How can we tell authentic stories?

I started thinking about this after I read a profile that Kelsey wrote on physics professor Chad Hoyt. The profile is organized as a series of questions and Chad’s responses, almost like an interview. By using his words, Kelsey was able to capture Chad’s voice and personality. It puts a face on the physics department and some of the amazing research happening there. The photography pushes the story even further. By showing Chad in his natural setting, hanging out in the lab, working with students, we can visualize a department with real people doing serious research.

Around that same time I interviewed Nathan Freeburg, Bethel’s Associate Dean of Leadership and Community Development. As I was talking to him I was struck by both his wisdom and his sense of humor. Here’s a guy that most students interact with at some point during their years at Bethel. He’s got a lot of great advice, lessons learned from years of watching students succeed—and yes, fail—plus he’s really funny. Why should I talk about him when he can speak for himself? So I wrote it as an interview, and we get a peek into the mind of a “Bethel institution.”

About a month later I spent some time with two Bethel students, René Kowlessar and Dinnah Gustavo. The first thing I noticed was how full of life they were. They’re passionate, thoughtful people, and they had incredible insights to share about community, leadership, and the things that make Bethel unique. It occurred to me that I didn’t need to be in the story at all. I just got in the way. So I took my questions out and let them share their story and experience from their own perspectives.

A new way to tell our story

A variation of that style will guide our storytelling going forward. We’re going to let people in our community tell their own stories in their own voices from their unique perspectives.

We’re going to frame the stories around 5 themes:

  • Building Leaders
  • Serious Academics
  • Christian Spirituality
  • Community
  • Global Engagement and Awareness

These aren’t strict rules, but guides to help us ask the right questions when we’re putting profiles together.

We’re also going to rethink our photography, moving away from the profile style pictures and trying to show people in the context of the story they’re telling – more like the Chad Hoyt story.

How can you help?

We’re always looking for interesting stories, and it’s not always easy to find them (because we’re not usually connected with what students are up to).

So if you know any students who would be great to profile, let us know!

Bethel’s New Header and Footer

mv

We’re constantly working to improve Bethel’s website. Sometimes we make big changes and sometimes small ones, but every day we show up and work to give our users a better experience.

One of the projects we’ve been working on recently is a new header and footer. We’ve learned a lot about our current navigation from user testing, heat maps, and analytics. So we used that information to make some improvements. Here are a few of the major changes:

Smaller header

One of our goals was to surface our web content higher on the page. This new header is much thinner and doesn’t require an image. This gives us flexibility to present content closer to the top of the page within the more functional areas of Bethel’s website.

Reorganized footer

To shrink the header, we needed to reorganize our navigation, shorten terms, and make more space in our footer. Our expanded footer also allowed us to surface tools and resources most used by our community.

Link to offices

After tracking and analyzing our search logs, we noticed that many repeat visitors are looking for a specific office. Our new header now includes a link for offices right next to our search to give visitors a quick gateway to a directory of Bethel offices.

New search

Along with the navigation updates, we’ve also implemented a new and  improved site search. To amplify the new search, we’ve created shortcuts within the search itself to provide you with a list of frequently used items. Hopefully this gets people to the information they’re looking for much faster.

Our goal is to continually improve the functionality of our site. We hope this improves your experience, and you can look forward to more changes to come.

If you have any questions, free to email us at web-services@bethel.edu.