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7 Seconds to Shine: School Website Redesign

By Net Assets posted 27 days ago

  
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Enrollment & Financial Aid |

From the archives: Independent schools roll out a new generation of “responsive” websites as mobile usage soars. “If you can’t get the information as elegantly as possible on your mobile device, it’s an opportunity lost instead of an opportunity cost.”

Article by Donna Davis

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 Net Assets.

The home page for Baylor School greets its visitors with a banner photo of the rural campus in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s early morning; mist hangs above the trees and the Tennessee River reflects the gray dawn. Here and there, a red brick tower or chimney pokes above the treetops. The scene is peaceful with no people or vehicles in sight, easy to get lost in—except for that ornery bouncing arrow in the middle of the photo. It practically insists that the viewer scroll down to see more.

The content that follows is dynamic, designed to present the story of the grades 6–12 day and boarding school in images and text. There are photos, videos, infographics and bullet points along with concise text; all designed to get viewers the information they want in the most efficient way possible. More in-depth information is easily accessible through dropdown menus and buttons that invite viewers to schedule a visit, ask for more information and even “apply now” with a single click.

Baylor unveiled its new website last December, after administrators started researching sites from other schools and industries. They discovered a “revolution,” says Bernard Fertal, the school’s director of interactive media. “The aesthetics had changed, the features had changed, the content had changed, and then there was the technology aspect.”

That technology revolved around making websites responsive to all types of devices, including tablets and mobile phones. “We also knew we wanted to look at the new aesthetics and make our site more vertical rather than all click, click, click,” Fertal says. “We wanted to consolidate our message to make it more bullet-point oriented, and we wanted to make it more media-rich and incorporate more storytelling.”

Above all, Baylor wanted to attract and recruit new families, making its website the virtual front door that would invite them into the virtual campus.

“We think of the website as a major part of our marketing strategy,” says Barbara Kennedy, director of external affairs. “We are in a very competitive day school market and boarding school market, competing with schools all over the world. It’s our mandate to be on the leading edge.”

The redesign that Baylor implemented mirrors the process many other independent schools are undertaking or considering as they strive to attract new students while still serving their core constituencies of families, students, faculty and staff, donors and friends.

Net Assets talked with independent school communications leaders and web design experts about the elements necessary for effective websites. All have recently redesigned their websites, and all emphasized these three priorities.

1. Be Responsive

In April, Google instituted a new search algorithm granting higher rankings to mobile-friendly pages in searches on mobile devices. Websites lacking mobile-friendly pages might see traffic decrease significantly, the company warned. Mobile-friendly, or “responsive,” means:

  • Individual web pages are readable without zooming or tapping
  • “Tap targets” have adequate spacing
  • Most content is “playable” on
    mobile devices
  • Content and features scroll vertically rather than horizontally

Having a responsive site has become a given, says Brendan Schneider, director of admission and financial aid at Sewickley Academy in Pittsburgh. “Being responsive is like breathing air; you have to do it.”

That necessity results not only from the new Google algorithm, but also from a continuing surge toward mobile device usage. In 2014, mobile devices accounted for 55 percent of Internet usage in the United States, according to digital-media analytics firm comScore Inc. That represented an increase of 394 percent for smart phones, and a whopping 1,721 percent for tablets, since 2010. Underscoring this trend’s significance, The New York Times in June even banned its headquarters employees from accessing the company’s homepage from desktop computers.

“If you don’t have a responsive design, you are ignoring half of your audience. What kind of marketing message is that?” says Rob DiMartino, founding member and director of business development for Finalsite, which provides web services for schools. “If you can’t get the information as elegantly as possible on your mobile device, it’s an opportunity lost instead of an opportunity cost.”

Independent schools are listening. Peter Baron, senior product marketing manager at Blackbaud K–12, which offers nonprofits web marketing and design resources, studied nearly 3,000 independent schools’ web practices and protocols. The August 2014 study found that 22 percent of schools had mobile-friendly sites. In a February update of the study, that percentage had risen to 31. “They get it,” Baron says.

