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Leveraging Your Digital Channels for Prospective Students

In today’s digital age, your website is a 24/7 TV commercial that institutions can use to their advantage by creating a digital experience that leaves a lasting impression on prospective students.  

There has never been a better time to become an expert in the digital environment than today. The modern learner wants digestible information about a potential school fast and efficiently. The college website is the key to getting students in the door, and institutions need to use it to their advantage. In this interview, Jeff Fanter discusses the importance of a college website, maintaining web governance and brand consistency and standing out to prospective students. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What should the purpose of a college website be?

Jeff Fanter (JF): I often call a college website the 24/7 TV commercial. People can relate to the concept of trying to get folks’ attention through other forms of media, and TV is one. Our world is shifting, but TV is one lens through which people can relate to the idea of trying to grab your attention during a break from something you’re engaged in, like a television show. Your website is doing that 24/7. Instead of interrupting somebody from something they’re doing to try to get their attention, use the website to constantly try to gain people’s attention. It’s a place where anybody at any given moment on their own time can find out information about your school, and you’re not disrupting or interrupting them .

If you want to put a lot of time, resources and money into trying to tell a story like in a television, print or radio spot, why not put the same resources in your website? You control that. That channel is open constantly for anybody to take a look at. You need to have the right content on the website that they’re trying to ask you to share or convey with others in other forms of advertising. If it’s not on the website or not as good as it can be on the website, why invest in these other resources.

Evo: How do you maintain some semblance of web governance when there are so many moving parts?

JF: Pause for a moment and make sure you understand who your audience is. A lot of the decisions you make regarding what is on your website is driven by what internal audiences believe should be on your website. Those internal audiences are extremely important to get ideas and thoughts from. It’s often the same people who are your subject matter experts that provide you with content and then convey the right message to your external audiences. But if they alone are driving what is on that site, you need to pause for a minute because they’re not your audience.

Your website turns into the digital filing cabinet for the college. If the thought is that you’re going to just put it all on a website, and you can just drive people there, that’s when a website really gets cluttered and confusing. People go to a website because they want information on their screen. They don’t even want to scroll too far. The minute you give them a 45-page PDF of a website, they don’t want to read it. They wanted digestible information.

Prospective students use the website to find information about the program or the college. Once they’re in the college, they’ll use it as a launch point to get to the student portal. 

The only people doing that are current students because you can’t access it as a prospective student. So, really the rest of the site is geared toward a prospective student and the discovery process. You need to focus on your external audiences first and then come back to your internal audiences. Ask them as subject matter experts to give you the relevant information to put on to the site because they know what that is. What you then have to ask yourself is, does the external audience care about that? 

So, it’s about trying to find that happy medium. You need to understand what they need and want. Understand that they only get what they want in,  if you’re lucky, four to five clicks. We have too many pages on our site. We know that. Every few years, you have to go through a refresh. There’s so much on websites that people never ever find that you need to be careful it doesn’t become this digital filing cabinet where people get lost in the navigation.

Evo: Why have higher ed institutions historically struggled when it comes to managing their digital marketing portfolio and initiatives?

JF: Part of it is what I had referred to earlier as a digital file cabinet concept. Here is a piece of information that I have been asked for here at the college, so we need it on our website. And then that request happens over and over and over again. So, suddenly it’s just another piece of paper that went in the digital filing cabinet. And your website grows and grows and grows. And some of those pages exist and there’s just floaters out there. There’s no navigation to find them. 

If you try to get it all to fit in a navigation, then all of a sudden your navigation menus get to be too crazy. But a good search tool within your own website is valuable. I’ll give you an experience as a parent of a college student. Will my daughter’s money from her food plan carry over in the next semester? I should be able to go to my daughter’s school and just type that into Google, and I should get a page that gives me the answer to that question. Now, that doesn’t need to show up somewhere in navigation. And that’s why there are a thousand more pages than you need because they all answer some of those commonly asked questions. But without a good search mechanism on the website, they just get lost out there. Look, the most effective website in the world is Google. And what is on Google’s website? Nothing but the word “Google” and a search bar. We even at one point thought of making our website our logo and a bar. We didn’t go that far, but we do have a pretty decent search mechanism on our page. And when we move into a new content management system environment, that’s going to be a key part of what we do–that search tool. Because that’s how people are used to engaging with the internet. 

