Students, today, know what they want. Attracting them to your college is matter of giving it to them. The right academics, a clearly-defined admission process, and an enjoyable campus lifestyle are all part of the equation. What prospective students want in a college website is the ability to learn about those things in as short a time as possible.
The same concepts that define good website design elsewhere also apply to college sites: a positive experience for the user, smooth user interactivity, attractive design, and informative content. But wait, there’s more.
Unlike many other types of websites, college sites have to also grab the attention of a restless, impatient, demanding demographic: high school kids. There are right and wrong ways to accomplish this. Let’s look at some best practices so you can see if your site’s scorecard measures up.
Video is popular, especially among the college age group. If a picture can tell a thousand words, a well-done video can tell millions. The power of video to affect the opinion of your site visitors, however, can be detrimental unless they are done well.
Walking your campus with a Handicam will no longer do. For videos to work for your site, they must be short and each must tell a single message in a powerful way. This will not happen without planning. Each video must serve a purpose and deliver a message that can not be effectively delivered in any other format.
Where you place your videos is as important as the content if your videos. Using still shots with descriptions to start videos is a good way to introduce them. Except for silent background video loops, videos that start on page load will annoy your visitors. And, finally, your videos should focus on your students and their experience while attending your school. If prospective students can place themselves in the video, they might also place themselves in your school.
Good videos, produced in a documentary-style format, will sell your college better than a busload of recruiters. Just don’t overdo.
For your college site to be successful, it needs focus. With a myriad of departments, resources, and promo pages, there’s a lot going on. They key to building an site that stays on target is to write tight content and to present it in a manner that doesn’t turn your site pages into information soup. Each content item must deliver a single message and the pathways to each content item must be well-defined.
Avoid the temptation to overload each page with unrelated information. Your Homepage, for example, should speak foremost to enrollees, rather than alumni or contributors. By letting each section of your site focus on a single message, you will avoid blurring the lines and frustrating your visitors.
Of course, in order to keep your content on target, you need to be clear on the message you want to communicate. Is your college’s reputation bolstered by its historical significance? Does your college admit a higher percentage of underprivileged applicants than any other? Is your staff made up of world-renown leaders in their field? Find what makes your institution stand out, and then make that message stand out through your website.
The purpose of your website is to tell what matters most about your college, not to tell everything. Only when you know the message you want to convey can you focus your content accordingly. Careful planning is the key to making it happen.
Student-Oriented Social Media
By now, your institution has probably fully embraced social media. That’s good. Now, hand it over.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and Youtube are increasingly being used by colleges to promote themselves and to help students and faculty connect with one another. Sometimes they are used well, sometimes not so much. But who’s to say whether or not your social media platform is doing its job? Actually, your students do.
Since your social media is primarily a platform for your students, it should be heavily managed by your students. At some point during their tour of our website, prospective students will follow your social media links to see what’s there, and they will read any social media content you have posted on your website. If your social media is heavily controlled or filtered by administrators, it will come across to students as “fake and disingenuous.”
Prospective students will view your social media to determine how students fare on campus. They need to feel that the college administration respects and trusts students enough to let them. There is no better way to demonstrate this than to let students manage your social media outlets. There can, and should, be administrative oversight, but your social media should be a reflection of your students and not the school. Your website is yours; let your students manage the daily social media activities.
You can assemble the students who will run your social media, you can set guidelines, and you can hold them accountable. But by letting the message be theirs, prospective students will want to come and join them.
The Information They Want in Sound-Bite Form
A study by Microsoft revealed that the attention span of the average person is now a mere eight seconds—four seconds less than a decade ago. Worse, still, is the is the fact that we now have a shorter attention span than that of goldfish. And the younger the person is, the lower the number.
This seemingly trivial bit of information can affect the success of college recruitment efforts in some decidedly non-trivial ways. If prospective students will allow you only eight seconds to hook their attention before moving on, you don’t have a second to waste. Your website must be designed—or redesigned—to connect with them as soon as their eyes land on your site. To accomplish this, you need to first realize three things:
- Prospective students come to your site to find answers to a few very specific questions.
- If they find answers to those questions within a few seconds, they will stay longer, and dig deeper into your site.
- If they do not find answers to those questions within a few seconds, they will exit your site, maybe forever.
