Published on 2019/08/21

The EvoLLLution | The 5 Secrets for Marketing and Enrollment Growth: Your Website (The Second Secret)
Colleges and universities rely on their website as the main entry-point for prospective students. But many sites make crucial errors, frustrating and pushing away prospects.

In the first installment of this article series, we discussed the importance of data-driven decision making in higher education marketing. The second secret is about bad websites. Not all websites are created equal and many institutions don’t allocate the proper resources to keep a site updated with relevant content and messaging. University websites make dozens of minor and major errors that frustrate, and ultimately, repel perspective students. Before you even get to the point of discussing content, you need to address technical aspects and stakeholder agreement.

Secret #2: Your Website is Your Lifeline

Pick any number of universities, community colleges, private non-profits or for-profit colleges and you will find great variance in website design, and quite possibly, website intent. Is there as much conversation about website analytics as there is about lead generation or enrollment growth?

Security and Hosting Speed

You need to make sure your site is built on a stable hosting platform. If your website goes down, even for a few hours, you could miss valuable leads. We generally recommend that institutions use either a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or a dedicated server. Not only does this help maximize the speed of delivering your website, but it also provides an extra level of security because, unlike shared hosting, you are the only website on that server. No one’s else’s code can try to reach into yours.

Speed is also critical. If the site takes too long to load, some people will think is broken and move on. Some predict it takes as little as three seconds before people abandon loading a site.

Constantly Assess Data to Understand and Tailor to Your Audience

This is a very important step before, during, and after you build your website.There are always times where the management, faculty and students have disagree about their overall image and target audience.The only caveat we would offer is that you do not use numbers religiously. They should play the largest part in your decisions, but there are times when extenuating factors require a different direction in your branding and messaging.

The Importance of Personas

Everyone wants to believe their products, services or messages appeal to everyone in their audience, but that is just not possible. We think of the entire audience as a bell curve. It begins at zero on the left. When you’re too nuanced, your messaging will resonate with a very small group. It slopes smoothly towards the middle, creating a round bump at the point where you’re speaking the right language to the highest possible number of people. However, it drops back down to zero on the other side when you become so general that you wind up not resonating with anyone.

Your audience is defined by a moving boundary on the left and one on the right. Your goal is to make that boundary cover as much of the curve as possible, but you will never achieve that, since there are far too many different people and motives for visiting your site.

One way to help focus your website’s main value proposition and also help guide your site’s organization and architecture is to use personas. Try to think of the top three to five people who are visiting your site. Get some demographics on them and look for the common threads in each group. Then, create a short synopsis of who this person might be, what their goals are, or any other information related to your site’s product or services.

Define Your Site’s Goals

Don’t inundate new visitors with so many messages that they leave with none of those messages. You need to prioritize your messages and set goals. For most schools, the main goal is usually getting people to contact the institution about enrollment. In that case, every other message is secondary and should be treated as such. The primary message should take up the majority of visual real estate above the fold. If someone is interested in your secondary messages, they will see them, simply by a small amount of scrolling.

There are basically three user archetypes. The first is visiting your site for a singular need and does not want to explore your site. They want to get in and out quickly. The second archetype might have a primary need, but is willing to spend a few more seconds scrolling or visiting a second or third page. In most cases, this seems to about one or two pages on average for this type of visitor. Lastly, there is the person who does not want to talk to a human until they have absorbed as much as they can about your site. They will scroll all the way to the bottom of pages, reading disclaimers, checking privacy policies and other background information about your institution.

This last type of visitor is the rarest. It has been my experience that the first type of visitor makes up the vast majority of traffic. So, don’t frustrate them and force them to abandon their task. Help them to find what they need quickly and efficiently in order to achieve your site’s primary goal.

Keep ADA Compliance In Mind

The Department of Education has been telling companies for quite some time that ADA Standards will be enacted soon and will be actively enforced. You can currently view these standardsand follow their guide on how to achieve compliance. There is also a section on the site that speaks to companies that have been fined for infractions. This means that sooner or later, they will be scrutinizing sites more rigorously.

So, while ADA compliance is not paramount at the moment, it is important to understand the guidelines and build in as much as you can with the development time you have on your site. A little time now could save you a lot of headache later.

Limiting Access to Your Site’s Back End

Many content management systems, such as WordPress, build pages on the server before sending the finished product to the visitor. If that process is interrupted due to an error, the page either looks broken or does not appear at all.

