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It’s January, which means it’s Brilliance Awards season! I was honored to serve as a judge again this year, this time for the Website Homepage Redesign category. And—spoiler alert—I’ve got some takeaways for you!
Whether yours is among the 36% of private schools planning a website redesign in the next year, or you’re simply looking to spruce up your existing homepage, here’s my take on best practices to consider after judging this year’s submissions and looking at another year’s worth of school websites in 2022.
Know Your Audience
Much has been said (and written) about the tension between serving current and prospective families with school websites. But it’s 2023, and it’s still a conversation we need to have. While more prospective family-facing content is coming to the forefront (hooray!), conflicting calls to action and navigation can shake up the digital apple cart.
Your school’s website is primarily all about the prospective parent and student. What do they want or need to know? And what do you want them to do? This is especially important on your homepage.
Leave internal information like the email address for your attendance line, lunch menus, and the like for your parent portal. Instead, make sure you’re telling a compelling story that will inspire a prospective student or parent to get to know you better and that enrollment-driven calls to action (e.g., “Inquire” and “Visit”) are front and center.
Be Careful With Templates
I haven’t jumped onto my branding soapbox in a while, but this is an area where having a strong institutional brand is very, very important. Your homepage design should be driven by your school’s brand and institutional identity. Period. It shouldn’t feel like a copy/paste from another school (or several).
Templates and themes can be economical, efficient, and very effective with the right amount of customization, but you have to be careful. Whether your website is being built using an open-source platform like WordPress or with a full-service vendor on a proprietary platform, make sure the end result is a homepage (and website) that’s uniquely yours. Beyond logos, fonts, and colors, the photography (including style), copy, and functionality should represent your school.
If you’re going through a website redesign in the future, here are a few things you can do to make sure your website truly stands out:
- Make sure you do your own research and look at homepages and websites in your market so you can see what your prospective families are seeing during the school search process. If you’re at a boarding school, of course, you’ll want to expand that research.
- Soliciting feedback from your community through focus groups or small-group interviews can also help you get input on what does and doesn’t work for other websites.
- Be intentional about photography, style, and content. All three should be informed by your institutional brand.
Searching for and comparing schools can be overwhelming and even beautifully designed websites can start to blend together after a parent has seen enough of them. You may find that it’s worth the extra expense to go with a more customized design that authentically represents your school’s unique value proposition.
I mentioned this last year, but it bears repeating. A website can check all the boxes for best practices—mobile-first, bold design, awesome functionality. And then it can all fall apart with lackluster copy. The Greatest Hits phrases of the private school world are still everywhere. Whole child. Deep learning. Depth and breadth. Innovation. You get my drift. In the sea of sameness that I referenced above, the overuse of these phrases doesn’t actually tell prospective families anything.
I smiled, I laughed, I nodded, and I walked away from my screen feeling like I had actually gotten to know the schools. On just one page. That’s huge.
In a tough competition, the homepages I gave the highest marks to blended bold, on-brand design with copy that had something to say. Not just about the school, but the students who walk their halls every day and the families they wanted to attract to their communities. I smiled, I laughed, I nodded, and I walked away from my screen feeling like I had actually gotten to know the schools. On just one page. That’s huge. The other thing these schools had in common was that the copy sounded like it had been written by a normal person. Check out these examples from Woodward Academy and Kent Place School to see what I mean.
At a time when millennials are increasingly representing your prospective parents and their Gen Z children are getting more and more involved in the school selection process, you have to start writing the way that people speak. An air of sophistication is perfectly fine, but it’s time for us to collectively agree to save the SAT words and jargon for Scrabble.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All for “Quick Facts”
Quick Facts and At-a-Glance sections are still alive and well; but after years of displaying stats about student:teacher ratios, campus acreage, and athletic teams there are some opportunities to mix things up. While you can, and should, use this real estate to get down to brass tacks, this is another opportunity to showcase data points that actually represent…you guessed it! Your brand.
Here are a few thoughts:
- What does your school do differently from anyone else? Is it your commitment to service? Internships for older students? Opportunities for students to travel or learn abroad? In addition to the basics, include proof points that will make your school stand out.
- 100% college matriculation is table stakes for private and independent schools. Consider saving that space and sharing college matriculation data elsewhere. National Merit Scholars or college scholarship awards? Now we’re talking.
- Student mental health is a big, big issue right now. If your school has strong support services in place for student mental health (number of counselors/student-to-counselor ratio, programming, etc.) this section is a great place to highlight it.
- Make sure the data points you choose are driven by what your prospective families care about, including students! One of the more interesting examples I’ve seen recently was a school that includes “Facts their kids love” and “Facts their parents love” on their home page.
While website homepage trends can come and go, some of the simplest best practices are tried and true. Keep your audience first, stay on brand with your designs, don’t neglect your copy, and make sure that your entire digital experience comes together to tell a compelling, clear, and unique story to your prospective families. There might even be an award in it for you!