What makes an award-winning website? That’s a question we get asked a lot. And with more than 100 design awards under our belt, it is a question we have a lot of experience in answering.
According to our designers, award-winning websites are:
- Created with a deep understanding of audience, brand, and purpose: Schools and districts who truly know who they are, and who they are trying to reach, often have an easier time developing content, a site map, and creating a user experience that delights their visitors.
- Innovative: When the design offers something new, and might have even been seen as a “risk,” it is often rewarded with praise (and sometimes, that praise comes in the form of an award!). The design doesn’t appear to be a “copycat” and the district trusted its designers in the process to turn their dreams into reality.
- A high priority: Award-winning websites don’t spawn from the bottom of a to-do list. They are managed by a team of individuals who are willing to put in the time and effort to make it informative and engaging.
- Filled with great content: From photography to news stories, when you put the effort in, it really shows! Award-winning designs are not just about the design itself, but the content that fills it.
So in short, an award-winning district website is the result of a committed team, an innovative design with a seamless user experience, and lots of great content.
But as a district, potentially with a lean budget, lean staff, or both, you may be wondering: does having an award-winning website really matter for our district? And the answer is yes and no. Yes, because the landscape has changed for districts so much so that having a great website is more important than ever. And no, because your website doesn’t necessarily have to win an award to be awesome.
How District Websites Have Changed
For years, districts used websites solely as a means for school-to-home communications. It was a place for downloadable PDFs of calendars and lunch menus, important announcements, and contact information — basically it was your lobby’s cork board, just accessible from a computer. And for a while this was an affordable (with the help of E-Rate funding), and acceptable, means of communication.
But, in the past three to five years, the role of a district’s website has changed. A digital “cork board” is no longer enough. The enforcement of WCAG 2.0, decreased enrollment, increased school crime, and increased competition from charter and private schools has made districts across the country re-evaluate their web presence.
More than ever, districts not only need to use their websites to offer simple and accessible school-to-home communications, but to also market their district to potential families. Nowadays, however, potential families are also experienced Internet users.
Today’s prospective (and current) community member is savvy, has high expectations, and isn’t willing to wait more than a few seconds for a page to load. They expect to find information almost instantly, whether it be through a couple of clicks, or an engaging search bar. They crave authenticity, love high-quality photos and videos, and usually skim paragraph content to find what they’re looking for.
Taking all of that into consideration, a district’s website needs to look and perform much differently than it used to. The design matters. The load time matters. The photo quality matters. The user experience and navigation matter. Your website is no longer just a cork board of announcements, but a fully-functioning marketing and communications platform to sell your district to prospective families, and keep current families engaged and informed.
So what does that look like? Well, it comes in a variety of shapes and forms depending on the needs and goals of your budget. But, if you’re looking for some inspiration of what the “new standard” is for a district website, we’ve rounded up three of our award-winning district websites that set the bar.
Download our Website Redesign Playbook for tips, strategies, and industry best practices!
Award-Winning District Websites
Tulsa Public Schools | Oklahoma
Tulsa Public Schools recently was awarded gold in the 2018 MarComm Awards. The district’s Best-in-Class, custom design is one of the most innovative and stunning district designs we’ve worked on (or seen, for that matter)!
The district’s homepage design features brilliant full-screen photography, a bright color border that changes as you scroll, recent news, featured videos, testimonials, district values, and an infographic highlighting the district’s achievements. This district’s homepage is meant to highlight the accomplishments of the district, in order to attract and recruit families moving to the Tulsa, Oklahoma area.
But, all of this marketing doesn’t detract from keeping the district’s current community informed — which is equally as important. Tulsa’s website features simplified navigation, offering quick access to each of the 80+ schools in the districts, careers, parent information, enrollment, news, and calendars.
The website also features an advanced search menu, making it easy for website visitors to partake in the user experience they’re most used to: searching! Toggle “Find it Fast” in the top left to unveil a search bar, and quick links to top hit pages based on audience.
And for those of you thinking an accessible website has to be boring — think again. Tulsa’s website design and structure meets WCAG 2.0 standards, and went through a thorough QA check prior to launch. In addition, the district uses AudioEye’s Ally Toolbar and managed service. The toolbar allows website visitors to customize their website experience based on their own need — such as changing color contrast or enabling a screen reader — while the managed service keeps Tulsa’s website content accessible at all times, automatically. Definitely peace of mind with 80+ individual schools and webmasters!
Rowan-Salisbury School System | North Carolina
Rowan-Salisbury School System also took home an award for their district’s website in 2018. The district’s website was awarded Gold in the NCSPRA (the North Carolina Chapter for NSPRA) annual awards in the Digital Engagement Category.
According to Mark Steelman, the district’s webmaster at the time of the website redesign, the new, award-winning website came from a need to control their brand and message.
“Public schools are facing more funding issues and more competition, which means our website is more important than ever. We felt we needed to take more control of our own image. We are an amazing district, and we wanted to do a better job of communicating that,” he said.
Keeping that in mind, the district put an emphasis on marketing the accomplishments of the district. Their new website features an infographic, news highlights, and section focused on alumni accomplishments — all intended to reinforce the positive aspects of the district.
Like Tulsa Public Schools, Rowan-Salisbury School System also keeps current community members top-of-mind. A simplified navigation, quick access to each school in the district, and a consistent design and navigation across each individual school website makes it easy for families to find what they’re looking for whether they have a child in one, two, or even three different schools.
You can read the district’s full case study on their award-winning website here: Marketing Your District Matters: Rowan-Salisbury School System Case Study
Laguna Beach Unified School District | California
Laguna Beach Unified School District’s website took home an award in the 2015 WebAwards. But, don’t let the four year old accolade fool you — this district’s website is still a cutting-edge example of what makes an award-winning website.
Like Tulsa and Rowan-Salisbury, you’ll find that LBUSD’s website is a perfect balance of marketing the district while also keeping the district informed. Beautiful photography, calls-to-action to individual school sites, news, events, videos and infographics put this website ahead of its time back in 2015 when it launched and proves it can stand the test of time.
While creating an award-winning website may not be your district’s top priority — creating one that appeals to prospective and current community members should be. Use these three award-winning district websites as the gold standard for great district web design, ask yourself:
- Is our website reaching our intended audiences?
- Is our design modern and appealing to our website visitors?
- Do we have the capacity and team commitment to create engaging content regularly?
And if you need help answering those three questions (or want some feedback on your district’s website), sign up today for a free website audit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia shares innovative and helpful content that helps schools and districts create captivating online experiences that increase brand awareness, student and faculty retention, and school-to-home communications. With more than five years experience in the industry, Mia has written more than 200 articles, eBooks, and reports about best practices for schools on a variety of topics from social media to web design. As a former TV and news reporter, and wedding photographer, Mia specializes in sharing how to use storytelling to power your school's admissions funnel. When she isn't busy creating content or hosting her #LIKEABOSS Podcast for FinalsiteFM, you can find her hiking with her Boston terrier, running an army wives meeting at Fort Campbell, or enjoying a well-deserved savasana on her yoga mat.