Imagine trying to maintain that too. You want to make this your commercial. You want to make this what really engages people. If only three or four pages do that, and you have to worry about another 997, making sure they’re kept up and fresh with the right information, that’s a heavy lift to make for some pages that, maybe when you look at the analytics, four people have looked at in the last year. It’s you checking to make sure it’s right. It’s the person that asked you to do the page and it’s the two people they sent the link to say check out my page on the website.

Evo: How can colleges work to leverage or improve or their digital channels to stand out to prospective students?

JF: A lot of times the vocal voices internally are the right voices. Let’s say it’s the program chair for our biotechnology program. And they feel strongly that they’ve got a lot of great information that they want to make sure external audiences know. It’ll help change perception of the program and help people understand what biotechnology is, maybe even get people to engage with it so they enroll in the program. All of their thoughts and feelings are in the right place. As a marketer, I don’t know what biotechnology is. I don’t know how to tell the biotechnology story. That person does. How do you harness that energy and knowledge to tell a story on a website that helps people understand what biotechnology is and get them engaged in it? As the marketing expert, I know what people want to know about: what kind of job am I going to get? How much money am I going to make? Subject matter expert, tell me what that is. 

Sometimes people will come to us and say, we need a Facebook page for a program because other schools have one. And they have 72 followers, 18 followers, and 24 followers. Then you show them the biotechnology website, and in the last month, 1500 people have visited the page. Can we focus our attention on this page? This is where your audience is. It’s not over there on Facebook. That’s where colleges really get stronger with respect to the marketing–being able to share what the audience wants to know. But you’re the person to tell me what that information is, so I can help convey that message to a broader audience. 

Evo: How do you ensure that messaging stays accurate and up to date but also consistent from a branding perspective?

JF: If you give too many folks the ability to update the website themselves, it’s updated based on a personal preference. That doesn’t mean that personal preference is the wrong preference. It just might mean it’s not aligned with all the other messaging out there. One thing we’re experiencing a lot of at Ivy Tech Community College is the key piece of information our external audience want to know about is outcomes. How much money am I going to make? What type of job am I going to get? What are placement rates? 

So, if we know that, and that’s the larger message to college, but over here in a certain program, the personal preference is extracurricular programs, that’s not what the external audience is telling us they want to hear. There’s a disconnect. If you grab the external audience’s attention around outcomes, then they get to this page and don’t see anything about outcomes, they’re suddenly disinterested, or they make their own conclusion that there is no outcome. Your graduates in those programs must not get good paying jobs or must not go to good employer. So, that’s why it’s important.

In a governance structure, it’s getting people to buy into the idea of starting with the two to three things audiences need to know about. You probably have a whole bunch more to tell me, and I want it at some point, but let’s get these two to three things out there because we know those are things they’re looking for. And then we can add more layers down the road as we build out and evolve the site. The beauty of a website is that it can be one thing on Monday and a different thing on Friday. But those two to three main things are critically important. And a lot of times one of them is, I want to talk to somebody in the program. There are people who want to talk to somebody in the field and ask questions. That’s not me. That’s not a random person at the college. It’s you. What better way for you to showcase your program and have a conversation with a potential student or parent of a student. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how to maximize the value of a website for meeting the expectations of your audiences?

JF: You need to make sure that in marketing through multiple channels, when you have messages that are out there conveying one concept or one theme, they need to immediately see on the website what drove them there through the advertising. If they get to the website and the message isn’t the same, then they’re wondering where it is. You see an ad, whether it’s TV or digital, and it talks about a promo that a company has. When I click on that, the first thing I better see on that website is the promo. If I can’t find the promo, then I don’t think the promo exists. 

Sometimes that gets lost on people because they take you into that digital file cabinet right away. I’m going to tell you everything about Ivy Tech, because I assume you already love Ivy Tech. So, I can start to feed you all the information about what it takes to be a student here. On my website, I can tell you where the men’s and women’s rooms are located. But I’m still trying to figure out if I want to go to your school. So, you need to baby step them along the way and make sure those things align. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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