This blog has been updated since it was originally published on January 26, 2016.
While for most, 2020 was a year of isolation and staying put — for others, it was a year of movement and change. Families packed up their homes and left city life for the suburbs in masses — even though home list prices were up about ten percent on average, the low interest rates tipped the scales for families on the fence. And for those families who chose to stay put, many began exploring private school options for the very first time.
And while each family's choices looked different in 2020, one thing is the same across the board: their research started online. Whether it was research for a new school, a new place to call home, or "the best public schools near Atlanta," Internet traffic spiked and families sought the best educational and lifestyle choices for their children.
And while your school district's website had always been an important marketing and communications tool, in 2020 it became the tool that families — both prospective and current — relied on for research and up-to-date information to aid in their decision-making.
Your district's website not only plays a foundational role in your brand, it also grounds the economic development of your town. It's one of the first places future families who are relocating will look — as well as the one place current families can rely on to have the one true source of information. And for those reasons, your website's design, content, and user experience should reflect the very best your district brand can be.
Your school district's website is a key part of your school's brand because it:
- Is often the first place families go for more information
- Puts you in control of your communications, not the local media
- Improves school-to-home communications — and therefore, transparency, trust, and parent happiness
Now, let's take a deeper dive into each of these.
1. Your website is often the first place families go for information.
Your website plays such a pivotal role in your school district's brand because it is the first place current and prospective families go to find up-to-date information. It should be an accurate representation of your brand, and a celebration of your community, mission, and culture. The content should be up-to-date; navigation should be simple; and both prospective and current families should find whatever they need in just a couple of clicks — from any device.
Therefore, design matters. For example, one study revealed that 94% of first impressions are design related, while other research reveals that you have about 10 seconds to make an impression on a website visitor. Even more recent research suggests you have far less time than 10 seconds — only .05 seconds to be exact. So, if your website looks dated or is difficult to navigate, it may instantly have a negative impact on the perception of your school district.
Your goal should be to have a website that is visually appealing and inviting to prospective families, but helps current families find the information they need fast.
In this example from Rockford Public Schools in Illinois, it's easy to be captivated by the strong brand and messaging on the site if you're a prospective family. And if you're a current family, simply clicking the "Parents" dropdown can bring you anywhere you need to go — perfect!
And in this example from Altus Public Schools in Oklahoma, the simple design coupled with great photography and simple navigation is a win-win.
And, if you're stuck thinking "prospective families aren't searching for us," think again. According to Google Trends data since March 2019, parents are researching "best public schools" more often than "best private schools," and the states with the top searches for "best public schools" include:
- New Mexico
So for districts in these five states, you may be seeing even more traffic from prospective families than you'd expect. You can also head on over to Google Trends at any time to see what families may be searching for near you. (It's fun!)
Further reading: First Impressions Matter: Crafting Great School district Homepages
2. You're in control of your communications — not the local media.
With a website you have the power to re-define your reputation. For school districts who have struggled with this — pandemic or not — when you improve your website, it gives you a chance to be the primary voice of your district. You are in control of the news stories, the press, and the coverage. You are the one true source of information. And this is vital to establishing and maintaining a trusted brand.
For example, while Longview Public Schools in Washington does not struggle with their reputation, they do value the importance of telling their district's story to build trust, transparency, and awareness.
"From a strategic standpoint, community members who receive their school news and information from the district give us a higher perception score," said Rick Parrish, Director of Communications & Operations. "The demise of local media makes it critical for the district to reach a larger audience, many of whom may not be getting any school information anymore. Our new website will hopefully allow us to grow audience, increase the quality of education perception in the community and bring parents and voters the high value school content they want."
3. It improves school-to-home communications.
Current families expect a certain level of communication from your district — especially since the beginning of the pandemic. Districts who offer their families a positive communication experience to build trust, transparency, and relationships will in turn have a stronger brand. Your website can help facilitate these communications, or make them difficult; it depends on your site's design, structure, accessibility, and overall ease of use.
Providing a mobile-friendly website that is constantly up-to-date with the latest information is something your community will thank you for — and something prospective families will like to see. It shows that you care, and that you are connected to every last individual in the district.
For school districts looking to keep their community connected and engaged, consider implementing the following communication strategies for your website:
- Post news events to boast recent accomplishments — no matter how big or small! If possible, elevate school stories to the district level, and share district stories at the individual school level. It's important to be your own soap box to spread the positivity and good news. You should aim to share at least one new news article per week.
- Keep your calendar up-to-date with events and date-based information. You never want a parent to have incorrect information about upcoming obligations or deadlines.
- Ask your principal or superintendent to write a blog once a month to show his or her community connectedness. Having a voice outside of your communications team can help build trust — plus, it can help with your workload. For district leadership who don't enjoy writing, opt for a video blog instead that can also easily be shared on social media.
- Integrate your social media accounts into your website to generate an authentic glimpse of life at your school district. While we're so used to pushing our communications out to social media, it's just as important to bring those social media communications back to the website. Your website has a captive audience in a way that social media does not — use that to your advantage. For Finalsite clients, the tool Finalsite Feeds makes it easy to integrate social media throughout the website.
In addition to your website, consider integrating a mobile app into your communications to easily push updated content from your website into the pockets of current parents.
Your school district's website is the foundation of your brand — especially in a virtual world. By focusing on enhancing your website's design, content, and school-to-home communications, you also have the power to enhance and elevate your school's brand.
If you're not sure where to start with your school district's site, we'd love to help! Contact us for a free website consultation, and we'll go over how you can improve your district's website, brand, and reputation.