March 3, 2020
18 Things Every Higher Education Web Experience Needs
10 Things Every Higher Education Web Experience Needs

Prior to joining the Ingeniux team I spent years managing higher education web experiences. In that time, I found there were eighteen things every .EDU website needs to be successful. Eighteen. Yes, it’s a big number, but then again, there’s a lot of work involved in creating a winning higher education web experience.

How many of these have yet to make it to your “to do” list?

Focus on the Right Audience

Ten years ago, this was all over the map, but in the last decade, nearly all of the higher education websites I’ve worked on or visited for research purposes now focus on speaking to prospective students and parents.

From community colleges to large public universities, from enrollment-challenged schools to those bursting at the seams, to schools focusing on undergrad, grad programs, or online institutions – most of their total budget comes from tuition, so why not gear the website to that audience?

Alumni, internal constituencies, and friends of the school or corporate partners will all come to the external site for information – and don’t ignore them – but keep that primary audience front and center for all your editorial content and CTA (call to action) decisions. And stick to it!

Find the Right Voice

Your college or university should be proud of its accomplishments and talk about them in a way that highlights the rigorous academic requirements you ask of your students – but don’t go overboard.

On the other hand, you also don’t want to use solely the GIF and emoticon lexicon used in communications amongst our next generation of leaders. Find a happy medium with a tone that doesn’t embarrass your faculty and administration but also doesn’t make your university seem stuffy, like that uncle no one likes to sit next to at Thanksgiving.

Define Your Calls to Action (CTAs)

Your website exists to make it easy for a student to learn about your university, feel comfortable with the idea of spending a considerable amount of time there for the next couple of years and apply to go there. Alternatively, it also exists to show donors all the great things going on and encourage them to give you enough money to build a new wing on a building.

Certain rankings depend on alumni giving participation, so if you’re going to ask, make it easy for them to give. This is where Calls to Action (CTAs) come in handy. Ask yourself how your content contributes to your goals, and if you are defining the right CTAs to move them to these goals easily.

Use Video Wisely

Is video going to crystallize the tough decision to apply to your school? Probably not. Is it a good way to get a glimpse into the culture and beauty of your campus? Yes.

Think of video as the first touch-point on your site and don’t just limit it to talking heads. I’ve used animation to great effect, and they are less dependent on schedules.

Provide an Area for Outcomes/Career Readiness

I’m a liberal arts educated fellow and I worked at a university rooted in the liberal arts (in other words, I rock at trivia night). Whether you work at a technical school or a private liberal arts institution, connect the dots between paying money for an education and the chances of employment when the education is complete. Help them envision the first stop on their journey and how you do everything but pick up their suit at the dry cleaners to help them be prepared.

Define Governance Plans and A Vision for the Future

Every site known to man has started as a compact amount of very important information and mutated to swallow city blocks worth of server space. It’s as inevitable as a Friends reunion (and yeah, that’s really happening).

Have a plan for when tough conversations arise on how [fill in the blank initiative] will help keep the site from dramatic bloat. Your future self will thank you later when it comes time to cull assets or migrate content. Your budgeting self will thank you when you don’t need to ask for the funds for more server space.

Provide an Intranet

All schools have internal content that needs to be made available – holiday pay schedules, travel reimbursement forms, an announcement that there’s cake for Karen’s birthday – to the folks who work at your institution. This is why the Intranet was created.

Keep your marketing content separate from the nitty-gritty of making the institution run. It keeps that marketing site nimble for future redesigns and fewer places for prospective audiences to get lost.

Aggregate Your News

Does the trust in traditional news outlets seem to be waxing or waning? How many newspapers have filed for bankruptcy in the last ten years? This isn’t a quiz – it’s life. If you control your news, you control information. With the ability to push your own published news content to news curators, you no longer need to rely on traditional media to get the word out about your accomplishments.

