• International Schools
Shanghai American School Website Redesign Case Study
Debbie Eisenach

I thought I’d run a test: how long would the homepage on the new Shanghai American School website keep me engaged? Stopwatch clocks me a good five minutes later, a hefty 100% more than any other homepage I’ve visited recently. If there is an equivalent of a book you can’t put down, that’s this website. A digital page turner! The homepage tells such an in-depth story by bringing together so many elements — stunning videos, animation, images, and infographics — with places to dig in even more. Design, layout, presentation — the creativity and imagination extend far and wide, or down and deep as it were.

SAS website in laptop on desk

Shanghai American School (SAS) is an independent, not-for-profit international school located in Shanghai, China. Founded in 1912, SAS has two campuses and almost 2,800 students enrolled in Pre-K-12, making it China’s largest international school. And while SAS has a great story to tell, its previous website wasn’t telling it. 

“The best marketing isn’t marketing, per se,” said Kevin Lynch, Director of Marketing + Communications at SAS. “The best marketing is transparent – it echoes the brand experience. In the case of the new SAS website, it doesn’t ‘sell’ – it merely gives an accurate reflection of what they can expect at the school.”

The Marketing and Communications team led an audit of all the school’s communications, including the website. The results established a clear need for a comprehensive brand identity system that could provide consistency and distinctiveness across all the school’s touchpoints – including the website. The school engaged a design studio, Firebelly Design, to create the strategy and design for the identity system. The school then collaborated with Firebelly and the Finalsite design team to bring the school’s experience to life online.

Simple Goals, Big Ideas

“Our previous website tried to be all things to all people,” said Kevin, “and therefore lost focus and did not make relevant connections as originally intended. We needed a clear strategy to execute; our new website needed to serve a marketing function, and focus on prospective families.” The result is a homepage that engages users with more depth than you typically find on a school website, giving the users a multitude of compelling content and areas of interest – an experience that’s far richer than if it was presented simply as navigation items. “It echoes the experience you have when you walk onto campus,” Said Kevin.” “Everywhere you look, there’s something that draws your interest, and rewards your curiosity.”

sas interior page - life at sas

Fact gathering was critical for their website redesign, which included talking to families who chose their school over others. One caption on the homepage sums up the first reaction of SAS: “I wish I would’ve gone here when I was a kid.” Kevin continued “We do not want to appear overly slick. It’s not who we are. That’s why the images tend to be more photojournalistic than posed and photoshopped. And the people and stories are relatable, which helps families identify with the school right away. Authenticity was a big driver in our new site. It’s a driver in all we do."

sas homepage - children at game

Like most international schools, SAS needed to consider how the website fit in with the school’s existing ecosystem of systems and communication channels, including Schoology, PowerSchool, WeChat and other social media. The Finalsite Platform sits at the center of the user experience. Finalsite prides itself as a “best of breed model”, and like many schools, is best suited to help simplify access for families looking for a wide range of information from admissions deadlines, daily or weekly updates, or important documents like the school handbook.

Do you have big ideas too? Finalsite can help bring them to life! Get started with a free website audit today.


The Nuts and Bolts of the Redesign

Fan Liu, Website Content Coordinator at SAS, started the project in earnest in August 2017 with a lot of information gathering, which included inviting multiple stakeholders to have a voice in the process.  Over 40 community members were involved along the way, from strategy, to wireframe and design, and finally to testing the site during beta.  These stakeholders provided helpful advice and input to help steer the project and process in meaningful ways – so much so that the six-month timeline wound up being extended a few more months. “Well worth the extra time,” Fan said.

SAS "meet the fellas" examples

Fan, with his deep knowledge of the Finalsite Platform and technical ability, was instrumental and helped bridge the gap between Finalsite and SAS’ design studio, a tall order considering that the project management was spread across two campuses and three continents.  

“We took a ‘launch and iterate’ approach to the site, which allowed us to move quickly to get the website up, then make continuous improvements based on what we’re seeing from the analytics,” said Kevin.  “During the development stage, Fan held Website Wednesdays where the whole team dedicated one day a week to focus solely on website issues.” The approach sent a message to the school community that this was not just another project: it was special, and needed to be treated that way. “It was like a new business pitch. We had Post-It Pad sheets wallpapering our office, gave it the right amount of energy, and weathered the ups and downs along the way as a team.”

“I am very proud how well we worked as a team to make the final project so successful,” Fan modestly stated. “We had three parties involved in three different time zones; but with daily communication, Mavenlink (the online project management software) provided by Finalsite, and frequent meetings, we made it work…it was so easy way to gather info and keep the project moving along, and our Finalsite project manager was also so helpful in accommodating our needs; she was just all around great!”

Fan said he loved working with Finalsite’s content management system, Composer, and said it just keeps getting better and better.  “It’s so easy to use and all the new features Finalsite keeps rolling out makes updating the website even easier and more powerful,” he said.

SAS campus shot from website

On the Horizon

With their expansive communication requirements, Kevin and the school are taking a multi-prong approach to telling their story.  As just one example, they are turning all 167 of their school buses into moving storytelling devices, each complete with unique graphics and a QR code on them that link to a web page telling a story about a related SAS event, Signature Program, or cultural artifact. As a result, SAS tells its story to tens of thousands of people around Shanghai each morning.


Next up is an expanded website section to capture all the activities and performing arts to better showcase the amazing opportunities they offer students beyond academics.

Kevin’s pro tip? “If you want a new website that people love, start with a website people hate,” he said coyly. “Seriously though, people adore this school, and are just really pleased that we finally have a website that accurately shares with the world the experience that our families and students see every day.”

The partnership with Finalsite was critical in accomplishing that goal. “As with many ambitious international schools, SAS is constantly evolving. Knowing we want that reflected in our website, it gave us great confidence to know we have a partner in Finalsite that’s constantly evolving as well. 

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Debbie Eisenach

As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past 8 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 international school in Berlin, Germany.

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