Illumination by Modern Campus

Mindy Peep (University of Wyoming) on Building a Strong Digital Foundation to Drive Student Engagement

April 25, 2024 Modern Campus
Mindy Peep (University of Wyoming) on Building a Strong Digital Foundation to Drive Student Engagement
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Mindy Peep (University of Wyoming) on Building a Strong Digital Foundation to Drive Student Engagement
Apr 25, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Mindy Peep to discuss how a high-quality website drives student engagement and what’s required to get there. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Mindy Peep to discuss how a high-quality website drives student engagement and what’s required to get there. 

Shauna Cox (00:02):Well, Mindy, welcome to the Illumination podcast. I'm so happy you could chat with me today.

Mindy Peep (00:07):Hi, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited. I actually just wanted to say that my background was in college, was with college radio, which was cool back then, so probably not so much now I'm dating myself, but this is kind of taking me back to my roots and I haven't actually heard myself in this format for a long time,

Shauna Cox (00:28):So it might be a little stark when you listen back. Oh my God, that's what I sound like.

Mindy Peep (00:32):Yeah. But anyway, so it's kind of fun to be back in this realm. Yeah.

Shauna Cox (00:36):Well, we appreciate you joining us today. We live in very much a digital age where students are more than likely first finding their institution, or at least the institution that they're interested in through the internet, and that's exactly what we're here to talk about today. So just kicking it off, why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on delivering a high quality website keyword on high quality when driving student engagement and retention?

Mindy Peep (01:05):Sure. I mean, the biggest part of web is that everything comes back to it. So working in higher education, I learned pretty quickly that universities, they invest millions upon millions of dollars into these physical spaces like buildings and research and technology, which is awesome. I think that that's the reason why University of Wyoming really stands out because we are the only four year institution, but it's also really important that web doesn't get left behind in that. And I think sometimes that does occur because we aren't a physical space. And so if you think about a student walking to class or a student attempting to find a menu at the dining center, that can be really challenging for them, especially since we're also connected by our phones at this day and age. So I think that everything really does truly come back to your website whether you like it or not. So it's equally as important to invest in those resources as you would the physical spaces.

(02:07):I think another thing too is that we wear a lot of hats. And so sometimes as marketers we can lose our way through all the voices that we have to sift through and requests that we receive. And when we converted our CMS to modern campuses system in June, 2023, we were operating off of a very ancient system, and it was very difficult for us to make some decisions that could impact our site editors could impact students, but we really needed to make some changes in that sense. And I think that when it comes to delivering a high quality website, always hearing the students' voices is probably going to be your guiding light. It is the guiding light of our team. And I'm very lucky to work with students who were actually, or excuse me, they weren't students. They were former students at the university and we hired them as interns and they've worked their way up to strategist roles and developer roles, and they're incredible people and they're kind of our voice.

(03:11):And whenever we start to lose that student voice or recommendation, they're very quick to remind me and say, Hey, you need to focus on this. And I think that a lot of times in higher education, especially for people who've been here for a long time, it's very easy to forget that. And so I'm really lucky and very privileged to have those team members who are helping guide us because they were recently students, especially some of them were students throughout the pandemic. And so we really do use that to make sure that we are delivering high quality.

Shauna Cox (03:46):Absolutely. Yeah, it is very clear that you guys are putting students at the center, even though they were former students, they can pull from their experiences of what they wish they had and just continue to keep everything up to date in the way that it should be that reflects that modern learner. So I really love that. And I want to dive into the inner workings a little bit behind the website in the sense of creating a website, Ken seem pretty simple. You can just slap a couple things up, put some pictures and some branding up and then call it a website. But that really doesn't speak to what a high quality website is. So what are some of the challenges to delivering what would be a high quality website?

Mindy Peep (04:28):Sure. So one of the first things that we looked at when we were converting to modern campuses CMS system is that we had a 10-year-old navigation system. And it was like the culmination. I know I'm sure there's a lot of universities listening out there like, oh my gosh, me too. But we really did, it was basically the culmination of a decade of voices, probably hundreds, maybe thousands of voices from various units that said, I want to be in this navigation space or I want to be on the homepage here. And it was very evident when I first saw our homepage and before I took on the web team that it was not student focused at all. And so when I did take over the web team and was able to be at the helm a little bit more, we really looked at the navigation as one of our biggest pieces that needed to be updated.

