Many schools consider a summer website launch ideal: they can beta test the new navigation, fix content issues, train users, and address general concerns that come with any launch. Having worked with schools for the past 20 years, we agree that summer is a good target date for many schools. (And for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere - yes winter!) So if you decide summer is a good time, what steps do you need to take to achieve this goal?
Before we dive in, here’s the recommended timeline to ensure you launch your website by summertime. The longer you wait, and the deeper you get into 2021, the more challenging this all becomes for your team.
- November: Finalize functionality requirements and design scope
- December: Review proposal and sign final contract
- January: Kick off the project. Assign tasks. Get trained.
- February - March: Finalize design and navigation. Start adding content
- April - May: Build out pages as design gets produced and ensure functionality is in place.
- June: Finalize all pages, content, images, and remaining details
- July: Launch! Promote! Celebrate!
Step 1: Research and Recommend.
We’re going to go out on a limb and say that you’ve reached the conclusion that Finalsite really is the only provider who has the software, the services, and support to handle your needs in the short and long term. Some schools choose to go down the path of open-source/DIY — definitely a good inexpensive answer, and you’re allowed to stop reading this since this timeline assumes you’re committed to the idea that a school needs more than a website; this is about building upon a best-in-class marketing and communications platform.
It is also not a bad time to dig through your website and determine what should stay and what can go. Most schools uncover a lot of outdated and not very important content cluttering their site. This process will make things a lot easier down the road if you start to consider:
- A draft sitemap to start figuring out your navigation
- Branding elements. Is everything in one place and easy to share? Anything being developed that may hold things up?
- Photography. Do not underestimate the impact of good photography; those sites that are consistently admired always include high-quality, engaging photos.
There are ways to move the website project forward even if some things are in motion. As long as we both understand what’s happening and track the progress - we can keep the process moving right along.
Step 2: Sign a Contract. Don’t get stuck before you even start!
We often see over-enthusiastic administrators who ask us for the contract, but then lose all of their steam after getting caught in a perpetual loop trying to make everyone happy, especially with so many stakeholders with different visions. But don’t despair! If you all can agree on the larger objectives of the project, the contract process should be simpler.
We encourage schools to read the Website Redesign Playbook to map out general ideas based on best practices in working with 5,000 schools around the world who have gone through the same thing. We also encourage you to collect websites you like and agree on some common attributes. Finally, once your team is aligned around a few key objectives, you need to put a bit of faith in your website company to bring your vision to life and sign the contract!
Learn more in the Website Redesign Playbook
A few critical questions to ask early on so there are fewer surprises:
- Does the contract need board approval? If so, when/how does that happen? Will they need a presentation to understand the scope and project? You’ll want to back out a timeline from that approval date and line up any board-level meetings sooner rather than later.
- Will the school or district’s attorney or business office need to review the contract terms? If so, we often send a “sample” contract over even before the project has been approved. This ensures that any key discussion points are flagged. Our contracts are very fair and standard and we want to make sure you and members of your team understand what they’re signing and have a chance to ask questions earlier in the process.
- Who, ultimately, approves the project? Is there a certain spend threshold that warrants more approvals? If so, try to identify that number and/or how the chain of approvals works. We often spend time with people who may not have any involvement in the project so that they understand the return-on-investment, purpose, and objections, including business officers, board members, donors, and even outside consultants. The earlier we talk to these individuals the better.
Step 3: Build the team and kick things off!
The contract is in hand. The holidays are long past. Now the fun begins. Gather your group of key stakeholders and schedule a kick-off call to get the project moving along with both our teams. With an experienced project manager by your side and an online project management tool that lays out a clear timeline with key milestones — including deliverables for both you and your school — you’ll find the project progresses at a comfortable and steady pace. Everyone on the team knows who needs to do what and by when to meet the targeted launch date. Weekly meetings will ensure the project moves along.
“Our project managers are skilled in moving teams along in order to meet their deadlines,” explains Ritsa Lafond, Director of Deployment Services. “On average we find schools take 5-6 months to launch their site. So if schools want a new website by next school year, they need to start the process now. We are very transparent with schools about the process and what needs to happen in order for them to meet their launch date goal.”
