It’s time to get personal

When embarking on a website redevelopment project it’s vital to start with insight, says Chris Hodgen

A university website has to work harder than most to communicate to different audiences effectively. Whether based in the UK or abroad, undergraduate or postgraduate, student or parent, employee or investor, the list of stakeholders can seem endless – with different information required for each demographic.

Now, with technology and careful planning, universities can personalise their websites, tailoring the content and message to the individual needs of each audience member. Chris Hodgen, managing director of integrated agency Absolute, explains more. 

Do your research 

When embarking on a website redevelopment project – especially one that needs to communicate to so many different people – it’s vital to start with insight. Through workshops, desk research, ideas generation sessions, user testing, questionnaires and competitor research you can build up a detailed picture of your users, which will prove invaluable in shaping the new site. 

And the more thorough you can be at this first stage, the better. For example, for the redevelopment of the Queens’ University Belfast website, 17 different target audiences were identified, over 550 stakeholders questioned and several persona profiles created, as part of an extensive 148 page research document. This process helped to identify the best tools and tactics to engage with the various audiences, while refreshing and aligning the brand, ethos and values of the university. 

Through the research and insight process – which included a week’s worth of workshops, with users testing the existing site and those of its closest competitors – the team gained a true understanding of how different people would used the online platform – setting clear objectives for how it should be transformed. 

Streamlining information 

The user journey for any digital platform is vital – get it wrong and you risk users leaving your site and going elsewhere. Using the existing site as a starting point, and applying your research and insight, you can identify ways to improve the design and structure, as well as that all-important user journey.

Through careful planning and a thorough understanding of your target audiences’ wants and needs, you can design a site and structure the content in such a way to help users find what they need easily

One challenge with university websites is they usually need to contain lots of different pieces of information and are often multi-layered, with typically 13 or 14 levels of nested content. By analysing and restructuring the Information Architecture – that is, the way you organise and label your content – you can improve the experience for your users.

Through careful planning and a thorough understanding of your target audiences’ wants and needs, you can design a site and structure the content in such a way to help users find what they need easily – whether that’s to sign up for a course, book onto an open day, find out about accommodation or get in touch with a member of staff.

Tailor-made, uniform

A lot of universities have found their websites have grown bigger and bigger over the years, as they add more and more content and information. However, as universities are communicating to several different audiences, not all of this material will be relevant to everyone. Thanks to technology and data analysis, we can now identify who visits a website as soon as they enter it – for example, by looking at what they searched for or the location of their IP address. Using this information, the site can be tailored to suit the needs of those users, bringing the most relevant content to the forefront and, if necessary, altering the user journey to meet their individual requirements. 

And while a personalised approach is key throughout the website redevelopment process, the look and feel of any digital platform should be consistent. Often a digital transformation is a good opportunity to revisit and update any existing brand guidelines, so the style determined by the new site can be carried forward into other projects – both on and offline. 

A thorough assessment of all existing content – whether this is copy, images or video – is also required. Some universities may need to reduce the amount of content they have, while others may need to update their photography library. All content should be created in line with the updated style guide, while always keeping the end user in mind, to ensure consistency.


Objectives, strategy, information and technology change quickly. As such, it’s vital a website is able to adapt and evolve over time. University websites in particular, given their size and scale, need to be built on a platform that is scalable and fit for purpose now and in the future. Universities should always check what platform the site is built on and how the content management system works. It’s imperative that marketing teams can keep the content and information of the site up to date easily themselves or outsource this function to a trusted provider, while ensuring the look, feel and user journey isn’t impacted.

From research and insight, to brand development and user journey, the process of redeveloping a university website should be thorough, involved and never rushed. Do it right, and the university will benefit from a high quality, interactive digital platform able to serve the right content to the right user in the right way – each and every time.

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