Choosing a provider for your school’s website is a major decision that impacts everything from how your school attracts new families to how parents find out what’s on the lunch menu. With so many choices ranging from DIY solutions to large platform providers and everything in between, the selection process can be overwhelming.
A website provider should be more than a place to host your school or district site; you want a partner that cares just as much about your school as you do. Thinking beyond your immediate need for a redesign and using the opportunity to select a vendor that will fulfill the long-term needs of your school or district is so important.
In this blog, we’ll cover a three-step process for selecting the best website provider for your school or district:
The quest for a provider really starts with being able to define the pain points of your current website.
- Does the design feel “dated”?
- Is important information difficult to find?
- Is the design mobile-friendly?
- Does the website tell your school or district’s story to help you reach your goals?
- Is it difficult to make website updates?
- Does your website provider struggle to provide consistent and reliable uptime?
- Is contacting support difficult?
As part of your research, you can use a survey to poll your website admins and community to find out the biggest obstacles as well. It’s also important to get your group of decision-makers together in a room and make a checklist of “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves.”
Of course, how you want your new website to look is going to play a key role in your decision-making process. As you begin your research, start keeping track of sites you like and be specific about what you enjoy about them. Then determine if there are any common threads between the sites’ organization, design, features, or user experience. For example, you may choose to start by researching neighboring schools or districts and visiting their homepages. Take note of what you like—and dislike—about each. Do you prefer sites that have long, vertical pages with lots of scrolling, or do you prefer something simpler? Do websites with lots of flashy animations excite you or do you find those distracting? Once you’ve identified similarities among the homepages you like, take a look at the interior pages on each website as well. Identify the school sites that best reflect what you’re looking for, and make a list of top vendors who have created those sites.
And that takes us to step #2!
We all know that a great school or district website goes beyond how it looks. Website hosting, uptime, support, communication tools, and integrations, all play a role. It’s important for all website stakeholders to play a role in determining a list of “must-haves” for the new website. For example, your marketing or communications team may prioritize design and aesthetics, while your IT team may be focused on hosting and integrations. It’s important to look for a vendor that can check as many of those boxes as possible.
We’ve put together this website platform evaluation guide to help you make the right decision for your school or district.
Important Feature Set Considerations
As you begin to narrow down your vendor selections, there are some important considerations.
A Powerful Content Management System
You work so hard to create all that amazing content and it deserves a place to shine! If you want a website that works and looks great, you'll need a powerful Content Management System (CMS) that makes uploading content and maintaining your website a breeze. A drag-and-drop page editor with a WYSIWYG interface (“what you see is what you get”) can help keep your website content looking fresh and allow your team to make intuitive edits to your site quickly.
Finalsite’s Composer checks all the boxes: a drag and drop editor, search engine tools, permission-based pages, an accessibility checker, Google Analytics connectivity, and multimedia integrations, a built-in photo editor... all that and more let you design beautiful pages that convert, engage, and inform your entire community — no coding background required! 🤓
You’re busy and your office doesn’t have time to waste making endless, repetitive updates across your site. Make sure your web provider offers COPE functionality—the ability to “create once, publish everywhere.” This allows you and your team to easily make content updates and have them magically appear across your site in just one click. Now you can finally get back to answering all those emails…
“I love the shared content block features where I can update content once and it shows up everywhere. That is a problem I had so much with my previous provider,” said Megan Anthony, who oversees communications for Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center (CTC) in Springfield, Ohio. “For example, I would update lunch prices but I would forget that someone put it on their building page too, so I’d have to update it twice.”
Read more about how Clark-Shawnee School District and Springfield-Clark CTC are utilizing all that the Finalsite CMS has to offer.
Safe and Secure Hosting
Web hosting affects critical components of your website's health — such as privacy and security of data. In a virtual world, we're unfortunately seeing an increased number of cyberattacks on school and district websites. Popular web providers like WordPress, Squarespace, and Drupal are often more susceptible to hackers and malware because of their frequent use of third-party plugins. A hack to your site or a virus on your network is the last thing you’ll want to deal with.
You want everyone accessing your school's website to feel confident that their private information is safe — and asking your website provider questions about their hosting methods is essential.
Fortunately, all school websites hosted by Finalsite are protected from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), and Cloudflare protects sites from other malicious web application attacks. Cloudflare’s global Anycast network spans 200 cities and operates within 100 milliseconds of 99% of the Internet-connected population allowing them to mitigate even the largest DDoS attacks without any single point of failure. And with Finalsite’s 99.9% uptime on the Google Cloud Platform, you can bet your school stays safe and stays online.
GDPR & Web Privacy
If you’re a school operating outside the U.S, the privacy of your site’s users is even more of a priority and you’ll want a web provider that both understands and respects the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Its purpose is to protect the rights and freedoms of EU citizens and the use of their personal data, but web privacy is a growing concern for all schools around the world.
Your web provider should take the necessary steps to ensure it runs its platform in a secure, high-integrity operating environment to protect personal data. If not, it could face substantial fines.
Finalsite has expanded its security and legal teams to ensure that we are able to account for all the personal data in which we are instructed to process. By selecting a web provider that follows the GDPR’s guidelines, you’re choosing a partner that respects the laws and supports your school’s commitment to protect its family’s personal data.
An Amazing User Experience
Most schools and districts get about 50-60% of their total website traffic coming from mobile – and it should come as no surprise you’ll want a provider that creates websites with a mobile-first mindset. In other words, pages that look amazing on any device, whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, or desktop.
