Making a Custom, Acquia-Hosted Site Affordable for Higher Ed

With budget cuts and rising expectations, higher education websites have become a challenging balancing act of function and affordability.

As one of the main marketing tools to prospective students, higher ed websites increasingly need to do it all.

They have to be responsive, accessible, easily navigated, support the brand, contain large bodies of complex content that often require custom functionality not standard in CMSes, and be future-proof enough to last 5-7 years -- the next time funds might be available to rework the website.

Infographic illustrating rising web development costs of responsive sites vs. dropping higher ed budgets

And if those hurdles aren’t enough, institutions typically have limited budgets and limited staff to maintain their web presences.

Over the past decade we’ve seen patterns in the needs, challenges, and wants of our higher ed clients. There is clearly a need for a virtual “off-the-shelf” website solution that:

  1. Specifically meets the content and functional needs of higher ed institutions
  2. Allows room to infuse websites with a strategic foundation and content strategy
  3. Helps institutions develop a process for managing their web presence
  4. Alleviates the burden of hosting, security, and technical updates; AND
  5. Does 1-4 all on a tight budget

The Solution:

Late in 2016, we set out on a journey to build that website solution and we named it Lectronimo®. The name came from an episode of the old cartoon, The Jetsons, when the family got a robotic dog named ‘Lectronimo. It sounded futuristic, forward-thinking, and rhymed with “Geronimo!!!!” which matched our level of excitement about taking this big leap into building a new product for higher ed.

Lectronimo displayed on mobile, tablet, and desktop devices.

The requirements for Lectronimo were to:

  • Leverage a CMS to create a repeatable, flexible website solution that meets current expectations in higher ed clients and leaves room for them to make it their own -- without requiring custom development for each client
  • Ensure it can be deployed for under $50,000 (including support with strategy, branding, information architecture, and content work)
  • Put the work of managing and maintaining the site into the hands of the “content” team
  • Build it for a low-recurring cost to the client to include:
    • Technical site maintenance (with little-to-no dependence on the client’s IT/Developer staff)
    • Secure, reliable, affordable hosting
    • Ability to deploy updates to all clients fairly easily (this is the MVP after all)
    • Access to our consultants to help them protect their investment and build a process to manage their web presence
  • We built out our functional specs to ensure the site would have all the things our higher-ed clients need:
    • Ability to present academic offerings in meaningful ways to prospective students
    • Ability to drill down in academic offerings from Areas of Study, Programs, Courses, and Classes
    • Optimized responsive design for all devices
    • Includes content types for news, events, promos and spotlights
    • Robust faculty and staff profiles
    • Content approval workflow
    • Ability to integrate social media
    • Multi-level alert system
    • Easy to implement webforms
    • Modular page layouts
    • Ability for non-design folks to edit images for banners, carousels, and other areas where images appear on the site
    • Plus all the usual content types you see on a site

Selecting a CMS is a service we often offer our clients, so we weighed pros and cons of each one and looked at our past experiences. After careful consideration we chose Drupal because:

  • It’s incredibly flexible and extendable, and the open source community is vibrant, strong, and incredibly dedicated.
  • Drupal makes building in user workflows flexible, and the content editor experience tests very highly with non-technical users.
  • The Panelizer module would allow us to build amazingly flexible page templates that are easy for content editors to configure on their own.
  • Drupal is open-source, so there are no ongoing licensing expenses, contributing to making it a low cost option to maintain.
  • 26% of the higher-ed institutions in the US are already using it, including Harvard, Rutgers, and George Mason University.

As we worked on Lectronimo we also had to figure out how to make sure the solution could be maintained, hosted, and achieve our goal to provide updates and support for the long term -- to protect the client’s investment. We looked at comparable models and realized we’d need to offer this following a Software as a Service (SaaS) model. With this approach, we can offer an affordable monthly fee to cover loads of great services.

When it came to hosting, we’ve had several Drupal clients host with Acquia Cloud. We knew that's what we wanted for Lectronimo. But how could we make that work and keep the cost down?

We worked with Acquia’s team and their expertise guided us towards a cloud solution that allows us to host multiple sites off one code base. Effectively, this allows us to host many Lectronimo sites and divide the expense among those clients. This also leaves us room to ensure we can provide ongoing support, updates, and consultation without going broke! By hosting all the sites on Acquia we’ve made it easy for us to push updates out to all our clients simultaneously. If we have a new front-end theme, make some minor feature updates, or create a new page template, we can make it available to our clients and they can immediately take advantage of it.

Acquia Cloud is exactly what we needed to help bring a website solution like Lectronimo to market and we’re pumped about what Acquia and Digital Wave can accomplish together.

If you’re interested in learning more about our journey to develop our Lectronimo solution check out Part 2 of this series: Custom Theming that is Impressive and Flexible Enough to Continue to Impress, and Part 3: Template Doesn’t Mean Cookie Cutter.

We’re excited to bring Lectronimo to market! If you’re a higher ed institution exploring options for your upcoming redesign and want to know more about Lectronimo, or if you’re in another market and want to talk about your next project, Digital Wave’s team is happy to help.