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Thou Shall Not Ignore the Importance of a Website

This blog is the first of a 10-part series that expands on each of the topics discussed in our white paper, “10 Academic Marketing Commandments.” The paper discusses the ten essential marketing elements that every private school should know.

Thou Shall Not Ignore the Importance of a Website

Did you know that when seeking help to make a decision, prospective families are more likely to visit your website than your school?

These days the accessibility and conveniences of computers, tablets and smart phones are unprecedented. As a result, the Internet has quickly become the number one source of information for your school’s prospects, both students and their families, alike. What exactly does this mean for you?

Well, it means several things. Certainly, your website is now your number one marketing tool. Also, your website is essential for making a good first impression. And, finally, it means you have less than 20 seconds to capture your visitors’ interests before they leave for another site.

A website should be seen and valued as an extension of your school’s brand and identity. You wouldn’t want a prospect taking a tour of your school if it didn’t look its best. So, why would you want a prospective student or family visiting your website to discover typos, outdated information and clutter?

In order to evaluate how successful a website is, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is the website designed effectively
Websites (particularly the homepage) need to be aesthetically pleasing. This generally means using large captivating images, a clean layout and an engaging color palette. Your homepage should be inviting, a pleasant gateway that draws visitors into the rest of your school’s site. Avoid clutter and be cautious about using too much text on the homepage. In fact, text on any page should be easy to read and simple to understand, always communicating your message with precision.

2. Is the website easy to navigate?
If design is the most important factor to producing a successful website, usability takes a close second. Let’s assume that your website is a beautiful paradise with picturesque views—it looks stunning! When people first visit, they are captivated and awed. But the roads running through your paradise are difficult to navigate, littered with potholes and sharp pointy things. Instead of enjoying the view, visitors get confused and frustrated. They don’t know where to go or how to get there, and the ride is a bumpy one.

Not a very pleasant experience, right? This is why the usability, navigation and structure of your website needs to be well thought out and planned. Are the important menu items easy to find? Is your navigation intuitive? Are sub-menu items strategically located within main menu items? Does your site provide accessible links between pages? All of these considerations will give visitors a smooth ride on your site, allowing them to take in the views while enjoying a more successful (and less stressful) stay.

3. Does your website have relevant content?
Your website should always have up-to-date and pertinent content for all of your visitors, including current and prospective students, parents, teachers and other interested parties. If visitors encounter a website with stale and outdated content, they can be turned off quickly and may decide that it is a bad source of information. Keeping your content fresh and dynamic encourages frequent visits to your site, making it a credible source of timely information.

Creating the right content for the right audience is very important. On average, a school’s website has four main target audiences: prospects (new students and their families), current students and family members, internal faculty and staff and, finally, alumni and friends of the school. Here are some thoughts pertaining to Category 1: Prospects. Does the site contain all of the necessary facts and instructions that can help parents or guardians make an informed decision about sending their child to your school? Is contact information readily available? Are application and tuition forms included on the site for download? Now, some pointers on Category 2: Enrolled Students and Their Families. Can parents look online for teacher-contact information? What about alarms and alerts, like an emergency closing? Can families rely upon the website as a timely source of emergency information? Next, information on Category 3: Internal Faculty and Staff. This website option depends largely on the needs and means of a school. For most, the site usually contains a back-end system for secure log in, where teachers can post grades, access school email and get personal contact information on parents. In general, this functionality is private and hidden from “regular” visitors (non-faculty and staff). Schools tend to utilize the services of third party software providers, such as RenWeb and Edline, to streamline this process. Finally, tips on Category 4: Alumni and Friends of the School. Is there a designated place to capture alumni information for the school’s database? Is there content on how to make gifts and donations to the school? Remember, relevant and current information helps drive traffic to your site – so keep the information fresh and engaging for each of your four audiences!

Let’s examine a few website examples. Click on the thumbnail below to open the site in a new window. Examine the homepage of the website; decide which are the “keepers,” the good aspects — and those that should be altered to create a better website. Then, compare your notes with ours below.

Example #1: Milton High School

The good: (1) The school’s logo, name and contact information are all prominent on the top header. (2) There is a fairly large link for incoming freshmen, too — a smart link to have, especially over the summer and before the school year starts. (3) The main menu is obvious and clearly labeled to the left of the page, helping a new visitor navigate the site.

The not-so-good: (1) Reverse type (white text on a dark or black background) makes reading the text more difficult. (2) The scrolling announcement bar dictates the reading pace for visitors. As a rule, sites should avoid scrolling text. (3) Other not-so-good features: a lack of images on the site and the bad location for a bell schedule. Information used mostly by current students and parents, like a bell schedule, should be placed in a different section of the website. Think of your homepage as prime real estate, where space should be used wisely.

Example #2: Life Christian Academy

The good: (1) The site is simple and features an image of children. (2) The name, description, and contact information are prominently displayed. (3) The menu items are presented in a way that is easy to navigate.

The not-so-good: (1) The simplicity of this site is nice for legibility, but the design may be too simple. There’s nothing on the page to engage new visitors or grab their attention. (2) Although what appears to be a school emblem is featured, this graphic is placed underneath lots of text. The problem? Details of the emblem are hard to see, while the overlaid text is difficult to read. (3) Even though surrounded by white space, this site seems cramped. Centering this site on the browser window and spacing things out would make for a better visual.

Example #3: St. Mary of the Assumption School

The good: ((1) The school’s shield and name are featured prominently in the header, along with contact information. (2) There’s a substantial image on the page to draw in visitors. (3) On the top left side of the page, a search box allows visitors to quickly find what they’re looking for on the site.

The not-so-good: (1) Although this site features an image on the homepage, the picture simply duplicates information that’s on the header. Instead, this space could be used to feature an image that parents can relate to, like the smiling face of a happy student. (2) Menu overload! The three separated menus on this page are “T.M.I.”, too much information. There’s one menu on the top (below the address), a second menu on the left hand side, and nine smaller click-able links below the picture. (3) Certainly, this school wants visitors to see a very important piece of information — “Registration has begun!” By making the text big and bold, the message gets noticed; however, there is a major missed opportunity: the lack of a link to a page that could feature registration instructions and even a registration form for download. (4) Complicated URL warning! A crucial element to website success is a web link that is easy to understand, memorize and repeat. Always stay away from too many dots, slashes and dashes in a single URL.

Although it is important for your school to have a web presence, there is no single solution or design for the perfect website. Strive to do the most you can with your school’s resources and budget. If you would like to discuss all of the web services offered by Bullpen Marketing, please contact us.  We invite you to browse through our website portfolio here and let us know what you think.

We hope this taste of our white paper will give you a hunger to read more, because every private school should be aware of these ten essential marketing elements. Coming soon! A discussion about our second commandment: Honor Marketing and Create a Plan.

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