Maximize Your School's Website

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More than ever before, schools are encountering what many admission professionals call, the phantom applicant. The internet has made finding and researching private schools easier than ever, and many families don't even communicate with a school until they are ready to schedule an interview. 

Gone are the days of prospective families simply inquiring to a private school and waiting for a hefty viewbook and application package to arrive on their front door. Now, families are reading schools' websites page by page, reading reviews of them online, following them on social media and learning about schools before they even inquire. Here's what you need to do to maximize the impact of your school's website.

Be prepared for what goes into a website project

Designing or even re-designing a website is a massive undertaking, and requires a lot of time and effort, even if you're working with an external vendor to get it done. The amount of text, photos and graphics alone that you'll need to create the website is massive, and this is a lot for one person to manage. It takes time to decide on designs, navigation, and more. You need to have a marketing team prepared to work on this, and that includes knowing who the primary decision maker is on the project. A new website is also an expensive endeavor, so making sure you have the proper budget is crucial.

Have a project manager

As you embark on a new site or site re-design, even if you're working with a vendor, it's crucial to have someone at your school serving as a project manager. This person is responsible for overseeing the project and keeping everyone on task and on deadline as you work towards a launch date. Not sure how to successfully manage a site launch? Check out this article for six tips. If you don't have a dedicated person, your project can easily get sidetracked and off schedule, which can lead to increased costs.

Know your target audience 

All too often, schools try to please everyone at the same time, and websites are no different. The needs of current families differ from those of prospective families, so it's important to know who you're designing the public portion of your website for. Some schools, like Cheshire Academy, made the decision to target the public facing side of the website to prospective families only. Thanks to comprehensive online communities, all current students and parents can log into a robust online portal where they can find all the details they need about what's happening at the school. This allows the school to specifically meet the needs of each audience segment. It's a good idea to survey them and test ideas with them to know exactly what they want and need out of a website. 

Known your institutional goals

If your school's main goal is to recruit more ninth grade girls, then you might take a different approach than if you were looking to recruit PG boys (or vice versa). So your school's website should be designed with the institutional goals in mind, which can drive the tone of voice in the writing, the types of photos and video used, and your strategies for the type of stories you will write and share online. This information can be pulled from resources like your strategic plan or a marketing study, and can be used to develop a mini marketing plan for your website.

Know your staffing capabilities

It's important to think about how the site will be maintained before you ever start designing or re-designing it. You don't want to get too excited with ideas and wind up with a complex site that you can't adequately manage. The smaller the staff, the simpler and easier to manage the site should be. Not every great idea can be implemented, and it's better to not go all out from day one and instead work to gradually grow your site as you're able to slowly devote more resources. You can also use small successes as proof of the value of having a site, which could convince administrators to devote more resources towards the site.

Make your school's website easy to use

Knowing that prospective families are going to research schools before they ever make contact, it's important for these private institutions to have stellar websites that engage their users. As a luxury product, the look of your school's site is important to families, which includes not only graphics but also the overall architecture of the site. That means, websites need to be easy to navigate, informative and current. The truth is, a school can lose a prospective family in as little as 30 seconds if they become frustrated with the online experience. 

Simple and logical navigation is important. If your users can't find what they want, they're going to abandon ship before you even get their contact info. How will you even know? Well, you're going to see your bounce rates shoot through the roof. Not sure how to check your bounce rates? This article gives you the basics on using Google Analytics for your school's website. 

A website design that I was part of included a unique navigation menu, which seemed like a genius idea. However, when we tested it out, the navigation completely tanked and users could not find anything. We had to throw out the idea and move on to the next plan. Want to know more about this failed website navigation? Read this blog.

Same goes for your current families. If your portals are messy and confusing, they're going to get frustrated and you're going to hear about it. It's important to be organized and strategic in how you build your communities, and then make sure you train parents on what they are expected to do. Some schools opt to host training sessions at opening of school while others simply share training videos in their weekly newsletters; whatever you do, make sure you educate your users and remind them of the expectations the school has for parents to stay informed.

Make the information on your website useful and current

There's nothing worse than arriving at a site that is outdated and has terrible information. We all know those click bait headlines on stories that fly around social media: "You'll never believe what she discovered!" But you get there, and there's nothing new to see and no discovery to learn about. Bummer! So don't give your users the same experience. If you advertise information about your curriculum guide, make sure when they go to that page, they can easily access the curriculum guide.

Keep your information current, and that includes text, photos and videos. Users don't want to see photos with computers that are obviously from the 90s, or read about the school play from five years ago on your homepage. You should have a strong content creation strategy so you're regularly updating the site. Looking for help on how to do this? Check out this article with resources to help you out.

Edit, edit, and edit again

As a school, making sure your site is correct is important. This includes everything from avoiding typos to making sure you have relevant and correct information on the site. While typos happen to even the best of us, it's important to make sure you have people regularly reviewing content. Make sure your teachers know that if they come across something wrong, outdated, or just plain odd, that they are welcome and encouraged to point it out, as some feel bad drawing attention to errors. It takes a village to maintain complex websites like schools have today!

Click everything

This is a regular request in my office. Whether we're launching a new micro-site, like our digital magazine, or sending out an email, we click everything to make sure it works. Dead links, incorrect links, and outdated redirects can make a user's browsing experience less than ideal and even cost you potential inquiries. Take time to click, click, and click some more to ensure that everything works. 

Go the extra mile

If you're able to, look for ways to encourage those phantom users to engage with you before they decide to apply. A blog aimed at educating prospective families about the admission process is a perfect way to get them to read your content. Add in an added bonus of downloadable content, like a premium blog post or an eBook, and you can get them to share their email address. This allows you to reach out and casually connect with them, giving you more time to help convert them into applicants. Cheshire Academy is among those schools that does this well, and has seen great success from their admission blog. Check it out here.