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Case Study: Website Content Strategy

June 15, 2013

At the Lawlor Symposium this past week, I spoke about about leveraging the market dynamics of paid, owned and earned media content, and specifically social media content, which was my topic for the day-long event. Today, whether you’re talking inbound marketing or search engine optimization, content strategy has risen to a high level of importance for marketing higher education, or marketing any product for that matter.

In this post, I am pleased to turn the blog over to George Allen III, our web content strategist at Concordia University Irvine. Whether you’re involved in managing content strategy, a website, or a marketing and communications program, I encourage you to read about how George and our team at Concordia redeveloped our undergraduate academic department sites.

The post is a step by step overview of the actions taken and results achieved for these important but many times overlooked sections of a university website. I think it showcases the thoughtful and impressive work George and our marketing and communications team are doing at Concordia.

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blog case study majors george picContent Strategy for Concordia’s Majors
by George Allen III
Content Strategist for http://www.cui.edu

With more than twenty undergraduate majors and fifty specializations, Concordia University Irvine has the challenge of delivering a vast amount of information to a varied audience. While we  have already made great advances in our undergraduate admissions microsite, the quality of content once students delved into a major of interest was lacking. It was scattered, often inaccurate, and read with the voice of an academic catalog.

Surprisingly, this was not uncommon from many other university websites that we surveyed. While it is understandable that these sections of a website can easily be neglected, as their audience is primarily prospective students already deep in the admissions funnel, I would still contend for their importance. Doug Gapinski of mStoner makes the point well in his recent blog post, How to Build Better Major and Degree Pages:

“Degrees (or majors) are the core products offered to students by colleges and universities….Yes, attending a college or university is about much more than a degree, but when it comes down to it, high-ability students are going to be looking at specific majors or graduate degrees. Potential students will likely be comparing individual academic offerings between different institutions as well.”

In light of this, then, the university website should provide for each academic program “…a blend of concise functional information, useful contextual information, and colorful details full of personality unique to each individual institution.”

What follows is an overview of how I believe we have taken steps towards accomplishing this with Concordia University’s undergraduate majors. I have used Liberal Studies as the primary case study, as it was a good representation of our majors, both in terms of the problems that were discovered and the solutions implemented. It is also one of our most popular majors, as measured both by enrollment and website traffic.

This case study centers on our content model, a before and after of each page within the major, and how we are able to measure whether or not our strategy is successful.

Our content model for undergraduate majors identifies three areas of particular interest to prospective students: 

  1. An overview of the major that speaks directly to them

  2. Courses they will be taking as required by the major

  3. The professors who teach in each major

Before starting any work on the content, and even before our responsive redesign, this was the homepage for the Liberal Studies major:

blog majors case study before image
One of our first actions was to replace the static header image with a photo of a student and her own description of the major. For each of our majors, a one-minute man-on-the-street style video was shot by our videographer, Peter Borrud. His approach was simple: take to the campus and ask students, “What do you like about your major?”
That resulted in the most authentic, unscripted marketing of our majors for which we could hope. We knew we needed to elevate the importance of these videos, as they speak directly to prospective students, giving them faces and voices to which they can connect.
blog majors case study home video

click on graphic to see video

Since placing this video on the major homepage in mid-September, we have seen a significant rise in video loads. While we have had it on Vimeo since July 2011, it continues to see increased traffic, as more prospective students are now watching it.

blog case study majors vimeograph

Looking beneath the video, my immediate assessment of the text on the homepage was that it was not compelling content.

 blog majors case study home video
The first paragraph was too immediately technical, and it read like admissions requirements. The list of “Sample Courses” seemed random and poorly chosen–focusing exclusively on the fine arts–and they all directed to a single page of course descriptions.

The high bounce rate (70%) reported by Google Analytics seemed to support my assessment that the content on the Liberal Studies homepage was not drawing in visitors.

blog case study majors bouncerate

For those unfamiliar, bounce rate is defined as the percentage of visits that go only one page before exiting a site. Or, as I have heard it quite eloquently put: “I came. I puked. I left.”

This was an alarming bounce rate, as Liberal Studies is in our top five of majors. Yet only 30%   of visitors delved further into our content, perhaps filling out an inquiry form or starting an application along the way. 70% were leaving immediately.

