Jen Doak is the online communications specialist at CASE.
The bar has been raised higher,” a judge remarked during an intense two-day Circle of Excellence submission evaluation process for website and best uses of social media categories.
And indeed it had. When judging institutional websites, the judges discovered that beautiful design and a dedicated social media presence were no longer enough to merit an award. The best-quality websites had to be impressive under the hood. Did they gracefully cater to all audiences? Was it evident that extensive user testing had occurred? Were calls to action, social media integration and navigation created in a way that was clean and intuitive? And did the website clearly represent the institution’s brand and mission?
Demanding questions, but ones the 2012 Circle of Excellence awardees answered abundantly. Here are this year’s winners:
- Gold: The University at Buffalo
This site won the top award for “an impressive, comprehensive rethinking and redesign of its top-level website,” the judges reported. “The site’s content, architecture and research-based approach are absolutely award-worthy.” The institution reports that bounce rates have dropped from 75 to 37 percent, average time on page has doubled—and more users go to admissions pages than ever before.
- Silver: DePauw University
Not only is this site beautiful, noted the judges, but it was rebuilt as a key component of the university’s brand strategy. “Aside from its compelling design, we appreciated many aspects of the site: [for example], the ‘Share a Photo’ feature is impressive.”
- Bronze: Boston University School of Engineering
This site does a great job of “showcasing the programs at the College of Engineering, through biographical stories via videos, photo galleries and slideshows through conversational, accessible content that’s easy to find,” said the judges.
We also gave awards to sub-websites, which are sites designed for an institutional department or project. Here are just some of the sub-website winners:
- Gold: American University’s WONK website
This website was created to support American University’s WONK campaign, posters for which you may have seen in D.C.-area airports and metro stations. “There are many aspects of this site to like: its sense of humor, the use of maps to locate wonks in the world, the ability to share content”—not to mention its success: Featured “Are you a Wonk?” quizzes had more than 23,000 pageviews, for example.
- Silver: Columbia College, The Four Stages of Paying for College
This site was created to help Columbia College students apply for and understand the often-confusing financial aid process. The site guides users through a four-stage process that “makes financial aid clear by developing smart content [that] mirrors the FAFSA page,” the judges observed.
- Bronze: The Republican Presidential Debate at Wofford College
This is a good example of a best-practice microsite for a high-profile event, such as the debate held on Wofford’s campus. “We appreciated how thorough the site was,” wrote the judges. “Kudos for the college’s attention to mobile integration and also to the fact that social media were integrated into the site.”
Lastly, the judging team gave awards to social media campaigns. We looked for strategy, channel integration, creativity and measurements of success. “In the third year for CASE’s Best in Social Media category, it seemed that overall the entries were better than in previous years,” the judges said. “In general, we observed that when institutions clearly defined the problems they wanted to solve, they could use social media to develop innovative solutions.”
Here a few of the award winners in social media:
- Gold, Alumni Programming: Johns Hopkins University Fantasy Reunion
Fantasy Reunion is an engagement tool designed after fantasy football. Alumni captains submit a team of 15 fellow alumni and earn points for each week based on how many of their team members register for Alumni Weekend; their points double if that member also gives or pledges. “We noted the incredible numbers that Hopkins had already tracked, including a marked increase in attendance to alumni events, high participation and good engagement,” wrote the judges. “And the approach was novel: it’s ‘social’ without using a traditional social platform.”
- Gold, Alumni Programming: MIT-Cornell Fictional Alumni Face-Off
MIT and Cornell alumni adopted fictional characters like Tony (Iron Man) Stark and Sideshow Mel from The Simpsons and pitted them against each other in a 15-week elimination tournament. By the end of the face-off, winner MIT had 462 new Facebook page likes, 94 shares and 326 comments.
- Silver, Other: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Flashmob
In order to raise the profile of their six-year institution, NMMU staff and student choir members staged a flash mob in a busy South African shopping center. “Within weeks of its release, the flash mob was the most-watched South African video on YouTube and recieved some 18 pages of messages and extensive media coverage.” But judges were particularly impressed with hard results: “The number of applications from undergraduates increased by 27 percent, from 23,756 to 30,141.”
A full list of winners and judges’ reports can be found on the Circle of Excellence section of the CASE website.