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Creating a Good Digital First Impression with a Higher Ed Website

Having a high-quality website is all about putting the students’ needs first, which in turn boosts enrollment and retention for the higher ed institution.

Prospective and current students today don’t have time to locate information, especially when it comes to their educational journey. They want to find everything within a few clicks and feel a connection to an institution when on their website. So, having a strong web presence is important now more than ever. In this interview, Meghan Horton, Andrew Breshears and Erin Petrotta discuss why it’s critical to focus on making a high-quality site, the impact it has and some lessons learned along the way.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on delivering a high-quality website when driving student engagement and retention?


Megan Horton (MH): Both prospective and current students have a diverse set of needs. One of the things we’ve noticed is they don’t really have the time or patience to dig. They need websites that meet them where they are and help them in their student journey. So, making it super easy for them to find the things that help them be successful and ensuring they stay engaged throughout that process is really important.


Oftentimes higher ed is really decentralized. It’s important that your web presence not reflect that. So, no matter the structure of anything they interact with and touch from a digital standpoint, it must be seamless and help them along the way.


Andrew Breshears (AB): Looking to the future, students are always early adopters of new technology. They were the first to adopt mobile and other things like that. Now we’re entering the age of AI, and we have to make sure we have good content and an infrastructure that supports the future technology our students will be using.

Evo: What do students expect from an institution’s website?


MH: A huge priority for us is that who we are as an institution is reflected in our websites. We have a really strong brand presence and culture here at OSU. And students are looking for fit. They’re looking for belonging, and conveying your personality and who you are as an institution authentically is really important. Be who you are so that, as they navigate the website, they can really be informed and get a feel for fit and determine whether their needs align with the institution.


Current students are already a part of your culture and fit. Depending on where they enter the website, that experience has to be consistent with the in-person experiences they’re having. On the tactical side, they’re on their devices all the time. Making sure it’s responsive, polished and easy to navigate in order to be successful is really important.


Evo: What are some of the challenges to delivering a high-quality website?


AB: In a decentralized environment, the website is large. Ours certainly is, and it is distributed across many colleges and campuses. There are many different stakeholders responsible for creating content for our various audiences. On top of that, if someone responsible for web content is not a web or communications professional, aligning the experience with what our audiences expect can be challenging. So, the structure can be challenging, as can figuring out how to work with it.


Being a state institution, budget and resources are always a challenge as well. You have to pick your battles and choose where you’re going to prioritize funding. We look at our website, and we feel like there are all kinds of things we could do and want to do, but we must figure out where those resources are best spent. Another challenge we’ve faced in the past is having multiple content management systems. Being on-brand and consistent can be difficult if different pages on your site look different. It’s important to have a cohesive experience as people navigate from the top level to the college site to their portal and the other pieces of the website that they use.


Erin Petrotta (EP): Despite our individual preferences, the university website belongs to OSU. It doesn’t belong to any one individual. So, in terms of multiple content creators, it’s critical to understand that the content we’re creating is for the institution. It’s there for a purpose. With such a broad swathe of content creators, it can be a challenge to help them remember that.


Evo: What’s required to create a high-quality website?


EP: The first piece we started with when we relaunched our website several years ago was research. It was critical to understand what we were doing and why we were doing it. Having the data to back that up was absolutely critical. In a decentralized experience where everyone has a preference, that research really helped us home in on how we would present content and the experience from every vantage point. That was instrumental in terms of how we established that continuity across our sites.


MH: When we rearchitected and redesigned the OSU web homepage, templating all the themes, we knew from the very beginning that prospective and current students were our target audience, and we prioritized their user experience needs from the very beginning. And we knew we would need research to validate what the best strategies were because we were biased, and all our internal constituents were biased. We think we know students the best because we do this work every day. But having that external data was instrumental in making sure their needs were kept front and center.


Ultimately, we tried to unsilo the content and think of it from a student perspective. Students don’t care what department it comes from; they just want to get to the info they’re looking for. Thinking about the website by putting their needs first has really helped create an optimal experience.


It required significant collaboration, not just within our team but across our campus and now with our branch institutions as a five-campus system. We’re very close to launching websites for two of our branch institutions—the final two not using our web templates and CMS. And at that point, our entire five-campus system will be using one CMS with one template, one information architecture and structure for their sites. You would be hard-pressed to find that across higher ed.


AB: How you think about your website versus how your students think about your website is very different. We find when we ask for feedback on the website, they might give us feedback on our website, the portal or the calendar. They just see it as one external website. This is how I interact with OSU online. So, obviously you also have to think about how those other systems integrate into the workflow, how they find and get to the pieces of those systems. When they go between various systems, it’s important for everything to feel consistent. There must be some cohesion throughout the entire process.


Evo: What impact does a high-quality website have on not only the learners but your institution?


MH: A website can really influence the way people feel about your institution. It’s part of your brand footprint, and any interaction—whether it’s talking with an advisor, scheduling a tour or reading information on the website—has an immediate effect on how they feel.


We care about enhancing the affinity with our institution, and web content and strategy are important parts of building and strengthening those connections. When you talk about what makes a higher ed institution successful, it’s recruitment, retention and research. A really good, high-quality website within higher ed will impact recruitment and retention. For us it certainly did. When we launched our new website, we had our partner NewCity develop a metrics model that went along with our web relaunch and tied back to the business objectives of Oklahoma State University. 


Were people converting on the degree program pages we centralized? Were they moving through the funnel? We tracked those outcomes. Ultimately it did impact recruitment and retention. We know for sure that applications across our undergrad and graduate programs increased significantly postlaunch. When we optimized content for those purposes, it definitely had a positive impact on those outcomes.


The other piece I’ll add is high-quality sites reduce friction for current and prospective students. We’re used to seamless experiences, whether we’re shopping somewhere or eating somewhere or traveling or living our everyday lives. Brands optimize things for you to where you don’t even have to think about it. We as higher ed institutions need to do our best to do that as well and strive for websites that enhance the student experience. We need to provide clarity on what’s needed for students to take next steps and be successful. If we do that really well, we’ll enhance retention because we’re removing those friction points that keep them from succeeding in their coursework or getting the resources they need.


EP: From an enrollment perspective, when a prospective student has an experience with OSU, they envision a group of people who can easily talk to each other and solve their challenge immediately. The reality is, we’re not in one room talking—we’re decentralized. We have various offices across the institution, but the website is the way we present a cohesive voice and experience. We should be working together to answer students’ questions as proactively as we can, so they don’t have to experience friction from one office to the next and get the consistent answer and experience they’re looking for.