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12 Mind Tricks to Increase Engagement on Your School Website
Connor Gleason

We all like to think we’re rational beings, but the truth is, we’re not. We’re all guilty of making decisions based on impulse — we are human, after all … Nearly every moment, we’re influenced on a subconscious level — illogical, gut reactions that drive us to make choices we can’t always explain.

Motivating people to do what you want can sometimes be tricky. When you’re trying to entice families to take action on your school website, whether that’s submitting an inquiry, downloading a viewbook, signing up for a tour, making a gift, or scheduling an interview, tapping into the psyche of our audiences can lead to better engagement, increased conversions, and improved website optimization. 

Call it magic, call it Jedi mind tricks — it’s plain old psychology, and targeting some primal, biased ways of thinking can lead to some interesting improvements for your school's marketing strategy.

Here’s a look into 12 mind tricks and tips that leverage psychology to increase engagement and conversion on your school’s website:

1. Create a great first impression | The Halo Effect

What does it mean?
The halo effect is the idea that positive impressions influence our website visitors’ larger feelings. On the flip side, this also means negative impressions can have a lasting impact, as well.

Why does it work?
The halo effect happens because our perception is a constructive process, meaning when we form impressions, we don’t rely solely on factual information; instead, we construct an idea that fits with what we already assume. First impressions set the scene for what’s to come, and since 93% of first impressions are design-related, it’s critical your school website makes a good one.

With a unique design, bold language, and riveting imagery, Millfield School prompts users to “Discover Brilliance.”

screenshot of Millfield homepage

It’s a great experience that sets the scene for what’s to come — brilliance in teaching, learning, and living, and with an award-winning responsive design, it’s sure to leave a lasting impact. That experience is carried through its interior pages well, partly because we were initially met with such an impactful first impression. It’s … brilliant.

2. Introduce time and quantity limits | Scarcity and regret aversion

What does it mean?
Offering a limited supply or setting a time restraint tricks our brains into thinking it's rare and we should act now.

Why does it work?
If you believe something’s limited, you’ll want it more! You don’t want to regret your inaction and miss out. Generally, this has to be authentic to work successfully, ie: “It’s the last day for registration” or “Only 10 tickets remain!”

screenshot of princeton academy popup

Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Jersey displays a pop-up notification, alerting visitors to its homepage about the limited number of spots for the upcoming admissions season. They call attention to the few remaining openings, which can prompt families to take action before it’s too late.

3. Be clear | The Ambiguity Effect

What does it mean?
The ambiguity effect describes how we tend to avoid what we consider to be unclear or what we feel to be missing information.

Why does it work?
We like confidence and dislike uncertainty, so we’re more inclined to select choices or resonate with information that is presented clearly. As families research and compare your school to others, being straightforward and direct with your mission and values will help instill trust. Avoid buzzwords that are overused and vague.

Screenshot of Charlotte Country day school homepage

Charlotte Country Day School’s site uses a “ready” motif on its homepage, confidently detailing its students who are ready to discover, thrive, lead, explore, and connect. Each section clearly highlights aspects of campus, student life, programs, and the school’s differentiators. Make no mistake — Charlotte Country Day is ready, are you?

4. Don’t assume | Curse of knowledge

What does it mean?
“Curse of knowledge” (sounds scary, doesn’t it?) basically means that you’re communicating ideas while assuming others have the necessary background and knowledge to understand. Essentially, you’re talking down to your audience.

Why doesn’t it work?
Assumptions can lead to misunderstandings and confusion for your readers. It’s always important to write clearly and provide enough context for families to understand key concepts and information so they have the knowledge and confidence to take the next step. If they’re on your school’s website, they’re looking for information and have questions, so it’s up to you to present those answers clearly.

screenshot of Maret financial aid

Financial aid can be an intimidating subject for many families. It can be overwhelming, difficult to understand, and complicated by a storm of forms and deadlines. It’s essential your information about financial aid is presented with care and clearly outlines the process.

