An Interview with Notre Dame’s Chas Grundy

We use Notre Dame’s website as a model a lot on this website and with talking with schools directly. Since their 2007 redesign, Notre Dame has been a model for Catholic schools by creating an online Catholic identity that is smart, modern, and effective.

We got the chance to talk to Chas Grundy, the person leading and setting the strategy for the team that manages and develops Notre Dame’s web presence. As the Director of Interactive Marketing, Chas leads the web team at AgencyND, Notre Dame’s in-house design and media agency.

Chas offered some great insights into what makes ND’s home page work (storytelling), how Notre Dame handles all their web needs through an in-house agency, how marketing for a Catholic school differs from marketing for a secular non-profit, and more. Check out the interview below!

CWSD: How large is the web staff at Notre Dame and what is your team generally tasked with?

Chas Grundy: There are nine of us on our team. It’s made up of me – I’m the director of it – and then I have a project manager, four developers, two designers, and an information architect. We rely on some shared resources: a traffic person to help with scheduling and some account people and project managers elsewhere in our agency. We’re part of a larger agency, so the web is just half of that agency, and there’s a print side and so on.

We’re typically tasked with working on client projects, clients being folks on campus – exclusively within the University – who we charge and they pay us for our services. It’s usually websites although it’s also more recently expanded into presentations, email marketing, social media, analytics. The core and the bread and butter is the website project. We also serve the University proper with larger brand and service type projects, so we also build the campus tour, the University online map, the University home page – we work on those things. And those things are paid for essentially by the University through our department as opposed to considering the University as a client.

CSWD: That seems like a different setup for a University – is that something that is common or is that something that is unique as a relationship?

CG: It has become more common. We are all Notre Dame employees. What’s happening is as Universities have increasingly tighter constraints – funding, financial constraints – they are looking at “how do we recover costs, how do we save money?” And one of the ways you can save money – if you look at it as a pure savings – is to own the resources, so it’s cheaper to pay somebody full time to work for you than it is to pay an hourly rate and have that person outside. It’s sometimes two or three times as expensive to hire an outside consultant full time. And if you have the work to keep them busy, you’d spend a lot more paying an outside consultant. There are tradeoffs – pros and cons – of doing that. Internal groups tend to have a bad name. They tend to have lower talent, and especially since you are paying less than an outside agency would, it’s harder to motive people through conventional agency-type means, so the pay and the environment and the ability to do bonuses, and growth potential is all more constrained within a University.

CSWD: What was the process and thought that went into the 2007 redesign of the Notre Dame home page?

CG: We had been discussing a lot about the increasing promise of video in marketing communications online – broadband and internet connections were getting faster and more prevalent. The formats were getting a little bit more standardized. And so, several people were really interested in video, but then we also recognized that our old website was essentially an internal tool – it didn’t have stories, it didn’t have dynamic content. And I don’t mean “dynamic” as in “flash-bang-whiz”, I mean it more in terms of telling the personality of the University. It didn’t tell any story, and so storytelling is really the driver behind it. We use the carousel – which is what we call the spinning feature on the home page right now – we call that the carousel and it is essentially a collection of stories. So they’re not just PR puff pieces – they’re intended to be mission-focused so we focus on undergraduate education and research and the Catholic identity. Those are the three pillars of mission, and we also have a need for service excellence, you know, to continually improve what you are doing, and then also communicate strategically to both internal and external groups.

So the carousel helps us do that, and then there is also a competition for how do I get my stuff in there? When we first launched, it was something of a wild west. We hadn’t settled that very firmly, and the result was we had 3-5 new stories a week. And they changed out so rapidly that many people missed some of these stories we were investing a lot of time in creating – and then they would disappear before you’d have a chance to really get exposed to them, so we pared that down and now we do one or two a week at most and focus it on core “how do we advance the mission of the University, how do we improve our reputation” type stories. It’s worked out pretty well recently.

Just as an aside, we are in the midst of re-working that section to change how it works so that we would take away the flash – which isn’t accessible. It’s not available on phones, for people with disabilities to access it, it doesn’t work terribly nicely with search engines either. We’re re-working that to be more accessible using just Javascript and, again, just focusing on storytelling, but then even more on driving them to the right place to tell that story rather than trying to tell the whole story within the home page.

CSWD: You blog about non-profit marketing at – what is the difference, in your experience, between secular marketing and marketing for a Catholic school?

CG: There are a couple of key differences that I usually think about. The first one is the pure size of an institution like Notre Dame compared to the other non-profits I’ve worked with which is very small non-profits with very small budgets, very little staff, and a lot more reliance on volunteer work than paying staff to do a job. There are certain concerns and factors – one of them is that Notre Dame is a member of a religious community, although a much, much larger religious community. They want to be a good citizen within the Church, but they also have a lot of other missions and aims to accomplish, and so it’s an advantage to us and a distinction from other schools because was can say “this is how Notre Dame does it. Other schools don’t do it this way.” How would Notre Dame tackle this problem? Where Stanford or Duke might tackle this from a purely secular standpoint, we have a common good or a larger human needs, Catholic character informing all of those efforts, those campaigns, those programs, the kinds of research we do. It puts constraints around us but it also makes us special. When we succeed in that environment I think that’s more substantial than taking, say, an easier, more direct route. Not to demean any other school and the work they do. I compare it to when you have high standards for your student athletes. When you succeed and have high standards for your student athletes, it means more than if you cast those others aside simply in favor of winning on the field.

CSWD: I know that AgencyND has built their own CMS Conductor. Is that what runs off of, and what was the thought process behind creating a CMS to run internal sites off of?

CG: does not currently run on any CMS – it is manually hand-coded and updated. That’s not an ideal situation because of how often you want to be updating your site and the fact that it requires that we have people doing that. They did that because they didn’t want dependencies on things like databases and server environments that they weren’t comfortable controlling. Our IT department wanted at the time to minimize dependencies in case one thing goes down it takes down a lot more. I think we’ve grown a lot more comfortable with that idea, but at the same time Notre Dame didn’t have an institutional CMS – content management system – to offer to departments and it made for very slow innovation, very difficult to maintain and update websites, and we have looked at a couple of CMSs over the years and done some reviews and did not come to a solid decision point about any of those. And when we were faced with redesigning the Notre Dame law school and the many, many pages that it contains, we realized we needed a CMS for this, and some of our team at the time decided we could build a simple CMS to manage this. We had been building these one-off CMSs for other clients off and on. They needed one feature or this feature or that and it needed a database behind it – it needed a CMS, and we’d already had quite a bit of practice doing that. So when it came to it we went ahead and tried to build a CMS for the law school, then realized we should just make that work so we could have multiple sites in it.

I would not recommend doing that for any other school or any other institution – to start from scratch and try to invent a CMS. It’s a project that had I known where we would be today and what we’d be getting into, I would not have made that decision then – I wasn’t in charge of that decision then. But it’s certainly one I’m happy that we’re in because we’ve got what we want and we can continue building what we want without being beholden to other companies and vendors and their priorities.

There are many, many CMSs out there. Many of them are perfectly suitable – there are usually multiple CMSs that can suit your needs. So I’m not a fan of “hey, let’s build our own from scratch”, but now that we have one we’re talking about how to make the best of that and so far it seems to be a very good fit for what we’ve got.


You can find more of Chas Grundy on his home page, his non-profit blog, and his Twitter account.

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