A couple weeks ago, we launched a new alumni website here at Phillips Exeter. The culmination of more than a year of planning and countless hours of production from teams across campus, the project was an exciting opportunity to build a site from the ground up that met advancement goals and better served and engaged our alumni audience.
We learned a lot in the process: Test things, test them again, and then when you’re sure they’re working, test another time. It’s okay to fuel things with coffee and high fives. Not everyone will be 100 percent on board with every change, but if you can get 80 percent of folks there by listening to feedback, you’re rolling along nicely. Allot time for training and re-training to get your internal team comfortable. Break up mammoth tasks into bite-size pieces to keep the process from becoming overwhelming. Be okay when your schedule changes, because it’s going to.
But we also put into practice three overarching principles that guided us through every step of the project—and that’s what we’re sharing today in the hope that they’ll also guide you when it comes time to redesign your alumni website.
1. What’s the Point?
You must know your site’s objectives. It’s sounds simple, but staying focused on the goals of your site makes decision making easier and guides the entire team through the process.
For our site, we had two overarching goals in mind: One, help alumni network and connect with each other online and at events worldwide, and two, raise funds for Exeter by making a powerful case for giving and offering simple ways to contribute.
Everything we did—from structure to design to content—was laser-focused around one or both of these principles.
2. Streamline and Make It Easy for Users
We reviewed data from our old site to determine the habits and needs of our alumni. Overwhelmingly, they were using the site to engage with each other, whether it was through directory searches and profile updates or registering for upcoming events.
But our old site design didn’t make either task easy. It took several clicks to get to the event calendar, and we hadn’t prominently featured the alumni directory. The navigation and page layouts were cluttered, and we had dozens of pages out there with low traffic.
So we tried to simplify the site and improve user experience. We made the directory and event calendar far more prominent and easy to access and kept only the pages that we needed, doing away with dozens that weren’t serving our users’ needs.
Here’s a screenshot of our old site. Notice the abundance of text and the complex navigation, and try to find the directory feature—it’s not in the first place you’d look!
We also improved the user experience with responsive design. As mobile usage continues to grow (with no end in sight), our site needed to fit into the lives of our alumni. Now it does. They can surf the site from their phones. And we wanted them to be able to make a gift quickly and easily, so we used best practices to design our giving form to make that process more fun and way easier.
3. Tell Better Stories: One Site for Engagement AND Giving
We used to have two separate sites for alumni engagement (directory, event calendar, regional associations, etc.) and support (annual giving, major gifts, etc.). However, the data showed that hardly anyone was visiting the support area of the site. Our audience would make a gift when we asked them to, but they’d typically go to the giving form directly. They often weren’t seeing the stories about the impact of their gifts or how Exeter used their donations.
So we did away with the separate site. Now, when alumni come to update their profiles or search the directory, they also see students and faculty talking about how their lives have been transformed by donor support. We’ve made it easy for those stories to bubble up organically, making each site visit an opportunity for stewardship.
As you spin through the site, you’ll see a lot of faces. That’s intentional. We want our giving messages tied to people who can highlight the “why” behind the ask: Why our school matters in the world today, why lives are changed here, and why your support makes a difference.
Bonus Tip: Build it and they will come… but only if you tell them.
We’re in the very early stages of rolling this site out to our alumni. We’ve engaged our volunteers and attracted early adopters, but we know that marketing this site and acquiring more active users is going to be an ongoing focus for our entire team. Unlike Field of Dreams, there isn’t a line of users magically appearing outside the doors of our alumni office.
With that in mind, we’re working on a plan to make sure we’re regularly inviting people to check out the site and register. Alumni will hear about the site in all upcoming communications and at events, and we’re using a social media outreach strategy to help add to a growing number of site users.
We’ve built it. They’re coming. And we’re hoping they like what they see!
Building a site is no small task. We had dozens of team members involved in making this launch a success, but huge credit goes out to my colleagues Jan Woodford and Laura Martin for project managing the heck out of this initiative and leading us to the promised land!
Mike Nagel is the Associate Director for Advancement Communications at Phillips Exeter Academy. He spends his time managing and creating stories for PEA’s social media, alumni website, email marketing campaigns, and other mostly-digital play spaces. Say hi on Twitter or LinkedIn.