Web Partners: 5 Most Important Factors

At Beacon, we like to think of ourselves as a “partner”, rather than a vendor.  Finding a partner with “Brains, Beauty & Brawn” is not easy, but we like to think we are.  You are embarking on a lengthy, stressful project and will spend 6-12 months with the partner you select.  There will be lots of communication in meetings, by phone and through email.  There will be differences of opinion and decisions.  There will be bumps in the road, questions, timelines and scope creep.  Ultimately, it’s a team effort that culminates in a celebration.  How you navigate through all this depends on the relationship with the partner you select as well as the following:


1.  Process:  To steal from Shakespeare, “There’s a method in the madness.”  A project of this size requires a proven process and people that commit to it.  A good project plan (and manager) charts the entire adventure as separate tasks that take you through the Strategy, Design and Development Phases.  Each task has dependencies, scope, time estimates and owners.  Take the time to evaluate the Project Manager because that person has the most difficult job on this project.  He/she must have a wide variety of personal and professional skills to carefully manage many different relationships (administration, stakeholders, technical team, users, etc.) to reach the finish line on time and on budget.

2.  Experience:  There are two types of experience to evaluate.  First, does the prospective partner have experience handling large, content-heavy website redesigns?  Having Higher Ed experience is certainly worth bonus points, but not absolutely mandatory.  Since these are typically lengthy projects that involve a number of different resources, meetings, decisions and tasks, choose a partner that has a demonstrated history of success over several years because it requires a strong business model. 

Second, can the prospective partner identify the resources that will be working on your project that have the breadth and depth of skills necessary to make it a success.  A car may look nice and shiny on the outside, but that doesn’t mean it will run well.  Web services have become highly specialized and with the investment you are making, a “jack-of-all-trades” isn’t ideal.  Depending on the scope of the website redesign effort for your college, take the time to check under the hood for the following:

    • Project Manager
    • Analysts (Google Analytics Data, Business Requirements, User Experience, Technical)
    • Marketing Specialist (Branding, Creative)
    • Web Graphic/UX Designer(s)
    • User Interface Designer/Developer(s)
    • Web Application Developer(s)
    • Digital Marketing Specialists
    • IT Systems Administrator(s)
    • CMS User Trainer


3.  Technical Skills:  The underlying technology is sophisticated and there is too much risk to your college’s brand for anything less than the right technical experts.  There are a variety of programming languages, databases, protocols, techniques and best practices that must come together perfectly.  Your new website will most likely contain the following:

    • Content Management Software (many different content owners within the college)
    • Site Search (so students, parents and other users can find things quickly)
    • Google Analytics Integration (to track activity by students and others on your website)
    • Contact Forms (to gather information from visitors by email or through a database)
    • Google Maps (for directions and satellite views)
    • Social Media Channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube)
    • Other 3rd party software (admissions applications, event registration, etc.)
    • Many, many images
    • Video
    • A variety of templates that work seamlessly on mobile, tablet and desktop devices.
    • Thousands of pages of content

There’s a lot to bring together, but don’t forget, you will expect the following as well:

    • 508 Compliance (for visually impaired)
    • WCAG Compliance (meets web standards)
    • Full utilization of the CMS, in terms of features and practices, that benefit your website visitors, but also support the content owners
    • Coding to work effectively across 10 different browsers and multiple devices
    • Fast page load performance
    • Security within the website to only allow authorized users to publish content.
    • Data tracking accuracy across domains and devices
    • Online forms to deliver data quickly and accurately via email (or other means)
    • Branding and navigation to be locked down to ensure high quality & consistency
    • New content and modified content to be published quickly


4.  Creative Skills:  When discussing “creative” with respect to Higher Ed website design, most people immediately think “visual creativity”.  But don’t forget the value, and need, for “technical creativity/innovation”.  Most colleges and universities have a traditional branding/style guide, but many have yet to incorporate a “web style guide” to govern the use of colors, imagery, iconography, photography, fonts, etc on their website.  Print doesn’t always translate well to digital, where web-safe colors and fonts must be considered for usability, compliance, device and browser purposes.  Your school’s brand must prevail through the entire website, which will entail creatively overcoming many web technology restrictions.  So choose a partner with a brand management foundation that also fully understands how to translate creative ideas to web technology.

We quite often get requests that start with, “Can we do this?”  We always answer, “Just about anything is possible.  It’s just a matter of how much you want to pay for it.”  Unfortunately, for some reason, technical creativity gets overlooked.  A good web partner will work to say “Yes” to these questions with viable, cost-effective options that maintain the integrity of the overall website.  Collaboration among savvy UI Developers, Application Developers and Graphic Designers will generally lead to multiple options to consider.  Having a Web Partner with this mentality will prove to be an asset as you work through speed bumps in the project plan.

5.  Support:  When colleges put out an RFP for a website redesign, their primary focus is selecting a vendor to deliver their new website.  Therefore, as most RFPs have a sentence or two related to support and “an hourly rate for maintenance”.  Take this more seriously.  You are about to invest 5-6 figures in a 6-12 month project with a firm that will become closely involved with your school, staff, technology, content and website.  Not only will you have invested in a new website, but you will have invested time in “training” your partner. 

Once your new website is launched, there will be bugs, modification requests, content management questions, new feature ideas and possibly even turnover in university website resources.  Your partner won't require the ramp-up time of a new addition to your staff, which is a huge long-term benefit. 

When selecting a firm, emphasize your expectations around long-term support (more than just how much it will cost per hour).  Ask respondents to describe how they handle change requests, particularly with respect to the process (ticketing system?) and resources (same project manager, developers?).  And lastly, get feedback from their references specifically about support – timeliness, quality, dependability. 

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