Okay, your school's got a website, but is it pulling its weight when it comes to truly marketing your school? When was the last time you put any time or resources into making your website work for you? Is it a major part of your school’s recruitment and marketing plan? Or is it simply a placeholder that for basic contact information?
Far too many private schools (and charter schools) view their website as a source of information, as something they have because it’s something they’re supposed to have. Next to word of mouth, your website is arguably your most powerful tool in your effort to recruit new students. Why so powerful? Because it’s likely the first place that prospective students and families visit to learn about your school. It’s the first opportunity for you to make an impression. It’s the first mechanism that can convert a vague prospect into a real, identifiable applicant.
Much like colleges that depend on a comprehensive, integrated web communications plan to attract and land new students, private schools are missing the boat if they're not dedicating the proper marketing resources to a solid school website.
Don’t take our word for it. Studies have shown that a school’s website can make all the difference in student recruitment. The consulting firm of Noel Levitz and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions conducted a survey of 1,000 college-bound seniors about how those students identified schools in their search. The results underscore the importance of a strong website:
- 76 percent found their target schools through Google or some other search engine.
- 88 percent said they’d cross a school off their list if the site didn’t have the content they needed
- 85 percent said they wanted a school’s website to be simple with easy navigation
- 70 percent said they found it helpful if a school was active in social media
While this study was for those searching for colleges, it’s reasonable to assume that the same attitudes apply to students and families looking for private elementary and secondary schools. Also, this study was conducted in 2009. The internet and social media have only become more ingrained in our lives since that time, so it’s possible that these numbers would be even higher if the study was conducted today.
The point is clear: As a private school, it’s not enough to simply use your website as an information resource. You have to use it to attract students, establish your brand, and build your community. In short, you have to approach your website the same way a business would - as a valuable resource that’s critical in growing your customer base.
What makes a good private school website?
Your website needs to draw visitors in, engage them visually and mentally, and persuade them to take the next step of contacting you or requesting more information. Fortunately, there’s been a ton of research into how schools and companies can best do that. Religious school blogger Paul Steinbrueck at ourchurch.com, has laid out 12 best practices for private school websites. Those represent a good starting point for reviewing your site.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
1. Keep it simple.
Yes, there are lots of cool things that you can do with a website. Yes, it may be really neat to have intro videos, animated sliders, and all kinds of other special effects. However, your website is there to serve a purpose and that purpose is not to amaze your visitors with special effects.
The goal is for your website to present your school’s story, brand, and competitive advantage so visitors will take the next step and request more information. That means you should make your site as clear and easy to navigate as possible. Don’t make it hard on visitors to get the information they need.
There has been significant research into web design in recent years and most of it has concluded that highly technical special effects are counter productive to reaching your end goal. Flash elements make it difficult for search engines to find your website. They can also make your pages slow to load and may look, frankly, a little corny. Even one of the more recent design innovations - carousel sliders - has been found to discourage visitor engagement.
The verdict is in - the simpler your website design, the better.
2. Update your blog.
This is arguably one of the toughest website challenges for many schools. Regularly updating a blog requires man hours, which could be in short supply. However, it’s worth the effort. Every time you update your blog, you’re adding another page for search engines to index. That improves the likelihood that you’ll be found in Google.
Your also increasing ways for prospective students to learn about your school. What if a student is looking for a private school with a strong drama program and they just happen to find that blog post about your school’s spring musical? Ideally, they’ll read that post, become interested, and submit their name and email to request more information.
Speaking of requesting information, be sure to use calls-to-action. It should be very clear as to what you would like visitors to do. Should they submit their name and email to download a brochure? Should they request information on a campus visit? What should the next action be?
Once you determine that, use calls-to-action throughout your content to guide them to the ideal destination. It could be a form that they fill out. It could be a sign-up form for a webinar. Whatever it is, end all of your blog posts and website content with a instruction on how they can move forward.
3. Be responsive.
You probably are responsive in the way you work with students and parents. In website terms, responsive means something else. It means that your website is compatible with nearly any device that’s used to access it. Responsive websites can determine what device is being used and then change their design to function better on that device. So your website will still function properly regardless of whether a person is using a phone, tablet, or computer to visit.
You can address all of these areas by using a content management system. A CMS like the one offered by Campus Suite can provide you with a simple, but appealing design that’s easy to update. You can also use the CMS to publish new content, make blog updates, and even promote your site through social media. The best thing about a CMS is that you don’t have to be a technical wizard to use it. You simply have to be committed to using your website as the recruitment machine that it’s capable of being.
If you play a role in the admissions at your private school or college, can you say your website is pulling its marketing weight?
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.