Web Works

Now that the Internet has evolved from mere novelty to sheer necessity, a Web site doesn’t just complement a business school’s marketing strategy. It is the marketing strategy.
Web Works

It’s quick. It’s comprehensive. It has changed the way we live. It’s the Internet, which has evolved from a text-based playground for college-age whiz kids to an interactive hub of information for everyone. No longer just a public resource, it’s now the resource that people use most to work, chat, research, and learn.

This has led business schools to examine more closely their Web-based marketing and communication strategies. Such examination is a relatively new phenomenon among higher education institutions, says Louis Malafarina, CEO of Ripple Effects Interactive, a web design firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When the company first began serving the higher education market just four years ago, most schools wanted their Web sites to work only as peripheral extensions of their offline marketing plans.

“The first time we worked with business schools, they viewed a Web site as a continuation of their offline, traditional marketing activities. Our business school clients just said, ‘Post our information,’” says Malafarina. “Now they’re saying, ‘Sell our school.’ Schools realize that Web sites have become the cornerstone of their marketing activities. Today 100 percent of people choosing a higher education institution will visit its Web site, so that site becomes a school’s most powerful tool for outreach.”

The Internet’s evolution has brought with it a considerable learning curve for all organizations, business schools included. Business school Webmasters are exploring how users interact with their sites in more depth: How are people using the site? What pages do they visit? How long do they stay? What do they want when they get there? The answers to those questions will be the secret to creating b-school Web sites that meet—or exceed—the expectations of users from the moment they hit the home page.

User-Centric Universe

As business schools go through major redesigns, one lesson has become clear: An effective Web site focuses on what users want to hear more than on what a business school wants to say. That shift alone has moved many schools to rethink how their Web sites appear and function, says James Ho, a professor of information and decision sciences at University of Illinois in Chicago’s College of Business Administration. In 1996, Ho wrote a well-circulated paper titled “Lessons of Business School Web Sites,” which examined just how business schools should and shouldn’t utilize their online real estate.

“In 1996, it was clear that most business school Web sites were designed from the technician’s or designer’s point of view—they didn’t have the user in mind,” says Ho. “I wrote that a site must be customer-focused, something that has now become obvious. Business schools have learned to target their stakeholders by category, including prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, and corporations.”

Even so, Ho believes that some business schools still have work to do in creating sites that are truly intuitive and user-friendly. For instance, some sites don’t make it clear on their home pages whether a link called “Faculty and Staff” will take visitors to an area of the Web site about faculty and staff or for faculty and staff. Other schools allow their sites to fall victim to an inherent truth of business education—its generation of an overabundance of information.

“A business school has so much information to convey, it’s hard to design a clean-cut Web site. It can’t be like Google with only one window,” Ho admits. Some business school sites are viewing themselves as business portals, including features such as stock quotes and weather reports; others want to say everything about themselves on the home page. Both instances may result in sites with extra features that users don’t necessarily want and content they don’t really need. “In an effort to become more comprehensive, many business schools have made their sites unnecessarily overwhelming,” says Ho. 

Even worse, such tactics may drive away the central audience a business school most wants to attract—first-time users, who are often prospective students. This group most often comes to the site to experience the school visually, via images, quick-read links, and bullet-pointed information, not to read lengthy blocks of text. For this audience, says Ho, a Web site’s top-level pages should be airy and simply organized, with links leading to more detail for those who want more information. 

To best achieve that balance between simplicity and usefulness, many business schools are turning to external vendors to redesign their Web sites with their users in mind. For instance, Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Tennessee, worked with Ripple Effects last year to completely redesign its site at www.owen.vanderbilt.edu. The site is now the linchpin of the school’s marketing strategy. The school’s brand, exemplified by the phrase “Discover this place. Shape your world,” permeates the entire Web site, through images, content, and Macromedia Flash presentations.

The goal for the redesigned site was threefold, says Yvonne Martin Kidd, the Owen School’s director of marketing and communication. The school wanted its site to help prospective students make the important decision about their education, enhance the school’s new branding campaign, and connect with each visitor on a personal level. “We wanted the site to be easier to navigate, program-centric, and user-centric,” says Kidd. “The Web is the way people make decisions these days. We need to drive people to our Web site so we can help them make those decisions.”

The Newest Utility

The Internet is now an inextricable part of life for those in the market for management education. In fact, Web sites have become commodities, like automobiles, says Wayne Marr, dean of the School of Management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “People view the Internet as a utility, like electricity,” he adds.

In November 1995, Marr and partner Hal Kirkwood ranked the best and worst business school Web sites, judging them by criteria such as navigation, content, and usefulness. At the time, business schools with an online presence had increased to more than 200 from about 30 in only six months. Dead links, incomplete faculty listings, scant informational resources, and woefully out-of-date content plagued many sites, says Marr. Only a few, such as those run by MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Harvard Business School, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, earned high praise from Marr and Kirkwood. Those sites, says Marr, were precursors to the modern b-school site, complete with faculty biographies, media pages, directories, research databases, course catalogs, virtual campus tours, and online applications.

Efforts such as those by Marr, Kirkwood, and Ho would be much more difficult to accomplish today, they say, now that business school Web sites number in the thousands. In addition, the designs of today’s business school Web sites have begun to converge, becoming almost indistinguishable from one another, says Marr. “Business schools are finding the sites they like best and replicating them. I don’t mean to say they’re all beginning to look the same—but, well, they are.”

