Understanding Our Audience

In many ways, our website is not for us. It’s for the people who come to visit it—and accordingly, the site should communicate in ways they understand and are comfortable with.

Surprisingly, the needs of internal and external audiences are not that different when it comes to easy-to-use navigation and compelling content. Both appreciate clear pathways to information; we can’t count on either to be familiar with certain terminology or the way an office or school is organized; and well presented, interesting content is good reading for everyone, whether it's a teenage prospect, a SMC staff member, or a retired alumni.

Because "internal" and "external" audiences share many of the same needs, we sometimes prefer to talk about the audience orientation of Web content in terms of the intended purpose of the content. In particular, we often describe two modes of communication in Web content: emotional and transactional. The former is often associated with "marketing," and by extension traditional "external" audiences; the latter with current students, faculty, etc.

It is our belief that too many higher ed websites keep these two types of content separate; sites contain a "marketing" area (usually the Admission section) and an "informational" area (often the rest of the site). We prefer an approach that integrates the two. There is, in fact, no need for a clear split between the two modes of communication; on well-built websites, the two modes of communication coexist throughout the site.

Emotional communications is about creating content and design that tell the story of the people, places, and qualities that make SMC unique. The goal of emotional communications is to attract the best applicants and faculty, connect with alumni,donors and community members, and promote the College in the world. These communications should be as personal, authentic, and direct as possible, allowing site visitors to identify easily with the subjects and themes of the content. When it comes to transactional communications, the principal objective is providing quick access to services, policies and procedures, internal news or resources, contact information, and how-to or FAQ-type information that your various audiences need.

Internal audiences are often associated strictly with transactional communications and external with emotional, yet we'll reap great benefits if we can develop the right balance for both. Though students will tell us the only thing they really want is access to webmail and their course schedule, finding subtle ways to expose them to stories of fellow students, faculty or alumni doing interesting things can help foster a sense of pride in the institution and start to develop them as ambassadors. Prospective students and donors captured by emotional content should have a quick and easy pathway to applying and giving once they’ve made the decision to commit.

The primary audience for the top-tier pages of the SMC site is external—prospective students and their parents, alumni, peer faculty/institutions, and the general public. These are audiences that don't have pre-existing knowledge of paths to information, or go-to portals where links are collected; the top level pages are where they go to learn more about the College and access the information they need to apply, donate, reconnect, and start to feel a part of the place. At the same time, these pages must certainly also serve the needs of students, faculty, and staff—they should be able to access resources and information easily, and these pages should feel like genuine reflections of SMC.

Inside "information" pages of the site have both emotional and transactional components as well. Some administrative offices may feel that they serve internal audiences exclusively, but many, like health services, public safety, and the registrar, are visited by prospective students curious about the services and offerings of the College and should consider that group when developing their Web content. Academic departments carry the weight of being heavily trafficked by both prospective and current students as well as peer colleagues across the country and world.