Watching the NCAA March Madness Selection Show, I thought of the many methods people use to choose the right school in their NCAA basketball brackets. But what about your next big pick – How to Choose a School Website Provider? How do you pick a winner or even your final four? Here are a few tips for eliminating the madness and choosing a website provider with greater ease.
Maybe your current web hosting contract is just about up and you simply want to change, or your website is missing the mark when it comes to engaging your parents and the rest of your school community. Perhaps it's difficult to use or it may lack the functionality to communicate how parents want to these days. Or maybe it just looks a little dated and doesn't reflect what your school is all about.
Any of these is a good reason to consider a new website, which is a key source of school information for many and ought to be a key driver in your school's overall communications effectiveness. If your website's not doing its job, it can have far-reaching implications for your school communications.
Don't be hasty. Take your time when looking at school website hosting providers, and make a decision everyone can live with. Before you start sending out RFPs or requesting quotes, use the following checklist for selecting the right school website hosting providers to guide your search:
1. Take a strategic approach.
Your website is too important for snap decisions. You need a website that satisfies all stakeholders, whether they’re parents, teachers, administrators or students. Just as you have lesson plans to steer learning, transportation plans to get the students to and from school, a game plan for the varsity football team, a web communications plan as part of a larger school communications plan is critical. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you’re taking a strategic approach:
- Assemble a selection committee. You don’t have to make this decision alone. In fact, you shouldn’t make it alone. If you’re the webmaster, or IT director, or school communications director and the decision is largely yours, surround yourself with other key people. Put together a committee to vet website hosting providers. The committee should include high-ranking administrators, like the superintendent, along with representatives from your communications, technology, and enrollment departments. You may also include a teacher or two.
- Define your goals. What do you want the website to do? Recruit new students? Get parents more engaged? Connect your school to the surrounding community? It’s okay if you want it to accomplish multiple things, but you should prioritize these goals. Create a written mission of why your website exists and what it should accomplish.
- Gather feedback about your current site. Conduct a survey of your parents, teachers, and students. What do they like about your current site? What would they like to see improved? The feedback from these surveys may shed new light on your priorities. I guarantee you’ll identify some glaring needs.
2. Review the provider’s technological savvy.
Dig into the technology chops your content management system (CMS) provider candidates offer. A technologically inferior site will be hard to recover from. After all, you want a site that will last for years. You don’t want it to be outdated as soon as it launches.
Is the provider you're considering equipped to change as your school or district needs change? Are they partnered with progressive technology partners that need to work hand-in-glove with your CMS. Hosting; the capability to expand and add new functionality; accessibility and ADA compliance; and integration with popular school apps like Google and Microsoft 365 are key areas to consider when examining your provider's scalability and technology prowess.
3. Test ease-of-use.
Ideally, your site will probably be managed by multiple parties with varying degrees of technical know-how. You’ll have administrators adding content and managing calendars. You may have coaches updating team information pages. Your teachers will have their own mini-sites within the larger website. School secretaries, lunchroom ladies – the list goes on.
It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect all of those individuals to become website experts. But it’s not too much to ask your website provider to accommodate the non-techie user. Two ways to do that are with easy editing tools and workflow tools.
First of all, you need a site that is easy to use and edit. The inline editor is perhaps the most critical piece for the non-techie. It's got to be easy to create and edit web pages. An inline editor with friendly, intuitive editing tools is going to keep your writers and site admins happy and your content fresh.
Workflows too are an increasingly important part of a CMS designed to save school communicators precious time and resources. Workflows eliminate content bottlenecks, facilitating content being created, reviewed, approved and published by spreading the responsibility for website content management.
Your CMS should also allow for easy design changes, social media sharing, and the ability to embed links, photos, and videos. Every provider has a different CMS with unique characteristics and features. Ask each provider if you can test their CMS out to see whether it will be easy for your staff to adjust to.
4. Consider design options.
Will you be able to get a website that looks unique, professional, and aesthetically pleasing? Can they match the site’s design to your school colors and other branding elements? Do you have the flexibility to change the design theme of your website over time?
Most providers base their designs off templates, but then customize certain elements to make the design specific to you. This is a benefit to you because it saves you time and money. However, you also don’t want a website that looks generic and that duplicates the appearance of other sites.
You should ask the provider to show you how many different design templates they use. How many features can be customized? Can incorporate some specific designs or do you have to stick to the templates? If you want some aspects of the templates changed, how long will it take and what will be the additional cost?
5. Review their support and training.
At some point, you will have questions about your website. You may not be able to figure out how to implement a certain feature. Your team may be unsure about how to update their pages on the site. You may need to get a communication out quickly and have some issues sharing it on social media.
When these issues pop up, what are your options? Does the provider have a dedicated help center? Can you talk to someone on the phone or is it only through email? What are their hours of operation?
Also, check to see how they’ll train you and your staff when the site is implemented. Do they do it in person, over the phone, or with some kind of interactive seminar? Do they train you and your team or do they simply train you and leave the rest of the training in your hands?
6. Are they secure and reliable?
By secure and reliable, I'm talking more about their technical security issues. You may have sensitive information in your site’s database, including student and teacher names, as well as home addresses and even social security numbers. Securing that sensitive information should be a high priority. Additionally, you want to be sure that your site is free from hackers and that it will stay online at all times.
What security options do they offer? How do they backup your site’s data and information? If their servers crash, what are your options? These may seem like unlikely scenarios, but it’s still important to ask the questions.
7. Talk to their other customers.
Finally, the last thing you’ll want to do is get the full story from the providers’ other customers. Get some references. Those are probably the ones that they know will provide positive feedback. Go a little deeper: ask for a couple of additional names, too.
Ask the customers how long they’ve been with the provider, why they switched, and whether they’ve been happy. Also, ask about what they think are the provider's strengths and where they’d like to see improvement. Talking to customers will give you a good idea of what the provider’s experience is like after their solution has been implemented.
Take your 'Selection Show' seriously
As one of the millions of Americans each year who takes his NCAA brackets very seriously, poring over matchups and potential upsets, I take my selections quite seriously. But unlike college basketball, which occurs every March, a chance to create a website comes along only once in a great while.
Your website is a significant investment, both in terms of time and money. It’s worth it to take the time to do your due diligence and make sure you get the right solution. You'll find that there are distinct differences between website providers, and you owe it your school, your students' parents and yourself to take your selection show seriously
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.