Understand the Value of Social Media On Your Website

It’s not just for campus beauty shots or giveaways. Make sure to push news stories, events, and calls to action through your social media channels as well. In analytics, I’ve seen a clear correlation to the success of stories promoted through social media versus those we post on a site and hope people stumble upon. You grow your social media for a reason.

Leverage Analytics

I will talk about analytics in-depth in future posts, including things such as event tracking, goals, reporting, search terms, and data to inform marketing – stay tuned! For now, it’s important to have analytics set up to understand how your website is performing.

Show an Events Calendar

Your event calendar is important for educating your community and getting people onto campus. Open houses, conferences, unbelievable speakers or show-stopping acts – heck, even that open mic night all the Intro to Poetry students are too afraid to speak at. Showing prospective students and families all the things there are to do on campus only helps your chances – particularly the farther removed the campus is from a metro area.

Include Faculty profiles

One surprising thing I see when digging into higher education web analytics is how many site visitors view the faculty listing. It makes sense, students spend a lot of time with professors in their majors, and they’re also going to try to tap into the network of those professors to get internships and jobs. Your faculty is a major draw to your institution. Build great relationships with them, feature them, make them feel integral to the process, and invested in recruitment strategies.

Answer Their Burning Questions

Here are the questions most prospective students will ask themselves when they visit your website:

  • Do you have what they want to study?
  • Can they afford this school? 
  • Will they fit in?
  • Will they get a job?
  • Will they be safe?

Does your website do enough to put prospective students and families at ease regarding the hierarchy of website needs? Make sure you provide answers to these questions on your website.

Author Reusable Content

You spend a lot of time and effort to get fresh content on the site. Make the most of it by promoting it in different areas or use that content to add to the rich tapestry that is the whole of your site. Did you write a profile on a successful alumnus? Have the ability to propagate that content into other places on the site without tons of extra work.

Integrate with CRM for a Personalization Strategy

There’s a creepy way to do personalized marketing – like when the Facebook app listens to you – and there’s a way to connect with CRMs and personalize CTAs that increase conversions without seeming intrusive. Ingeniux integrates with Slate and other CRMs, and it’s helping some of our customers get the most out of their funnel.

Have a Consistent Design Aesthetic

The generation of prospective students you’re most likely recruiting is sensitive to off-brand designs, even though they may not have the senior-level design jargon to tell you why they were thrown off by inconsistent designs. Take the extra time to make sure all the pages on your site conform to the overall look and user experience.

Implement a Training Program for CMS Users

If you’ve closed down access to the CMS to a select few people who are in it every day, you can probably skip this one. If you’re a completely decentralized regime and you’re one cowpoke away from being the Wild West, be a nicer, kinder sheriff and host a lot of training (with snacks, people love snacks). Send out newsletters with helpful tips, listen to their suggestions for new page types or components and let everyone know ahead of time about downtime or upgrades. Better communication equals better users.

Move to the Cloud

These days, there are few good reasons to host your web experience on-premise. Enough said.  

A university IT department has enough to wrap its head around: Data security, log-in credentials, keeping everyone’s computer running, debugging the whole system when one person clicks on a link to claim their free money (joking).  

Do everyone a favor and move your web presence to a cloud environment. They authenticate with whatever system you’re running, they have well-established redundant servers in case of natural disasters or cyberattacks, they free up your internal server space, and they’re more familiar with upgrading your CMS software because it’s their software. This is a business decision everyone should move to within the next two years.

Bonus: Photos of Puppies

This isn’t silly. There is so much necessary serious content on a higher education website (e.g. course catalogs, financial aid information, mental health services… the list goes on) that it’s easy to lose sight of how amazing a campus can be.

Nothing demonstrates this better than showing prospective students how much fun your current students and faculty have on campus (for example, meeting puppies… or kittens or llamas). Real campus stories and suggestions for activities to do on and outside your campus can have a huge impact and are a great way to get some positive attention.

Posted by Dan MacArthur