Most enrollment leaders assume that a school’s website plays some role in engaging and converting prospective students. But how important is it, really? And how big a difference can you actually make when it comes to ensuring that your school’s web presence is helping, not hurting, your recruitment efforts?
Students increasingly rely on self-service channels
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One of the most consequential current trends in recruitment marketing is college-bound students’ growing reliance on self-service information channels for learning about schools. From third-party college-ranking websites to student influencers on social media, the rapidly evolving digital-media landscape is presenting students with an ever-expanding range of information sources on colleges and universities they’re considering.
While this is mostly a positive development for students, it’s a mixed bag for schools. Because so many of the sources students use are not “owned” by colleges and universities, this trend represents a loss of control. It’s harder to tell a coherent and compelling story about your institution if students are piecing together their impression of you from a dozen different sources—including organizations that have zero interest in burnishing your brand.
3 website priorities for student recruitment
Enrollment leaders will need to get ahead of this trend by better engaging students through the self-service information channels they increasingly favor. A clear first order of business in this regard is the school’s website. According to EAB surveys of college-bound students, there is no information source they rely on more when researching potential schools.
EAB Student Communication Preferences Survey, 2017 Versus 2019
2. Parents and other family members
3. Campus visits
4. Specific college websites
5. Personal letters from colleges
2. Emails from colleges
3. Parents and other family members
4. High school classmates
5. Websites other than the school’s
When assessing how well or how poorly your school’s website might be serving college-bound students, it’s helpful to consider the three priorities listed below.
Most students make their way to your website via search engines. Where and how often your school appears in search results is determined by algorithms that rank your site using a complex and ever-evolving set of criteria—keywords used in your content, for example, or the extent to which sites outside of your .edu domain link back to your content.
Criteria used by algorithms also include less obvious technical features of your site, such as load speed and site architecture. SEO combines a deep understanding of these algorithms with clear thinking about your school’s recruitment strategy. This helps to identify site modifications that will ensure that your school’s site consistently ranks high in searches performed by prospective students.
User experience (UX) can be difficult to explain, because it’s so seemingly obvious—is your site easy to use or not?
But there’s a lot of complex work that goes on behind the scenes to create the sort of engaging, streamlined, and intuitive feel the best websites have. This includes mobile optimization and the many “invisible” technical considerations that help determine a site’s usability—the file formats it uses, for example, which can greatly influence a site’s speed and responsiveness.
More importantly, a positive user experience depends on effective information architecture and, in turn on, sound content strategy—how information is organized, based on a deep understanding of the needs of your audience.
At the end of the day, it’s the content students find on your website that most profoundly shapes their understanding of you. And how impactful your content is ultimately boils down to two factors: medium and message.
Message is clearly important; students are unlikely to engage with your content if you haven’t figured out what matters most to them and ensured your website delivers. But the medium used to convey those messages—text, voice, photography, video, and interactive formats—is just as important.
Advances in digital production techniques mean that it’s now possible to incorporate into your website features such as immersive 360° video with embedded rich media, interactive functionality, and graphic overlays (while not requiring end users to install third party plug-ins—a traditional downside of advanced formats). This creates a highly engaging user experience; EAB research has shown that interactive features can increase the amount of time students spend on web pages by more than a third.
increase in amount of time students spent on web pages by adding interactive content
Make website optimization a scalable endeavor
Knowing which aspects of your website need fixing is one thing; making it happen is another. All too often, that important work gets sidelined due to the resource constraints faced by schools’ internal marketing and web teams—and related fears that website-related projects are unavoidably big, complex, and expensive.
The truth is that many impactful website improvements can be made in a targeted, staged, and incremental way. This means that even modestly resourced teams can make meaningful progress toward an enrollment-optimized website over time, while also producing immediate improvements in performance.
Examples of interventions to consider if you’re one of the many teams with limited resources to invest include:
- Rewriting copy on key, high-traffic pages of your site to better articulate the benefits of your offerings for specific audiences
- Performing a design audit to surface opportunities to “reskin” your site, freshening the visual appeal of existing content
- Adding immersive content to a targeted selection of active recruitment pages on your site
- Undertaking an SEO audit and acting on optimization opportunities identified
- Using paid search to drive more volume to the highest-value portions of your site
Schools able to commit more resources to website-focused work have an expanded range of options, including:
- Doing user testing to better understand how different types of visitors use your site
- Developing an overarching content strategy to ensure that current and future content is aligned to specific enrollment goals
- Updating the information architecture of your site based on specific user goals
- Adding new functionality to your current site (e.g., advanced search, chatbot functionality, and login-based personalization)
- Doing a full site redesign, including updating your backend systems to take advantage of important advancements in website design, development, CRM integration, and analytics
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