Tuesday, February 19, 2013

5 Traits of a Successful Higher Ed Website

Over the past decade or so, we’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of higher education web projects. This experience includes regional institutions like the University of Tampa and Cardinal Stritch University to nationally-known establishments like Northwestern University, The University of Notre Dame, and Virginia Military Institute. And while each project has distinct goals and objects, there are definitely common attributes that have contributed to their success.

It’s no surprise that Ektron is one of the leading web content management tools for higher education institutions given the expansive toolset and out of the box functionality it provides, and our partnership with Ellucian to provide an Ektron Ellucian Edition only further cements our commitment to higher education. But for me, there are five elements that really contribute to delivering a successful higher education website.

Mobile Really Matters
When’s the last time you saw an <18 year old sitting at a workstation? Seriously, think about it. The next generation of workers knows mobile and tablets better than we can even imagine. So it only makes sense that higher education institutions focus on delivering the best mobile experience possible since it’s highly likely that most students will be visiting the sites on those devices. It leaves the discussion wide open for adaptive/responsive web design versus mobile specific templates and apps, but if your target market is shopping on mobile devices, you best make sure your experience for those users is optimized.

Take a Student Focus
There are two typical ways in which higher education websites are organized from an information architecture standpoint. The first is to organize things by department and by business unit, essentially. And that works, but I don’t find that to be the optimal layout. Instead, I prefer a second option, which allows you to group content by use; using headings like Campus Life, For Parents, and the like leads to a much more engaging experience than Academics, Athletics, etc…

Don’t Hide Your Stripes
Personalizing the web experience is of huge importance for any website, but especially in markets as competitive as higher education. Therefore, it’s critical that on your home page (and high value landing pages), that what makes your institution unique is loud and clear. If you have the top math program in the country, make sure that’s prominently featured. If your basketball team is #1 in the country, that might be just as important to a segment of users. Schools have reputations whether they’re willing to admit it or not, so don’t hide from it, embrace it, and personalize your experience as much as you can.

Big vs. Small is Less Important Than Ever
We all know that David can tame Goliath, but that’s especially true in the higher education vertical. Students are less concerned with going to a large school in favor of finding the school that best fits their needs. Identify your competitive advantages and make sure they’re highlighted throughout the site. Using personalization elements like Ektron’s Content Targeting can help deliver the ideal message to your prospective students. Your basketball program might be 12-20, but if the average graduate earns 15% more than the school with the top program, delivering that message is essential and students will respond to it.

First Impressions Matter Most
I hit on this a bit with mobile, but your user experience has to be truly unique to attract today’s top talent. Stop designing as a traditional institution and instead create your site with the type of experience that engages the user from the first click. Teenagers have an even smaller attention span than us college graduates, so the whole ‘you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’ adage truly applies.

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