Fastspot Chief Visionary Officer Tracey Halvorsen and Mackey Strategies President Pete Mackey in conversation about the break-out website which Fastspot did for Bucknell University, when Pete was head of communications there. In this interview, conducted by Fastspot’s Director of Marketing and Communications Julie Higgins, Tracey and Pete discuss the impact of a good .edu website on college admissions metrics, brand equity, the power of great content and the future of digital consumerism. Tracey and Pete also touch on the site which Fastspot designed for Amherst College when Pete was running communications there, subsequent to his time at Bucknell.
Fastspot Chief Visionary Officer Tracey Halvorsen and Mackey Strategies Founder Pete Mackey in conversation about the break-out website which Fastspot did for Bucknell University, when Pete was head of communications there. In this interview, conducted by Fastspot’s Director of Marketing and Communications Julie Higgins, Tracey and Pete discuss the impact of a good .edu website on college admissions metrics, brand equity, the power of great content and the future of digital consumerism. Tracey and Pete also touch on the site which Fastspot designed for Amherst College when Pete was running communications there, subsequent to his time at Bucknell.
[0:15] Julie: Pete, how did you decide the Bucknell website should break convention, and how did you build a case for that with stakeholders on campus?
[0:27] Pete: So, by then, the Fastspot team and I had already redesigned the Bucknell site one time. And now it was roughly five years later. By then, I had learned a whole lot more about Bucknell and really became convinced that it was time to put a stamp down about what kind of entrepreneurial, innovatively-oriented culture Bucknell was. Frankly, I had Fastspot in mind from the beginning. And really from the beginning I was saying, “I want to create the most innovative website in higher education.” Which I appreciate how ridiculous that could sound, frankly. (laughter) Right?
But in some fundamental way, I was serious. In other ways, I was just trying to sort of raise the bar. But the fundamental way in which I was serious is that, why not us? Why not Bucknell? Why not with a firm like Fastspot? We’re capable of doing it! Let’s start with no preconceived notions about what a higher education website is and work our way backwards from the user experience to try to make that user experience, from the design through the functionality, something nobody has done before. And make sure it works. Because that actually is an expression in a powerful way of what Bucknell offers as an educational experience and that its culture is proud of. And so it seemed a statement worth trying to make and see if we could pull it off.
And it also really motivated, I think Tracey would say, all of us were like, “Okay, let’s assume we’re actually going to try to create the most innovative website in higher education that also functions well. How are we gonna pull that off? And it was a really fascinating project to work on. You know, some of these honors its gotten suggested its worked in that way. More importantly, frankly, is the incredible data that shows how deeply engaged people have become through that website, the visitor return rates, the stickiness rates of the homepage, the admissions results have been extraordinary, not simply because of that, but it’s part of what we did there. But anyway, so we set that marker because it was an expression of who this place either was or aspired to be, and we wanted the medium to be part of the message.
[2:37] Julie: And were you responding to internal changes at that time at Bucknell? Because a redesign within five years is sometimes an unusual feat to pull off.
[2:46] Pete: Yeah, yeah. So I will say you don’t want to wait really more than five years to take a whole new look at your website. The technologies are changing too fast. The capabilities of all the things from social media and video and all these digital technologies we know about are moving so quickly. This is the time to be really constantly reassessing whether the website should either just get a slight refresh or a holistic overhaul.
To your point, yes, you absolutely need strong leadership. By that point, a new president had been hired at Bucknell who appreciated this medium a great deal. Really savvy on a technological level. Understood what that kind of medium could do and could say to people about Bucknell. So yes, we needed buy-in from the president, all across the senior leadership and faculty to really take the kind of risk we intended to take.
[3:35] Julie: Tracey, what kind of metrics were discussed early on, before you began that second go-round with Bucknell?
[3:40] Tracey: We knew we wanted to see things change. We wanted to see the applications go up. We wanted to see the diversity of the applicants change and expand. We wanted to see the type of student, we wanted to see their academic numbers stay high, you know their SAT scores and all for the applicants, but also reach further out geographically and all of that.
But we also wanted, when we did user testing on the site and we listened to what people said when they were experiencing it, they all did what we hoped they were going to do. Which was, they got onto the site, and within the first second or two, they thought, “Oh, oh, this is different. This is innovative. This is modern. This feels really fresh.” And they kind of were like, “Oh, this site is gonna ask me to figure out something different.” And then once they did, they understood how it worked and they were able to engage with it.
