Your homepage often provides the very first impression of your college's brand, personality, and value. Because 83% of online searches begin with an unbranded term — such as "private colleges in Tampa," or "best colleges for art majors" — rather than your college or university's specific name, most of your website visitors are learning about your school for the very first time on your website.
So, they've never set foot on your campus, interacted with your faculty, or maybe even heard about your school before. It's up to your website to do all that for you. And, since 94% of first impressions are design-related, having a website that is the truest representation of your brand and value is essential in today's competitive market.
Elements of a Top-Performing Homepage
A responsive interface: Most schools see 50% traffic or more from mobile devices, meaning a responsive design that works seamlessly on all devices isn't an option.
A simple navigation: Your site's navigation is never a place to get creative. Focus on keeping your main navigation to 5-8 primary sections. You can create a utility navigation to provide quick-access to important pages for alumni, parents, and current students and Lenior-Rhyne University does:
A Value Proposition: Your homepage is not complete without a value proposition — a strategically crafted statement about what is unique about your school. We cover this in detail in our Website Optimization Guide for Colleges and Universities, downloadable here.
Multi-media: Photos and videos are an essential piece of digital storytelling. Use edge-to-edge photography and embedded videos to set yourself apart.
Calls-to-Action: Today's websites are all about creating a journey — be sure your college's website offers at least three different calls to action on the homepage to help guide different audiences down separate paths.
Recent Content: Bringing in news, social media posts, calendars, and blogs directly onto your homepage is a great way to curate content to ensure your homepage automatically looks fresh, while appealing to all audiences.
Common Homepage Deterrents
While a great homepage can result in an inquiry or open house visit, a poor homepage can result in high bounce rates. In our work with more than 1,500 educational institutions around the globe, we've identified a few common threads among low-performing homepages, including:
- Confusing navigation
- Unattractive design
- Too much content
- Outdated content
- Overwhelming graphics
- Slow load times
- Nothing that is special
- Content that doesn't match what they expected to find
The Ultimate Website Optimization Guide for Colleges and Universities
The Five Question Rule
Because of the new capabilities of web design, colleges and universities often focus too much on design, and not enough about functionality. A good homepage answers the following five questions by combining the qualities of modern design and logical user experience.
1. What Do You Do?
Your homepage should make who you are as a higher education institution, obvious. Nothing is more frustrating to a prospective student than doing a Google Search for "best private colleges in colorado," and then landing on a website where he or she can't tell if they've really found what they are looking for.
One of the best ways to incorporate what you do on your homepage, is by simply stating it in plain text somewhere near your logo or in the footer.
For example, having statements like: "A small, liberal arts college located on the coast of Maine;" or "The top public school for female engineers;" will improve your college's performance in search, and reassure them that they are in the right place.
Here's an easy template to follow for your homepage:
A [TYPE OF COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY] located in [MAJOR CITY/STATE] that [SERVES/SPECIALIZES IN THIS TYPE OF STUDENT.]
2. What Makes You Unique?
In other words, why should I attend your college? Competition is tough, and if there are hundreds of schools just like yours in the country — so you need to be able to effectively communicate what sets you apart.
Infographics are a great way to share what sets you apart in an easy-to-see overview, and offer the opportunity to impress prospective families with information and statistics about your school in a way they will remember. More and more schools are looking to infographics to share fast facts about their school — to the point where it's almost becoming a standard.
In addition to infographics, photos that show your idyllic campus location, one-of-a-kind programs, and championship-winning sports teams are key to a successful first impression. Try to not let the first image in your homepage slider to seem like it was pulled from Shutterstock.
3. How Can I Learn More?
An "Apply Now," button, or a "Request More Information" dropdown is a must-have element of a successful homepage. Your website's goal should be to convert website visitors into leads, and the most effective way of doing so is by providing a simple call to action button that fulfills their needs (and yours).
On your homepage, have a call-to-action that appeals to each website visitor at their stage in the applicant journey. Only having an "Apply Now" button on your homepage could cost you some traffic to key landing pages that sell the value of your programs.
An effective CTA combination for colleges and universities usually includes:
- Inquire Now / Request Information
- Learn More About Tuition and Fees
- Explore Programs
- Start the Journey (or something similar)
4. Where Can I Find You?
Believe it or not, we've seen plenty of college websites where we had to do quite a bit of digging to find contact and location information — and it's no fun. Contact information should be available on your homepage so that your site visitors know exactly when and where they can find you.
It's important that this information is in plain text for search engine optimization purposes, and mobile user friendliness.
Remember: contact information is no longer just your street address. Site visitors want to be able to find you on social media, so your footer is an ideal location to include where visitors can find you geographically and socially.
If visitors want to know where to find you, they're typically looking because they want to pay your campus a visit. Make an open house schedule is easy to find on your homepage — especially during recruiting season. A "Visit" or "Open House" CTA is a great addition to the homepage.
5. Will I Fit In?
When a prospect visits your homepage, it's kind of like first date. They're not sure what to expect, what to do, or what they're even looking for. So, make them feel comfortable right away — otherwise you'll send them looking elsewhere.
The best way to make students know they'll fit in is to feature photos and videos of students that have already found a way to fit in. For example, on Lenior-Rhyne University's homepage, they have an interactive "I would like to learn more about..." section. Depending on the item selected, a different variety of photos appear.
In particular, the Student Life section offers a variety of authentic, believable, and diverse photos that answer this question.
While photos are great visual stories, it can be hard to beat a great piece of text content that comes from the heart of a student. Testimonials are relatable, and provoke the kind of emotion that answers this question with a resounding "yes."
This blog is an excerpt from our eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Website Optimization for Colleges and Universities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.