Your school website’s homepage is a critical area of your online real estate — it’s a digital introduction of your brand and your mission, and it’s SO important to make a great first impression and leave a lasting impact.
Having recently completed a series of school district website critiques, some of our Finalsite staff met with amazing schools from around the country who graciously (and bravely!) submitted their website for a live review. A number of patterns started to emerge: Schools of all sizes and specialties were making similar mistakes on their homepages.
But mistakes are OK, right? This is a judgment-free zone, after all. A website is never finished — it’s a work in progress that can always be improved, so let’s take a look at some of the biggest mistakes on a school's homepage and, of course, how to avoid them!
Mistake #1: It’s not mobile-friendly
A site that looks great on a desktop or laptop needs to look great on mobile, and perhaps more importantly, users need to be able to navigate and access all the information and content with ease. Whether they’re browsing a site while in line at Starbucks or clicking on an ad from the comfort of their couch, a mobile-friendly homepage should deliver an experience that’s thumb-friendly, easily navigable, and beautifully communicates your school’s story.
Whip out your smartphone and pull up Bavarian International School, a top-rated school in Munich. This school’s site delivers a very user-friendly experience on mobile — a menu on the home page that’s easy to access, optimized content, and a design that’s intuitive and renders well on a smartphone. The colors and images really pop and have a natural flow as users scroll and tap.
As you redesign your site or continue to make updates, always consider what your website visitors will experience on a mobile device — don’t forget to utilize Finalsite’s device preview tool within Composer, which can help visualize what users will see when accessing your web pages with a smartphone, desktop, tablet, or any other device.
Mistake #2: Your homepage features poor photography
Nothing can make a homepage fall flat faster than photography that lacks inspiration, energy, or emotion. A photo of a building’s exterior, a screenshot of your latest newsletter — this is the content we want to avoid using as our lead images.
As users load your homepage, it’s a chance to make a lasting impression that captures the spirit of your community and instills the powerful potential of an amazing educational experience.
Jackson Country Public School’s homepage features a lot of great imagery that’s paired with the words “engage, enrich, and enlighten.” JCPS showcases all their learning experiences with visuals that are expressive, genuine, colorful, and poignant, all while managing to avoid the pitfalls of what many schools feature with their imagery — static group shots, text-based graphics, and empty school classrooms. No, thank you!
Mistake #3: Your homepage is missing a value proposition
If your homepage doesn’t communicate what your school is all about— its mission, its purpose, its reason for existing — you should consider how to best express why and how you do things differently. On your homepage, including a value proposition is the perfect opportunity to hit your target audiences with your approach to education. It’s a chance to boldly and confidently say who you are.
Take a look at Mason City School District’s homepage — You don’t always see a clear value proposition on a district’s site, but this is a great example of being upfront about who you are and what you do with pride. Their homepage reads “Growing Greatness Together,” and the wavy design elements, the branded colors, the community stories, and the focus on the district’s culture and inclusive learning all present a network of schools that is united in its learning. Wonderful job!
Mistake #4: Your homepage doesn’t tell a story
Your homepage and web design should be telling a story about the experience of your education. Who are your students? Who is teaching, leading, and motivating? What is the experience like? Images, videos, word choice, and design all combine to create a great user experience that tells a unique story. Each school’s story is different, and it should capture the essence of your community and resonate with your audience.
Sun Valley Community School presents some really strong content that captures the essence of its community. OK… well, not every school can boast about its campus having access to rolling meadows, mountain-top classrooms, and a variety of outdoor learning spaces, but its homepage tells an honest and impressive story — a strong mix of bright colors, enthusiastic energy from students, and a strong focus on experiential learning. Without saying a word, the imagery helps showcase so much of who they are, which is supported by bold text that speaks to passions, limitless possibilities, and reaching beyond the classroom’s walls to embrace challenges and find joy in learning.
Mistake #5: There aren’t clear calls to action
You’ve provided a great first impression, you’ve communicated what your school is and why you’re different, and you’ve inspired families with the spirit of your community, but … now what? Not providing clear and engaging calls to action — AKA, ways to take the next step — is a big, well … misstep.
On your homepage, there should be a balance of providing users with easy-to-find options for relevant next steps. You need to consider that different families have a variety of needs, so you need to provide multiple calls to action that speak to different points in their journey — be it an inquiry, visiting the campus, or applying. Ensure that you have opportunities to convert any family that visits your homepage.
Some common calls to action are:
- Schedule a visit
- Submit an inquiry
- Apply now
- Make a gift
- Contact us
Review the following success of your CTAs:
- Are they helping you achieve your goals?
- Are they aimed at your target audience?
- Are they easy to spot and accessible, especially on a mobile device?
CTAs are crucial bridges to your advancement and admission and enrollment goals, so make sure they stand out or risk losing a conversion. Sticky navigation, bright colors, professional imagery, and a unique design are ways to help them pop off the screen.
Lipscomb Academy hits a home run with its homepage CTAs for a few reasons. On the left side, sticky navigation follows users as they scroll, presenting multiple options at any given moment (inquire, visit, support, virtual tour, and summer experience). Simple icons help communicate what they mean, and at the end of the homepage, a rounded design element paired with suggestive language flows directly into an “Apply Today!” CTA, clearly prompting visitors to take the next steps.
Mistake #6: Thinking your homepage is the only entry point
Traditionally, your school’s homepage is an introduction to someone who knows little or nothing about your school. It has a lot of information and focuses on introducing your school, your community, and the value of receiving an education there. But one of the most common misconceptions is that your school or district’s homepage is the one and only entry point to your site — the main entryway where all users begin their online journey.
While your homepage is a common starting point for many users, other key pages see just as much traffic. Users can spend over a minute on those top interior pages on average, and they’re often entering your site through a side door, either by Googling information about your school like tuition rates, a staff directory, the main calendar, or by trying to find information about your transportation. By looking at your landing pages within Google Analytics, you’ll discover users access and enter your school’s site in a variety of ways, including
- By typing in the web address manually
- Through a branded or non-branded search term on a search engine
- Clicking on a paid digital ad
- Through a link on another website, social media platform, email, text, etc.
It’s important to consider how families first engage with your content. Without context, what story are they being told? Ask yourself, if this was the first page they encountered, do they have the right information to put the pieces together, or are they able to navigate through the site without the benefits of the homepage as a launch pad?
Greensboro Day School’s interior pages received just as much care and attention as its homepage. With thoughtful design, imagery that pops, and clear CTAs, it seems that any page with more detail about its people, programs, and experience is as impressive. Check out the school's About page and see for yourself.
As you build your interior pages, you can apply a lot of the same best practices you’d use for your homepage — clear CTAs, great visuals, and making sure the page is designed to be mobile-friendly.
Avoiding these missteps is all about delivering a great first impression — creating a lasting impact with great visuals and value propositions, strategic CTAs, and an intuitive user journey. Your school’s homepage is a chance to introduce your school to your target audiences and put your best foot forward to provide an unforgettable experience.
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 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.