Now more than ever, as we all adjust to the massive changes brought on by the global pandemic, your school’s website is the single most valuable marketing tool you have.
Nearly everyone who discovers your school or district will do so through a search engine, and nearly everyone will expect (or assume) that your "digital campus" is just like the real one. And with that the same maxim holds true: Your website has just 10 seconds to make a strong first impression to win them over and continue to engage with you.
An older website with outdated design trends, a subpar mobile experience, or a website that fails to meet modern accessibility standards (especially important for districts) can do irreparable harm to your brand and reputation, which in some cases simply means the visitor won't return. And when it comes to reimagining your Digital Campus, you want even the far reaches of the website to shine, much like you would the hallways and entranceways across your physical campus.
Likewise, a sleek and responsive website can help you stand out from your competitors whose websites fail to impress with outdated or uninspired design choices.
We usually recommend that schools begin to reconsider a website redesign around the three-year mark, and consider it an absolute necessity at the five-year mark. In light of the heightened profile around the Digital Campus post-COVID, we recommend taking a hard look at both the homepage as well as your Virtual Admissions, fundraising and overall approach to parent communication and engagement.
If you’re still uncertain about whether or not your school’s website needs an update, here are six tell-tale signs to look for:
Your website has not fully embraced the new "Digital Campus" philosophy
Your website is not mobile-first
Your website feels outdated with old design trends and/or you rebranded your school
Your website is difficult to navigate
Your website is not ADA-compliant
Your website is difficult to update
1) Your website has not fully embraced the new "Digital Campus" philosophy
For independent schools in particular — knowing that prospective families are the number one target audience for the website — a key part of a successful Digital Campus is a robust Virtual Admissions area. While there are many components to a strong online admissions area — not the least of which is strong photography and well-written content — we've identified these components as critical:
The Admissions Hub
There should be one centralized place within a compelling design for prospective families that tells your story, showcases distance learning and has well-designed nuts and bolts info for applying.
Virtual Campus Tour
The "no brainer" of virtual admissions, virtual campus tours have an even greater responsibility to provide a comprehensive sense of the campus and what it has to offer, with a slideshow, campus map with hotspots, 360-degree tour, and virtual student guides.
Virtual Open House and Events
A fresh update and reimagining of the open house landing page is often in order. This page needs to assist with the logistics of visiting (virtually or possibly in person), but also providing ultra-convenient ways to get to the know school, such as with a chat or a Zoom session with an Admissions guide.
Hybrid Learning Showcase
Now that parents are looking critical on how a school manages its distance learning, a beautiful design should highlight activities and success stories about how the school successfully executes distance learning, and how it might integrate it with the physical classroom.
Take the standard Q&A page and enhance the top-of-mind questions families have, and priming them with questions that they may not have thought of that highlight your school. FAQ pages can also be media-rich with videos and photography, and include forms to ask follow up questions, or even live chat!
Tuition / Financial Aid Page
Frequently one of the most-trafficked pages on your website, this page is a huge opportunity to reiterate value and programmatic/philosophical distinctions, share successful hybrid and distance learning options, reinforce affordability through financial aid, and implement a tuition calculator.
"Why My School?"
While the homepage should directly answer this question, every website should include an interior landing page that really spells out the key distinctions, programmatic features, and compelling areas that bring students in.
Most every website has some kind of directory, but elevating this page to celebrate your most important asset is a great opportunity. Pictures and compelling bios in a fresh design can make all the difference.
Like the faculty/staff directory, the curriculum guide is a hidden opportunity to share in-depth information about the excellent classes and programs your school offers with descriptions, multimedia and the like.
The Digital Campus doesn't end with Virtual Admissions. Retention is increasingly top of mind as parents spend more time contemplating the best education for their children in light of COVID-19. Communications and engagement need to be better than ever, and all that starts with how your website organizes and facilitates. We've identified these critical areas to evaluate:
Communications and Learning Hub
Parents are longing for a single, organized, well-designed landing page for key downloads, upcoming events, examples of distance learning in action and other critical information. Making their lives easier in this way will pay ongoing dividends.
Safety and Crisis Communications Hub
All of the critical resources related to student and staff health and well-being should be collapsed into one page that is easily accessible and comprehensive to avoid hunting and pecking when certain documents are needed most.
