Look, I know that’s a combative headline and maybe not the best way to kick things off, but please believe me when I say I’m not here to cause trouble. Truly! In fact, I used to have your job, and I know how hard it is. Which means I know how (justifiably!) proud you are of your brand new dot edu.
After all, you just unloaded a big chunk of budget on it! And on the road to here you fought fierce battles, Mad Max style, with colleagues from all over campus about what the primary purpose of the website should be and who its primary audience is and who actually owns the content.
Let’s be real: You even straight up told academic department chairs that, technically, yes, the marketing office has final say on what their program pages should contain. BOOYAH, BABY!
So let’s just take a hot second to look each other dead in the eyes, marketer to marketer, and acknowledge that you and your team, against staggering odds, darn near singlehandedly brought the most powerful weapon in your school’s marketing arsenal out of the design and UX dark ages!
I MEAN HECK, your new homepage probably even features a HUGE artsy photograph (or maybe even some fancy drone video footage!) with some pithy and—let’s go ahead and be honest—hard-to-read-but-cool-looking white text overlaid on top of it! (I’ll have more to say about this later.)
So, go ahead and give yourself a big ’ol pat on the back. Or, even better? Submit this new bad boy for some awards! (J/K, I guarantee that the agency that did the website for you has taken care of that already).
But don’t hyperextend your elbow patting too hard. Because? The thing is? I’ve got some hard news to share with you. You see, it’s just that…my barber’s website (which probably went live in 1996 and was definitely wireframed with a half-dry Sharpie on the back of a beer-stained crabshack napkin) is better than your college’s brand new website.
Don’t believe me? Check it out here. Or simply feast your eyes on this gif of the homepage.
Huh? Say what? I can hear you thinking. This thing’s super ugly! I mean…where to even begin? The sweet animated barber pole clip art? The non–mobile-friendly design? The Word-doc-like text formatting? The small low-res photos? The guaranteed-to-turn-your-eyes-to-ash atomic-red border?
This is straight up bad. Right? I mean, by even the lowest design standards, this thing stinks.
Well, quit holding your nose and clutching your pearls. Because the thing is…this website works exactly 1,000,000% better than every single college website on the planet.
Why? Because in just two minutes and without requiring me to click a single link, it converted me from a prospective customer to a repeat customer and vocal brand ambassador.
That’s a feat no university website will ever be able to claim. So, if we can all agree that marketing’s ultimate function is to support a sales function (generating revenue), and that my barber’s website can do that faster and with more grace than your college’s website, then we have to agree that my barber’s website is better. Right?
Hey, come on, this isn’t fair, you’re comparing apples to oranges, you’re probably thinking. And to you I say: Exactly. And I’d also add: If a website is really good at selling apples but not oranges, is it maybe time to switch things up?
The Many Masters Problem
By now I’m sure you know where I’m going with this: My barber’s website is selling one thing (old-school haircuts), to one group of people (dudes who live in South Baltimore), at one price, in one location. Because of the narrowness of his product offering and target market, his website has an easy mission to accomplish.
In just one single page, in fact, he can provide all the relevant info that any prospective customer needs. Hours of operation. Pictures of the final product. Pictures of the parking lot (which in South Baltimore is a very, very big deal). For added convenience, he even has a live webcam that shows how many people are waiting in line.
So, a typical buying cycle for me looks like this: Check website, check hours to make sure he’s he open, look at webcam to see if there’s a wait, if there’s no wait, walk five minutes, get a haircut, pay for haircut. Done.
Contrast all of the above to the typical buying cycle of someone who shows up at your institutional website. Maybe she's a high school sophomore. Ok, great, three years until she’s ready to purchase something. Maybe she wants to know about your engineering program. How many clicks until she gets to the relevant info? Maybe she also wants to know about cost. How many clicks to get there? Maybe she wants to take a look at a typical dorm room. Do you even have that content on your website? If so, how many clicks away?
If all goes well, you sparked this kid’s interest. Great! But you still don’t know who she is (because your request for information was buried), and now you somehow have to magically nurture her interest for the next three years. Gulp.
Now imagine all the different iterations of this conundrum. Imagine all the different types of students (grad students, adult learners, etc.) looking for all your various product offerings (majors, minors, certificates, master's, doctorates) and all your different delivery models (in-person, online, hybrid) and you’ve got a pretty overwhelming problem on your hands. A problem that is in no way resolvable through better web design. Your product offering is too big. Your potential customers are too different.
In fact, any single visitor to your website is probably only interested in 3% of its content at any given time. The other 97% is clutter, an impediment to her journey.
That’s a problem. Here are few ways to begin to think about solving it.
1) Be clear about your goals.
Unless you’re one of the very few institutions of higher education that doesn’t have to worry about attracting enough students and generating enough revenue to cover your school’s operating budget, all of your marketing collateral needs to play an intentional, conceived-of-in-advance role in the buying journey.
So, if your goal is to turn prospective students into deposited students, how does your website fit? Are your RFIs easy to find? Are links to visit and apply pages featured prominently wherever possible? Do you promote prospective student events? Do you retarget ads to visitors who hit certain pages?
2) Don’t let marketing (or branding) get in the way of good communication.
Look, I love great, inspiring design as much as the next marketer, but it’s absolutely undeniably true that sometimes “best practices” in the design world are at odds with clarity and ease of use.
For example, using huge banner photos on edu homepages is currently de rigueur, but they also eat up tons of valuable real estate and bury significant information and important calls to action. So…why use them? What’s the trade off? And what’s the alternative?
Design should always serve the needs of communication, and design should always solve problems, not exacerbate them. Can you honestly say that your web design decisions are based on what’s easiest for your prospective customers and not simply what you think “looks good”?
If you still need convincing of this point, I’d really encourage you to watch the documentary Design Is One. It’s about, among other things, the designers who reimagined the New York City subway system’s maps and wayfinding system—quite possibly one of the most daunting communication problems that’s ever existed.
3) Ask your revenue generators for input.
Sure, soliciting feedback and input is always scary, but you really should ask your enrollment team some questions. In their ideal world, what would they put on the homepage? How would they organize information? What could you do to your website that would make their lives easier?
Marketing and admissions teams frequently butt heads, but see what happens when you bury your hatchets and start working together.
4) Think about abandoning your dot edu.
Not forever. Not even for a long time, but briefly, especially in your undergraduate inquiry-generating efforts.
Years ago, we learned that we could have more success converting prospects to inquires by using custom digital environments than by using our clients’ websites (you know, for all the reasons above). After all, why make students go through the painstaking process of navigating a website when you can send them directly to the information that matters to them? In real time?
Eventually we route students back to a school’s primary site, but not until we’ve shown them exactly what we know they care about.