So it was that initial impression that we wanted to hear our users reflect back. Because at the core of our goal was, you know, I remember having a call with Pete and the president, and we just talked about the fact that when you pull up to the campus at Bucknell and you come through the gates, it’s beautiful. But so are all their competitive institutions. They’re in a scenic yet very remote location, like many of their competitive institutions. And they’ve got big, beautiful buildings and sprawling lawns and active students out there throwing frisbees and studying, just like all the other institutions.
And by peeling it back to the degree that we did, on both the digging on a conceptual level and then trying to really strip away convention on the overall construction and design level, and to focus so much on the user, we made sure that they didn’t have that same experience with the website. Like, “Oh, here’s another higher ed website just like all the other ones I’ve just looked at. Just like all the other pretty campuses and buildings.” It made the first impression of Bucknell very unique and very different. So for me, the metric was hearing people’s first impressions when they experienced that site, acknowledging, “Oh wow, this is” — and not just different for different’s sake — but, “This is, this place, this school must really welcome this kind of thinking.”
[5:58] Julie: So you’re saying there’s a way in which the first impression created by the website can be reaffirmed by the initial visit.
[6:06] Tracey: It’s all baggage. From the moment you experience - and most of those experiences the first time are going to be on the website - multiple times are going to be on the website before they ever step through into a physical experience, before they ever talk to someone on the phone, or in person. And so the baggage they have now is a very different kind of baggage. It’s baggage we want them to have, not stuff we’ve got to deal with later. So you’re giving them information that you want them to have, that’s gonna build their experience in a way you want them to be seeing your institution.
And instead of just saying, like, “Yeah, I know you couldn’t find anything on the website. It looked like everybody else’s. You got frustrated,” you almost want to try and make sure that the right kind of student that’s looking at — you know for us, for Fastspot it’s the right kind of client — we kind of picture that. Who is that right person? And then they need to see themselves reflected back in what they experience.
And what’s great about both those sites is they’re not trying to be everything to everybody at all. We spent a lot of time really thinking about what is the ideal Bucknell student? What is the ideal Amherst student? What does that person look like? What does that mean to the community? What does that mean as an alum? What is it like to have Amherst in your community? So we looked at it from a lot of outer perspectives and then inner perspectives. What is it like to be a student here?
One of the best compliments we can always hear is that people say, “It feels like us.” And even though they might not have said, “Well, it reflects all of our offices, and my spot on the website’s exactly where I think it should be,” they will all say when it’s successful that it feels like it feels when you’re here. It’s a very hard thing to put into a metric. It’s a lot of anecdotal feedback, but then when you’re hearing that, you’re usually seeing the numbers do what the numbers need to do too.
And in a lot of cases, it is not just about getting more. Pete always says we want more better. (laughter) We want more, but of the right kind, so making those connections. We’ve talked to students and prospective students. They’re getting bombarded with materials, especially the ones that are being really fought over and sought after. They’re tossing all this paper. They don’t believe a thing. They’re going from site to site. They may have twenty tabs open in their browser. They have the parents helicoptering around. It’s just a lot of stress and input.
And what’s great about both the sites is that they invite the user to be unique and to be identified as the special person that’s participating in that relationship. And what I mean by that is that all of the work we’ve always done is to engage the user of the website. The most important one, which is the one who is really the most removed to some degree. And say, “We want you to have an experience that’s meaningful and that says something about us here, but we care about your experience.” And we don’t make them weed through the typical morass of stuff.
[9:12] Julie: How often are you called upon to justify the return on the investment? And I’d like to put this to you first, Pete. But Tracey, I’d like you to chime in from an agency perspective as well.
[9:23] Pete: I would say the discussions with me were not about return on investment in any particular material terms. Because in the communications field, it’s really hard to address. Let’s be honest about it. But it’s also important that if we do it right, we really keep a very careful eye on the before and after impact, on the kinds of ROI information you can track.
And this includes everything from stickiness rates and visitor rates and bounce rates, page view rates, if we’re driving them to the key pages. This is all stuff you can readily track and should keep a very careful eye on before and after. And you have to adjust it if the after data is not what you wished or hoped it would be. Because if you can deliver on that data, you’re probably delivering on the kind of experience that you’re hoping you can generate.
I think you can extrapolate to a very limited extent its ROI and other levels. Does it have an effect in fundraising? Does it have an effect on admissions application rates? None you can draw a straight line to. And so you have to be really very careful about filtering any judgments on that. But those kinds of things can be informative of the experience, particularly if you continue your surveying process and provide your audience with tools to provide you feedback.
The way I put it is that kind of feedback like that data doesn’t dictate your decisions, but it can really inform the choices you make post-launch. Do you keep the structure the same? Do you change the prioritizing or the tiering of your content? Do you adjust the way content is presented? All those types of decisions can be informed by the type of data and feedback I was just alluding to.