- Email Newsletters
Email communications are far from dead and are even more important than ever. Schools should be upgrading the look and feel of their newsletters and digital publications to make sure they are scannable, leverage the latest in email design and provide a home for important and authentic content.
Tech Support Page
One simplified location for help desk information, request help form, and links with video guides can save scrambling and last-minute emails.
Virtual Commencement and Homecoming
As schools determine the best solution for their commencement, we've laid out a best practice approach that many of our schools have implemented. But events in the future, such as Homecoming, face the same critical thinking and require a specialized design to celebrate this important event before, during and after.
Social Media Mashup
A fresh approach to your social media channels — with their own hub and nested within other areas of the site -- is often long overdue.
School marketers who are ahead of the curve and have proven their commitment to a blog can get more mileage out of it with a new design that makes the content more of a prominent feature.
And finally, Advancement and fund-raising face new challenges in the coming year, so the Digital Campus requires a hard look at a few critical pages:
Alumni Engagement Homepage
Convenience is everything for fostering a vibrant online community, so having a single, organized, well-designed landing page helps provide a home for featuring events, the latest news, access to profile utilities, as. well as giving and other information.
- Alumni Class Pages
With reunions coming in new shapes and sizes, keeping alumni connected within their class is much more important, as is revisiting how you think about your directory and affinity groups.
Virtual Event Hosting
Like virtual commencement, make sure the website serves as a hub for reunions, homecoming, as well as your online auction and galas; these pages should get even more attention now that they may be front and center during the event.
- Online Magazine and Publications
Leveraging content that may still be going out via print is an excellent way to engage your alumni. Designing something unique for the situation can greatly increase traffic.
If the above feels a bit overwhelming, not to worry - we recommend a Digital Campus audit to help you prioritize.
2) Your website is not mobile-first
People spend more time browsing the internet on their smartphones and smart devices than they do on their desktops or laptops. That means more people see your school’s mobile layout than they see they desktop and laptop layout.
We've long come to realize that a responsive website is no longer optional, but now it's not longer good enough just to "be responsive." More than half of internet users said they won’t make a recommendation based on a poorly designed website, while 38 percent of users said they will stop interacting with a website altogether if the content of layout is unattractive. Responsive websites also help with search engine optimization (SEO) since search engine algorithms favor responsive designs and quick load speeds on mobile devices. In short, desktop and mobile experiences should get equal attention.
While “responsive design” is the result of the way your site is coded, mobile-first design refers to the way your site is designed. A mobile-first website considers the mobile experience before (or at the same time as) the desktop experience.
Because we know how important this is, we’ve made numerous modifications to our process and products:
We take a mobile-first approach to design, build the desktop and mobile experience at the same time, with modifications to each to provide the optimal viewing experience.
Our Resources module helps maintain quick load speeds thanks to automatic image and video optimization that serves up smaller files on mobile devices.
Composer, our content management system (CMS), was setup to build responsive sites with built-in device preview tools that make designing for mobile devices quick and easy. Composer also makes it easy to optimize each page for Google to place your school to the top of the results page.
3) Your website feels outdated with tired design trends and/or you rebranded your school
Websites older than two or three years old could use an aesthetic refresh, if not a complete redesign — and patching up individual pages can only do so much as time marches on.
Take a look back at some old school website designs and you’ll find:
Reliance on Flash that were abandoned due to a lack of mobile support
Heavy use of clip art instead of actual photographs or video
Tables and charts to organize content that was ditched due to a lack of mobile support
An overuse of bold text and drop shadows that was dropped in favor of proper headings and accessibility stylings
Lots and lots of PDFs
Navigation that goes deep into third and fourth tiers in multiple places.
Designs that are not “full-width” and that take advantage of more interesting and complex layout possibilities that better fit the content.
Most first impressions (around 90%) are design based, so even the smallest of aesthetic decisions plays a major role in what people think of your school or district.
We speak confidently on this issue because we have the design experience to back up our work with more than 100 design awards. That kind of recognition doesn’t just happen without an expert team of designers and developers who know all the intricate ins and outs of what makes for a beautiful website, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Try more like 20 years (ok, yes, we're proud)!
It's important to show your school’s story as much as possible through photos, videos, and infographics to really paint the picture in the mind’s of each visitor that your school is the place for their child or children. Failure with this priority could mean losing potential right-fit applicants.
