• Public School District
5 Things We Hope You’re Not Saying About Your District Website, and 3 Easy Ways to Make it Better
Angelo Otterbein

No surprise, we reach out to districts who aren’t clients all the time. We see it as our job to understand their needs and priorities, validate the trends against our thinking and perspective and, of course, hope that along the way they might partner with us to reimagine their website presence. 

Naturally there are some common phrases that come up that fall under the umbrella, in our view, as “okay, but not okay.” In other words, inertia has gotten the best of someone or a group at the district, or they’re paralyzed by the prospect of even thinking about the website, or there’s simply “no money.” If you’ve already reached that enlightened state to recognize your district as being one or all of the above, here are a few ways we’d recommend responding to get things moving again. 

1.“It’s really just not a priority”

I mean, whoa. That’s like saying it’s okay if the phone works some of the time. The only thing I can guess when I hear this is that the superintendent or group of decision makers don’t use the website, and therefore assume no one else does either. It also usually means parents have found all sorts of other far more unreliable ways to get the information they need, or through overtaxed people at the school who are constantly answering questions via email. The single most important tool you have for communicating with the outside world is your website. Imagine if you locked the front doors to the school everyday and made people walk around to the side -- only because the door was broken. How well would that go over?

2. “I’m not even sure anyone is using it, really”

Okay. Well. That’s like saying you’re not sure if people still watch reruns of The Office. They do, and they are. And many more than you think. And if they’re not, it’s because the website isn’t working well and they’re finding information in all the places you don’t want them to, or worse, not finding the information at all. It doesn’t take but five minutes to see the traffic hitting your website.

3. “We have no money.”

Right. Let’s just say we hear this one a lot. I don’t have any money right now in my wallet either - my kids “needed” it all last weekend. But if the AC breaks during a stretch of hot, humid days, which just happened to me, or we ran out of dog food, which just happened to me, or summer camp just started and they expect to get paid for that, which just happened to me, I’ll find the money. In short, if it’s important, the budget will be there. If you’re thinking, “well, that’s easy for him to say,” let me help by offering this: there are very affordable solutions out there. And since I know that districts of all sizes work with Finalsite and stay with Finalsite year after year (quick fact: the average length Finalsite clients have been with us: 13 years), the value and return on their investment remains clear. It just requires a discussion.

4. “It’s fine. It does the job.”

People say that about their car, especially when they’re not car people. I am a “point A to point B” person when it comes to cars as well, but I’m also not using it for a limousine service, or to be 5-star Uber driver for that matter. In short, having something that “does the job” makes sense if it’s just serving a core function and nothing more. With your website, it needs to drive fast with great fuel efficiency and should be clean and look good. Doesn’t need to be the most expensive car on the market, but it should be appropriate.

5. “I’m not even sure who is in charge of the website. I think IT.”

So maybe this sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to say, but imagine someone saying that about the football team? Right, I can’t imagine it either. Perhaps someone new to the district may not know the name of the coach or athletic director, but not even knowing what department? Big problemo. When there’s broad uncertainty about who “owns” the website, it generally means there’s no leadership -- that’s because no one “wants” to own it. And if no one wants to own it, then someone higher up doesn’t understand why it matters, for maybe any of the reasons already mentioned.

So if you find yourself or someone you love saying the above, that’s okay. You’re not alone. We recommend starting a conversation with us via a super helpful site audit, downloading our redesign playbook, or giving your favorite supervisor the Superintendent’s Buyer’s Guide.

And in the spirit of “time moves fast, but things still take forever”, here are a few things to think about that you could do now to improve your site. And, if even these improvements seem daunting, please, just talk to us.

Discover your website's strengths and weaknesses with a free website audit!


Tip #1: Consider the New BFF: Search + Quick Links

Seems to me we’ve beaten the “make search easy to find” drum pretty loudly, but is search just about typing in a box? And that nasty little navigational junk drawer known as “Quicklinks” that seems to make its way on one site or another: how can we avoid it? More and more, the chocolate and peanut butter revelation of quicklinks + search is finding a home on a lot of district websites these days, and it works well. Mansfield ISD couldn’t be a better example:

Mansfield ISD Quicklinks Search Box

Here’s why: you’ve got the gi-normous search box, captioned “What Can We Help You Find?”, you’ve got the top links the district wants to put in front of you, set up via a horizontal list of icons; and then you’ve got an informed list of useful links, categorized by “Popular Searches”, “Students and Parents” and “About MISD.” Really well done and thoughtfully laid out. 

Semi-related, I also like how Lake Washington School District used Search as a Call-to-Action (CTA) at the bottom of their homepage. This was a lightbulb moment for me and makes a ton of sense. If I’ve scrolled all the way down the page (and what a great homepage they have!), but I haven’t really found a path I want to take, search is an obvious step.

Lake Washington School District Search as a Call-to-Action

Tip #2: Schools Need Navigation, Too

Maybe you don’t have 50+ schools in your district, but you should treat them well in your navigation regardless of the count. For Mansfield, this means a really elegant, clean approach to seeing every school in one place:

Mansfield ISD Schools List of all School in District

And for Jackson County, with far fewer, it means showing a little more information about each since there’s room:

Jackson County Public Schools Names and Information

Oh, one last example to check out. I really like how Lake Washington sets up a school navigation in their footer (top right), just above a CTA to sign up for their newsletter. Good work!

Lake Washington School Navigation Footer

So, give that long School drop down list you have currently a little love. It’ll make you feel better.

Tip #3: A School is not a District; A District is not a School.

Brilliant edict, right? Well, there’s a point. While there’s overlap, a district homepage and its school homepages have different audiences, and sometimes we forget that fact. For the former, we want quick access to the core information that impacts district constituencies: the public at large, the local community, vendors, prospective teachers and administrators, and possibly prospective families. For the school, it’s largely current parents, students and employees (teachers, admin and staff).  

Evaluate the navigation you use for both to make sure it’s intuitive based on the personas you’re targeting

Key Takeaway

No matter how you say it, we all know what it’s like to get the website blues, but if you’re the one giving a pep talk after hearing any of these phrases, consider taking aim at the logic behind these statements and fastening them to reality. It’ll pay off!

click here to download a free copy of the website redesign playbook

angelo otterbein headshot

Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.

  • Marketing/Communications
  • Web Design
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