[11:07] Julie: Thanks, Pete. Tracey, anything to add?
[11:09] Tracey: Yeah, Pete mentioned content, and I think that when you talk about the experience of the internal team in managing the website and the content management system that’s powering it, I think there was a misconception. I do think it’s going away, but I think people used to think, “Well I need to have a big IT team to manage my website. Because it must be, well they’ll change some code and the carousel will work differently, and suddenly that will make a difference.” And in reality, the IT teams in these institutions are doing much more important things internally. They should not be the gatekeepers of the website. Most of them don’t want to be.
But the problem is that content does need to change. And so not only do you need to have a content management system and at least some people there to help facilitate that, but you have to have people understanding what makes good content. That’s a much harder conversation and it’s a much harder skill to hire for. And it’s a much harder thing to track around metrics.
And you’re right, these website projects are usually part of big initiatives. Bucknell had a huge increase in applications after the website launched. It was a record year!
Pete: It went up 40%!
Tracey: But you can’t draw a line straight back and say it was just the website that did that.
[12:20] Pete: So, one year after the launch of the new Bucknell website, almost every metric was dramatically up, the kind of data I was alluding to. Visitor rates, homepage view rates, visits to the admissions page, bounce rates were way down, time of visit was way up. Every piece of data you could look at to examine whether a website is working improved markedly over the previous website.
Meanwhile, admissions applications went up 40%. But at the same time that we were re-doing the website, we were introducing a new admissions marketing program, and the admissions office was also doing some very savvy things in expanding their outreach. They cut the application fee in half. And so not one of these things explains the success of things like our admissions numbers going up so markedly, but I’d like to think it was a helpful factor. And the data would suggest that it was, because the data was so incredibly positive.
[13:16] Julie: That’s wonderful.
[13:18] Tracey: And I think also, I remember having a lot of great meetings with some of the key faculty stakeholders that were involved in the project on the Bucknell side, and they were really excited to be part of the project. And I think that you’ve got to engage people like that for it to be successful. So we had some great participants on the Bucknell side. And what we did is we made sure we gave them things that would let them really present their departments and the work that was being done in those departments in a really dynamic, powerful, clear, easy way.
So it was no longer, “I need to have an assistant come in here and write a ten pager that’s gonna get copied and pasted once it weaves its way through the IT office, and it’s gonna be a wall of words that’s gonna be impossible to get through.” So we were able to let them take advantage of video, photography, less professional photography, and still have it look strong. Because we know that at the end of the day, most of the people who are looking are going to get into a department-level search almost immediately. Faculty are not in the business of marketing themselves, nor should they be.
But in today’s day, we all are marketing ourselves. We’re all producing content. And we need to rely on that closeness that they have to their content to help empower them to provide the content. Content is a powerful component of all these projects, and you’ve gotta have people who are on board and then empowered to keep going and keep using the site so it doesn’t get stale. And that can maybe expand the life cycle of it much further too.
[15:02] Pete: You’re getting to something that’s really important to stress, which is it’s not just about design. It’s about actually the relationship between the design and content. And that also means the staff who work on the content really modeling the type of content that works today. There’s all kinds of data that suggests the type of sentences and paragraph structure, the use of white space -- entices people to stick around on your website.
And so when Tracey and her team and my team and I are discussing these things, we’re not only talking about the type of design issues that we want to use to capture ethos, but how it’s going to be managed on a day-to-day basis to make the content work. And what kind of content is needed for this website and for, frankly, the academic mission of this institution. The website has to do all those things, including empowering the faculty and staff even outside of communications, who have to keep involved and keep their websites fresh.
[15:52] Julie: Taking the focus to the future, I’d like both of you — as you’re both very clever people — to imagine a few hypothetical projects in various categories, which you’d be interested in doing. Just pie in the sky. These are the ones I’ve thought of: something philanthropic, something disruptive, and something that’s life-changing on an everyday level. And you can pick any of those.
[16:17] Pete: Obviously this is very audience-dependent, but video has become such a desired medium today, particularly among young people. They’re creating it at extraordinary rates. They’re becoming mini directors all across the world. As long as they have a phone with them, they can do extraordinary things with video. And they’re obviously a massive consumer of it, and so are people in general who have access to that kind of technology.
It would be interesting to even think about, “Is there a college or university or a sub-unit within higher ed that should have an entirely video-based website?” And there are some schools you could think of, actually. Particularly certain types of specialty schools where that actually might be worth at least knocking around.
Because that medium is so powerful. It’s so consumer-generated now. The young people are so creative in this medium. The capacity to do it with the most basic hardware many people have access to is extraordinary. The bandwidths to communicate it are very high, certainly in certain parts of America and the world. And you could imagine a place where that could be a really powerful creative expression of an ethos there that sent a message while empowering its community. So that would be an interesting conversation to have at the right place.
