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Man wearing auburn bowtie and lapel pin
Client Auburn University
Disciplines Design & Content, Web Development

Auburn University Harbert College of Business

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The Big Leagues

Harbert's new website in desktop and mobile formats
Harbert’s new website in mobile and desktop formats.

Starting with the recession that hit in late 2007, the birth rate in America began a steady decline that will hit college enrollment by 2026. For the staff of university marketing departments, this chart might cause a little heartburn:

Graph depicting U.S. live births per year
Courtesy: Bloomberg News

Universities live in the future. They’re planning today for what might happen half-a-decade from now. After all, their “customers” are beginning a multi-year “shopping” process that won’t wrap for a few years. It’s a nonstop game of reading the crystal ball and trying to adapt quickly.

Fewer potential students. The rapid rise of online colleges. Economic doubt. Student loan anxiety.

Against this backdrop, higher-ed communication professionals must somehow convince the best and brightest students to attend this school over that (very similar) school down the highway.

So, how does a school do this? How do institutions of higher education stand out in an increasingly fraught landscape? How does a university not only weather the upcoming “enrollment apocalypse,” but grow through it?

That’s the question we set out to answer when the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University partnered with us. Here’s our answer:

Problem #1: “Harbert who?”

We say “Auburn,” you say _______________?

“Football.” You probably say “football.” Maybe “Alabama.” But nobody except the alumni of the Harbert College of Business says “the Harbert College of Business.”

This simply won’t do.

The Harbert College of Business has, for years, been transforming how the world thinks about business. Quietly, from their modern classrooms on their gorgeous campus, Harbert is inventing business knowledge and theory and their graduates thrive in their careers at a record-setting rate. Every would-be business student in the country deserves to know about the Harbert College of Business.

Harbert's website with distinguishing metrics
Metrics that prove value are prominent on the website.

But Harbert has more than an awareness problem because, when they do manage to get in front of a prospective student, the student often thinks, “Oh, that big football school. Sure, I’ve heard of them. They have a good business school?!?”

We had to separate and elevate—to increase awareness and give Harbert an online brand of its own, a compelling story separate from football or anything else.

Solutions

The centerpiece of this project is a fully reimagined website.

Websites are largely about priorities: What do you want to highlight? How are ideas and interactions connected? What path do you think will make it most likely for users to do what you want them to do?

We began by elevating Harbert’s unique strengths—the evidence of their world-class status. For example, on the homepage, we put the following content module:

metrics on Harbert's website highlighting an 85% pass rate, #3 B.S. in supply chain management, and 90% freshman retention rate
Harbert’s unique selling points establish their status as a world-class institution.

Then come the people. If you’re going to convince a high school student from outside of the southeast to make the investment in Auburn’s business school, you have to highlight the best of what Harbert is: a school filled with real, smart, diverse, friendly, and successful people. Student and faculty stories appear at every turn on the website:

feature stories from students and faculty on Harbert's website
Stories from students and faculty provide a human feel for the user.

Great design is no longer a luxury, it’s the cost of entry. So we gave Harbert a much brighter, airy feel. More white space. Modern, thoughtful, clear aesthetics that made it clear just how savvy Harbert is. That was our response to the “dark and brooding and institutional” feel that many other business schools offer.

Harbert's website in desktop and mobile formats
The new website doesn’t sacrifice content—or beautiful design.

By plainly stating their case, and by designing a website that feels comfortable and confident, the Harbert College of Business stands side by side with other, (currently) better known business colleges across the U.S.

With their new website, Auburn rose 13 spots in the U.S. News & World Report Best Undergraduate Business Programs.

Problem #2: Not Speaking the Language of Students

When helping a client solve a problem, the answer is almost always found by returning our focus—obsessively, time and time and time again—to the human being using the website. The user. The user is paramount. The user is the North Star. The user is the point.

Sounds easy. Except here’s the thing: There are a bunch of users. Harbert’s potential students aren’t a monolith. Gen Z isn’t one, single thing. Tomorrow’s college freshmen are a dynamic demographic—full of unique, complex, and maddeningly unpredictable people. And those people have parents who make up at least half of the college-selection experience.

