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The soul of a bespoke website: How a 125-student college revolutionized its site

Matt Herzberger

Executive Consultant, Digital Marketing Services

June 24, 2016

Note: This is the first in a series of two blog posts about the Sterling College website project. This post covers the unique team approach that resulted in an on-time, on-budget delivery of a website that blends a college’s one-of-a-kind mission with best-in-class digital web practice. The next post will address Google Analytics and Search Engine Optimization results accrued by the college’s new site.

Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont doesn’t just have a farm. It is a farm—one dedicated to the latest and greatest sustainable, organic practices.

With only 125 students—the institution hopes to grow to 150 total—Sterling offers an intensely curated educational experience focused on “environmental stewardship.” The college’s six majors—Ecology, Environmental Humanities, Outdoor Education, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Food Systems, and Self-Designed—are highly experiential and prepare students for environmentally focused careers and eco-aware lives.

Like many colleges and universities, Sterling’s website represented a hodgepodge of interests, lacked a recruitment/marketing focus, and needed both a technical and aesthetic refresh.

“Our remote and rural campus, innovative educational model, approach to shared governance, and work ethic make us incredibly unique,” explains Beana Bern, Sterling College’s director of marketing. “When setting out to make our new website, it was essential that our essence be palpable and that our most authentic self shine through. We wanted to pair best-in-field navigation and SEO with a skin that we were comfortable in.”

Sterling College sought a website that combined a recruitment best-practices infrastructure with a look and feel that reflected the beauty of their location in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and the hands-on, maker ethic of the education they offer.

With a vision in hand, Sterling College enlisted the assistance of our Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL) Web Strategy Services team (we provided the site’s strategy, information architecture, optimized key web pages for search, and helped create recruitment-focused content) and Tannermooredesign (TMD), a Burlington, Vermont-based website development and design shop, which completed the design and development (TMD brought Sterling’s design to life, provided illustrations, as well as collaborated with RNL on user interface/user experience consulting).

“The team pairing was unconventional to say the least and there were some concerns that I was complicating the project by making this choice,” Bern explains. “I hoped that combining a deep understanding of industry best-practices and SEO content strategy paired with a design aesthetic new to higher education would result in something truly unique, innovative, and authentic for Sterling.”

Building a website from the ground up

Because this was a complete website overhaul and involved working closely with our campus partner and an outside design house, we at RNL referred to the Sterling job internally as a “barn raising” —the historical, agrarian practice in which a barn for one community member is built or rebuilt by members of the community.

Our project began with building relationships with staff at Sterling College and with Tanner Moore McCuin of TMD. To begin our discovery process, our small RNL team traveled to Craftsbury Common, Vermont and rented a farmhouse on Airbnb (there are no hotels in close proximity to Sterling), where Tanner joined us for a two-day research trip. During this visit, we were immersed in Sterling culture:

  • eating the chef-prepared, local, and Sterling Farm-raised cuisine in the dining hall, three meals a day (Sterling was ranked #1 in the Nation for the second year in a row by the Real Food Challenge);
  • experiencing Sterling’s shared governance model in action at the college’s weekly Sterling community meeting, in which news is shared, grievances resolved, decisions agreed upon, and achievements celebrated;
  • interviewing faculty, alumni, students, staff members, and administration about Sterling’s unique programs, outcomes, history, and goals for the website and the college’s future;
  • dining on pizza in the president’s on-campus residence with Sterling’s marketing, admissions, fundraising, and other key operations staff;
  • touring the barns, greenhouses, classrooms, and fields that shape the Sterling educational experience;
  • getting to know each other as a team.

Because of Sterling’s one-of-a-kind student experience—and the ambitious nature of the website overhaul—the visit was critical in informing both the technical and creative aspects of the project. It also laid a firm foundation for the intensely collaborative process to follow.

It takes a community

The Sterling/RNL/TMD team had approximately six months to complete a wholesale redesign, rewrite, and re-architecting of the Sterling College website.

RNL Executive Consultant Matt Herzberger and Tanner Moore McCuin of TMD served as project managers, each managing their own teams: in Matt’s case, a writer, Google Analytics strategist, and search engine optimization (SEO) expert, in Tanner’s case, designers, and an illustrator. Beana Bern managed the project as our campus partner on the Sterling side and fostered deep collaboration with internal stakeholders since shared governance is a key value of Sterling’s.

Weekly and bi-weekly meetings (held on the GoToMeeting platform) kept everyone in regular voice contact. Deliverables and important documents were shared on Google Docs and on a dedicated Sterling College project site using the online collaboration tool Basecamp.

For Sterling College, the redesign represented a significant amount of work for campus personnel to write and populate. Beana, in addition to conceptualizing the design, managing the project for Sterling, producing the video with a Burlington-based firm Rupplebon, and handling all the approvals for everything from RNL-created information architecture, content maps, and copy along with TMD-generated visuals, also shot more than 80 percent of the photography on the new site.  

Given Sterling’s democratic governance structure, various community members were given the opportunity to weigh in on important components, including the overall design, copy for the home page, admissions, academic program pages, and other components. This required regular back-and-forth communication on Basecamp and Google Docs, and an iterative process that resulted in stronger writing and the special “field book” look of the site.

On-time launch

Six months after beginning, Sterling College went live—on time and on budget—with its remarkable website. A responsive “hamburger” icon flyout menu reveals new global navigation, while four CTA (call to action) buttons—Apply, Inquire, Visit Campus, and Give to Sterling—float on every page.

Echoing the college’s tagline— “Working Hands. Working Minds.”—slow-motion video on the homepage opens with a pair of hands reverently testing Sterling’s rich soil. The video continues with close ups of student feet walking through the greenhouse, a student’s hands sharpening an axe before a campfire, hands tending plants, harnessing a horse, weaving, and more.

If users scroll down to learn more about Sterling’s six academic programs, they’ll see hand-drawn Sterling icons explode with color. Mousing over a grid of black-and-white photos linking to academics, work, community, Global Field Studies, The Farm and other differentiators, causes the images to burst into color as the cursor travels from one to the other. More scrolling yields Sterling alumni and faculty testimonials contained in hand-illustrated text balloons. Plus there are sections on college news, outcomes, social media, fast facts, and additional calls to action.

“We are thrilled with the result,” Bern says. “Our new website is a functional work of art and provides an extension of our one-of-a-kind sense of place into the digital realm. The teamwork was inspiring and, as predicted, the tension between form and function inspired some challenging and important conversations that laid the foundation for this incredibly thoughtful tool.”

Watch for the second half of this story to be available soon

Considering a website project at your college or university?
Call 800.876.1117 or email ContactUs@RuffaloNL.com to begin a conversation with us about your goals, vision, and plans for website development. We’ll be happy to discuss how RNL may be able to assist you, your campus personnel, and any off-campus partners you may have. As we’ve seen, building an effective site takes a community!


About the Author

Matt Herzberger supports clients working through web development initiatives with expert consultation in information architecture, content strategy, search engine optimization, and web site governance and management. Matt has nearly 15 years of experience working with...

Read more about Matt's experience and expertise

Reach Matt by e-mail at matt.herzberger@ruffalonl.com.


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