“Standardized” is not a word that we typically like to use in public education, but as a Finalsite education consultant, I am often asked about the best way to create consistent user experiences across individual districts' school websites and programs.
In order to properly frame the conversation, let’s consider The Brady Bunch siblings (you know: Marcia, Jan, Cindy, Greg, Peter, and Bobby). As the popular television show’s title suggests, the Bradys are an indivisible unit, each one seemingly indistinguishable from the next. Alternatively, some might be tempted to lump the Brady children into trios — boys and girls, brunettes and blondes — or pairs, grouped by birth order or age. And yet, like siblings in any family, each Brady brings their own personality, strengths, and interests to the table. Sure, this group would somehow form a family, but they would never stand to be cookie-cutter copies of one another.
Like the Bradys (or the Simpsons, Goldbergs, or Kardashians, depending on your television-viewing generation), our schools are part of the district family. As such, a prudent school PR strategist may attempt to streamline school websites under one district-branded umbrella or group buildings by divisions. Particularly if the schools have always created their own content for the website, newsletters, emails, and backpack mail, the initial conversation about increasing district unity can be met with resistance and skepticism: “You want to what?”
How can districts honor the unique identities, stories, and needs of each school or program without sacrificing brand harmony? Here are three ways to create consistent brand experiences across your public school district’s websites.
Make it easy for schools to create a digital presence that gives them autonomy
Remember when Jan went to a birthday party in a wig to try to create a new identity for herself and stand out? If not, think questionable style (on Jan’s part) and a mix of confusion and amusement (everyone else). Let’s just say it didn’t go well … It was a lot like when a school or department tries to carve out an online space for themselves with rogue fonts and colors that are “close enough” because they don’t feel they can adequately express themselves otherwise.
Before you curse their rebelliousness, take a moment to reflect on what about your website platform is not working for them. Ask yourself:
Is the content management system (CMS) easy for everyone to use and navigate?
Busy school administrators and front office staff don’t have time to recreate content or manage calendars across multiple platforms. Finalsite’s “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” (COPE) functionality makes it easy for users to create school-specific content that can be displayed or reused anywhere on the district or school websites. Always at your fingertips and easy to find again and again … COPE content is like that tiki statue Bobby found in Hawaii, only without all the bad juju. Furthermore, Composer’s WYSIWYG drag-and-drop content editor and toolbar are as simple and intuitive as creating content in a Google Doc.
Are there guardrails for content managers of all skill levels?
When I was a district communications director, I always reassured our colleagues that (unlike that vase that Peter shattered with a baseball), it was impossible to break our Finalsite website. There was nothing they could do that couldn’t be undone — even after publishing the page. With granular user permissions, page editing previews in desktop and mobile views, and the ability to revert to previously published pages, content managers of all skill levels are able to easily and confidently work in Composer.
Does the platform allow for page design flexibility (while preserving consistent branding)?
Oftentimes, I hear from district communicators and tech directors who are frustrated with the design limitations of their current platform. Their interior pages might have only one or two layout options, or they have to put in a ticket to request an element or embed be added to their homepage — a major friction point for school content managers who want more creative control. With Composer, school content managers can configure and style pages section by section, upload and edit photos, cut and paste content (which immediately inherits the colors and fonts determined during deployment), embed a Smore newsletter, YouTube video, or social media channel, and easily update school homepages with beautiful photos and videos.
Make it easy for schools to create a digital presence that gives them some autonomy, and soon they’ll be creating beautifully branded content with the confidence and swagger of everyone’s favorite big man on campus: Greg Brady.
Create a home for all users
The Brady home featured a revolving door of pets big and small, from a mischievous mutt named Tiger to Myron the mouse. If your district is home to a stable of school mascots, don’t rush to cage them up or set them free. Take a note from Catawba County Schools with their adorable Tuttle Elementary Turtles, Mountain View Wildcats, and Lyle Creek Crocodiles to name a few. Using Finalsite’s Bozrah theme, Catawba County’s school sites inherit the look and feel of the district’s website, but feature each school’s colors, mascot logo, news, and calendar dates on their home page. Since all of Finalsite’s Theme designs are built with district brand consistency in mind, it’s possible for all creatures to live in harmony … if only on your websites.
Another way to align your flock is to consider the services of Finalsite Advantage, and the branding guidance they can provide as part of their website redesign support services. Issaquah School District 411 embarked on a custom website redesign project with a beautiful district logo already in place, but previously, there was a disconnect between the district brand and their schools and between the schools themselves.
Working with the Advantage team, Issaquah developed a new approach that resulted in a cohesive look for the identities of each school. Importantly they also ensured that the more established high school spirit logos — and associated school pride — were protected. This new look played a key role in establishing a strong overall brand that is evident throughout this award-winning site.
Whether rebranding or simply corralling your creatures, school spirit soars when you allow school websites to be a sanctuary for beloved school mascots.
Provide exceptional support
Is a television sitcom family even believable if they don’t drive at least one of the children to run away at some point? For the Bradys, it was poor Bobby. Feeling unloved and unsupported, he decided it was time to bounce.
Perhaps you have a school or department administrator who can relate, and feels a little lost on the district platform. Before they pack up their things and create a rogue Google, Wix, or Weebly site, pause and ask yourself why. When you look closer at the reasons why a school might create a separate online presence, you may learn that the support and training offered with your current platform aren’t cutting it.
As a communications director, I always reminded myself that website management was just one of the many hats that school administrators, front office staff, and teachers were wearing. I knew that if our district website platform was a time-consuming struggle every time they wanted to post an announcement or make a small change, they wouldn’t use it.
Finalsite’s training resources are available to all content managers 24/7 for the lifespan of the partnership. From a robust Knowledge Base to targeted on-demand video training tracks, webinars, and professional learning opportunities in our Learning Center, users of all skill levels will have no trouble onboarding and building their expertise in the core areas of the Finalsite platform.
Another reason school content managers may resist the district’s website platform and wander astray is that accessing client support is a “whole big thing.” With Finalsite, you’ll never have to worry about being the sole gatekeeper for all of the district’s support requests, because you can assign others to be admins with ticketing and phone support rights so everyone can get the help they need.
Predictably, every Brady Bunch episode concluded with the unseen Brady feeling seen, the unloved Brady feeling loved, the animals, amphibians, and rodents appropriately contained, and the bonds of the “bunch” intact — in fact, even stronger than ever.
Likewise, your district brand will thrive when school websites are unique but recognizable offspring of the district site. The result is a family of beautiful, consistent school websites that honor each school community’s delightful individuality and still reflect and reinforce the district’s brand, values, and messaging.
Cue the warm and fuzzy “we just learned a life lesson” theme music.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Ellen Rowe is a Finalsite education sales consultant with more than 15 years’ experience directing public and private K-12 school communications. She’s passionate about helping #SchoolPR pros brainstorm challenges, engage their communities, and tell their district’s story. Mary Ellen lives in the Detroit suburbs with her husband, three teenagers, and a dog named Pete.