Capturing and locking in website visitors has always been a challenge, but enticing prospective students to give your site a fair chance may be easier than you think. It is simply a matter of your understanding of how prioritization, content, and presentation affect your website conversion rate.
By prioritization, we mean designing your site to first meet the needs of prospective students. Enrolled students, faculty, and even parents will indulge you with a few more mouse clicks to get the information they need. If you make prospective students have to dig for basic information, they may never become enrolled students.
Of course, your athletics and alumni are important. But why waste valuable Homepage real estate talking about your athletics when only a small percentage of students will be involved?
A well-designed college website will prioritize content presentation as follows:
- Attract new students,
- meet the needs of current students,
- meet the needs of faculty and staff,
- boasts of your athletics department, and
- meeting the needs of alumni, and invite contributions
You can mix up the last two or three, but get the first three wrong and you will do the competition a favor.
Your prospects do not visit your site to learn all they can about your school. They are only there to learn what they, as students looking for the right college, need to know to decide if your school might be the right one right for them. They are, if you will, giving you the sniff test. If the information on your landing pages targets those needs above all others, they will start clicking deeper into your site.
This, of course, begs the question: what, exactly, do prospective students want to learn from your site? While the answer varies from individual to individual, the majority of prospective want quick answers to the following:
- “Do you have the academic program I am looking for, or one I might be interested in?”
- “What are your tuition costs?”
- “How can I know if I qualify for tuition assistance?”
- “What is the graduation rate?”
- “How does the school rank academically?”
- “How can I find out if you will accept my junior college credits?”
- “What is student life on campus like?”
This list represents only a few of the questions students have, but there are only a few questions they are expecting your site to answer on their first visit.
Presentation refers not to what information you place on your site, but how you present it. Students not only expect to find the information they want quickly, but they want to receive it reading more than necessary.
A 2008 study by Nielsen Norman Group indicated that website visitors read only 28% of the text displayed on a website. And that was when we could still out-ponder goldfish. This means that whatever text you place on your website, the 28% that prospects read in eight seconds had better be pretty darn good.
Consider using bullet lists, rather than embedding all content in paragraphs. Use infographics to break up pages full of text. Use headers to transition between ideas, Most important, use short sentences whenever possible.
In other words, in designing your site to answer the needs of shoppers, follow the time-honored KISS concept. Not that your prospects are stupid; far from it. Just a bit spoiled.
All this is not to say you should turn your Homepage into a FAQ sheet. You do not even have to go into great detail as you write text to address the prospect’s questions. Simply keep unnecessary information off the landing pages and make the content you post succinct. Johns Hopkins, Bates College, and Kenyon College have sites that follow this prescription.
And don’t ignore creative application of graphics to help your presentation. By using lighter and darker backgrounds, you can control which graphics attract attention first. Using this concept can help you keep more information in the forefront, while still making other information available.
Back in the day, academics ruled the day. The receipt of a degree nearly assured employment. Not anymore. Today, students would do well to think in reverse. By looking at which degrees will be in demand, students can make wiser career path decisions. Moreover, with college academic programs becoming much more diverse over the years, students are looking at college rankings and graduation rates closer than ever.
Obviously, students are interested in your academic programs, and they don’t want to have to navigate a maze to discover what you offer. But touting your programs means nothing when your graduation rate is 60% and only 50% of graduates find full time employment.
Best practices for college websites dictate that certain information be boldly posted in prominent locations on your landing pages. One line that states, “95% of our students find full-time employment after graduation” is far more powerful than “we have over 60 different majors and programs.”
Just as students now make college choices with the endgame in mind, the colleges that attract them will design their websites with the students’ goals in mind. Prospective students do not want to merely get an education, they want to get a job. The better your site can convince them that your college can help them do that, the better the odds they will attend.
When You Need Assistance
Your site is the face of your institution and is increasingly becoming the primary portal for students, staff, and faculty alike. You cannot afford to compromise.
At some point, every college administrator or board must decide the time has come to build a new site. Bringing in professionals who specialize in college website development can often be the best choice.
KDG offers world-class academic website development and support. Whether you need help pruning down you current site, or if you need an entirely new platform, our experienced developers can tailor a solution that meets the needs of your college today and for years to come. We can do as little or as much as you wish, from consultation to complete site management. Why not call us today?