Merchiston Castle School
Merchiston's Best-in-Class website is the winner of a 2019 Platinum Marcom Award and a 2020 Gold AVA Digital Award.
One of this website’s greatest strengths is its ability to take the visitor on an immersive journey. Merchiston Castle School is the only remaining all-boys’ boarding and day school in Scotland. It continues to be a school that stands for quality, giving boys ages seven to 18 an education that allows them to flourish.
With the approach of the school’s 200-year anniversary it was time for a dramatic new redesign to balance Merchiston’s strong sense of tradition with its modern and progressive learning environment. Balancing these qualities was the central focus in developing a visual direction for the website that would feel both distinctive and authentic to the school.
Finalsite’s UK Production Manager Kealan Duffy said: “The modernity comes through the website’s bold asymmetric layouts that feel exciting to explore because they go against the grid and challenge traditional expectations. This unique structure is supported by crisp and minimal visual styling that feels both premium and contemporary; providing a clear and uncluttered interface to explore.”
We spoke to External Relations Manager Tracey Gray and Data Manager Diane Boys at Merchiston who worked on the redesign process with Finalsite. They told us about their aims and objectives in developing the new website.
“With digital marketing becoming increasingly important, we needed to ensure that our website was fit for purpose. We needed clear branding, clarity of message, modern design, faultless navigation and functionality; if we cannot deliver this, prospective families will seek our competitors’ sites. If we are going to optimise our website for search, invest in PPC, write a blog, and share everything on social, we need a website that sets us apart! Otherwise, we are sending prospective (and current) families on a journey that quickly fizzles out,” explained Tracey.
Merchiston Castle School is a boarding and day school for boys aged 7-18 in Edinburgh, UK. The school focuses on providing a world-class, global, outward-looking education for its students while giving them the opportunities to make lifelong friends and lasting community connections. Merchiston offers a unique school atmosphere, ethos, and spirit that challenges each student on the road to becoming a rounded individual who succeeds in reaching the highest level of personal academic success.
The Website Redesign Process
The design process for Merchiston began with a two-day onsite consultation which provided the Finalsite team with an invaluable opportunity to learn about the school, its culture and the requirements for the new website. A series of key messages and specific objectives were then identified. These outcomes were summarised in a written creative brief, which became a central reference tool throughout the design process. The primary objective of the new website was to attract and persuade prospective parents to consider a Merchiston education for their son, increasing the number of enquiries captured, as well as characterising the modern Merchiston,” says Tracey.
Discover an Education Made For You’ Campaign Focus
A distinctive aspect of Merchiston’s deployment process was the development of a creative campaign theme, which has been used throughout the design, to structure the school’s promotional messages. Kealan points out that the ‘Discover an education made for you’ strapline is the first concept visitors encounter on the homepage. This phrase embodies the school’s unique value proposition in offering an exceptional education tailored to each individual. Kealan said: “The personal tone of the campaign also resonates strongly throughout the content, with expressive new copy and photography that helps welcome prospective families into the school’s warm and nurturing community. It compliments the variety of features on the website that focus in on Merchiston’s people including community profiles and interactive alumni maps. By centring the website features and creative treatments around one central message, the school’s promotional content becomes clearer, more cohesive and more consistent. The site launched in November last year and has since gone on to receive critical acclaim from parents, staff and the wider community alike. One parent enthused: “What a fantastic looking website. Certainly a ‘cut above’ competitor schools and a school we are delighted to be associated with. Congratulations to you and the team for the delivery of this project.
Staff now appreciate the clear and concise structure of the website with one colleague saying: “The navigation is extremely clear - definitely an improvement.”
Tracey pointed out that other agencies that worked with the school have praised the website too: “The new website looks very sleek and modern!! I really enjoy the flow and functionality of the home page, and the video content is very well done. I can tell much hard work and effort went into this relaunch! Great work!!” (Kevin, Linden Recruitment Agency)
There are many fans here at Finalsite too! Chief Innovation Officer Angelo Otterbein said: “Wow! This school website is one that will knock anyone’s socks off. Aside from the elegance - which is a derivative of tasteful typography, generous use of white space, beautiful multimedia, and a spare colour palette - the site’s depth of design is outstanding. “
Finalsite’s Marketing Associate Leah Mangold also loves the site: “I could spend all day on this site — it’s just really, really that beautiful. It’s easy to see why this won Platinum in the MarCom Awards!”
A Personalized, Mobile-First User Experience
The stunning homepage with its impressive hero video is dominated by a very original call-to-action button which reads: ‘Find Your Merchiston.’ This unusual feature, when clicked, allows the user to choose their own path and enables them to read content that is personalised for them. At each step the user is taken to a branded landing page that is tailored for that specific school division or age group.
