Our design team has been rolling out some pretty incredible school websites this year that set the standard of what it means to stand out in the independent school industry. While we work with schools to implement best practices, we love when they challenge us to bend (or break) the rules to fit their vision.
What we love even more, however, is when the best practices, ideas, strategies, hard work, and risks pay off for the school.
That's why we're excited to announce that Thayer Academy (MA) and Sacred Heart Schools (IL) took home The Silver Award of Distinction in the 22nd Annual Communicator Awards.
The Communicator Awards is the leading international creative awards program honoring the best in advertising, corporate communications, public relations and identity work for print, video, interactive and audio. This year, the competition received over 6,000 entries from around the world.
Judged and overseen by the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts — an invitation-only member-based organization of leading professionals from companies like Time, Inc. and Disney — it's easy to say that Thayer and SHS's websites were given a critical eye and went up against some steep competition.
What gave these sites that award-winning edge? Let's take a closer look.
The Website Redesign Playbook
Thayer Academy | Braintree, MA
We've talked about Thayer Academy on the blog quite a bit already since their launch in early March because the site simply has that "wow" factor on every page. Driven by a marketing strategy and vision with key goals and objectives, Thayer's award-winning site is the perfect complement for its outstanding reputation in the independent school market.
"If you have a great school, you need a great website," said Joanna Gilman, Thayer's Director of Communications.
"We want everything we do as a school to reflect excellence. In launching our website, we wanted to raise the bar for our communications."
Well done Thayer — the bar is raised. Of course, it starts with that awesome, cinematic video on the homepage.
"The video was about making a bold first impression — we wanted to immerse visitors in the Thayer experience in a highly emotional way, rather than force them to read or click up front," said Joanna.
This kind of experience carries throughout the site, as does the school's dedication to their vision, key objectives, and guiding principles. "Overall guiding principles were to be simple and bold, and embrace innovation and tradition," said Joanna.
These principles are not only reflective of Thayer, but also reflective of what makes an award-winning design. "We embrace a lot of design trends in the site without being trendy," said Joanna. "We utilized the ones that allowed us to share our story in a more powerful way."
This includes bold imagery, large photos and video, the mega-navigation, panel design, infographics, and responsive design. With a focus on storytelling, their new site weaves in campus quotes and brings stories to life on every page.
"We used innovative techniques where they would resonate most," said Joanna.
"We wanted to create a site that leveraged best practices, and then went one step further. And when we didn't feel like best practices fit, we were comfortable tossing those aside."
This obviously includes that exciting homepage video with sound — a bold move that totally works for them. In addition to the cinematic homepage, the History of Thayer page takes you on an exciting journey through more than 140 years of life at Thayer, and their interactive Campus Map makes it easy for families to get a look at the school before they visit.
One of the most brilliant pieces of Thayer's website isn't even the design itself, but rather the information architecture. Cutting their website down from 4,000 pages down to about 400, Thayer made it a priority to build a clean and easy-to- navigate website for both prospective and current families, with a minimal number of clicks.
"We use active, everyday language to make the navigation intuitive," said Joanna. "Our strategy was to push information up front, and then provide the opportunity to dig deeper." In most cases, rather than clicking to another page, Thayer's site uses accordions and lists to keep the sitemap clean and information quickly accessible.
The site's main target audience is prospective families — and, specific to this year, accepted students. "We wanted this site launched by early March so when students got their acceptance letters they'd go to this new site and be excited by the people in this community and the school's unique offerings."
For current families, the school was also very methodical. "We wanted to improve the experience for the current community," said Joanna.
"By organizing, eliminating, or re-locating content specific to current families, the site feels cleaner and audiences know exactly where to go to find information that is relevant to them."
Something unique about Thayer's website is their hybrid public and private portals. When you click on Students, Parents, Faculty & Staff, or Alumni, you're not immediately brought to a portal login, but rather, a landing page.
"We didn't want to block prospective families from getting a more complete sense of the Thayer experience, so we were very mindful about what was in front of and behind the password," she said. "The goal was to give them a taste of what happens in the community once you are here, but keep private information behind the password."
Another great piece of marketing on Thayer's site is their new Camp Thayer section, which previously didn't have a permanent home. "We wanted to make sure that portion felt special and more playful, but also part of the same family, so very consciously we decided on colors and fonts that made it feel like a camp without diverting too far from the Thayer Academy look and feel."
Combine all these elements, and what you're left with is some straight up good marketing that changes the way users interact on your site. During the month post launch, Thayer saw a 53% increase in traffic, as well as an increase in pageviews and a decrease in bounce rate.
Sacred Heart Schools | Chicago, IL
A good, solid website experience is becoming harder and harder to come by. From the over-use of cool hover effects to communication clutter, building a site that increases enrollment and retention goes beyond just using "best practices," as Joanna said: you need to strategically use them to your advantage.
And this is something that Sacred Hart Schools knows best. Simple hover effects, calls-to-action, panel design, mega-navigation, responsive design, and segmented content (to name a few) are used to their advantage on their award-winning site.
By combining those design elements to draw attention to value propositions like "personal growth in the atmosphere of wise freedom," SHS's website makes their differentiators stand out.
"We love how modern, yet traditional, our site feels now...and that's all thanks to our [Finalsite] designer," said Sam Sinkhorn, Communications Director at SHS.
Aside from telling a good story — and determining how and when to draw the reader in — knowing your audience is a key piece of marketing your school online.
"Our site does an excellent job of catering both to prospective parents, as well as to our current community," said Sam.
"Prospective parents can land on our homepage and quickly understand who we are as a school and community, where our current parents still have access to essentials like the calendar, contact information and portal login."
Part of knowing your audience is also knowing what they need, want, and expect from your school — and in 2016 that means responsive design.
"I can't tell you how happy everyone is now that they can access everything via their mobile devices, and it looks great and is extremely user friendly," said Sam. "Our redesign really makes us feel cutting-edge — and we've actually seen a growth in mobile users since the redesign!"