Unified Communications Featured Article


January 06, 2009
By TMCnet Special Guest
Karen M. Greenwald, President of The Burbank Group, LLC -

How the Messaging and Design of Georgetown’s Flagship Alumni Club Online Fits All Ages
If you asked a Baby Boomer to describe the Internet’s archetypal everyday online user, they would probably say that it was a member of the Gen X or more likely, the Gen Y demographic. However, a huge transition has been occurring gradually—Baby Boomers and members of the Greatest and Silent Generations have become World Wide Web enthusiasts. Now, when marketing to a target community, appealing to a vast age differential has become pivotal to success. How then do you build an unbiased brand identity and convey it within the design of a website that fits the interests of an almost ageless community? This was one of the major concerns facing Georgetown University’s DC Alumni Club this summer when engaging in a well-deserved rebrand.

In 1874, America inaugurated its first university president with acknowledged African roots. Father Patrick Francis Healy defied history when he became President of Georgetown University. Located in Washington, DC, a southern city at the time, this Jesuit founded institution witnessed unprecedented growth and enhancement under Father Healy’s tutelage. Among his multitudinous benchmarks was the creation of the Alumni Association (circa 1881) that still operates today.
The Alumni Association’s flagship branch, the DC Alumni Club, provides opportunities both on the main campus and around the city. With approximately 40,000 alumni in the region—the DC club needed a solution for appealing to a vast dichotomy of ages and interests. Their challenge: to create a brand that all alumni feel connected to and interested in, regardless of the school or year in which they graduated.
The DC Club serves the needs of Washington, Maryland, and Virginia based graduates of the university system, faculty and staff of Georgetown University, and parents and friends of alumni. The Club offers several types of memberships, a wide variety of activities, events, and networking opportunities, such trips to Nationals games, wine tastings, newsworthy speaker lunches, and access to many on campus programs. Clearly, this club has a robust list that could fit any discerning palette. However, leadership continually felt that many of their constituents were not participating.
In trying to market a product that has widespread appeal, begin honing your message by considering the commonalities among users, customers, or enthusiasts of your product or service. For the DC Club, references to the “Georgetown experience” create an emotional tie—but, this statement of fact is not a message. Two people may have matriculated through the same system, but that does not mean that they have a shared memory. How do you reach the widest array of potential customers and still meaningfully appeal to them all? You go to the web!
The DC Alumni Club already had an online resource with some images, activity listings, and membership information—but it was time to upgrade for many reasons. First, as a volunteer organization, making updates and changes to the site was not always an easy task, Secondly, it was not giving out the flavor of a full, well-rounded place to interact with other Hoyas. Rather, it was a good utilitarian set of pages that could tell you when an event was scheduled.
What the Club really needed was an online home, a resourceful, strategic place that could host the type of community feeling the campus offered. One of the most social and important places on the main campus—Red Square—operates as a central gathering spot where groups post event information, students congregate and mingle with professors, and the pulse of the campus can be felt. To accomplish such a lofty virtual goal certain structural and programming additions to a regular site had to be incorporated.
Powerful, consistently visited sites need to easily and logically serve the interests of their market (and vertical, but foreseeable markets). For the Club, that meant creating a look and feel focused on educating visitors about the monthly activities available. By placing an interactive, descriptive, and visually clear calendar on the homepage, visitors are being introduced to coming attractions without even having to look for an Events section of the site. Even if they only look at the homepage the upcoming events information is given. By clicking on the calendar the visitor can learn more and then get the full story on the linked Events page. This creates a permanent, yet latent membership drive by getting more (potential) members excited to be involved.
Get with the programMING
In keeping surfers involved in a site, the delivery of information is often more important than the news itself. An estimated seventy percent of adults learn visually, so websites cannot maximize their potential as a sales tool via an inculcated format. While a button was in the navigation bar for the DC Club’s Events, filing this away on one page would have missed opportunities to immediately entice surfers. The Club mitigates this challenge by including a navigation header and event highlights calendar footer on every page throughout the site—the message is accessible at all times, on all pages, in all sections. Footer pictures of scotch tastings or a lecture from alum Ted Leonsis (Capitals owner/AOL) offer a visual affirmation of the Club’s programming quality.
Let us be honest, the Internet has created a culture of voyeurs. From Google searches to reality shows online, information has never been easier to locate. Making your website more visually and functionally tactile increases the interest visitors have in learning more. Photo and/or media galleries also create longer web visits. The picture section on the DC Alumni Club site enables viewers to click on various images from events, enlarge them, and take a closer look at the workings of the Club. Consider this a form of show and tell.
From a content perspective, interactivity is also an incredible tool for lengthening a visitor’s stay or propensity to return to a site. On the DC Alumni club site, each section has a sidebar of information that lists famous alumni of the University. Within the programming scheme, the list regenerates itself with every click—even when landing twice on the same page. Essentially, in one visit to the site, a viewer will not see the same names on a page. They return over and over again. This is done to cause a viewer of the site to look around and click on all of the pages.
Finally, we must discuss upkeep. What site can be relevant if its information is old and out of touch? To be contemporarily germane, a site must replenish certain basic information as it changes with the quarters, months, or even days of the week. Building a site in certain ways can make such additions or revisions simple enough for non-programmers to update content on their own.
