From their humble beginnings in 1998 rising out of the then rice fields of Pudong, Shanghai, Concordia International School Shanghai has become one of the world's premier international schools. With a strong foundation and vision, this Preschool to Grade 12 international school is home to more than 1,200 students from around the world.
We sat down with Kelly Jo Larson, Senior Director of Communications and Strategic Planning, to learn about their new website and were overwhelmingly surprised, and thoroughly impressed, with the depth, scope, and phenomenal virtual campus that she and her team produced. From the stunning and unique homepage, to the attention to minute details in the interior pages, the Concordia Best-in-Class website is one for the record books.
What were the main reasons for your school's website redesign?
Concordia had a very customized WordPress site, which entailed many plug-ins and customizations to meet their unique requirements. The backend was managed by their Director of IT and the content managed by the Marketing & Communications team. They loved the flexibility and uniqueness of their site, but being in China, they had issues with speed, and their customization clashed with the open source nature of WordPress; old plugins were not maintained and new plugins did not work with the three-year old customization. Concordia opted for a new solution.
Further Reading: The 9 Biggest Problems Schools Face When They Choose Open Source
Kelly Jo, a seasoned professional in communications and project management, met Finalsite at the annual EARCOS conference and discussed their requirements. She stressed: "we were reluctant to partner with a company as we did not want a cookie-cutter website but rather something distinct and unique. We also wanted some location-specific personalization, for example, when a China-based user lands on the homepage, our standard social media of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube gets replaced with WeChat so that the user does not get a blocked homepage."
Their new website needed to meet a vast array of requirements, but after careful consideration and evaluation of several options including building in house, Concordia chose to partner with Finalsite for their website redesign, predominantly because of their team of professionals in backend, design and current practice, freed the Concordia Shanghai team to focus on content.
The Website Redesign Playbook
What was your vision when you began this project?
Concordia Shanghai is all about their community and knew that if they could convey the details of their community through their online presence, it would have a huge impact. They wanted people to see inside the walls of the school without having to visit the campus. "We have shifting demographics and being in China offers some unique challenges, among them are that not all families get a look before they move," said Kelly Jo. "We are also in a very competitive market so realized that we needed to stand out from the crowd. Our website is not just for prospective families; that it is a virtual home for our current community is equally critical."
Concordia worked with the Finalsite team to design something truly reflective of their brand. In the end, the responsively-designed site, showcasing connected diamonds filled with hero images, activities and calls to action, embodies the connectedness of their community where everyone has a story. "The connected diamonds which have emanated from our logo are consistently reflected in our school brand and as such are unique to Concordia," said Kelly Jo.
"By mixing and matching the brand elements both in print and on the web, we have been able to extend the Concordia Shanghai brand into the digital world."
Fundamental to their website is the idea that most information, including their prospectus, course book, co-curricular activities and athletics, be publicly available to both current and prospective families. This enables visitors to gain a more complete understanding of the Concordia experience and has increased website user satisfaction since answers to their unique questions are at the click of a button–and when they can't find something their virtual Concierge is ready to respond to any questions about the school, where to find a particular hobby, or any other aspect of life in Shanghai.
While the parent portal is open, the staff portal does require a password. One document that is behind the portal is the Faculty Handbook which has made access much easier for faculty. Thanks to the Composer accordion element, the content is well organized and easily at their fingertips where they can read a policy, procedure or form online or choose to download it to print. One major added benefit to producing much of this work online has been going green and saving a lot money in printing costs.
What sections of the site are you most proud of?
"We tried to think outside the box and create content that would really resonate with our community." Concordia consciously mapped out their key strengths and developed content that subtly, but powerfully, showcased their key value propositions while engaging, educating and inspiring visitors.
The About Section is one area worth viewing as it is not your typical about section. It is full of information on what sets Concordia Shanghai apart, what their campus is like, how they care for the mind and the body of their students and faculty, and includes clear call-to-action buttons that encourage visitors to further engage. A lot of thought, care and effort went into crafting the messaging on this page.
Their admissions landing page is so welcoming and comprehensive that we encourage readers to just go visit.
Their faculty recruitment page was also given a critical eye, and feedback from recruits has been very positive. Concordia is very transparent with salary and benefits while at the same time encouraging potential faculty to learn more.
What advice can you give other school professionals as they look to redo their school websites?
From the beginning, Kelly Jo knew this was a huge project, but armed with her MBA from Wharton and extensive experience, she used her business skills and applied them to the school setting. Her philosophy was to "lay out a clear plan, do the work upfront and keep the project flowing. You need to be given the freedom to devote to the project; if you don't have time to do your regular job, you might need to hire temporary help."
Once they signed with Finalsite in January of 2016, Kelly Jo and the Director of IT began the backend and design process. In April, Kelly Jo and her in-house team of 5, began working around the clock for two months to deliver their story via website –around the clock because they had to deliver on the day-to-day Marketing & Communications work as well. They had a wall full of post-it notes but also relied heavily on Finalsite's project management tool to keep in contact with their deployment team. With countless hours of "blood, sweat and tears," they launched their site on July 4, 2016 and received accolades on all fronts.
"Building a website is not for the faint of heart," said Kelly Jo. People need to carve out a good six months to rollout a site, and once the site is built, you cannot put it on the shelf. It needs to be dusted off regularly. We are very proud of our results and have enjoyed working with Finalsite to bring our vision to life. It has been a long haul but the feedback has been overwhelming positive."
Kelly Jo concluded: "Since a website is a living work of art, our team continues to update the site and fine tune things along the way." Realizing that maintaining an active site requires involvement from the whole school, the team has successfully solicited input from each of the key areas of the school and has trained them accordingly on how to make changes and updates to the website. From elementary and middle to high school, the team has gained their support to take ownership for "their" sections of the site which ultimately keeps the story closer to the relevant storyteller.
Concordia will continue to update the site, with plans to add a virtual tour, a microsite for their strategic plan and content for all of the new programs they are developing to serve their clientele. Additionally, based on their yearly parent climate survey, they will modify and strengthen the site as needed to best serve the user. In conclusion, Kelly Jo and the entire team of Concordia can be commended on a stellar website, may it provide their users with a taste of the Concordia experience as they continue to share their story for all to explore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past 7 years while living in both Asia and Europe. From conference planning and presentations, to association events, and client success stories, she helps schools understand how they can maximize their web presence while partnering with Finalsite. In her free time she enjoys traveling and attending events at her children's school in Berlin, Germany.