Working with the Director of Undergraduate Education Programs and the Liberal Studies major, the homepage welcome content was rewritten. Shifting from a tone of admissions requirements to a second-person focus, the content is now more directed at prospective students and provides a clear picture of the audience. It answers the question: Is this the right major for me?

blog case study majors homewelcomenew

Another benefit of providing good content is in search engine optimization. Important keywords for this segment of prospective students were retained: elementary subject matter preparation program; elementary / multiple subject teachers; CSET.

Following the welcome content on the homepage, the “Sample Courses” section was replaced with a comprehensive list of the concentrations.

blog case study majors courseworkconcentrations

The thought behind listing all of the concentrations on the homepage was to provide users the opportunity to immediately identify with an area of interest, thereby drawing them further into the site, which we are already seeing is reducing the bounce rate.

While the sample size is still too small to make a fair assessment on this major, we have looked at majors that were completed last Fall to compare the before and after effects of content strategy. One in particular that stands out is another one of our most popular majors, Communication Studies. During a prime time for prospective students, the bounce rate on this major’s homepage from September 1 – October 1 was an astonishing 100%. That is clearly a failure.

Then, over another month’s period after we finished content strategy work on this major, the bounce rate was an impressive 0%, and that was with 40 more page views! Our content strategy was successful, as we no longer had prospective students puking on the homepage!

Turning now from the homepage to the subpages, the findings were just as bleak. First we’ll look at the Courses page, which represents the second point of our content model:

 blog case study majors coursesbefore

Aside from the glaring issue of the course units not adding up, this page provides a poor user experience. What are you supposed to do? If a user wants to know more about any particular course, he has to click “Course Descriptions” in the menu and then search for it. We were forcing a click back-and-forth behavior for users to access very basic information.

The layout of the Courses page was improved to present all of the requirements, as well as be categorized by discipline. This makes a vast amount of information now more digestible.

blog case study majors coursesafter

The problem of having to click back and forth between courses and course descriptions was solved by simply using toggle to display each course description via dropdown.

blog case study majors coursetoggle

And, since we are building in a responsive framework, this page is also very readable on mobile devices:

 blog case study majors coursesmobile

The third point of our content model focused on the professors. Unfortunately, the previous version of the page suffered from the same issues of inaccuracies and poor usability as the Courses page.

 blog case study majors facultybefore

For a current student looking for an email address or office location, this page may have sufficed. But for a prospective student who wanted to know more about the professors with whom she would be having class, this page is of very little use.

Gathering faculty bios from each professor, we now had the content to make this page more personal. Again making use of toggle, we could also accomplish a layout that served dual purposes: still as a directory for quick contact information retrieval, but also with bios available via dropdown, with photos, educational background, experience, and other such information that may be of interest to a prospective student.

blog case study majors facultyafter

Our website designer, Casey Sousa, did a great job of making this table respond nicely on mobile:

blog case study majors facultymobile

Lastly, as an attempt to connect with prospective students visiting the website, contact information is clearly provided for both the specific major, as well as for admission inquiries.This is in addition to the action buttons in the navigation: directed back to the undergraduate inquiry form and to the undergraduate application.

blog case study majors contact

While the direct impact of this work remains to be seen in conversions, we feel confident that we have improved a section of the website with more engaging content and a better user experience. Additionally, we have established a procedure for new majors, as well as laid the groundwork for future cycles of content strategy across all of the majors.

Most importantly, though, we have met the prospective student’s need for quality content at a point that may be decisive between Concordia and another university.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2013 9:51 AM

    This is a great case study, but I wanted to point out one thing. The Bounce Rate for that Liberal Studies page doesn’t mean that 70% of all visitors to that page left. The bounce rate is only applicable for visit sessions that started and ended on that particular page, which tends to be a very small number unless that page is typically a landing page (like the university home page). Most visitors probably navigated to the Liberal Studies major from elsewhere on your site, and so they would not be recorded as a bounce.

    If you run an advanced segment looking only at bounced visits, you’ll see that 971 number go way down. I’d prefer to look at either Time on Page or the Exit rate, which means the % of visits that ended on this page.

    • June 19, 2013 4:56 PM

      Good point, Erik. Thanks for reading the article, and for your comment. I agree that bounce rate is not a tell-all metric, as there are still visitor actions that we could consider indicative of a successful experience that would not be accounted for by bounce rate. That said, a page with such a high bounce rate as our Communication Studies major (100%), for example, still certainly draws our attention. To your point on Time on Page and Exit Percentage, I agree that those are also definitely indicative metrics to measure the success of content strategy. Allowing for the fact that the sample size is not equal, we have also seen improvements in both of these categories since we completed our content strategy for Liberal Studies. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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