Mobile vs. Desktop

Another important question to ask yourself is, “What types of devices will most traffic arrive from?” If you have a site with 90% mobile and 10% desktop, then it might be prudent to design the site for mobile optimization, then create the desktop version. We have seen many well-designed desktop sites that did not translate well to mobile, so be careful when deciding which design will help you the most. Keep in mind some of the hidden factors. For example, even if 90% of your visitors arrive via mobile, 50% of those could end up visiting to the desktop version later, when they arrive at work or home.

Great Design is Invisible

Having an aesthetically pleasing website is not enough. You need a site that is well constructed, stable, and organized. It is important to be aware of what good visual mapping can accomplish. Many times, we have seen instances where the sign-in button is nowhere near the sign-out button when the user is in their account. Functionally related items should be in close proximity, or even replace their former control. So, in the case of the sign-in button, you could keep its location consistent, but change the label to sign-out.

All designers and developers should read Steve Krug’s excellent book on UI/UX best practices: Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd Edition).

Additionally, make sure your site’s processes like account creation, contact forms and site navigation are designed to make it easier on the visitor, not the site’s developer. In development there is an axiom that as something becomes easier to use, it becomes harder to create. This means making your processes bullet-proof. By using something called “use-cases,” you can create a spreadsheet of all the possible action in your process and the potential ways that visitors could break it.

Along those lines, never punish visitors for behaviors you don’t want, but reward them for the ones that you do. For example, a user may try to submit a request for information more than once. In this instance, chances are the user hit the send button and nothing happened visually, so they will click it again and again until something changes. This can cause lead duplication, and, in some cases, all the leads get thrown out because they look like someone spamming the lead service.

So, instead of an annoying alert popping up and forcing them to close it, try making the form inactive and overlaying a busy timer. If they click that, then it might be okay to let them know their request if being processed via an alert.

Buttons Should be Buttons

Remember that visitors to most lead-generation websites neither have the time nor the desire to learn a new way of navigating web pages. Make sure links and buttons are clearly indicated and do not get lost in all the other content on the page. You may only have a single page in which to get them where they want to go, don’t hide your site’s navigational tools from them.

Traffic Warden

It is also important to keep an eye on which pages in your site are getting the most traffic. Compare that traffic to the level of abandonment for those pages. Chances are, the highest visited pages with the highest bounce rates need a tune-up—either visual, organizational, or message changes.

Request for Information

All your forms—whether a Request for Information form or an account creation form—need to use as few fields as possible. Of course, too few fields can cause issues, but as a general rule, the more fields the greater your form abandonment. People begin completing the form and just get tired of supplying more information than they feel is necessary.

One of the best ways to make sure all of your leads are getting to their proper destinations is to keep a copy at their source (your site) and the destination (your contact management system). This way, you can compare the records and numbers to see if any have gone missing. If you don’t have this ability, you risk missing out on several days’ worth of leads because you didn’t realize something was broken.

Don’t Oversell

I look at most university sites as a chance to read enough about them to get me excited to find out more. Don’t make the classic mistake of giving perspective students a tsunami of information that only frustrates them. If you give way too much information, it might also make them think they are informed enough to make a yes or no decision before you have had a chance to address any of their concerns or objections.

Limited Calls to Action

Be sure to avoid having too many calls to action on your site. Think of your visitor’s attention as a finite amount of water. Filling a single glass ensures that it gets all of the attention. Fill a second glass, and now there is less attention for the first then before. Keep filling cups and each will contain such a small amount of water that none of them are really getting noticed at all.

It’s Not Personal

From the beginning, it should be stressed to all parties involved in your site’s design process that nothing should be taken personally, and that personal aesthetics should be kept in check. Culturally, color is a very powerful design tool. Choosing the wrong color because it is everyone’s favorite could harm you more than choosing a color based on research. Overly masculine or feminine color schemes can inadvertently push people away because they cannot emotionally connect with your site’s message or design.

Although it is difficult to please your faculty and still be effective, it can be done. It takes time, research and a lot of cooperation. So, set aside your personal preferences and be as objective as you can. Let the data decide.

Can You Keep Up?

A website is never truly finished. Things like surveying students, looking at marketing trends, enrollment trends, refining the value proposition, rotating content messaging and events leading to institutional distinction are just a few things that can continue to force the evolution of your site. The question is, can you keep up?

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