Maret School in D.C. removes any uncertainty about their financial aid process with a wealth of information about the process, scholarship details, important deadlines for applications, and even helpful financial aid scenarios for families to paint a clearer picture of how much assistance they could receive. Maret uses the opportunity to educate families with empathy and help demystify the financial aid process.

screenshot of rectory tuition estimator

The Rectory School in Pomfret CT created a handy tuition estimator for families to enter some details about their finances and gain a better idea of tuition for Rectory’s day or boarding students.

Website Redesign Playbook

5. Focus on benefits | Anchoring bias

What does it mean?
When our brain receives new information, we form decisions by comparing the new information from a reference point, which works as an “anchor,” instead of seeing it objectively. Anchoring bias is relying heavily on the first piece of information we receive.

Why does it work?
Anchoring bias can skew our judgment and prevents us from objectively interpreting new information. By focusing early and often on the benefits of a particular school program, it’s more likely your viewers will receive new information through the lens of that value.

Screenshot of  Bishop College School Tuition

A good example of this in action is your tuition page. Sticker shock is real, so focus on the value of your education before introducing the latest tuition numbers. Look to Bishop's College School’s financial aid assistance page as a great example — first talk about what makes your school special before you start listing facts and figures. Lead with the “why,” not the “what” and your tuition numbers will be viewed through the benefits of the experience.

6. Limit your options with care | The Paradox of Choice

What does it mean?
Offering only one choice isn’t really a choice — it’s a yes/no decision. When more than one option is offered, the decision is between multiple options, and therefore gives multiple opportunities for conversion. But beware — giving too many options can lead to choice overload and when that happens, we tend to make no choices at all. That’s the paradox of choice.

Why does it work?
When multiple choices are offered, not choosing at all becomes less likely. You’re weighing options, comparing, and deciding between items.  Find the sweet spot between offering a few options, but not too many.

Including a variety of CTAs (calls to action) that speak to where different families are in the decision-making process is considerate, yet still drives a favorable conversion. Without applying too much pressure, offer enough options if they need more information, want to connect and start a conversation, or if they’re ready to apply.

westridge school cta example

After browsing their admission page, Westridge School in Pasadena, CA presents clear calls to action that speak to families who are looking for a bit more information or who are ready to start the application process. Paired with nice imagery, these two choices aren’t overbearing and empower visitors to take the next step that’s right for them.

7. State your value proposition front and center | The Primacy Effect

What does it mean?
The primacy effect is about our ability to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than the details we’re presented with later.

Why does it work?
Simply, when faced with a sequence of ideas, it’s easier to remember the first idea we encounter.

Attention spans are short and the primacy effect proves that we’re impressionable, so present your visitors with “why” your school early on with a memorable value proposition. There’s a lot of information to communicate, so you want to create a positive impact as soon as possible.

Roland Park Homepage

With an interactive grid detailing their core values, Roland Park Country Day School’s homepage immediately gives you a clear understanding of who they are and why their experience is different. It sets the scene for the rest of the site, and with each piece of new information, you see it through the lens of their all-girls differentiators.

8. Use testimonials | Confirmation bias & social proof

What does it mean?
Confirmation bias and social proof relate to people’s tendency to give greater weight to ideas that agree with our existing beliefs. If we’re looking for similar ways of thinking or reassurance that something is a good idea, we’ll find them.

Why does it work?
If others like it, it must be good, right?  As social beings, we like to follow others. It’s the pack mentality, safety in numbers way of thinking and if others are doing it, it must be safe. Although we can’t always explain why, knowing we aren’t alone in our thinking often feels like reassurance or a safer bet.

Testimonials throughout your site help give credence to many of the programs, culture, and experience you’re trying to communicate. It builds, authenticity, and gives insight into who makes up your community. 

On ‘Iolani School’s admission page, the school includes the powerful testimonials of two students and a dean, linking to additional interviews in podcasts and videos. Sharing those voices in authentic (and multiple) ways helps support the benefits of ‘Lolani.