Creating a responsive website involves new coding and design features, a difficult project for many schools to create in-house. A number of web design companies that work with independent schools can build responsiveness into an existing website, including Finalsite as well as Blackbaud, Schoolyard and Magic Hour Communications.

2. Focus on the Primary Audience

Schneider, who blogs and conducts education programs on school web practices, encourages schools to consider not just their “external” website—accessible to the public, including prospective families—but also their “internal” website. That internal website lives behind the password and reaches students, parents, faculty and staff with information such as homework assignments, re-enrollment applications and health forms. “All the things they need are there when they log in,” Schneider says.

Don’t get too hung up on the actual design and the look and the colors. Think about your external audience. Its main aspect is prospective families, and alumni and donors to some extent. How do you convert those prospective families into inquiries? That is all that matters.

Brendan Schneider
Sewickley Academy

He also advises schools to resist the temptation to focus too much on design. While it’s important to have an attractive, easy-to-navigate website with great images and content, remember your main objective. “Don’t get too hung up on the actual design and the look and the colors,” Schneider says. “Think about your external audience. Its main aspect is prospective families, and alumni and donors to some extent. How do you convert those prospective families into inquiries? That is all that matters.”

At Baylor, the home page features headlines about current news and events as well as videos about classes, the campus and teachers. The school wants to use those features to bring more boarding students to the 1,026-student school—about 20 percent of whom are boarders now—and achieve the school's desired balance of U.S. and international students, Kennedy says. “Our admissions experience is that people find us through the website. Our goal is to get them hooked on the website, and then if they visit campus, they are probably going to enroll.”

Keep in mind that prospective independent school parents and students have become sophisticated Internet researchers. They are searching for certain keywords, such as “learning differences” or “international programs” or “study abroad.” This process brings in the "science" of search engine optimization (SEO), or the use of keywords and other attributes to improve a site's search ranking.

“People do a significant amount of online shopping before they even call a school,” says Scott Allenby, director of communications and marketing at Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire. “As a result, if you have an effective web strategy, the questions you field when families do call will be more in-depth. They will be about school culture and relationships, not the quick facts.”

Schneider sees that trend in the rise of “ghost” applications from families who have not contacted the school before. “The traditional path of inquiry, calling and asking for an admissions packet, is starting to break down. That means they are doing their research without me having a say in the conversation.” To make sure the Sewickley message gets heard, the website strives to provide everything families need to make the decision to enroll, from programs to tuition.

“When a family clicks the button to inquire, they are pretty far into the decision-making process. And when they fill out that inquiry form, they are basically giving the school permission to market to them,” Schneider says. His school then sends those prospects free downloadable e-books, personalized emails and guides on independent school topics such as how to choose the right school for your child or what to expect on a college visit. “It gives me a voice in the admissions conversation. Even if you don’t come to our school, they still get value, and if they come here, they get even more value.”

3. Bring Your School to Life

Every independent school administrator believes that his or her school has a unique story to tell, but sometimes that message gets lost on the website, starting with the homepage.

DiMartino says the home page five years ago represented “information overload.” Many schools tried to cram it with as much content as possible—calendars, message from the head of school, facts about the school—much of it geared toward current parents. “Now the trend is to show the value of an independent school education so that it is the marketing medium for the school. It’s designed with emotion and inspiration instead of information. It’s become a destination for storytelling.” And, he adds, with only about seven seconds to engage a potential parent, communicating that unique story has to happen fast.

The website should explain “the how” and bring the school to life by telling stories about how teachers use those degrees in the classroom and how the school prepares students for college and life. In addition, the website should tell those stories in an emotionally compelling way.

