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Dear Universities, Your Website Isn’t About You

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Like most large organizations—heck, probably even more than most organizations—universities suffer from the curse of decentralization. Every department, program, initiative, and administrative body wants to claim prime real estate on the school’s website. University web design is often a battle for territory.

This often produces university homepages that are cluttered amalgams of “quick links,” designed to make sure everyone feels well represented, that everyone already on campus (faculty and current students) can get to their information quickly.

Content bloats.

Navigation confuses.

And, surprisingly, the website’s most important audience is an afterthought: Prospective students.

Keeping an Eye on Your Prospects

Websites trend toward entropy. Redesigning a university website is usually an attempt to wrestle control from the black hole of decentralization. (Which is a great reason to invest in some big-time content governance.)

Who is the most important audience your website should serve?

For example: When we first sit down with a new higher ed client, the second question we ask—right after, “What are your specific, concrete goals for this project?”—is deceptively simple: Who is the most important audience your website should serve?

The answer is invariably “prospective students.” But then, when we evaluate how well the current website is aimed at engaging with prospective students, we often find it lacking. Over time, the website has turned inward, attempting to meet the needs of current students and faculty, with only a few token nods toward attracting a bigger, better mix of applicants.

Simply put: If you university’s website isn’t laser-focused on prospective students (and their parents), it’s failing your school.

How to Prioritize Prospective Students Online

Much of your success in engaging prospects relies on your university’s brand—its identity, its messages, what it chooses to do and say in the world.

But there are several no-brainer web design choices you should implement on your website. These include:

  • Make “Apply Now” a primary call to action (CTA) and have it appear on every page (ideally in the same location). Because most students won’t apply the first time they visit your site, you should also provide a secondary CTA—e.g., “Schedule a Tour” or “Request Information.” Your job, ultimately, is to improve enrollment. But the interim step is to capture a prospect’s contact info.
Auburn University Harbert
Example of secondary CTAs like Request Info
  • From the homepage, provide a quick pathway to learning about each potential degree plan. Remember, choosing a college is an emotional decision, and getting prospective students excited about their academic options is a quick way to hook into their emotions.
  • Explain the application and financial aid processes in a clear, step-by-step process. Simplify, simplify, simplify! When web content is confusing, users bail.
  • Tell your users which offices and specific people can help answer their questions. Getting the runaround will drive them away and tarnish your brand at a critical moment.
  • Highlight the unique benefits of attending your school, and do so in concrete terms. Every university claims to offer “great student support services” and a “diverse array of activities.” What’s special about yours? Give examples. Show real (high-quality) photos. Make it easy for prospects to see themselves on your campus, in your classrooms, in your dorms, etc.
  • Research suggests that prospective students want to hear from other, current, real students. They don’t want to be told by administrators; they want to be shown by real students—someone near their age. Use (short) videos and testimonials from current students about every aspect of the application, enrollment, and registration processes.

But What About Other Audiences?

Obviously, your school’s website needs to do more than merely attract more applicants. It can, and should, be the go-to reference for current students, faculty, staff, donors, parents, etc.

If your homepage is, for example, 90% focused on attracting new students, what do you do about your secondary audiences?

First, we recommend architecting your website based on audience type. From the homepage, your user should see an option for themselves—“Current Students” and “Faculty/Staff” and “Alumni.” When they click, they should see links to their most commonly used tasks.

Our website for Cisco College offers a great example of this:

Front and center on the homepage, four large buttons allow (just about) anyone an easy pathway into the site.

Second, use your footer wisely. This appears on every single page of your website, so make sure it’s both comprehensive and un-cluttered. (This requires a delicate balance, usually.) Again, Cisco College provides a great example:

And finally, expect frequent website users to bookmark pages they need to access often. For example, current students are likely to go straight to the campus email or classroom app URL instead of going to your homepage first. Don’t assume users will work their way from the homepage inward. Thus, your content needs to be clear on all key pages instead of simply assuming the user knows what’s happening on a given page because they visited other pages first.

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Your University’s Website is Your Greatest Recruiter

Your website isn’t a storage unit. It’s a recruiter. Structured well and filled with especially readable content, your website can (and should) increase the number and quality of students applying.

Or better yet, imagine your website as a campus tour guide:

  • What do students need to know?
  • What do parents want to know?
  • What makes your school special?
  • How do you make students feel welcome—like they’ve discovered their home for the next several years?

Yes, universities are decentralized. And yes, every stakeholder naturally wants their fair share of attention online. But these internal audiences are willing to jump a few hurdles to get to the info they need because they’ve already “bought in.” It’s those prospects, who can choose to attend school anywhere (or not to attend at all) that should be the driving force of your web design decisions.

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