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Checking the Box: What do the Best School Websites Have in Common?
Angelo Otterbein

Who doesn’t like a good checklist? They’re one of the most clever inventions, really. They:

  • Break a big job (like, say, your day) up into manageable chunks
  • Provide a little serotonin bump when you check one
  • Make it clear when you’re done
  • Have huge flexibility to add and subtract

And if you’re the kind of person who makes a checklist item for things you’ve already done, well, you’re not alone. It’s still gratifying. 

Naturally, a checklist for a good school website is hardly a leap. In fact, you probably have one. Maybe it’s your checklist to launch the site, or your checklist to gather pictures and videos to freshen up different areas of your site. Either way, this particular website checklist is designed to help you factor in the important components of both a well-designed page and the website as a whole.

What does every good website need?

1. Powerful Imagery

Okay. Duh. But go ahead and poke around your site and count how many pages either a) have no image,  b) have an image so small or indistinct you’d have to use words to describe it to someone or c) you could find that same picture on any other school website. Phones are too easy and too good at taking decent pictures to not fix this. Tackle your key pages first, but keep going. Remember your ALT text and come back later for a better one. And have a little fun with it! Need some inspiration?

Lawrenceville Stage crew

Check out almost every page on Lawrenceville School’s website, such as its Experiential Learning. Sidwell Friends has a great interior page full of amazing images about its Quaker Education.

a young girl in a truck

The imagery across Stillwater Area Public Schools in Minnesota shows an active and engaged community throughout its different schools: high school students ready to head off to college, younger students experiencing the joy of learning, and parents joining in community events. It looks like a fun place to go to school! 

2. Captivating Videos

Granted, it seems like good video is much harder to create than good images, but is it really? Dare we mention TikTok? Don’t beat yourself up about every last frame, and take advantage of the affordable technologies out there for editing and building cool videos that you can easily shoot with your phone. The best school websites have videos all over the place, not just on their homepage. Worst case, embed a Youtube video, but try to build a good library.

baylor school video library

Baylor School in Chattanooga, TN gathers all their videos in one place on their website, providing a binge-worthy Netflix-like experience.

Park Hill School District Main video

Park Hill School District in Kansas City, Missouri features a wide range of powerful images and video across its district’s site. Layups from a basketball game, discovery in the science labs, students performing a concert, curiosity in the lower grades... All these moments present a district that’s engaging and full of spirit.

Read More: Five Schools with Powerful Marketing Videos 

3. Simple, easy-to-use forms

Unless you like parties where perfect strangers spend ten minutes walking around your house and then leave, without you having ever learned their name or anything about them, then start getting online forms on your site. A simple name and email form field is fine, or maybe add a question or two. Just remember that you’re spending a lot of time bringing that visitor to your doorstep, and it’s more than okay to ask them who they are and what they want.

Spend a few moments on Baylor School’s arts page to see a small Page Pop that triggers a simple inline form. Good stuff.

Bridge application form

No need for a paper application here— White’s Jr/Sr High School in Wabash, Indiana provides visitors with an online form for enrollment in their Bridge program. If you’re not quite ready to start that process, there’s also a form to speak to a staff member and learn some more information. It’s a great way to capture the interest of families who would otherwise back out of the enrollment process and provides a chance to keep the conversation going.

Website Redesign Playbook

4. Calls-to-Action

The best school websites share a common goal: convert. Yes, a best-in-class design will tell a great story and hopefully, it’ll make your prospects swoon. But we know those very users are onto the next thing in a blink, flipping to Instagram, answering an email, finalizing that quick buy on Amazon. What great sites do without you even noticing is hook you, then come in for the close—which in most cases is just filling out a form. 

There is a slew of ways to do this on a site as a first step: an animated button, simple links embedded in the content, or a sticky nav that follows you around. But the more the call-to-action is tailored toward the page at hand—an athletics overview (“Talk to a coach!”), a financial aid page (“Use our calculator”), the English department page (“Schedule a 1:1 with the Dean!”)—the more likely you’ll get a conversion.

Holderness Calls to action

The Holderness School homepage is a great example of calls-to-action neatly embedded throughout the images, content blocks, and layouts.


5. Design Sustainability

We have lots of blogs about great design, and we know great sites have great designs, but great websites with great designs also degrade, and keeping a pragmatic, eyes-wide-open perspective is important as much as it is healthy—things get old, even digital ones—and that’s okay! 

Pick a few pages from time to time and consider ways to improve them. Sometimes a few new pictures, tightening up the content and leveraging some of Finalsite’s content management system's great elements such as the accordion, can lead to a hugely improved and unexpected upgrade. Watch out for those pages that you’ve “outsourced” to other editors who may think just “getting it posted” is good enough, despite your best training efforts.

FREE ON-DEMAND COURSE: Fixer Upper: School Website Edition 

6. Common Sense Usability

You’re not expected to be a user interface developer, yet if you’re updating the website then in some sense … you already are. Good! Every great website has someone behind it who at some level just has a knack for using common sense. This could mean something simple like identifying—then avoiding—acronyms for programs that only your school would understand. Or conversely, if your school name is broadly used (“St. Mary’s”), make sure your city and state are obvious. 

Consider the call-to-action that is on the page (since you’ve added one, right?)—how easy is it to access? If it’s a long page, should it be on the right side, aligned to the top, as opposed to the bottom? Resist the angst that may come with making the “wrong” decision and focus on a simple premise: what is the path of least resistance for the user? Then, later, get fancy with some A/B testing and the like.

Saint Constantine College menu

Pages like the Academics landing page on the Saint Constantine School and College site are worth a peek to see what it feels like to have pages that feel naturally intuitive. 

7. A Platform, not a Website 

A great website isn’t just a website. One thing the best websites have in common is that their creators view them as part of a larger platform. Indeed, a website is a communication and marketing platform that should be right-fit for the job, just like WordPress is right-fit as a blogging platform and is not an appropriate content management solution for schools. More to the point, great websites drive content for emails and app messaging, connect and integrate data with internal systems for simplifying management, and can help centralize logins and authentication. 

A great website is like the table saw in a woodworking shop, often in the center of the shop with supporting power tools all around. Automated drip campaigns, such as Finalsite Workflows, expand the reach of the content you’re editing and run in the background to save you time. 

8. A Focus on Mobile-first Design

We’re all reaching for our phones before our laptops, and we’re thumb-surfing websites on the move more so than browsing at our desks. We’re touching, swiping, and tapping more than clicking and sliding our mouse. Great websites aren’t just mobile responsive websites, but ones that are intentional, designed within the intricate and highly constrained boundaries of a small screen. The irony, of course, is that while the majority of our users look at our sites on a phone, the majority of your site editors are working and creating on a desktop. 

This makes Composer’s device preview indispensable as do things like pushing notifications out to an iOS and Android app easily from the platform. You may be concluding right now that your checklist just doubled in length with this last item—but don’t despair—generally, if the website is built correctly and professionally, this should be more of a QA step than it is doubling the work. And if it isn’t, you know who to call…

Key Takeaway

Boil all this down, you ask? Sure. Here’s what all great websites have in common:

  1. Powerful images throughout the website, sized appropriately and supporting the written content
  2. Broad use of video beyond the homepage
  3. Focus on simple forms
  4. Well-placed calls-to-action that provide a clear conversion path or next step
  5. A continuously-maintained design that resists degradation
  6. A regular, common sense review of how the pages are laid out and what words are used
  7. A philosophy that the website is an integral part of a platform
  8. A deliberate and regular focus on the mobile experience

Got your little boxes ready to X out? Now… go!

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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.

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