June 4, 2012
TheDEN Tosses Aside the Staid, Uniform College Website For an Interactive, Web 2.0 Version to Communicate the Denison University Story
By Jim Bucci
For too long college news sites have been places to dump press releases and staged photographs featuring happy students or sometimes to mix it up—photos of contemplative students reading under trees. Denison University decided to flip this model on its head by launching TheDEN, an interactive, online source for the college's news, stories and ideas.
TheDEN provides prospective Denison students, current students, faculty, alumni and members of the media quick-hit, blog-style news about the college in Granville, Ohio. The site reflects the "life of the college" in a straightforward way without all the higher education jargon by creating a tool that would be effective in telling the Denison story.
"With TheDen, we knew we needed a new news website, but did not know how to approach this," explains Scott Tribble, senior associate director for digital strategy at Denison University. "Our prior website just pulled press releases and we wanted to reach more than the media, but to capture all the stories on campus and reach the campus's varied audiences."
The site tells the stories of students and faculty living the Denison mission—thinking for themselves, being active in the community, learning about each other and making informed decisions.
Before a mention on TheDEN landed on "bucket lists" of students as the must-have experience before they graduated, the University's communications team needed turn their vision into a reality, all on a shoestring budget.
The Strategy: Shake up Denison University's website with TheDEN—a Web 2.0, online news source. The communications team sought to create a site to convey the campus's community values as outlined in Denison's mission statement of purpose "to inspire and educate our students to become autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents and active citizens of a democratic society." They would do this just without the formality.
"We wanted the site to feel like other sites, and to become a regular, daily routine for readers," offers Tribble. "We looked at everything from The Huffington Post to a lot of the major media websites and blogs."
As more and more colleges had moved toward dedicated news sites for their communications offices, Denison desired its own news site to communicate the news of the college in a truly Web 2.0 fashion. TheDEN ignores the standard press release/institutional feature model and instead provides audiences with blog-style news about the college.
"Even though we are in higher education, we needed to look outside of other college websites, and outside of our own industry, such as popular entertainment and sports sites and take our cues from these other news venues," offers Barbara Stambaugh, senior associate director for strategic communications at Denison University.
In an effort to further the site's theme of connectivity and interconnectedness, all stories on TheDEN relate to each other through a tag-based system, which includes commenting and social networking features allowing audiences to engage Denison and each other in conversations about the news.
TheDEN has an enormously large target audience with an age range of 15 to 100-years-old, which includes high school students trying to decide if the college might be a good fit for them, young alumni looking to stay up-to-date with their favorite professors and older alumni who have not been back to campus in some time. The site's audience also includes parents, potential employees, townspeople, reporters, current faculty, staff and students.
To attract and retain such a diverse group of readers, TheDEN organizes its content around three primary conceptual and easily understandable buckets: "Academics & Research," "On Campus," and "Beyond Campus." The first two categories contain stories about people and places on campus, while "Beyond Campus" shares stories of Denisonians making an impact on the wider world.
These sections are not islands, but in the site's Web 2.0-themed design, users are much more connected. For example, a prospective student reading a story about a chemistry class in "Academics & Research" could click on the "chemistry" tag and see stories of chemistry department graduates and the jobs their degrees have provided for them. For members of the press, beyond providing RSS access to site content, TheDEN offers a full section of media resources, from downloadable photo & video footage to faculty expert information.
"We use the tagline, 'Where Transformative Things Happen' for the campus, so with the new site, we wanted to create a transformative news experience," says Tribble.
The Challenge: Denison staff members learn on the fly, while revamping the University's website. Deciding to overhaul your University's website is no small task, especially when the majority of the site's lengthy demands fall on only a handful of staff members.
"We did not have the staff for it," admits Stambaugh. "The staff also did not have the experience, so we had to learn on the run. It was by trial and error. We focused on what we found interesting. We struck a casual tone, and ditched the jargon whenever possible."
Without design & development resources in-house, the college engaged a local web agency to build the site. Once the site launched, it became solely a product of the University's communications team. With the four primary staff members who manage the site and four additional staffers who contribute sporadically, plenty of work existed to go around for a hungry site updated frequently throughout the day.
"When building TheDEN, we called it 'the little site that could,'" explains Stambaugh. "I think we succeeded in spite of our limitations, the limited budget and resources. People were doing their daily jobs and working on TheDEN as well, and I think that type of spirit and creative energy shined through. We do our best to keep the site fresh and are thrilled with the success it has had on campus, as TheDEN is a big part of the culture of the campus."
Results: TheDEN becomes an integral part of campus life, uniquely communicating the Denison story. Based on the site's first 10 months, TheDEN generated more than 140,000 unique visitors and 300,000 page views. In February 2011, TheDEN received the Silver ADDY in the category of "Website, Consumer HTML, Products" from the Columbus chapter of the American Advertising Federation. CASE Circle of Excellence awards recognized TheDEN with a bronze medal in the category, "Individual Sub-Websites." TheDEN also won an Ohio Interactive Award as the best entry in the category of "Social Web: Blogs." In September 2011, TheDEN received the "Best University Website" award from the Web Marketing Association and an Honorable Mention in Online Communications at the Platinum PR Awards.
Beyond the professional awards and recognition, the most satisfying result is the direct feedback from students and faculty about how the site has caught on and become an integral part of life on campus. Take a stroll through the student union or the library and you are bound to see the site visible on a hundred laptops, as reading TheDEN is now a favorite study break habit.
"We could tell the stories resonated," says Stambaugh. "TheDEN became a part of the daily routine for those on campus. We could tell by the traffic numbers, the site had gained quite a bit of traction. The site succeeded because it provided engaging college news and stories."
Further, alumni from all over the world have submitted essays and news stories for consideration. Even the University's president, who casually followed the communications office online, now regularly visits TheDEN several times per day to keep up with the happenings on campus.
"The website is well-done, does what it is supposed to do and looks beautiful," concludes Stambaugh. "That's the measure of a great college website."
Secrets of Success: Read on as Stambaugh and Tribble offer more tips and explain why this campaign won the Grand Prize at the 2012 Digital/Social Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations & Publicity.
- Offer captivating content that brings your reader in. "We realized there is not a lot of difference between the internal and external audiences," says Tribble. "We have a huge age range of readers, from 15 to 100, and we wanted to offer them things that were fun to read. The most important part was to get out the story. Readers are readers, even on a college website."
- Check the pulse of your target audience. "We did have quite a bit of interaction with the student body and a good finger on the pulse of their interests," offers Stambaugh. "We made shirts with 'Get Me on the Cover of TheDEN' on the front and the site's URL on the back. We wanted to play up that viral feeling with the students. TheDEN became a kind of 'Bucket List' item where students wanted to see their name on the site before they graduated."
- A preponderance of positive feedback is as good as hard numbers. "It was mostly hearing back responses," says Tribble, regarding the site's success. "There was not one specific analytic number or way to measure the success of the site. We heard from students, faculty and alums about the site. We would hear about alums from far-off places, sitting in their cubicles and they would pull up TheDEN and see spring pictures of the campus, and it would make them miss the college. They would also read stories about what their favorite professors were doing on campus."
Winner's Profile: Founded in 1831, Denison University is a private, coeducational and residential college of liberal arts and sciences located in Granville, Ohio, approximately 30 miles east of Columbus, the state capital. Denison is a member of the Five Colleges of Ohio, the Great Lakes Colleges Association, and the North Coast Athletic Conference.