(05:18):So we didn't update all of our designs, but we did update some incremental pieces, including our header, which included the navigation. And I can tell you that the navigation now as compared to how it looked then is very, very different. It's very student focused and students can get to their destination within two clicks usually of that navigation if they choose to use that experience. And just as an example, our program finder search, which is a really important piece for students looking for programs and majors, I think the average search was around 80 to a hundred day and overnight it doubled when we switched to the new system, now we're averaging about three to 400 a day. So that alone just tells us that that was a good move, but it was a really big challenge to be able to update that. And I think that scale in general is just a huge challenge for universities.

(06:13):I actually was thinking about some of my peers at the University of Houston who we spoke with a little while back, and it sounds like they're converting their system as well. And it was nice to know that I was not the only university that has thousands of pages that may or may not serve the student. Probably more often than not, they don't serve the student experience. And so just the sheer scale of the University of Wyoming's site authors, we have about 400 site auditors, which is a lot. And we have 300 directories. And that can be really, really difficult to manage a high quality website, especially when our central team is not in charge of all that content. So I would say that that kind of chalks up too to managing change can be really difficult too. It kind of goes back to having that central voice like our team saying, okay, these are the things that are going to change.

(07:07):Here's why. Here's how you can overcome them. But that can be really difficult for an office associate who is, maybe web is an eighth of their job and that's not their only role, whereas web is my entire role and my team's entire role. So I would say that managing change can be really difficult, especially with you have that many people working on a website at once. And then I guess it kind of goes back to consistency as well. So like I mentioned, we have, I don't even want to say how many pages we have, we're working on getting it down, but it, it's thousands of pages and it can be really challenging to have a student come to your website and they don't even know the hierarchy and the processes that make up a university that help a university function. So as far as the hierarchy of schools and or me colleges, that type of thing, they're not looking for those pieces individually.

(08:09):And that can be really difficult to explain to a faculty member, well, maybe we should prepare your content this way so a student can find it. So they're just trying to find their way to get to class. They're just trying to find their advisor, trying to make friends, trying to navigate a student experience that can be challenging, especially for a first year student. So I would say that consistency in delivering everything that a student needs to know is really, really hard. Because if you think about a student who comes to the university in their first year and then ends in their fourth or fifth year, they may have 70 conversion points where need to do in order to get something done for their degree just in their first year alone. So imagine a student trying to find that in amidst 30,000 pages, that's really, really difficult for them. So all the more reason to really listen to the student and try to cu some of those things back a little bit so that you can create that consistent experience.

Shauna Cox (09:08):Absolutely. And I kind of want to dive into your experience a little bit more when it comes to the website and the work that you've been doing. And I guess in the sense it's going to kind of combine the next two questions, but essentially I'm wondering how with your institution, when you guys decided to put more, I don't want to say put more effort into the website, but when you guys decided to kind revamp your website one, what are you seeing in terms of students' expectations? And at the same time, how are you guys, and you kind of alluded to it earlier, how are you driving that student engagement and retention through your website and what's most important to you when it comes to that student's experience?

Mindy Peep (09:50):Sure. So this isn't a new school of thought, but it certainly is still probably one of the most important ones. But this is the search generation. We are the search generation, even though I'm much older than lot of the students that are coming in right now, but search experience is paramount to a student's experience as they enter a website and they prefer to maybe search, like I mentioned with the programs when we converted our header and footer on conversion day, that's a really big deal for a lot of them. And if they can't find it, they're going to probably leave. And especially those who are not familiar with the site first year, or excuse me, rising juniors, rising seniors who are coming into their college search journey, they're not going to know exactly where our admissions requirement pages, and so they're going to search for it.

(10:41):So we've invested a lot of time in our internal search process, and we do a lot of curated results to get students to the right places that they need to be. But another thing that we've also done is invested a lot of time into our search engine optimization, our SEO. So also not a new concept, but is amazingly ignored at any level in any industry because it does take a very significant and specialized skill to accomplish. And it also takes a lot of time. So whereas paid advertising and social media can be a very quick hit thing, search engine optimization is kind of the long game. It's the master season.

