Singapore American School (SAS) and Finalsite partnered together six years ago and have been raising the bar for international school websites ever since. With new ideas and resources to showcase their school and for organizing public and private information, the SAS team, led by Vanessa Spier, Director of Strategic Communications, and Kyle Aldous, Director of Communications, embarked on an extensive website redesign. Their new website embodies the SAS spirit and showcases 60 years of rich history. As one of the leading international schools and the largest single K-12 single-campus school globally, SAS offers state-of-the-art facilities, strong academic rigor, accomplished faculty, and most importantly, an engaged community serving the needs of their students.
We sat down with Vanessa to learn more about their processes to understand how they crafted and launched their new website in eight months.
The SAS Superhero Team
L-R: Amos Ong - Graphic Designer, Kinjal Shah – Writer, Kyle Aldous - Director of Communications, Vanessa Spier - Director of Strategic Communications, Huda Karim - Technical Specialist, Haziq Hairoman - Graphic Designer
How did SAS prep for your website redesign?
SAS knew they wanted a best-in-class website and did not want to cut back on anything, so they chose to go with Finalsite's "off peak" pricing to optimize their budget. This decision was key as they could maximize their design and focus not only on the homepage but also the landing pages, graphics and other unique design elements. To start, they spent a lot of time on research, looking at other school, university and corporate sites which provided inspiration to move them into action. They also evaluated every page of their then-current site with the following guiding points: is this what a visitor wants to see, is it inspiring, is it boring, is it easy to understand?
From there they decided what content would be removed, where they needed to rewrite content, and where they would add graphics or images to make it more interesting and understandable. One of her favorites projects was creating and shooting the website videos, an important element in the new design. The videos engage users and help prospective students see how they might fit into the SAS community as well as showcasing their amazing facilities.
A lot of thought and planning went into the overall architecture, navigation, and information to include in their redesigned website. Vanessa also commented that she read the Finalsite Blog religiously to see what other schools were doing, and what new Finalsite features were available that might be incorporated into their plan.
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How did the actual website build evolve?
Vanessa stated, "We underestimated the amount of work the content planning and migration would take and overestimated the design work. The design was so smooth and fast and our Finalsite designer really captured our ideas in the first design. This was great as it enabled us to focus on the content early on." She stressed that moving to Finalsite's new CMS Composer was "a great treat as well, as it is much more user friendly and intuitive, and the drag and drop have been great as we can quickly update elements of our homepage along with all the other pages."
With Finalsite's cloud-based CMS running on Akamai's content delivery network, and with built-in state-of-the-art security, the SAS communications team could focus on the content and not worry about the technology.
SAS contracted a seasoned project manager to help with their content migration since their team still had to perform their daily communication tasks – and with a student body of 4000, this is a big endeavor already. Having this extra resource was instrumental in helping them meet their deadlines and focus on the content in greater detail.
Can you tell us about some of your stylized interior pages?
With a very active admissions department, Kyle had the idea of reworking the admissions section to make it easier for families to navigate. He mapped out the idea for "Join the SAS Family" on the admission landing page which easily guides prospective families along their SAS journey. Whether visitors are exploring, want to learn more and apply, the clear call to actions have eliminated much confusion in what is a somewhat complicated process.
Another key strength of SAS is academics and we wanted to showcase that clearly and proudly. When visitors land the academics landing page, there are clear links to each school section as well as details on the curriculum, summer semester and service learning.
What was the importance of SEO?
Vanessa stated they thought it was a great opportunity to focus on Search Engine Optimization concurrently with the redesign from the beginning. "Based on our past experiences with third party vendors, we opted to work with Finalsite SEO experts because they knew our messaging and our story, and it would all be integrated into our website from the beginning." Singapore is a small island state with more than 100 international schools and of those, 21 enroll 1000+ students (source ISC Research). Vanessa stated it can be fiercely competitive when attracting prospective students, but SAS made the important choice to not focus on their competition but rather on their authentic stories and rich history of academic success.
Their initial SEO results have proven successful with an uptick in site visitors, huge increases in the average time spent on the site, and lower bounce rates. As their SEO campaign gains momentum SAS expects to see even more qualified website visitors who are truly interested in learning more about SAS.
Do you have any tips for other schools that might not have the same budget?
SAS realizes they are fortunate to have a team of experts to promote their school to a worldwide audience. Vanessa said she understands not every school has such a budget, but one piece of advice she has for other schools is to hire an in-house graphic designer. "Visual branding is so important across all mediums and having an in-house person to pull it all together is crucial." With their in-house designer they have been able to create overall brand consistency both internally and externally, which is important for overall visual recognition and reputation.
In networking with colleagues from other schools, she has found that many schools last afford school videos for their website and for use in other marketing efforts. But she has found that videos are very important and can have huge impact and advised that finding resources for videos should also be a priority.
What can you tell us about Finalsite Portals?
In order to ensure brand and messaging consistency, the portals were all moved under the communication umbrella. In the past, each division had their own portal and there was no consistency across the school so parents found it confusing and people had to go to multiple places to find various content.
"Finalsite portals were a pleasant surprise for us," said Vanessa "And the portal capabilities were the perfect solution for cleaning up our internal communications, cleaning up the public website and protecting the privacy of our community." Before they created the portals, they used Google analytics to see what content parents were most accessing so they would be front and center on the portal - this included PowerSchool, school absence forms, lunch menus and the like. Initial feedback has been extremely positive but they will continue to ask for parents' feedback along the way so that the portal is a living resource and maintains its role as the central internal communication hub for the school.
All school divisions have access to the backend so that they can update content in their respective areas. SAS also has an employee portal which allows her team to provide assets to faculty with presentations, photos, templates and other resources they access all the time. The alumni portal is also engaging and includes yearbooks dating back to 1958!
Vanessa stressed they love the new scrolling homepage as it "really gives a taste of who we are and inspires others to want to join our community. The interior pages, including the division landing pages and admission pages, are a great improvement but we still want to expand on our athletic and activities landing pages as these are an integral part of what makes SAS so special."
She said they also love little things about the site – the campus maps showcases their impressive facilities, green space including their rainforest, as well as their open space which is not so prevalent at other schools in Singapore, and photo galleries provide an emotional connection to the life of the school.
SAS has been able to creatively utilize the new Finalsite Posts feature to showcase their community and share their authentic stories. Vanessa noted, "A school should be so much more than the programs it offers or the results it achieves, and SAS is. This is a school that truly shapes lives in phenomenal ways. We wanted a testament to some of those voices."
She concluded: "The new site has really allowed us to share our story while differentiating on what makes us special by incorporating stories from our community. Our goal is to enable others to understand what makes SAS special and a place people love to call home, and from our initial feedback and website analytics, we believe we have achieved that. We will continue to improve and update our site as we strive to maintain our reputation of excellence and forward-thinking leadership."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past 8 years while living in both Asia and Europe. From conference planning and presentations, to association events, and client success stories, she helps schools understand how they can maximize their web presence while partnering with Finalsite. In her free time she enjoys traveling and attending events at her children's school in Berlin, Germany.