However, responsiveness doesn’t just stop at web pages. Mobile-friendly online forms, sticky navigation, legible text, and clickable call-to-action buttons all build toward a positive user experience—a “must-have” when putting your best digital presence out there. Nothing will turn prospective families away faster than a frustrating user experience, images not loading probably, misaligned text, or graphics that are on the fritz. Research what strategies different vendors have to create a mobile-friendly website that meets the expectations of your users.
Top-Notch Customer Service and Tech Support
Most of us don’t have a degree in computer programming, so it’s really important to have a team of (much loved!) computer gurus standing by, ready to provide assistance with everything from a critical support issue, to just a quick question about “wait, how do I do that?”
A friendly attitude doesn’t hurt either—find a provider with a team of tech-wizards ready 24/7 to officer a hand with platform training, resources for trouble-shooting, or even moral support when you’re having one of those days (Did you really mean to delete that?).
"I am familiar with the platform and feel comfortable using the CMS, but it's nice to know I have support when needed,” said Emma Smith, communications and advancement manager at American Overseas School of Rome. “The response time is very quick when I do have questions, I find having a help team and the ticket center really helpful. It's nice to know that when I do have issues, there is support 24/7 to help me resolve them."
Read more from the American Overseas School of Rome's latest award-winning redesign — and how the website highlights the school's cultural diversity with their new site.
Your web provider’s goal should be to ensure that every visitor of your website has the same great experience — no matter what. That means staying up-to-date with WCAG 2.0 ( Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) requirements and ADA standards.
Over four years ago, accessibility and meeting WCAG 2.0 guidelines came to the forefront of school web design, as public schools and districts were being fined for having inaccessible content on their website.
“Our last redesign began in 2018, and one of the drivers for the latest WHPS redesign was ADA compliance,” said Jared Morin, CIO for both the Town of West Hartford and West Hartford Public Schools. “We wanted to ensure every page and all content was accessible to everyone. ADA compliance was also the impetus for moving the Town of West Hartford's website to Finalsite as well. The Town's new website was launched in June 2020, and now both organizations leverage the Finalsite platform to deliver greater quality assurance with a more consistent look and feel.”
Website accessibility is 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 (yet), we’re seeing an increase in the number of schools prioritizing accessibility. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. Make sure you choose a provider that ensures all of your website visitors can fully experience and understand the website's design and content.
Partners and Integrations
Integrating with another software program or database can open up a lot of doors for your site’s potential. From an admission, enrollment, and tuition billing platform or a student information system, integrations allow you to combine systems, harness the power of your data, and streamline your processes. That means athletics, calendars, staff directories, and email data systems can all pull from the same source, eliminating redundancies and saving you countless headaches.
Finalsite's software platform seamlessly integrates and leverages the core strengths of some of the leading student information systems, including Blackbaud, Veracross, and Ravenna.
For the 2020-21 school year, Annunciation Orthodox School split their classrooms into cohorts to allow for social distancing, which also meant separate email communications were needed. “The data integration piece was key because all of a sudden we needed different mailing lists for different purposes,” said Isabella Dom, director of communications at Annunciation Orthodox School. “Just knowing that our Finalsite emails and Blackbaud data were synced up was fantastic and crucial at such a period of crisis."
Keep reading about how Annunciation Orthodox School gets the best of both worlds by using Finalsite for their content management system and Blackbaud for their student management system.
Timeline and Budget
It’s true, a new website is an investment, so finding a vendor that will work within your budget will help chart the course for success and launch your site on time. While there are options for nearly every budget, a clear understanding of your needs and the costs for design and hosting, additional modules, or add-ons will set expectations and avoid unexpected delays.
Be upfront with the vendors you’re speaking with and identify your goals, resources, and constraints. If you’re working with limited options — a tight budget, a tight timeline (or both!) — there are often solutions to launching an amazing theme design in under sixty days.
Read how The Kessler School in Dallas, Texas found inspiration to better tell their school's story and support a major campaign with the design and launch of their Finalsite website.
A Vendor that “Gets” You
You’ll want to choose a vendor that is constantly improving its products and services, one that evolves with the changes in tech, but also responds to its clients’ needs and the world of education. Frequent and consistent updates to software, design elements, and user experiences not only improve their product but also make your life easier.
Speaking of making your life easier, when was the last time you had some free professional development? User conferences, helpful resources, and networking opportunities should all be standard to help you and your team continue to learn and grow. Helping you achieve your goals should be their priority, and a vendor that truly “gets you” should offer a variety of channels for success, like assistance with digital marketing and helping with your branding initiatives or social media strategy. Your school deserves a vendor that can empower and maximize your site and your team’s potential.
So you’ve narrowed down your choices — what’s next? A thoughtful interview or demo with a vendor can be the best way to get down to the facts. Some schools like to cast a wide net and will interview 10 or more vendors, others will focus on just a few, which is what we’d recommend to keep things manageable.
In addition to your own personal research, you may find that asking for recommendations is helpful. Speaking with schools that have been down a similar path is crucial to see if a vendor is right for the job. And, while references tend to be the happiest customers, they’ll likely be honest with you, so don’t hesitate to ask tough questions.
By this point in your selection process. you probably have a front-runner, but be sure to loop in a few colleagues to help you make your final decision. Not only will their opinion help you sway other decision-makers and create the perfect pitch for a new website, but fresh eyes and input can only help solidify your selection. Ask colleagues from other schools or districts about their experiences with different vendors and ask for recommendations in a professional network group, like Facebook or LinkedIn.
There are lots of considerations to weigh when selecting a website vendor. Not only will your choice affect how your school functions day-to-day, but it will also impact how your school achieves its goals and defines its mission. Define your objectives, consider your priorities, and then do your research before partnering with a school website provider that checks all the boxes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Web and Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, story-telling, coffee, and creating content that connects.