That means schools should not just take the same copy in their printed admissions material and drop it into the website, says Rick Newberry, president of Enrollment Catalyst, which offers school administrators coaching on their enrollment management and marketing systems. Instead of expounding on facts—faculty advanced degrees, enrollment, college acceptances, etc.—the website should explain “the how” and bring the school to life by telling stories about how teachers use those degrees in the classroom and how the school prepares students for college and life. In addition, the website should tell those stories in an emotionally compelling way, he adds.

“If I am a prospective parent looking at the website, I can identify with my child potentially becoming like the school’s alumni,” Newberry says.

Those stories can be brief, first-person accounts or they can be presented as videos, artwork or photos.

Sonoma Academy, a 274-student co-ed day school for grades 9–12 in Santa Rosa, Calif., took on the challenge of redesigning its website to convey the “360-degree way” the school works with students. Too many independent school websites have a one-size-fits-all quality. “You could swap out the logo and feel as if it’s the same school,” says Lily Thompson, director of communications. Sonoma’s philosophy “goes beyond academics and beyond college prep and getting into a good school,” she says. “The school is very expansive to allow the adolescent to really reach his or her potential and take risks; yet it is a very intimate school as well.”

Thompson hired a photographer to capture those opposing characteristics, telling her to avoid posed photos. Instead, the photographer sat in on classes and observed students going about their daily routines on campus. The photos capture intimate moments close-up, while the backgrounds often reveal more about the campus grounds and building. In one photo, students examine an insect caught in a net with the Sonoma hills in the background.

John LaPerch, webmaster at Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut, helped launch a new website that focuses on how the co-ed day and boarding school educates students with dyslexia and attention deficit disorders. Besides being newly redesigned to be a responsive site, it engages by telling stories about some of the 210 students. “These kids struggle at other schools, and we show how they got to our school and how they were able to succeed and go to college. It is very impactful.”

Marlborough School, a grades 7–12 day school in Los Angeles, California, also has a singular focus for its website: demonstrating the advantages of an all-girls school. The home page targets potential families with continuously changing photos of some of the 530 students: in class, on stage, on the athletic field or just spending time together. Interspersed with the photos are students’ quotes about Marlborough’s impact on them, along with brief facts about the school, such as the number of course offerings and art awards. In videos, students and faculty tell why they like Marlborough.

The emphasis on photos and videos is purposeful, says Stuart Posin, director of administrative and academic technology and co-founder of ATLIS. “People love images and videos. You don’t need a lot of text that no one is going to read.”

A story-telling approach can also have a positive impact on potential or current donors by helping them see what their investment can accomplish. “That goes hand-in-hand with an online donation capability,” Newberry adds.

Making the Investment

Designing a website that meets these three best practices requires time, staff and, of course, money. Usually, a school’s director of communications or marketing takes the lead in guiding the design and content processes; other staff who typically take on this task include admissions and development directors. Schools can expect the redesign work and launch to take several months to a year, and the cost to total $20,000 or more for the front-end work, along with several thousand annually for maintenance. A custom design will cost more, while existing website templates can save money.

Some schools that have revamped their websites have achieved a healthy return on investment. At Proctor Academy, admission applications rose 40 percent over the previous five-year average after the school’s new website went online.

At Baylor, the business office was able to amortize the cost of the redesign project over two years. “Think through your priorities,” says Kennedy. Decide on what to do first—whether that’s a custom design, responsiveness or an investment in new images or videos. “You are not going to be able to do it all.”

Sure enough, some schools that have revamped their websites have achieved a healthy return on investment. At Proctor Academy, admission applications rose 40 percent over the previous five-year average after the school’s new website went online in April 2014, according to Allenby. “If we yield one more full-pay family and work alongside that family for four years, it pays for itself.”

None of this negates the need for strong educational programming at a school, needless to say. “But if you can effectively communicate that strong programming to potential families through your website, you are ahead of the game in attracting qualified prospective families,” Allenby adds.

Donna Davis is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado. A contributor to Net Assets since 2008, she specializes in education-related topics.
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