[17:47] Julie: Absolutely.
[17:48] Tracey: Yeah, definitely. I think that for me, so much of what I’m interested in again goes back to that idea of conveying a sense of place. I find physical places, how they manifest in a digital space, are very interesting. What are museums going to be doing over the next ten years? How are they going to be engaging a lot of our cultural institutions? And even museums on campus, and libraries, and places that are used to dealing in the physical world. How does that really become more than just a brochure online? How do people experience this content when it’s no longer physical?
And so as that line continues to blur, for me I think about two things I’m really interested in and I think are really important. One is on the art side. Where are we going to continue to be enriched culturally? When it’s not about academic courses, when it’s not about professional experience, how are we going to continue as humans to experience things that are less tangible. Video is a great way for a lot of that to be happening. But how are we experiencing art, music, listening to people read, seeing physical sights that are meaningful?
Because I think that as our world changes, we’re going to look for more ways to do that through the digital space, as we’re limited by physical resources, as people become less mobile, as they age even. I think it’s really interesting. So I think that in the next couple of years, we’re going to see it go beyond the laptop. I think we’re not going to be looking at these devices any more. I think we’re going to be experiencing them either through augmented reality or through all of our devices in harmony which are going to be giving us information. I don’t think we’re going to be looking at pages anymore as much as we’re consuming bits of information and media.
Beyond that kind of interest, it’s not really a type of project. It’s more just an area of interest of mine. The reason why we like healthcare as a type of client is that human beings continue to be human beings and continue to suffer anxieties and stresses and real human emotions that are not being reflected and addressed in how we experience digital content. Just because we work on computers does not mean we need to act like computers.
And yet that’s what a lot of our experiences are, are given to us in computer speak. To some degree, that’s because a lot of computer programmers are responsible for this stuff. No offense to computer programmers, but that’s behind the scenes stuff. And human beings need to be present and thinking about how we engage with the internet and how our lives are being influenced by it, I think it a more empathetic way. So, I think healthcare is far behind.
Once you get into these great organizations, you know. My dad was being cared for at Mayo [Clinic], and once you get in the doors in Mayo, it was fantastic. Once he was in the system, he had a great experience. But when you are outside of the walls, outside of the system, and trying to engage with these organizations through, right now, their websites, it’s a very impersonal, very confusing, very cold experience. And there’s a lot of room for improvement; that's where design, and content, and empathy can make a big difference.
[21:40] Julie: Pete, what kinds of things do you think people will do when they don’t have to drive their own cars? What will they do with that time and space, from a communications perspective?
[21:49] Pete: I think they’ll read long novels in print form. (laughter)
Tracey: Oh, we can only joke, right?
Pete: Yeah, I think they’re gonna be consuming digital media in staggering, even more staggering rates than they are now. But they’ll also want to be creating it, and I think we’ve only begun to touch the capacities that will be at the fingertips of the future users and creators like you’re describing. If you’re sitting in your car as it drives you twenty minutes to work or an hour on a longer commute, you’re not just going to want to see other people’s digital content. You’re going to want to create with tools at your disposal to make fun, interesting stuff that you feel passionately about. To get out what you believe. So I think those kinds of tools have only just begun to be developed.
I think we also have to remember this is the year, I believe, the iPhone turned ten. Most apps that we consider social media like Twitter and Facebook and so on, aren’t even ten yet. Today’s incoming first year class is probably the first one that truly grew up living with the iPhone and its peers and social media. So the generational engagement with these type of digital tools, and their creative capacity with them, have only begin.
[23:20] Julie: So what’s next for Fastspot and Mackey Strategies? (laughter)
[23:25] Pete: Reading some long novels in print form. (laughter)
[23:28] Tracey: Yeah, right? A lot of our cars sit in our driveways. (laughter) I think Pete and I, the reason we want to keep working together is because we do have a passion for continuing to question. What else? What more? What better? There’s no lack of enthusiasm to try new things and see what can be done. It’s never in a shallow, superficial kind of way. It’s just if you get great thinking, creative people together who aren’t afraid to push and pull a little bit in pursuit of some great work, you’re going to end up with some great work. And nothing feels better than doing that.
[24:13] Pete: Well said.
[24:15] Julie: Pete, thanks so much for meeting up with us today in D.C. We really appreciate your time.
[24:19] Tracey: Yeah. It’s always good to talk to you, and nice to look back at what we’ve done, and look forward at what we can do.
[24:26] Pete: Yeah. Thank you. My pleasure, always.