(11:23):So we've invested countless hours, countless time, resources and money into preparing our degree pages specifically so that they are all contained in a very consistent format, and they're all optimized with really strong keywords for what students are searching for, types of outcomes that they can receive from their degrees, that type of stuff. So we've spent so much time on that, and I don't want to go too much into this because it's kind of unrelated, but also with our design upgrade that we're going to be doing with modern campus, those degree pages are going to be the driving force behind our future program search. Rather than relying on the catalog or just pieces of a database that are kind of incomplete and not marketing focused, we'll be able to generate an XML feed from our degree pages that will be complete hopefully by the end of this year, and just create an amazing experience for students. So again, that search experience is a pretty key thing. We invest a lot of time multiple team members into that. Let's see. Sorry, I just got to take a breath.

Mindy Peep (12:37):I would also say that user experience is also going to be, I mean, again, these aren't brand new terms. These are what any web marketer or web developer have been working on for years and years and years. But really honing in on your audience and serving that experience is really important. And we do have a challenge at the university, any university probably has is that we have multiple audiences, not just our students and our prospective students. We have alumni, we have supporters, we have major donors who need to be recognized. And so that can be a challenge when it comes to user experience. But again, we're all here for the students, but the reason we gain donations is for the students, the reason we have athletic events is to attract high quality student athletes and bring students to the game. And then of course, our alumni and supporters.

(13:25):And so they're all kind of intertwined. And one of the ideas that we're toying with is rather than creating a full feed from Instagram onto our homepage, our social media strategist, Hannah Downey, she had the idea to create kind of more like a curated experience. And so she's not a web person, but rather than, I mean, she spends so much time creating these amazing reels and stories and different types of social media content that we've heard from students is very important in their journey, especially during those key conversion points such as graduation or finals week, which can be incredibly stressful. So that's also probably the times that they are heading to the website to be able to look for the information they need. So why not create them an experience using social media content that we can curate and put into the site specifically for those moments and those experiences. So I think that answers your question, and those are the two.

Shauna Cox (14:22):Absolutely. It does. And I love that not only are you guys putting students at the center, you are personalizing their experience to what exactly they need at those key points in their time, which I think is so crucial, like you were saying. Yeah, some of these ideas may not be brand new, but I think consistency is key here in constantly improving, and that's exactly what you guys are doing. So that's great to see that students are at the center and that is what it's all about. Now, what is some advice that you would share with those who may be looking to kind of upgrade, revamp, or at least refocus their website, who may not be plans not be as flushed out or something like that? What advice would you have for those people?

Mindy Peep (15:09):Yeah, I do think that there are a lot of initial things that you can do even before the contract is signed, even before you begin doing an RFP for your system or for a new design, because those are some of the things that I wish would've been afforded to me. And we learned them, we learned them quickly, and it certainly wasn't without some bit of challenge, but it also made me realize how important it is to kind of lay out those initial steps. And I think one of the things that you can do is dedicate a project manager from your team to lead your conversion or your migration. And if that person is you, which was me at the time, speaking with your superiors, your supervisors, to let them know that this is going to be probably one of the most major undertakings of your career if you haven't already done one conversions.

(16:05):I feel like conversions are probably what I've done more of in my career more than marketing, because it's just such an important piece of making sure you're getting to a better system. So having that support from them. And I know that university teams have challenges with size as duties, but I will say that when you really trust your team to take on those responsibilities, we have a fairly new to their career team, meaning that they were students not that long ago. I think it was only four years ago. I'm losing track of time. But we trust them with a lot of responsibility because not only have they earned it, but they could do it better than I would. And so being able to think outside the box as far as, I'm not saying hire a student intern and give them digital advertising, that would be the keys.

(16:55):But if there is an opportunity to ask for funding for somebody who can help you take on some of those responsibilities, I think that's really, really important. And it was key to our conversion because I was nose deep in it for about a year, and it was really, I couldn't imagine being able to do all the other duties that I had at the time, but it also gave them some really great opportunity and elevated their positions to where they're doing stuff that I didn't do until I was 30 years old. And it's amazing to see them grow and just do it better than I could have ever imagined. So that's a really important piece that would come even before you even sign a contract. And then once you get to those stages, I think that talking with your IT team early and often is a very important key piece.