Another strategy is incorporating social posts throughout your site to help establish social proof, which can include reviews, existing customers, social media posts, and more. There’s a lot of supporting evidence that including social proof can help support your developing judgments about a particular topic or brand, including:

  • 40% of consumers find new brands to follow online based on recommendations from friends and family.
  • 91% of shoppers read online reviews before making a purchase.
  • 82% of Americans ask for recommendations from family and friends before making a purchase.
Screenshot portsmouth abby testimonials

Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island has its social feeds beautifully integrated into the design of its homepage. Using Finalsite Feeds is a great strategy to subtly build social proof AND help keep your site’s content fresh with your latest posts on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

9. Be bold and stay on brand | The Salience Bias

What does it mean?
The salience bias means our brain focuses on information that stands out while ignoring details that don’t capture our attention. It typically is found between unexpected, contrasting items and can usually be applied with color, size, and position — key elements of your school’s branding and site design.

Why does it work?
We notice differences and contrasts more easily than things that are similar. They stand apart from the usual and what’s unique generally draws our attention and focus.

screenshot of SCDS collage

The marketing initiatives behind Stuart Country Day School’s new branding campaign certainly make a splash. With bold, powerful statements and eye-catching photography, the all-girls school in Princeton New Jersey redefined and launched its brand about the resiliency of its girls in a post-COVID world.

Read more about their award-winning rebranding campaign and recent site launch with Finalsite >

10. Use Inclusive, action-based language | The Action Bias

What does it mean?
Action bias is all about our tendency to favor action over inaction. When we use action-based language, we’re more motivated to act and make a decision.

Why does it work?
We like to feel productive, and sometimes we feel compelled to act even if there’s no supporting evidence that it can lead to a better outcome than doing nothing. That's going to increase your conversion rate.

screenshot of Georgetown visitation testimonial

Explore the pages of Georgetown Visitation’s site and you’ll be compelled to take action. Their admission page alone is filled with action-based language that motivates their viewers to engage with their site — “Join the Sisterhood,” “Live the Traditions”, “Explore Campus”, and “Discover Your Passions”…the CTAs go well beyond a simple “learn more.”

11. Be emotional | The Affect Heuristic

What does it mean?
Do you think with your heart, or do you think with your head? We often rely on our emotions, rather than factual information when making decisions.

Why does it work?
When we are emotional, our mood alters our perception of the risks and benefits of a particular decision. If we’re feeling inspired, excited, motivated, happy, or encouraged, for example, we can make decisions that prolong those feelings.

Emotional music that swells, the sounds of the crowd at the home game, a sunset filling the campus sky with reds and purples … McCallie School knows the power of video and how imagery and video can speak to us in a way that written text cannot.

Browse the school’s Spirit of McCallie page and you’ll see a collection of videos that inspire, encourage, and make us laugh. Capturing the spirit of the schools is a great strategy before McCallie asks families if they want to be part of the action.

12. Design for user experience | The Serial Position Effect

What does it mean?
This describes how our memories are affected by how information is presented to us — we can usually only recall what happens at the beginning and the end of an experience, and not remember the middle.

Why does it work?
We tend to judge an entire experience based on how we felt at the beginning and the end. Think of the last movie you watched — you can probably remember the opening and the ending, but what exactly happened in the middle? The same goes for your website: how you structure your pages can leave a lasting impact.

Screenshot of Alfred and Adele Davis Academy

The Davis Academy scores a user-experience home run by creating an “amazing” first impression and lasting impact, but what’s more, is that the experience translates to an equally impressive mobile experience. With bursts of color, interactive panels and video portray a campus that’s engaged, curious, and loving learning.

With more than half of your visitors using a smartphone to access your site, you need to make sure your site looks great on mobile and allows users to quickly navigate and access what they need with ease. Without a mobile-friendly design, you’ll lose visitors and damage your reputation. 

When asked to describe why they mistrusted a website, 94% of comments in one study pointed to bad web design elements, while only 6% referenced actual content on the page. A bad user experience impacts your school’s reputation and has lasting ramifications.

Key Takeaway

While it's often difficult to discern “why” we feel one way or another, the psychology behind our feelings can lead us to new strategies for engagement and a successful marketing strategy. Our brain works in mysterious ways, but tapping into common biases and creative ways of thinking can help drive engagement on our school’s website.

Meet With a Website Expert | Finalsite

Connor Gleason Headshot


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 Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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