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5 Secrets of Successful School Websites
Leah Mangold
If I didn’t know that Oscar Wilde died long before the internet was conceived, I would’ve thought he was talking about web design. There are so many school websites out there that seem to boast the same qualities about their school—tight-knit communities, small student-faculty ratios and hands-on learning. In a world where prospects can click to view just about any “beautiful campus” or “unique curriculum” they want, how can you convince your visitors that your school is *actually* unique?  
quote on sticky note with pen

Three words: know your school.

It’s the first piece of advice that Finalsite Senior Designer Julianne Hamilton gives about web redesign in a recent webinar: “The more that you know and can articulate to the design team, the better off you’ll be.”

Finalsite wins awards because our designers aren’t afraid to be unconventional. We take risks because we know design. We know the latest trends. And we know what works and what doesn’t work. But we don’t know your school as well as you do, and we don’t want to take a shot in the dark.

That’s where you come in.

Before you start the redesign process, make sure you really know what information you intend to convey. Because at the end of the day, your website is meant to be functional, and it won’t be successful if the design—however sleek—doesn’t work with the kind of content you have. Here are five ways to make sure your content is the driving force behind the design, and not the other way around:

1. Identify your school’s idiosyncrasies (and yes, that includes the pain points).

Every school has its imperfections, and you can bet that prospective families—especially millennials—have added your school’s weaknesses to their list of pros and cons. If you’ve read anything from us lately about marketing to millennials, you know that these new parents in particular are internet sleuths. They’ll see right through traditional marketing and head for online reviews if something seems too good to be true.

But that’s not necessarily bad news for school marketers. In fact, it’s actually kind of exciting! It means that these prospects are nothing if not thorough—they want to know the gritty details, hear the testimonials, and click through the campus map. So why not put those things right on your site?

Take Woods Academy, a private Catholic school in Maryland, for example. Their website reads like a storybook with a sideways scroll, packed full of tidbits about their school for people who want to know more. Woods Academy doesn’t need to use generic, overused phrases such as “hands-on learning.” Instead, the school proves it—with pictures of 3D printers and descriptions of the technology available to each student:

Woods Academy Technology description with photo of student working

Similarly, The website for Purnell, a girls’ boarding school in New Jersey, features an interactive map highlighting the school’s proximity to various cities, mountains and beaches:

map of new jersey with location indicators for Purnell School

Remember I mentioned identifying weaknesses? In the webinar, Finalsite Chief Innovation Officer Angelo Otterbein points out that Purnell School’s location could be viewed as a disadvantage. “If you know Purnell, you know it’s a little bit in the middle of nowhere, especially from a New Jersey perspective.” This website, however, beats the critics to the punch. It conveys their location as an asset— worthy of being featured right on the homepage.

When you provide all of the authentic content right on your site, your prospects won’t have to look elsewhere to find it. 

2. Plan beyond the homepage.

We like to think that our website newcomers will first see the beautiful homepage— complete with its stunning photography and cohesive brand elements— before moving on to the interior pages.

Thanks to search engines like Google, though, that’s just not the case.

Depending on what was searched, parents might first click on your admissions page, your athletics page, or perhaps even the corner of your website dedicated to the third-grade science fair. With the ability to share direct links across social platforms, prospects’ first impressions may be made by interior pages. We affectionately refer to this as “coming in through the mudroom.”

So why save all the good content and design for the homepage?


Phillips Brooks School, an independent school in California for preschool through fifth grade, has interior pages that are full of relevant, specific content. The “About Us” page has headlines, photos and buttons that make it easily scannable—because no one wants to read a big chunk of text.

Look at this design gem under the admissions section:

Educate whole family text with photos of students and families

Even if you don’t have the means for a custom design, it’s still important to give your interior pages some love—especially because your prospects will gravitate to pages relevant to them.

The Haverford School, for example, provides photos that feature their students and highlight the curriculum. The first-grade page even has a testimonial specifically catered to first-grade prospective parents.

First grade students with description of grade
Parent testimonial text

It doesn’t take long to make a noticeable difference to your interior pages. In under 15 minutes, Finalsite Content Marketing Manager Mia Major transformed one of The Wyndcroft School’s academic pages for our brand-new video series “Website Fixer-Upper!”  Watch the demo in real time here.

Feeling inspired already? Watch this webinar now for more best practices.

Watch it Now

3. Organize Content Based on Audience

To make it even easier for your constituents to find what they are looking for, consider creating a design that caters directly to your different audience personas.

Vanguard University’s website design, which won a Gold Davey Award last year, is intentional in creating three separate, visual categories that correspond with their three main areas of study, making navigation easy-peezy:

Vanguard University website homepage students on skateboards

It’s strategic, too. Each section has tailored content that markets specifically to its audience—the undergraduate section, for example, emphasizes feelings of belonging, excitement, and fun, while the graduate section emphasizes alumni success, ample funding, and convenient schedules.

Undergraduate-tailored section:

photos of students with words of interest

Graduate-tailored section:

photos of students with words of interest

4. Use the best content YOU have.

Part of knowing your school is using the best content you know you can provide. Julianne and Angelo give great tips on this:

  • Yes, a design with social media integration looks really cool. And for schools who are committed to using social media, it can be a great feature. But if you know you don’t have a strong social media presence, don’t make it the main aspect of your site’s design
  • Yes, video-centric homepages are incredibly engaging. But if you don’t have the ability to get a great video, stick with great pictures. You don’t want your site to focus on a video that is sub-par
  • On a similar note, lots of schools hire drones for an aerial view of their campus. But if you are working on a summer launch, DON’T hire a drone to take a video of your campus during a school break— it will look like a ghost town with no one there

5. Plan for content maintenance (and be realistic!)

Successful websites are never over and done with. They require constant maintenance— a fact that needs to be considered before creating the website.

As Angelo notes, “It’s one thing to come up with hundreds of creative ideas for your website, but it’s another to implement them over time.”

Want to do a Faculty Friday? Make sure you have someone who will be able to interview and create the posts every week.

Have a lot of alumni praising your school? Feature them! But If your alumni support is one of your weaker areas, don’t create a space on the website and expect to feature alumni every week.

As with everything else, it all comes back to knowing your school.

Key Takeaway: It’s not good enough anymore to simply have a website.

Chances are, your prospects have looked through their fair share of other school websites. They’ve seen the classic picture of the football players running onto the field. What they’ll remember are the behind-the-scenes pictures of the players in the weight room during practice, or the student testimonials praising an athletic trainer who inspired them to stay in shape. They’ll see authenticity. And they’ll know that your website is the place to look for a real portrayal of your school.

This blog post features only a few of the Top 20 Secrets of Successful School Websites. To learn more, watch the webinar!

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Leah is a marketing enthusiast with a background in visual journalism. She’s passionate about global communication, handwritten notes, and sole travel. When she’s not exploring new places, she’s either blogging, doodling, or dreaming about it.

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