(17:46):Any IT team probably out there that has anything to do with web servers or any type of infrastructure in that sense would appreciate that comment because oftentimes they get brought in about six months into it, and it's a need that needs to be done as SAP, but some of those things can take a really long time. And I also had to kind of accept that I was out of my element when it came to those discussions. I've always wanted to be a web developer, but I just don't have the acumen for the markup language. But what I am very good at is collaborating and making sure I get people connected with the right people so the smartest people in the room on modern campuses side can get connected with the smartest people in the room on the university side, and they can talk and get a solution together.

(18:30):And I learned a lot. I will say that I had a lot of imposter syndrome throughout the process, but I learned a lot and it's made me a better manager. It's made me a better marketer for that as well. And then I guess the last thing I would say for what you can do to prepare for a conversion or just a big overhaul of your website experience is if you do have a decentralized team like we do at the University of Wyoming where site editors are making the majority of content changes, I would say that investing site editor training is absolutely essential. That was actually something I didn't really think about when we first started the conversion process, but it just kind of naturally came. And I've always kind of had a passion for creating curriculum and teaching people how to do new things. And it's a quite extensive course.

(19:22):A lot of the site editors would probably say, wow, this is way too much. But what we're seeing is a completely different evolution of a new breed of site editor. So through no fault of their own, the site editors who were in the old system we're just grossly undertrained. They kind of hobbled along a little bit. Some of them did better than others, but some of them just struggled because it was a really difficult system to learn at first if you're not a web person. And they did great. They did it the best that they possibly could, but without the training, I think that that would've been just really a flop. I think that we would've been maybe even a year out further than our actual conversion date if we hadn't empowered site editors to be able to do that. And so being able to see the site editors who are trained with the new system, with this really robust training, it's six hours long, it's really long. There's payoff, right? It's payoff. But we are seeing, I will go into their directories and be like, wow, look at this. This is perfectly set up. Look at all these calls to action. And so I feel like it really is, it was an important part for us to shift. And again, change can be really challenging for anybody, but I do think that we're offering a level of support that's kind of surpassed anything that we've ever done in the past. So

Shauna Cox (20:43):Absolutely, I think what's key there from what you're saying is that you have to lay down that foundation, see where your strengths and your weaknesses are, bring in the right people when needed to really just set that foundation and then build up from there, which does require a lot of time and investment and all those things. But it definitely, I would say, has its payoff from what you're telling me.

Mindy Peep (21:06):It really does. I mean, this is a little in the weeds, but if you are a Mac user and you are responsible for creating training, I will tell you that the QuickTime screen record is an absolute godsend. It's amazing. You can just record your screen and it records your audio and everything, and you just import it in and it works great. So you don't even have to be a professional editor or anything like that. You can just have knowledge of a system. And so I know that, again, can be really difficult for people who already stretch to the max. I see a lot of higher education professionals speak their truth on social media channels about, I'm a one man team and I don't have time to do this. But if the university is investing that much money into a conversion, they should be investing that much into the people that bring it to life and to help them, because you can't do your best work when you're burnt out.

(22:02):It's just too much for one person. And I think that's why our team is able to continuously create, because we have that rare but wonderful balance to be able to rest and also come back with full force and say, I'm ready to do this and grind through it. And so I think it is just been really nice to have that support. And I realize saying that how lucky we are in the higher ed landscape to have that type of support, but there's a will if there's a will. There's a way. I never like to accept no for answer. 

Shauna Cox (22:38):

Yeah, absolutely. Well, Mindy, that's everything that we have for you on our end. Now, before we let you go, you are based in Laramie, Wyoming. So we're going to need a restaurant recommendation from you where if someone's coming to town, where would you recommend that they go?

Mindy Peep (22:56):Sure. So the first thing I would recommend is come in the summer when it's warm, because Laramie is at 7,200 feet, and it's a little chilly in Wyoming, but we also call Laramie Larice in the summer because it's so beautiful. But one of my favorite things to do is ride my bike downtown after work and grab a drink and some good snacks at Sweet Melissa's with my friends. And Sweet Melissa's is a wonderful little cafe. It's vegetarian and vegan, and even if you're not vegetarian or vegan, there's definitely people in there who are omnivores and they love it, and they eat there all the time. And so it's just a really fun experience. It's right by the train tracks and just really gives some cool lar vibes. So if you find yourself in Wyoming for some reason, we'd love to have you.

Shauna Cox (23:47):Absolutely. Thank you so much, Mindy.