When we jumped in, we noticed that Harbert did something that the many university websites do: They organize things online the same way they do internally, all the way down to the jargon. Sixteen year-olds don’t think the way 40-year-old administrators do because they are standing on opposite sides of a vast chasm of context. One has it; the other doesn’t. The prospective student who’s perusing a college website—hoping to be inspired and convinced—usually doesn’t know what kind of nurse they want to be, or what degree best fits their interest in math, or the difference between the degrees “Education Instruction & Curriculum” and “Mind, Brain, and Education.”

Schools must meet students more than halfway. Harbert is going a lot farther than that.

Solutions

Led by the deep institutional knowledge of the Harbert team, together we made three big improvements on the new website:

First, we filtered all of our architecture and design decisions through two filters: program experience and campus experience. We want the website to help potential students identify how they’ll fit in, both within their degree and across the entire Auburn family. To accomplish this, we filled the site with student stories and made degree exploration more dynamic:

an example of Harbert's website architecture for campus and student life information
The website architecture creates an ease of use for potential students to explore both the campus and the programs offered.

Second, we reorganized—and in some cases relabeled—the Harbert degrees and programs. We eliminated any barriers to curiosity. If a student has even the slightest interest in an area of study, we get them to that page ASAP. Harbert wants to increase and improve the mix of applicants, yes, but it also wants to ensure that incoming students end up studying whatever they want to study.

Third, we used a tool called FunnelBack to make the sitewide search a useful experience, even allowing it to comb through data from Herbert’s social media channels. We know all too well that the “search” on most websites is a major letdown for users. The search results are usually intimidating and (mostly) unhelpful. In the research phase, we interviewed students, faculty, and staff. They made it clear that site search was important. Now, not only do searchers get the results they want, they can filter the results by type:

The search feature on Harbert's website
Search is now more functional and purposeful.

Problem #3: Not Quite Riding the Content Wave

Managing a university’s brand is a frenetic performance of spinning plates. If one of them falls, you run the risk of alienating or irritating the people you’re trying to win over.

Everything a college does is “content.” Every word, every image, every face-to-face interaction—it’s all part of a school’s nonstop attempt to become attractive, respected, and authentic. But if everything is content, managing “everything” takes a lot of work.

It’s called content governance, which we define as the rules and resources an organization deploys to ensure their content is accurate, effective, and aligned. Content governance is an emerging discipline, but it’s also one of the most under-resourced and complex. Content governance, in short, can be difficult. It also happens to be incredibly powerful.

Among the free tools we’ve made available in our Insights, you won’t find a “content governance plan template” because no such thing exists. To be useful, a content governance plan must be customized to the organization. Content processes should drape over an organization, not pinch or mold it into something radically new.

The communications team at Harbert is savvy. They understand that without a solid content governance plan in place (or at least in progress, as these things take time), telling their story to the world is much more time-intensive and error-prone.

Solution

University governance plans are especially tricky because universities have a structure all their own. They work in small teams inside larger teams inside larger teams; turnover can be frequent; and the stakes are always high.

Given that, our job was to investigate what we saw and then build a governance plan that makes sense for Harbert. With it, they can be confident that their growing national reputation would be managed, maintained, and enhanced over time.

So while we can’t show you Harbert’s content governance plan, we can share that it included:

  1. Executive Introduction
  2. Standards & Policies
  3. Governance Structure & Rules
  4. Workflows
  5. Templates & Architectural Guidelines
  6. Content Evaluation & Refresh
  7. Training
The front cover and table of contents for Harbert's content governance plan
Harbert’s content governance plan establishes continuity and longevity for their brand.

Harbert’s content governance plan runs 17 pages and more than 3,600 words, but it reads like a straightforward recipe for success. Simple. Comprehensive. Instead of upending the way Harbert oversees its branding and content, this document makes a range of incremental, concrete nudges toward content consistency across the entire business school. No new employees needed, no major outlay of money. Just a commitment to ushering the brand into the next generation.

Wrap-Up

We went on to do more for Harbert—including copywriting, SEO, and a fundraising microsite for the school’s new building. We’ve even partnered to share our experience at higher-ed conferences. The partnership is strong.

The students, faculty, and staff of the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University are building a better way of doing business. It’s our honor to make sure everyone knows it.

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