If you've been leading the redesign process for your school, you probably know a lot about what makes a school website successful. And if your school is like other districts or independent schools, you probably also face this challenge: no one else knows as much as you do about it.
Teachers and staff members are often too busy to learn (or care) about website best practices, and have a variety of different skill sets in terms of copywriting, design, and web page building. As a result, alt tags are left empty, file naming conventions are not followed, and your website can appear sloppy. What can you do?
Here are some tips to bridge the gap between the expert webmaster and the contributors who might not know better.
1. Create a style guide for your website.
Nearly every school has a style guide with instructions for its logo, tagline, school colors, and mission statement. But unless you give website-specific instruction, a general guide won't be enough to aid your website contributors.
A good web style guide will instruct contributors on font colors, font styles, and voice, as well as provide a mini “how-to” on things like creating call-to-action buttons, optimizing photos, and when to use PDFs (hint: as little as possible!). In addition to style guidelines, you’ll want to be sure that the back-end items are addressed clearly.
Your website style guide should include:
- How/when/why to add alt tags. The alt tag is a description of any image on your site - something as simple as “students at desk” or as in-depth as “two female students reading textbook at the desks in the new library.” It depends on what kind of message you are trying to convey to readers. For specific instruction on adding alt text in Composer, check out this guide written by Finalsite Support. Better yet, link it directly in your style guide!
- Links to tutorial videos and support pages. Answer common questions with before your contributors ask them. Make your own tutorials, or check out the rest of the many resources provided for free on the Finalsite Support blog.
- Photo best practices. Remind your contributors to optimize every image before uploading into posts for faster load times. Depending on your design, certain photos (like hero images) will have sizing requirements that you can manage in Composer. Good news: Finalsite Resources automatically optimizes images for the web!
- Naming conventions. Seventy or 70? 4:00, 4 o'clock or simply 4? RSVP or R.S.V.P? Establish a plan for email marketing, blogs, and social media. Inconsistency looks bad for your brand.
- Heading and font rules. Consistency is especially important when it comes to heading styles. Fortunately, when you use a CMS like Composer, the style of your header tags is embedded in your website code, meaning your website admins don’t have to do any styling themselves. They simply have to select the right header!
2. Address "boring" department website needs with engaging solutions.
We've said it before— if the content on your website isn't engaging or optimized for search engines, no one is going to read it. But how do you tell that to the head of the drama department who wants a list of every play they've put on since the school's inception? Each department will have content they believe is important to put on the website— content that may be unappealing, text-heavy, or not up to best-practice standard. As your school's website expert, work to find a compromise.
- Listen to what departments wants and identify why. For the drama example, the likely intent is to display the school’s rich history while also showing a breadth and depth of performance selections. That's certainly good!
- Explain limitations and suggest something web-friendly. It's not best practice to have a long, scrolling list, but the information in the above example can definitely be displayed visually. Use a slideshow feature with Posts to play underneath a paragraph explaining the department’s rich history and support of the arts. You could also use tabs and accordions to display content by year in expanding lists.
Avon Old Farms School, a boarding school in Connecticut and Finalsite client since 2004, conveys the richness of its drama program with a gallery of photos from recent performances, a slideshow featuring older promotional posters, and a link to a blog post from the school's blog that talks about its theater program in detail:
This multimedia approach is much more effective than a list of shows (from both a user and SEO standpoint), and is likely something the head of this department will be happy with! You just need to nudge him or her in the right direction.
Pro-Tip: Schedule time to talk to each department before a redesign to ask about their ideas. With a little creativity, you can find the balance between what a department needs and what the school needs to market to the public.
Looking to redesign? Check out our Website Redesign Playbook to walk you through initial planning all the way through post-deployment!
3. Educate your contributors.
When it comes to some technical stuff, you really need more than a style guide. For example, the typical department head doesn’t know that PDFs can harm a website’s SEO, kill the mobile experience, and make content inaccessible— which means that important school documents like calendars, schedules, and other resources often end up as a linked PDF.
It's these kind of issues that you need to address in detail:
- Send a monthly or bi-monthly "did you know?" email to update your contributors on best practices. They can keep these to reference later, too.
- Speak at faculty events such as faculty meetings or other professional development events to give updates on your website, along with gentle reminders to follow the best-practice guidelines.
- Keep an open line of communication open. Chat in person, especially if a contributor is already asking you for help with a page. Make sure they know where training resources are, how to ask for help, and why maintaining their section is important.
- Add tutorials to your employee portal for new contributors to easily access.
- Create a training plan with formal training sessions addressing topics that need extra explaining. For more information about creating effective training sessions, check out this blog.
4. Create a content approval process
So you've created a style guide, you've acted as the alt text police, you've provided endless training and... the website still feels inconsistent in style, voice and layout. Now what?
You probably have too many cooks in the kitchen.
We've found that the most successful school websites have a permissions hierarchy in place, and only grant editing rights to contributors who are responsible for specific site pages. This prevents high-traffic pages like the homepage from being tampered with or accidentally edited.
How many admins do I create?
Some schools select one point person for each department with publishing rights, making it easy for their team members to communicate. Others have one point person - usually a communications department member - for the entire community. Valerie Hull, Webmaster at Barbers Hill Independent School District, is that person for her school. “No one has publishing rights but me, and I check everyone’s new content before it gets published,” she told us in this interview. Choose what works for your school, just be sure to note it in your style guide.
For information on how to select which users have editing and publishing rights on Finalsite Composer, click here.
It’s easy for marketing and communications departments to get lost under the pile of job requests, event promotions, and website upkeep. But keep the lines of communication open and constant! Ask for opportunities to speak during faculty meetings. Remind users - in person - to keep up with their department’s section, and to ask for help when needed. By keeping establishing yourself as a willing and knowledgeable webmaster, they will be more likely to reach out to you. And that ultimately means more engaging content and less broken links!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Specialist, Leah promotes new school site launches and educates people on all things digital marketing. She’s passionate about global communication, handwritten notes, and sole travel. When she’s not exploring new places, she’s either blogging, doodling, or dreaming about it!