Interested in learning more? Check out our weekly-updated blog with examples to inspire your next redesign in blogs such as:
... Or you recently rebranded your school
If you have recently updated your branding and core messaging, redesigning your website is next in line to keep your message and visual identity consistent is important.
A school rebranding needs to be reflected as soon as possible on your website. Otherwise, there is an immediate disconnect when visitors arrive on your website expecting one thing, only to see outdated logos, colors, and other visual forms of branding and messaging.
For example, Parish Episcopal School recently redesigned and rebranded their website to deliver content more efficiently with a larger focus on mobile visitors. Courtney Joyner, Parish Episcopal’s Webmaster, discusses their rebranding and redesign in a recent podcast with Senior Client Success Manager Lorrie Jackson.
4) Your website is difficult to navigate
Poor website architecture and equally poor navigation can make interacting with your website a nightmare. If someone can’t find what they need in a reasonable time, they’ll take their search to another school with a website where they can.
Keeping a close eye on your website’s analytics is one of the most important jobs for anyone who regularly updates the website. The following metrics can give you a good idea as to how your website is performing:
Bounce rates: Shows where users are leaving your site without visiting another page. High bounce rates can be caused by non-responsive design, broken links, slow load speeds, or and an overall poor design.
Average visit duration: Shows how long users are staying on your site. A high visit duration means your visitors are engaged with your website’s content. A low visit duration means they are not.
Top entrance and exit pages: These are the pages where users most commonly enter and exit your site. Top entrance pages with high bounce rates need to be updated — especially if your homepage is at the top of that list.
One navigation trend that we see expanding over the next few years, and one best demonstrated on The International School of Brussels homepage, is giving visitors a prominent search bar that allows them to craft their own customized search experience with quick links to the most popular pages and an easy way to find any other page they want.
5) Your website design and/or content is not ADA-compliant
Web accessibility equalizes website usability for the 12 to 20 percent of Americans with disabilities. There are more than two hundred specific requirements in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1), an updated repository of technical details that designers use to bring their website into accessibility compliance.
Currently, public school districts only need to meet WCAG 2.0, but the continued push for complete website accessibility has made the topic one of the biggest hot-button issues for districts. And even though independent schools aren’t required to meet the same accessibility standards as districts, around 100 independent schools have decided to make their website accessible to all with Finalsite.
Failing to comply to the standard accessibility guidelines can result in serious fines and Office of Civil Rights (OCR) complaints. These fines can rack up quickly and costs schools or districts hundreds of thousands of dollars before the problem is addressed.
The only sure-fire way to avoid an OCR complaint and fines is to ensure your website’s content and design is accessible. It’s a problem that may not affect your school right now, but it certainly will become a problem down the line. It’s better to eliminate the potential issue sooner than later, especially considering the solution is much cheaper than the fines associated with the problem.
Finalsite has also partnered with AudioEye to provide schools with an added layer of protection against accessibility complaints and fines through with their proprietary technology and processes, which include:
Turnkey Solutions and Speed to Compliance
Beautiful, Functional, and Fully Accessible Websites
Automatic and Manual Remediation of Errors
AudioEye Toolbar for greater usability for all visitors
6) Your website is difficult to update
if you’re avoiding updates to your website because it is too time-consuming, or your webmasters are complaining, it’s likely time to search for a new website provider.
Choosing a CMS for your school is an incredibly important decision. For every school and district, the list of requirements may be different. Composer, Finalsite’s CMS, makes it as simple as possible for website admins to make updates to their sites through an intuitive “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editor and interface.
Composer enables users of all skill levels to contribute content. Finalsite's Resources module takes that one step further by allowing trusted constituents to upload photos, images, and documents to help build a large library of website content.
Even if your school has just a handful of the design problems outlined above, it might be time for a website redesign, particularly in light of a need for schools to re-imagine their Digital Campus. Your website represents a significant investment for your school, and the continuous line of brand awareness for most people who discover your school and, as importantly, those who continue to engage. Make that first (and second, and third...) impression as strong as possible with a redesigned website that accurately shows off your school’s excellence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite’s Product Marketing Specialist, Andrew writes blogs and creates videos to share information about all the latest and greatest Finalsite products. Andrew has more than 10 years of video production experience and a journalism education from the University of South Carolina. He is excited about bringing his experience and expertise to Finalsite.