2 ways to optimize your college website for enrollment during COVID-19

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2 ways to optimize your college website for enrollment during COVID-19

I recently wrote a blog post that explained how important school websites are for student recruitment and described things you can do, big and small, to improve your own website’s effectiveness. Like so much else, this question has taken on unexpected significance in light of the pandemic, and I wanted to share some related thoughts on how to adjust your school’s web presence to this new reality. I’ll be talking about two priorities in particular: getting your COVID-19 content right and providing a website experience worthy of your institution.

Priority #1: Get your COVID-19 content right

The most obvious website-related implication of the pandemic has to do with the type of information prospective students and their parents are searching for. Now, and for the foreseeable future, COVID-19 related facts will be high on that list.

That’s why a first order of business is to ensure that your website is providing comprehensive, up-to-date, easy-to-find information on important practical implications of the pandemic, like:

  • Changes to test-score submission requirements
  • Plans for summer orientation
  • Plans for fall semester campus opening
  • Pandemic-related funding available to students
  • Steps you’ve already taken to help students

It may be impossible to provide answers to all the critical questions at this point. Still, it’s crucial to let students know you understand their concerns and are committed to providing real answers as soon as you can. 

Also keep in mind that your COVID-19 related content will shape students’ impression of your college or university as a whole. Do you put students’ needs first? Do you show compassion? Is your institution up to the pandemic challenge? Content on your website should ensure that the answer to these questions is a definite yes.

Pandemic-related information on your website is an also an opportunity for you to create deeper engagement with prospective students in a broader way.  If your school is strong in areas directly related to the pandemic, like distance learning, health-care professions, or COVID-19 research, showcasing those capabilities can turn students’ natural interest in the pandemic into interest in your institution. It can also help make the pandemic not just a cause of anxiety but also a source of inspiration.

Priority #2: Provide a website experience worthy of your institution

It’s important to appreciate the role that COVID-19 related website content plays in your recruitment efforts. But prospective students’ interest in your college or university doesn’t stop at your pandemic response. Every indication is that they’re still looking to learn about you in a more general way.

Even before the pandemic, school websites were the information source college-bound students relied on most to learn about institutions they were considering. Now, with in-person campus visits off the table for the foreseeable future, websites have suddenly become one of the only ways in which schools can be in front of families right now.

The question you need to ask yourself is whether your site is up to the task.

First, fix what’s broken…

A first order of business is making sure your website is not actively turning students off. 

For many schools, the pandemic has cast a spotlight on website fixes that are long overdue. Think of it in terms of the work colleges usually do to prepare for spring-visit season—making sure that front walkways are cleared, that hedges are trimmed, that graffiti is removed, and so on. In the pandemic era, a school’s website is that front walkway. And some colleges and universities are finding that the grass is knee-high, the admissions hall roof is leaking, and the live oak in the center of the quad is dead.

Fixing something as large, complex, and stakeholder-constrained as a typical “.edu” is not something that happens overnight. But there are things you can do, right now, to get your website in shape for this enrollment season. The key is to focus on fixes that have the greatest positive impact on user experience with the least expenditure of your time, money, and effort.

I outlined some quick-hit ideas like this in my last (pre-pandemic) post on the role that websites play in recruiting students. Some key ones you’ll want to consider include:

  • Ensuring that the best content on your website corresponds to topics that are known to be top priorities for students and parents, including campus amenities, academic programs offered, cost, and outcomes
  • Rewriting copy on your enrollment-critical pages, to make sure it is quickly skimmable and speaks to student interests in a compelling way
  • Reformatting content that might be causing pages to load slowly
  • Adding targeted navigation fixes (internal links, breadcrumbs, etc.), to make sure students can quickly find what they’re looking for
  • Identifying and fixing easily corrected, high-impact SEO technical errors that might be preventing students from finding you in the first place

…then showcase what makes you special

Once you’ve addressed any serious user-experience problems with your website you’ll also want to make sure it’s effectively highlighting aspects of your school that are most likely to make students fall for you. And the most effective tool I know of for doing that is layered, immersive, and interactive multimedia web content—something I’ll just call “interactive web content” (IWC) for short.

An example of Interactive Web Content (IWC)

Key characteristics of IWC include:

  • Immersive formats, like navigable 360-degree photo panoramas (similar to Google Street View)
  • Layering of different media types, including photos, text, and video, in a seamlessly integrated ensemble
  • A high degree of user control over how content is presented
  • A built-in inquiry collection mechanism that allows students to easily raise their hand when they are interested in learning more about you

38%

increase in time on page with interactive web content
increase in time on page with interactive web content

The reason I’m such a big fan of IWC is that the specific combination of characteristics listed above has been shown to produce levels of student engagement significantly higher than what you see with typical .edu content—for example, IWC is associated with an average 38% increase in time on page.

IWC also has great flexibility, which makes it especially well suited to our current moment in time. It can be inserted inline on your school’s existing web pages, in the same way that traditional photos, graphics, or other page elements would be. It could also be used to highlight individual parts of your website with exceptional strategic importance—say, your nursing program’s academic department page. IWC’s combination of flexibility and impact is what makes it the first tool I would reach for when looking for a quick route to increased student engagement.

Build a foundation for flexibility

I’ve highlighted two main implications that the pandemic has for the role your website plays in recruiting students and related steps you can take to rise to the occasion. I wanted to close with a broader observation on the mindset you should be bringing to those efforts.

For both the coronavirus-related content you’re providing to students and your ongoing efforts at engaging them through your website, speed and flexibility will be critical. And that, in turn, will depend on having the right kinds of infrastructure in place.

In the case of COVID-19 communications, that will include having dedicated personnel tasked with soliciting, collating, updating, and publishing pandemic-related information to your website on a continuous basis.

Ensuring that your website continues to engage prospective students will require a similar sort of vigilance and responsiveness. Given how quickly the nation’s understanding of the pandemic is evolving, student interests and concerns will be shifting by the week. For example, our own research teams have seen recent spikes in the number of adult learners visiting .edus since the pandemic began, as well as large increases in traffic to academic program pages for health professions. Regularly reviewing data from your website will help you stay on top of families’ rapidly evolving mindset and ensure you’re giving them the information they’re most eager to see.

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