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.