Established in 1948, Pensacola State College (formerly Pensacola Junior College) has a long and storied history as the region’s first institution of higher education. The college is made up of three very distinctive campuses: traditional undergraduate, graduate, and adult education; medical education; and agricultural education. Affectionately known as the “PJC,” the college undertook a rebranding effort to better reflect the four-year degree programs it offers.
Defining the Starting Point: The WebsitePensacola State sought to reinforce its new identity to positively affect external perception, enrollment, and the overall student experience. It looked to its website, the most visible and powerful communication platform, as a key place to start. Pensacola State selected Story+Structure to lead a strategy engagement to guide the College’s Marketing and IT teams, who would implement the recommendations.
Diving into DiscoveryTo begin, Story+Structure and the Pensacola State Marketing and Communications departments teamed up to better understand the opportunities and challenges from three perspectives:
( 1) The College — How do the existing strategies, people, workflow, technologies, and campus culture support the rebranding effort?
(2) The Students — What are the wants, needs, and challenges faced by students?
(3) The Marketplace — What competitive position does the College occupy and how is it perceived relative to its goals?
The team worked closely with all the various departments of the college from all three campuses. This encompassed the college president, administrative and academic leadership, academic departments, institutional development, public safety, and key staff and faculty. We also conducted a comprehensive analysis of the current online experience, including an audit of technical infrastructure and workflow.
To understand the wants, needs, and challenges of Pensacola State's students, we surveyed current and prospective students, interviewed students in groups and in one-on-one sessions, and toured all three campuses (each campus varied tremendously in culture and academic offering).
The team especially wanted to focus on adult learners and military veterans, who, despite past marketing promises, felt underserved. For example, in a group interview, it was revealed that there was an informal veterans group that met regularly on campus since there was no formal veterans group. Furthermore, the group felt that Pensacola State should be more mindful of its military students and should undertake the construction of a memorial that was very important to this group.
Looking at the marketplace and region, we paid close attention to the changing climate of the Pensacola area. The Gulf Oil disaster and the changing military presence affected the region’s tourism and workforce needs. The growth of nearby for-profit colleges and the establishment of the University of West Florida also impacted the College.
Surveying the ResultsThe team’s thorough and immersive discovery process empowered the college to:
—Better understand the cultural and political climate on all three campuses among the academic departments, information technology, and senior leadership;
—Identify “best practices,” and ground our recommendations in students and staff real-world needs; and
—Understand the impact of local factors affecting the region.
From this, the College could start building a framework for a more collaborative culture, starting with the adoption of a “students-first,” human-centered approach for designing the new website and vetting future and new solutions.
A Framework for Intentional Change
The team decided that a phased approach would be most optimal, with the first being to tackle the most critical needs affecting the College’s target audiences. These focused on brand perception, recruiting, marketing & communications, student services, and institutional development/alumni relations. We grouped the design recommendations into four key categories: (1) Organization, (2) Communication, (3) Content and (4) Usability.
Key Recommendations included:
— Become more student-centric: Students are the most important group using the website. A human-centered approach to design — including a Student Advisory Team — ensures that the new website and other future projects will resonate with students’ needs, wants, and behavior and increase the college’s value proposition.
— Transform the website into a strategic communication platform: The website is the most visible communication platform. The success of the new website depends on a variety of departments working together to achieve shared goals. We recommended that Marketing and Communication lead the process. This organizational approach ensured that branding and positioning would be consistent throughout the student experience. Similarly, it would ensure that recruitment, student services, alumni relations, and institutional development would receive appropriate support in alignment with an overall positioning strategy.
— Develop comprehensive user personas: Given the breadth of the College’s courses and programs, developing user personas of all the various students (prospective, current, recent graduates, alumni) was essential to reflect a human-centered perspective. The team also recommended developing personas representing the various staff who use the website in their daily duties. Based on this deeper understanding and empathy for the various users, the College would be able to design a better, more clear and focused experience for everyone.
— Design by storytelling : The website is more than a set of files, forms, and functions, it is a human experience. By utilizing user personas to tell relevant stories, we aimed to ensure that the website connects with, and solves, real issues for real people. “By centering around a specific theme or character, the uncoordinated elements of an experience all have a clear goal and purpose. With storytelling, a diverse team creating a website or application can collectively link together the tangible elements and create something that is a meaningful experience and is more than just bits and bytes.”
— Establish a collaborative approach to content: By leveraging technology and staff expertise, communication can be better managed centrally, with bottlenecks eliminated through a new a content management system and distributing publishing process. Newly established groups (e.g., Senior Advisory Team and a Student Advisory Team) can ensure that strategic goals are being met while maintaining a student-centric culture.