Seven Signs Your School Needs a New Website
When college websites first came online, they had a dozen or so pages to give visitors an interactive overview of the school. It felt like a mashup of several flyers, including the college’s history, academic programs, campus life, and an application form. Several iterations later, it morphed into a digital version of the viewbook, which was fine and well until departments and schools seized the opportunity to create their own web pages. Suddenly, everyone was a webmaster and a marketing guru.
On the other side of the equation are the students using different devices to navigate the website. It started with a desktop computer at 1024×768 resolution, then laptops with WUXGA screens, until the explosion of mobile and tablets in different screen sizes and resolutions that we see today. This caused many headaches for web developers and designers everywhere, since they had to create different versions of the website, until responsive design came along and made things easier through cascading style sheets (CSS) calls.
Then there’s your competitors. It’s an arms race to see who can get to the top of the search engine results pages, or who can be the most persuasive with powerful content or user-friendly features. Your institution’s distinctive qualities are being challenged by growing competition and more students enrolling online. Even the ivy leagues have redesigned their website to address these issues.
In short, ask yourself and your leadership—why have a website? And, is it working? The answer to the first question should give you a sense whether the leadership values the website as an active marketing tool instead of a passive digital viewbook. The second question should give you a glimpse of whether your website functions as the center of your integrated digital marketing plan.
Let’s find out.
1. Content management system (CMS) is broken
Ok, this may be a little too dramatic, because if your CMS were truly broken your website would be offline. What I mean by this is, do your content contributors have difficulty using and trusting your CMS? Do they have to check constantly whether the content is published, and does it work across all browsers? Does your CMS support responsive design? Does it have a robust calendar system that supports multiple editors? If you use proprietary CMS, will the vendor continue to support the platform or provide you with a five-year roadmap? If not, you may need to update your code, update the CMS to a newer version, or change your CMS altogether.
2. Architecture is everywhere
New students come to your website from many places at any time. Some folks like to make the analogy that a proper website should look like a retail store with a clear entrance and exit. I argue that a modern website is much more complex, like an airport with several terminals and hundreds of gates with a constant flow of people. Passengers can arrive between terminals to catch a connecting flight, come from rail or bus, be dropped off at the baggage claim area, or drive themselves to the airport.
To orchestrate all these different channels to a central location is difficult, and your website’s architecture should have a fluidity across all marketing channels that helps your visitor in their journey.
To help you identify problem areas, look at your primary menu system and count how many submenus or links you have. Ideally, you should have no more than seven under each main category. Second, when you navigate deeper into a section, does the secondary menu (usually the left rail menu) change? If so, you will have to do some serious clean-up on your site architecture.
3. Template changes
Along with menu changes, does the website’s look and feel sometimes change abruptly? This usually happens when a department decides to undertake a renovation of their own, or they haven’t adopted the new templates yet. This is jarring for visitors who may think they have left your website and don’t know if they can trust the information, and this also forces them to relearn the layout and navigation, which causes even more frustration.
Go to your college of arts and sciences, the financial office, or the bursar’s office’s website and see if the design or menu changes significantly. If it does, then you need to create a plan to get everyone on the same boat or, at the very minimum, use a template variant of your main theme.
4. Bad analytics
If your website has bad architecture and the templates are hosted in subdomains, you probably have some bad analytics tracking your traffic. At this point, your complex analytics platform is functioning barely more than a simple door counter, when it could do so much more.
With proper analytics, you and your team can tease out details about your visitors’ behaviors—how they arrive at your website, what content they consume, and where they move to next. You can even define a dollar value for a conversion, and where to allocate more resources on your admissions funnel if students are not paying deposit or are dropping off at the admit phase.
Good Analytics can help the marketing team shape its admissions funnel and further develop its communications map with specific messaging that nurtures your leads every step of the way. On the other hand, bad analytics will capture mostly internal traffic, and you are unable to glean any insights that will help you refine any kind of funnel.
Look at your traffic pattern and see if there is a year-to-year growth in the two months prior to your application deadline. Look at your internal search query and see if the questions are about admissions or academic operations. Finally, check out our analytics scorecard for student recruitment and see how our Google-certified experts can help with your analytics.
5. Content is inconsistent
You are probably thinking millennials and Generation Z don’t read these days because they have a short attention span, but you are mistaken. They are bombarded with more content than they can read in a 24-hour period, and they have honed the craft of scanning through content to get to the point. Once they determine that the content is important, they will revisit the page and read it more carefully. This happens particularly at the research phase of their college search.
If you still don’t believe content is important, then trust me when I say that search engines are reading your content and evaluating it for quality and authority. This is particularly true with Google, and when those metrics improve, your organic search rank also improves. If you engage in Google’s AdWords paid search advertisement, you will also have a lower bid rate. In the end, better content benefits everyone.
Check the consistency of the voice and tone of the website’s content. Avoid pages that only have a list of links, since this page may be interpreted as a link-farming page. Lastly, make sure the content is relevant and useful for the new student. It‘s aggravating when a dedicated page is created for a trivial category and the content doesn’t provide any good information.
6. No conversions
If your website has been around for a while but most students arrive at your website and click directly on the apply button, then your website is not working as a marketing tool. It doesn’t promote your college, attract new students, and have them apply. It only serves those who have already made up their mind about your college, and your website functions more like an interactive form.
In your analytics platform, do you have goals set up with well-defined (and realistic) actions? Are your users navigating through your website the way you expected? Is the form data going to your customer relationship manager (CRM) and analytics? If not, this could be a combination of issues that may include your content, analytics, site architecture, and inbound marketing efforts.
7. Bad search engine optimization (SEO)
Nine out of 10 students start their college search online. Of those, between 71 percent and 83 percent use unbranded terms to find a college with their program. For example, they will search for “nursing college Montana” and not include your college’s name (the brand). If your college doesn’t come up on the first page of the search results after two or three query refinements, then you need to reconsider your digital strategy. For search engines, your college looks like every other institution in the country. For students, your program should be a commodity, but it doesn’t stand out to them as providing exceptional expertise in a specific field because your copy reads like every other college’s website.
Use tools like Moz to identify your domain authority and the quality of your link metrics. Together, they will help you determine the problem areas with the content and help you identify key sites you should seek out to amplify your brand message.
A new website with a clear strategy
Reactive patchwork solutions to fix any of these problems often indicate the lack of a fully-integrated digital marketing plan. You may think that a new hero image or a reorganized menu will be good enough, but on the back-end, you will still have difficulty tracking visitor behaviors, and Google will penalize your website.
Something as simple as creating a paid search ad campaign may generate some brand awareness at the top of your admissions funnel, but once the student arrives on your website, you won’t be able to capture much useful traffic data because of any combination of the issues outlined above. The same thing will happen to your email campaigns, social media strategy, and any other marketing channel.
As the intricacies of your school’s digital footprint continue to become more complicated, the need for a strong digital strategy becomes increasingly important. Just as important is rallying everyone on campus who relies on the website to get behind the new plan. The most effective websites start with a carefully-planned digital strategy that considers all elements of your marketing plan.
Is your school ready for a new website? We’re ready to help.