College prepares for Web site overhaul

By Zac Farber

The college is planning the first major overhaul of its Web site since June 2005 as it continues to branch out into social media. Redesigned Web pages will start appearing online in July, and the $50,000 project will focus on providing a consistency of aesthetic and technical formats throughout the site. The new platform will better accommodate mobile devices and will raise the college’s placement in search engine rankings, said Sara Suelflow, the director of Web services.

A new “content management” system, for which the college is in the process of choosing a contractor, will make it easier to cross-post information to different parts of the Web site. For example, if a story about a biology major is posted to the front page of the college Web site, with a content management system, the story automatically appears on the biology department Web page.

Currently, academic departments design their own Web pages based on templates from the public relations department, and even the Web pages of different administrative offices have vastly different designs, an inconsistency Tommy Bonner, vice president for advancement, said is a problem.

“You really don’t know you’re on the Macalester Web site,” Bonner said. “The last thing you want is out of sync Web pages because it looks like you’re not keeping up.”

In the meantime, the college is working on what Bonner called “interim improvements”: the updating of highly trafficked Web pages to feature more images, and in recent months, designers have instituted changes to the student affairs, athletics, and academic affairs homepages.

The academic affairs homepage is a popular destination for prospective freshman, Bonner said, and the most trafficked internal page on the Web site. It has begun featuring stories and photos along its left side.

Social media

The college has also been beefing up its outreach into social media. It currently has more than 1,000 followers on Twitter, more than 1,300 members of its LinkedIn group and about 2,500 Facebook fans.

Nick Raleigh, 33, the online communications coordinator, spends two hours a day posting to social media Web sites throughout the day.

“I’m not sitting there glued to the screen on these social spaces all day, thinking, ‘What should I post next?'” he said.

Amy Phenix, the director of communications, stressed that social media is about broadening distribution rather than altering the college’s message toward different groups.

“My approach to communications,” she said, “is that we really need to be in the channels where our audience are.”

Raleigh said, “We’re trying to more dynamically tell the story of the college.”

And yet, the expansion into social media was sparked, at least in part, by a desire to protect the college’s brand and image.

In summer 2008, an incoming student started a Facebook page under the name, “Macalester College.” Within its first week, the page gained 1,000 fans, Raleigh said. Raleigh said that the college proceeded to tell the student (whom Raleigh declined to name), “Hey, we can help you out with that.” For a time Raleigh partnered with the student in maintaining the Facebook page, but now, Raleigh said, he no longer talks to the student very often.

LinkedIn had similar origins. Two alumni, one of whom was a trustee, started a group on the site and then contacted the college to see if they wanted to take ownership of it.

Raleigh said the first thing he does in the morning is check the social media sites to see if there are any factually inaccurate or negative responses that needs dispelling.

Social media “creates nostalgia,” Suelflow said. “It’s an opportunity for a conversation that there hasn’t been in the past.