Key Considerations for Universities & Colleges When Hiring a Digital Agency

When it comes to digital projects, particularly website development or redesign, higher education institutions face unique challenges. Universities and colleges need to cater to a diverse range of stakeholders, including prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the broader community. Hiring the right digital agency can make or break the success of these critical initiatives. In this article, we’ll explore some key considerations for higher education institutions when hiring a website agency, with a focus on university website projects.

 

Ensuring Stakeholder Engagement Across Your Institution

 

One of the biggest challenges in higher education website projects is ensuring proper stakeholder engagement. Universities often have a multitude of stakeholders with varying interests and priorities. It’s crucial to involve representatives from different departments, faculties, and administrative units early on in the process.

 

Alongside this, however, it is important to balance the needs of these stakeholders conscientiously. Some voices, whether through seniority or determination, can have an outsized impact on a website project and if your agency isn’t experienced in handling this, this can lead to ineffective results.

 

Challenges Some Institutions Face

One unfortunate example of less effective stakeholder engagement in practice is this website for Oriel College, Oxford. The primary mission of this website is almost certainly undergraduate recruitment – and largely, the website does a very good job of this. However, the large ‘donate’ button is their primary call to action across the entire website, giving the college the impression of being a charity needing help supporting itself. The college has an endowment of £96 million, making it richer than 90% of UK universities, most of which are many multiples larger. This risks the institution seeming out of touch. Managing inputs like this from key stakeholders is important to ensure the primary mission of a university website is maintained.

 

When hiring a digital agency, look for one that emphasizes a collaborative approach and has experience working with large, complex organizations at varying levels. Take a look at our case study for Churchill College, Cambridge to see the challenges associated with this type of project. The agency should have a well-defined process for stakeholder engagement. This should include methods for running discovery workshops, gathering requirements, conducting user research, and facilitating discussions.

A man leading a web design workshop

Additionally, it’s essential to set clear expectations with senior management regarding their level of involvement. While their input is valuable, it’s important to strike a balance and avoid micromanagement, which can slow down the project and lead to scope creep.

 

Content Planning and Preparation for a University Website

 

A university website is often a massive undertaking, with hundreds or even thousands of pages of content. Effective content planning and preparation are crucial to the success of the project.

 

When evaluating digital agencies, look for one that can assist with content strategy, auditing, and migration. The agency should have a proven process for content inventory, gap analysis, and content governance. You can look at Crucible’s process for content migration here. They should also be able to provide guidance on best practices for content creation, including accessibility, search engine optimization (SEO), and user experience (UX) considerations.

 

Moreover, it’s important to allocate sufficient time and resources for content preparation. This may involve training staff on content management systems, developing content templates, and establishing workflows for content creation and approval. If much of this conte needs rewriting, it is likely to be a process that requires several months of internal time – or the support of external copywriters. Crucible helped Trinity Hall, Cambridge with rewriting a broad tranche of its undergraduate-facing pages, with the help of our specialist copywriters.

 

Prioritizing Project Planning, Processes, and Governance

University Website Planning is likely to be complex and in-depth. This is a picture of an information architecture for a university website.

In the fast-paced world of digital projects, it can be tempting to prioritize speed and budget over thorough planning and governance. However, this approach often leads to costly mistakes and project delays in the long run.

 

When hiring a digital agency for a university website project, prioritize agencies that emphasize project planning, processes, and governance. Look for agencies that follow industry best practices, such as:

 

 

Additionally, consider agencies that are certified in quality management systems, such as ISO 9001. This certification demonstrates the agency’s commitment to continuous improvement and adherence to established processes. For some more complex projects, ISO 27001 may also be useful for data security, though only if the website is handling particularly sensitive user data.

 

Understanding Your University’s Dynamics and Decision-Making Processes

 

Higher education institutions often have complex organizational structures and decision-making processes. When hiring a web agency, it’s essential to understand the internal dynamics of your institution and what will be possible to sign off on, and to help your agency understand that as well.

 

Work closely with the digital agency to map out the approvals required at different stages of the project. Identify key decision-makers and stakeholders who will need to be involved in the review and sign-off process. This will help avoid delays and ensure that the project progresses smoothly.

 

Furthermore, consider agencies that have experience working with similar organizations and understand the unique challenges faced by higher education institutions. They should be able to provide insights and best practices for navigating these complexities.

 

In particular, universities that have academics involved in the website design & development process can find it more challenging to manage if the expectations and remit of the project team are not made clear with these stakeholders. It is often very useful to have voices from the faculty involved in the discovery and design of the institution’s website. However, careful judgment should be made as to how much involvement is the right amount. Ultimately, the marketing and communications professionals running the project should have the strongest steer and voice on the project.

 

Evaluating Digital Agencies: Certifications, Standards, and Reviews

 

When evaluating potential website agencies, it’s important to consider their certifications, adherence to industry standards, and reviews from previous clients.

 

As mentioned earlier, certifications like ISO 9001 can be a good indicator of an agency’s commitment to quality and process excellence. Additionally, look for agencies that follow web accessibility guidelines (e.g., WCAG 2.2) and adhere to best practices in areas such as SEO, UX, and cybersecurity.

 

Reviews from previous clients, particularly those in the higher education sector, can provide valuable insights into an agency’s strengths, weaknesses, and overall approach. Look for agencies with a proven track record of delivering successful university website projects on time and within budget.

 

At Crucible, we are particularly proud of our track record – we have been finalists for multiple awards. Also, our company has a perfect track record on Google Reviews. Get in touch if you’re interested in learning more about our services.

 

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Best Practices for University Websites

 

When hiring a digital agency for a university website project, it’s important to ensure they are well-versed in best practices for higher education websites. Some key areas to consider include:

 

  • Responsive design and mobile-friendliness
  • Understanding of what Gen Z (and soon, Gen Alpha!) are looking for from a web experience
  • Accessibility and compliance with standards like WCAG 2.2
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) for higher education
  • Integration with student information systems and other campus systems
  • Content personalization and targeted messaging
  • User experience (UX) focused on prospective and current students
  • Analytics and data-driven decision-making

 

The digital agency should be able to provide examples of successful university website projects and demonstrate their expertise in these areas. One particular area that is often overlooked is SEO. Because top universities tend to have strong name recognition, they can neglect SEO on the basis that prospective students search for their institution’s name. However, this means that their SEO is not building brand awareness by reaching new students unaware of the institution. There is a tricky recipe to achieve stronger results here that is a mix of SEO, PR and content strategy.

 

Conclusion

 

Hiring the right agency for a university website project is a critical decision that can significantly impact the success of the initiative. Make sure you consider the important factors. Positive scoring in terms of stakeholder engagement, content planning, project governance, and agency reviews, can increase the likelihood of a successful project outcome.

 

Effective collaboration, clear communication, and a shared understanding of goals and expectations are essential when working with a website agency. By investing time and effort in finding the right partner, higher education institutions can create a website that serves the needs of their diverse stakeholders and supports their broader institutional goals.

 

Crucible are a creative digital agency based in London, and have a proven track record in working on websites for higher education institutions. We are a careful, conscientious and collaborative agency and would love to be invited to tender on your next project.

 

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