For instance, the DC Club site needs constant attention, sometimes on a day’s notice, to roll-out events and the like. As it is a volunteer organization, the same officers are not always available to amend the site’s calendar content. By designing a back end system that includes cms programming for areas that frequently require change, the executive staff of the Club can now call upon student interns, themselves, or others involved when necessary.
The site structure was built to respond to the basic needs and frustrations facing the Club’s leadership, thus allowing new, more sophisticated levels of service. Now, the Club offers an updatable, interactive sponsorship section and a place for (business) self-promotion and networking. This was not just a construction decision, but rather a long-term economic and strategically flexible approach.
Now for the website pitch... Where do you find the most messaging for any site? The homepage—this is your offer, sales, enticement, and overall summary page. Web surfers and others only stay on a site for three seconds before determining whether or not they wish to look and learn more. Consider this the curb appeal. Georgetown represents a kaleidoscope of things to each individual, but on the homepage, it needed to be a visually singular and emotional magnet, pulling those who are connected to it into the zeitgeist. Here, alums should be appealed to by obvious Georgetown themes, a sense of pride, heritage, and history or specifically, any other related visuals, generally acknowledged iconic campus images, and profound pictures that define Hoya life.
Key to this was selecting a place that encapsulates Georgetown, where time spent would have included milestone moments. There are campus locations known for atmosphere and sense of mystique, but most are generally not open to Georgetown’s community, so while grandeur is undeniable, the personalization factor would not be universal.
Instead, I chose to lure in the visitor with a beautiful shot of Gaston Hall, a towering auditorium crowning the Healy Building (named for Father Healy) steeped in Jesuit iconography, historical significance, and overall Hoya tradition. Everyone who passes through Healy Gates, the main entrance, cannot avoid gazing up at the centuries old building hosting this extraordinary hall. Gaston is a showpiece and home to innumerous cultural, political, and international events. The picture, taken by one of the DC Club’s leaders gives the observer a panoramic view from the balcony. This is Georgetown at its finest.
The text over this focal image speaks to the purpose of using this photo—Hoya Saxa…Beyond Healy Gates. The first phrase is the school slogan, confusing as it might be, fully explained in the sidebar on the homepage’s right (we will cover that next). By intermarrying a picture of vintage Georgetown with text indicating both tradition and post campus life, the message becomes a question. What is life like beyond the framework of Georgetown? That is something new alums face.
However, the messaging statement has to resonate with older (in some cases, much older) alumni, faculty, staff, and friends. So how is it relevant? Perhaps, for the latter crowd, it is more of an offer to re-engage and return. It is a suggestion that argues a vibrant connection is still possible long after the reason for becoming a part of the University’s active community has ended. Renew!
The metaphor of coming home is enhanced by the outline of the Healy Building, Gaston Hall’s home, behind the navigation buttons and on the footer above a free membership offer to new alums. In contrast to the youth appeal, the footer also has a picture from a wine tasting, with Club members of many ages enjoying themselves at a Virginia vineyard. Also, the calendar that offers varied opportunities to reconnect sits inches away.
Images are essential, but well-chosen content is also imperative—in fact, it should speak to the visual and vice versa. However, most adult learners do not like to read extensive amounts of information. That is why caption sized text is the prevailing amount interspersed throughout the site. Add to that the three second rule mentioned earlier. Here is where the navigation and the front end of design dovetail. Enter the sidebar
Giving visitors a sense of your mission, press highlights, or membership updates, sidebars are an amazing tool for distributing virtual sound bites. Visually, they should coordinate with, but stand apart from the rest of the page. The Club’s pages all maintain orange spot colored sidebars. We have discussed those on the secondary pages. The one on the homepage employs the interactive technique to lengthen the visitor’s stay in a different way—here, key Georgetown tidbits, questions, and facts are revealed with the rolling over of headlines. Want to understand the meaning of Hoya or Hoya Saxa? Most importantly—and this is truly strategically placed—where is the Alumni House? Thus, in a small radius of space, the picture of Gaston Hall leads the eye to the calendar and then to Alumni House directions.
Finally, the homepage must have contemporary, real time relevance for all visitors. Here, the younger alums’ needs meld with those of potential new members who might be tempted to involve themselves. It elicits a feeling that the Club and dedication to Georgetown should both hold a current place in their lives. The positioning of the Club’s new logo next to the 1789 seal shows a transition from Georgetown of the past to its present status and future. The general mix of older references with a dynamic new visual and functionality make this homepage and site a portal to the world of Club socialization.
Georgetown University’s DC Alumni Club was like a diamond obscured. It needed to appear outwardly as it was within—an enjoyable, impressive, and eclectic series of experiences and opportunities as diverse as its potential members. Like many organizations, the web has magnified the Club’s ability to create a broadly appealing identity. Today, Internet surfers belie their age and interests. The demographics of the past are rendered less relevant because all visitors have enormous access to this site. By incorporating the techniques discussed in this article, your site can enhance its own capacity for success.
Karen M. Greenwald, President of The Burbank Group, LLC (www.burbankgroup.net), a D.C. Metro area branding, strategic message, advertising, and public relations boutique, is a winner of four prestigious, international Summit Creative Awards in Industry Specialty/Self-Promotion, Advertising, “B2B” Marketing, and Healthcare Web presence. A Phi Beta Kappa and member of the Maryland bar, she holds an AB and J.D. from Georgetown University and is a thought leader in the field of brand architecture.

unified communications publishes expert commentary on various telecommunications, IT, call center, CRM and other technology-related topics. Are you an expert in one of these fields, and interested in having your perspective published on a site that gets several million unique visitors each month? Get in touch.

Edited by Jessica Kostek

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