Kealan comments: “On many websites the homepage is the most interesting layout, and this is certainly very important, but we can’t always guarantee the visitor will spend a lot of time here so we increasingly need to consider their overall journey.”
The effectiveness of this approach is reflected in the results: the bounce rate (measured when visitors leave a website after visiting only one page) has dropped 19% year on year which suggests that users are enjoying the journey and finding the content they are looking for.
In addition to a personalized user-experience, the school focuses on mobile-first design.
The majority of schools now see at least 50% of their website traffic coming from mobile. A mobile-first design means that your website is optimised for viewing across multimedia platforms: desktops, smartphones, and tablets during the website build. Finalsite’s designers created the school’s homepage design on all devices at the same time to ensure a seamless experience for the user.
With the launch of their new mobile-first website Merchiston saw a dramatic increase in traffic with new users up by 54% year on year which means visitors are more able to find what they are looking for whilst searching online and are now finding the Merchiston website more easily.
Engaging the Audience using Word of Mouth
One of the best marketing tools has always been ‘word of mouth.’ This can be very difficult to replicate but Merchiston do this really well in their Community Profiles which are featured throughout the site.
Here students, former pupils, staff and parents give their stories about the school in a way that is informal and engaging. The clear and concise layout of these pages with their use of clean typography and plenty of white space make for easy reading. Another effective feature has each profile ‘connecting’ with other profiles which encourages users to read more. Leah Mangold says: “What a fun way to drive traffic to other website pages and illustrate that a Merchiston education provides students with a variety of networking opportunities!”
Alumni success stories are also featured on the Merchiston website in another innovative way. Visitors can view school alumni testimonials from their position on the interactive world map which not only highlights the school’s international footprint but creates an intuitive and engaging piece of content which helps to tell the school’s story in an interesting way.
The website also has a fabulous interactive customized timeline that highlights Merchiston’s rich history in a visual scroll. Interesting features like these have had a big impact in user engagement as seen by the results: sessions are up by 22% and average session duration is up by 25% which suggests visitors are discovering great content to read on the Merchiston site.
Using Finalsite Modules to Enhance the User Experience
One of the greatest strengths of the website is its ability to take the visitor on an immersive journey. Each page also includes a unique call to action or ‘Explore More’ section that guides visitors to related points of interest on the website to foster a more organic form of exploration.
When visitors click to the next step in the conversion process, the website uses Forms Manager to allow them to choose exactly what they need. For example, they can receive the school prospectus by email, by post or they can opt to go on a tour of the school instead. Tracey and Diane found working with Forms Manager very productive and Tracey reported that “Forms Manager is extremely easy to use and the data is easily exportable from the back-end.”
"The primary objective of the new website was to attract and persuade prospective parents to consider a Merchiston education for their son, increasing the number of enquiries captured, as well as characterising the modern Merchiston."
EXTERNAL RELATIONS MANAGER
Telling the School’s Story with Finalsite Posts
Merchiston’s website features some beautiful photography and some great features but what really makes its content stand out and drive the user journey is the dynamic design.
Merchiston have made great use of Finalsite Posts in their filterable News section, as Leah explains: “Finalsite Posts is a flexible module that allows contributors of all skill levels to share public content without logging in as a site administrator — making it easy for them to add content for news to display stories and information happening on your campus.”
Schools can leverage staff, faculty and even students to help them pull together imagery and stories. This approach allows site visitors to get a more holistic view of the school because the photos have been taken throughout the year by various contributors attending school events. Here you will find news about competitions, sporting fixtures, plays and end-of-year ceremonies. And, since Posts is an extension of the school’s website, they are already branded with the site’s fonts and colours
A Helping Hand
Redesigning a website is no easy undertaking and there can be many challenges along the way as staff learn how to use new systems and develop new processes. For Tracey and Diane the most challenging aspect of the project was learning a ‘new digital language’. With some training and support from the Finalsite Helpdesk, Tracey now feels that “we have mastered an understanding of this and we are now finding the platform ease to use. Tracey went on to say that: “Finalsite Support have been exceptionally responsive and have always provided clear explanations with any responses they provide. The added value of being part of a large worldwide community of schools using the platform is invaluable, and we found attendance at Finalsite U to be extremely beneficial to learn from others and spend one-to-one time with product trainers.”<
Not Just Castles in the Air!
Since the redesign the bold new Merchiston website has been nominated for a multitude of awards and has scooped a Marcom Platinum Award and an AVA Digital Gold award! Tracey and Diane have been delighted with the industry recognition, as Tracey explains: “External acknowledgement of the quality of the website product was essential to receive as we had placed significant marketing investment, in both time and monetary sense, in this project. It validates what we, as the project team, had deemed as a successful project. It makes all the additional hours we personally invested in the project worthwhile.
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