Jason Strohm took to the stage at OUTC16 to talk about bad ideas — and why they work! Strohm is the web designer and developer at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where the institution's website recently became a "20-year overnight success."
The Evolution of Clarion's Website
In 1996, Clarion's website looked, well, pretty much like you'd expect when the world wide web was still a novelty. Clarion was actually ahead of the curve, debuting its first website at a time when the Internet's commercial use was just being realized.
In 2001, Clarion started its first in-house website redesign, connecting a laundry list of department and administration sites under the university's umbrella. Within a few years, the school had its first unified website.
In 2005, Clarion outsourced website design and management to consultants, which was its first truly bad idea. Outwardly, the website looked more updated to incoming students, but within the university community, departments still had complete control over their individual sites. The unifying momentum of previous years had stalled.
By 2007, Clarion knew it needed a better and more cohesive website — and a way to manage it. The entire website had "become a yard sale." Every department fought for the home page, and every department won. The home page turned into a giant directory… that no one liked.
Strohm joined the team in June 2008. He was tasked with managing a new website scheduled to launch that fall. Clarion had already picked out the CMS and design partners, so Strohm's job was to implement and train staff. On September 25, they rolled out the new site. Every page was branded and within the new CMS, but most of the campus community lost home page status, individually-designed pages, and the freedom to customize their department’s colors and fonts. The school’s second bad idea was born — not working to unify the web community from within.
Along with department leadership, Strohm began the arduous task of rebuilding the university web community from the outside in. He trained a total of 270 web contributors, but the website began to lose its cohesive look and feel with no template or guidelines for the content of each page. Clarion needed to address the web world with one voice. But how?
In 2011, Clarion’s bad ideas began to provide a learning experience. Clarion implemented a student run Social Media Roundtable in which students met every week and coordinated efforts. The Clarion team took the best of the bad ideas and ran with them, and it paid off. The social media team kept Clarion afloat while they struggled for the funds to get the site together.
With two new web positions added (despite continually falling budgets), Clarion had room to grow and prepare for the next website. Instead of allowing faculty to run the show, the new web team based their work around four principles:
- Faculty expertise
- Web analytics
- Current trends in higher education
- Website best practices
Strohm expected a huge blowback from faculty, but it didn’t come. Backed by research and data, the university community gave his web team respect and trust. A new unified voice and brand was forming.
In September 2014, Clarion rolled out its latest redesign. Armed with OU Campus (the "Cadillac of CMSs" as Strohm described), a professional web team, and strong university support, Clarion's web team managed to whittle down the site from 36,000+ independently managed pages to a 9,100-page unified website with cohesive colors, professional photos, and one voice. The redesign received an overwhelmingly positive response from both internal and external audiences.
The Most Important Lesson
Through all of Clarion's struggles, Strohm credited the underlying cause of their successes to two key factors: selflessness and hard work. "Focus on what you can do in small pieces. Build tomorrow's environment through selflessness and hard work. And know the only way to really do that is to explore bad ideas."