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Streamlining the Student Experience with Your Website

An institution’s website is the first impression modern learners will have of you—by making their experience seamless and representing your brand well, students will easily determine whether they want to be a part of your community. 

In the era of Amazon, Uber and Netflix, students demand all consumer experiences to be as easy and seamless as they would anywhere else. This means institutions need to revamp their websites to ensure they’re representing their brand and giving the right amount of information to the right people. In this interview, Laura Lehman discusses the importance of an institution’s website, personalization and its influence on the student experience

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher education institutions to focus on the quality of their website?

Laura Lehman (LL): The website is most often the first contact people have with your institution in any broad way. So, what is the first impression that people get? We all use search engines for almost everything. If your website is difficult to navigate or doesn’t look like it’s made for prospective students, then that is the first impression people have of your school. Our website has to mirror the experience of being an EMU (Eastern Mennonite University) student and alumnus. 

Evo: How does the website play a role in helping the university transition into the 21st century?

LL: Especially in the last year, our admissions team, faculty and staff couldn’t have the kind of in-person interaction they’re used to with prospective students. So it was important that what students and families encountered digitally was consistent with what they would have experienced in person. We can assume that going forward people will expect that same kind of digital service they received in the last year, even though in-person education is possible now. 

Prospective students and their parents need to find consistency between the impression we would give on campus and on the website. I want the website to be friendly and easy to follow. 

One of the things that we must offer as a small school is the ability to have more one-on-one interaction. You’re in a class with 15-30 people, not 600, so when you come to our website, you need to feel like you are important. We hope you ARE one of thousands on the website, but we want to speak to the individual person and tell them that we’re paying attention to them. Creating intuitive navigation and friendly, personable content are important for us.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that you and your team run into when creating and managing the website?

LL: When I started, the biggest challenge was to remind internal audiences that the website is not for them. So, when a 55-year-old professor says, “I can’t find this,” I have to remind them that it’s because the website is not made for them. A vast majority of our website is for 16- to 18-year-olds, and it is one of our major admissions tools. I spend time training and reminding web editors and internal users that our website is intended to help high school students make their college choice and imagine themselves at our school.  We’re a recruitment-driven institution—there’s no way around it. We have got to get those students here, so an on-going challenge is to clearly define the audience for each section of the website and remind internal users who they are. 

A second challenge has been organizing the website and using language that external audiences will understand. Prospective students and families, donors and even alumni don’t necessarily know the department or school where a particular program is housed. Getting into the minds of those who don’t know the organization inside out can be a challenge, but it’s important work. It is part of my job to make sure we don’t get caught up with academic jargon or overly complicated and nuanced language in our web content, and we similarly can’t structure the website based on something only internal audiences know. 

Evo: How do you apply persona-based messaging, so each individual can see the route they need to take upon landing on the homepage? How do you deliver that level of streamlining to their experience?

LL: We have persona-based global navigation, and we also have worked really hard with different offices and departments to use the right link in communications. You’re not sending everyone to the homepage. You’re sending donors to the giving pages, alumni to the alumni pages and prospective students to the pages that most interest them. We also make sure SEO is clear and appropriate for the audience. 

Once they get to the right page, it’s important to speak to them directly. I have developed an interview that I give to department chairs or administrative assistants—whoever is working on particular parts of the website. They know what kind of students they have in their programs and why those students come to EMU, which has been a really important tool in making sure the content speaks to our prospective students. The simple interview helps me get to know the kinds of students in each program, and it helps the administrative assistants and program directors understand what we’re doing with the website, in terms of speaking to a prospective student persona. 

Evo: What are the characteristics of a good website in an era where people are using Amazon, Netflix and Uber on a daily basis?

LL: Our next goal is to be mobile-first—to start designing our web components for mobile from the start, rather than making them mobile-responsive afterward. Of course, everything is mobile-responsive on our site, but I think we could do more in designing for mobile-first. At least half of our web traffic is from mobile users, so we need to be making clear, attractive calls to action in the mobile environment. You don’t go to Amazon without seeing a “buy” button. On our website, the “buy” button is either an invitation to request information, apply or schedule a visit,  or a call for  donors and alumni to give to the school. 

We’re super excited to get into the personalization that Modern Campus is working on. When you go to Amazon, they make recommendations and remember you. That is the experience many people expect now from the web, and it plays into what I was saying earlier about each student being important in our institution. You would never talk to a student in person about a humanities degree if you knew they wanted to study science, so being able to recommend pages to visit or places to explore along each individual’s journey is going to be really helpful. 

Evo: How does or can the website influence the student experience?

LL: I feel like I’ve said this already, but for us, the website—like a campus visit or a chat with a faculty member—needs to be a uniquely EMU experience. When a student is on the website, they should see, feel and understand the EMU experience as well as when they’re on campus. We use mostly our own candid photography; we don’t stage many images or use many stock images. We want to speak to website visitors in the same friendly, open manner they experience on campus. Our students and alumni regularly report feeling like their success is important to faculty and who they are as individuals is valued. I try to translate that understanding into web design, content and organization, so before they even set foot our campus, students understand that their success and education are going to be our first priority.

When you encounter a website that you can’t navigate or on which you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do next, it makes you think, “I can’t succeed here.” My goal is to help website visitors know that they can succeed with EMU, whether succeeding means applying, giving, or just being aware of what is happening on campus.

Our university mission statement is: “Our community of learning integrates Christian faith, academic rigor, artistic creation and reflective practice informed by the liberal arts, interdisciplinary engagement and cross-cultural encounter.” I will know I have accomplished my goals for student experience when our website integrates community, faith, academics, artistic creation and reflection in a way that fulfills this mission. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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