By Spring Break
Step 4: Learn the product!
We emphasize training early to demystify the magic of putting a website together and enable you to ask better questions along the way. Schools that are most successful with their launch engage with us and the training early. Users love learning new tools and always think of new and creative ways to use our products by experimenting with different website pages.
In 2020, the Finalsite Product Education Team revamped our online training platform providing a whole new approach to training. With interactive pages, searchable videos, practical exercises, and graded knowledge checks, the training site provides valuable tools for learning. There are other professional development options to help new users including a comprehensive resource library.
Step 5: Share Who You Are
Shortly after the contract, we’ll share a survey with you to help our designers understand what makes you unique, your goals, and other requirements. This phase lays the foundation for a successful website launch. Google Analytics is always an important guide in understanding high-traffic pages that should be brought more to the forefront while other pages might need to be removed or recrafted.
Step 6: Design and Have Fun!
It’s always exciting when our team starts to put pixel to canvas and bring your story to life; seeing their ideas come to life over the course of a few months is always fun. Keep the committee small and focused -- and trust our team. Signing off on the design is an important step in keeping the project on track.
Our design team has over 100 awards under their belts and are always looking for new ways to showcase all the amazing things happening at schools. They stay up with the latest trends in user-interface, navigation, mobile requirements and so much more.
Step 7: Production — Time to Roll Up Your Sleeves!
Our developers are tasked with implementing the design into a functioning and interactive website. This initial coding phase can last between 2-4 weeks depending on the creative package and complexity of the design.
At the end of the build-out process the basic design, navigation, and functionality of your website will be in place and the site will be tested by our quality team.
Critical to staying on track is making sure you’re paying attention to:
This is by far the one area where most schools underestimate the amount of time required. While some schools have copy that they move over to their new site, most schools take this opportunity to rewrite content to make it more succinct and engaging. With 50% of website traffic coming from mobile devices, content also needs to be mobile-friendly. Visitors have short attention spans and like more visual content, so part of this process is incorporating images, infographics, and shorter blocks of text and list items.
“A common derailment for meeting launch goals is underestimating the amount of time it can take to gather, create, organize and move content into the new website,” said Ritsa. “Crafting new content can begin as soon as you sign a contract. And having been trained on the product, you are much more capable of creating pages that are impactful.”
Data Imports and Integration
If you are looking to integrate with your student information system or admissions software, this is an important piece that requires attention to detail. Our team will review the technical requirements with your technical team and get the process rolling.
Step 8: Pulling it All Together
Once the design is implemented, your team is trained, content and images are (mostly) gathered, it’s time to get all of the pages ready for launch. This means using layouts strategically, thinking how best to consolidate pages and content, and even revamping sections to be more thoughtful and succinct. It’s all worth it! The most successful teams we work with set this as a priority, work collaboratively and make timely decisions along the way.
The good news is that you have complete control of updating your pages. So if you craft a page and decide in a month to make changes to the content, navigation, or layout, you can easily do this. So get version one of your pages up and running knowing that you can tweak them later.
If you need inspiration from other schools, we have a plethora of articles including: Does Your Homepage Answer these 5 Questions, The Anatomy of a Perfect Admission's Landing Page, and 5 Forgotten Pages Your School Should Have for a Virtual World. We also have a library of real examples from schools around the world that we can share with you.
Step 9: Launch!
Launching a new school website can seem daunting. Some schools breeze through it while others struggle a bit more - but either way, Finalsite will stand by your side the entire way. Schools love to share their success stories to help other schools by providing advice, wisdom, and support.
So if you want to launch an amazing website next summer, start now! This is not a linear process but rather an orchestration of many moving pieces and Finalsite will partner with you along this journey.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.
As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past 10 years while living in both Asia and Europe. She helps schools understand how they can maximize their web presence while partnering with Finalsite. As a parent of three children who graduated from IB World Schools, she has keen insights into the marketing and communication needs of international schools.