Such homogenization in design and navigation isn’t necessarily a bad trend. The adage “form follows function” has manifested itself in modern Web design, with standard protocol requiring “About Us” and “Contact Us” links on the home page; navigational links along the left or top; a search box at the upper right; an emphasis on content over graphics; and a prominent logo that, when clicked, always takes users back to the home page. A site that strays too far from these standards most likely will frustrate, not impress, users.

Now that navigation and design choices are somewhat limited by user expectations, business schools must look to other factors to differentiate their sites from competitors’ sites. They must go beyond conveying the standard “we’ll make you a leader” message, says Malafarina of Ripple Effects.

“The reality is that all business schools are speaking to similar audiences and have similar messages,” he emphasizes.“ But MIT’s Sloan School of Management isn’t going after exactly the same students as Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. A business school can differentiate itself by using its Web site to claim a position in the marketplace, so that it isn’t going after exactly the same students or offering exactly the same educational experience.”

Ready, Set, Launch!

Like the Owen School, other business schools have been redesigning their Web sites—especially their home pages. For example, Ripple Effects also recently worked with the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on its site redesign. Its new site launched in January. Ripple Effects’ Malafarina and others agree with Ho that the home page is the best way to make an impression on first-time visitors—and all want that impression to be a good one. Almost invariably, b-school Webmasters say they want their pages to be user-friendly, adaptable, and expressive of the school’s mission and brand.

IESE Business School of Barcelona, Spain, launched the most recent redesign of its Web site,www.iese.edu, in September. The school wanted the site to accomplish three main objectives: implement a user-friendly design that conveyed IESE’s corporate image, introduce a content management system that allowed new content to be added in English and Spanish, and create a decentralized organizational system that enabled each department to oversee specific sections.

IESE’s new home page includes more space for news and events, and a “Highlights” list to promote programs. The site also incorporates a section called “The IESE Experience,” aimed at visitors. “We wanted to give visitors a comprehensive view of IESE,” says Larisa Tatge, assistant director of IESE’s Web department. “We wanted the site to remain uncluttered, yet informative.”

MIT’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, launched a redesign of its Web site at mitsloan.mit.edu last year. When the redesign process began four years ago, staff conducted intensive testing of the site’s navigability, accessibility, and usability, says Scott Rolph, associate director of communication and Web management. “Any attempt we made to jazz up a page that compromised the efficiency of navigation posed a problem,” says Rolph. 

“We also had to ward off attempts to add content. So many thought their programs deserved a top-level link, but we were more worried about users. If you present users with a sea of links, you won’t give them a good experience.”

The Sloan School’s solution was to create a home page that includes only seven links on the left side, and a “Spotlight” box that includes a news teaser. However, once users place a mouse arrow on one of those links, a new tree of links appears. This layering effect, accomplished through Flash technology, allows the Sloan School’s home page to remain visually simple while maximizing access to information. 

When Harvard Business School launched its new homepage at www.hbs.edu last February, the school’s objective was to simplify its navigation and add links to two new sections of the site, titled “Who We Are” and “The Case Method.” Like the Sloan School’s site, the HBS site incorporates many links within a simple design: When users first come to the site, the bottom of the home page is free of text. However, once they click a small link called “School at a Glance,” the lower right fills with additional links to the school’s various programs, centers, and departments.

Sam Hainer, associate director of Web strategy at HBS, says that the goal was to make the page user-friendly, quick, and reflective of the school’s mission. “The home page needs to point users clearly in the right direction, while also making sure that key information about HBS is presented on the top layer,” says Hainer. The ongoing challenge, he adds, is to use navigation tools and design to keep the site’s information accessible yet controlled, and the user experience uncluttered yet compelling.

Cultivating Connections

Perhaps the most significant trend in business school Web site design is customer relationship management. Rather than merely using sites to facilitate one-time interactions with users, more business schools are using their sites as springboards to developing ongoing customer relationships. Once prospective students enter an e-mail address, they transition into a more refined marketing environment, where they receive e-mails informing them of school accomplishments or Flash presentations about student life.  

“We are seeing a strong trend toward CRM,” says Malafarina of Ripple Effects. “Schools are staying with prospective students from the moment they request an application until they matriculate. They want to create such excitement that students won’t even wait to hear from other schools before deciding to enroll.”

Kidd of the Owen School agrees that a primary function of its new site is to foster similar ongoing connections. “We’re using a lot of direct mail and other outreach efforts to drive prospective students to the site,” Kidd says. “Once they get there, we want to give them all the information they need to understand that this is the place for them. Our marketing campaign is in place so that more visits to the site result in online applications. Our goal isn’t so much to generate repeat visits as it is to get prospective students to the site and interested in building an ongoing relationship with us.”

The current boom in Web site redesign is widespread and ongoing among business schools, as schools move their sites from the periphery to the focal point of their branding and marketing strategies. At the same time, they must assimilate hundreds, often thousands, of pages of content into easily navigable and ostensibly simple online environments. That’s no small task. But as schools realize that their traditional four-color printed brochures may survive only minutes before going from mailbox to trashcan, they know their Websites will be their best opportunity to reach users where they now so often live—online.