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Constants of a Top-Performing Higher Ed Website

Higher education institutions have been around for hundreds of years, and sometimes, an institution’s website looks like it’s existed for just as long. In today’s increasingly competitive landscape, every touchpoint with a prospective student or parent is absolutely vital to maintaining and growing enrollment numbers. As Modern Marketers, we know one thing to be true: in order to remain competitive with other schools, your website has to be competitive, too. Better yet, your website should set the standard for well-designed, top-performing higher ed sites. You won’t be able to command students’ respect—or applications—if you don’t capture their interest upon their very first visit to your site.

Chances are you work with professionals who understand the unique application and enrollment processes at your institution, but that doesn’t mean these individuals are equipped to articulate these messages online. In order to best capture and maintain the attention of prospective students and parents, it is vital you understand which features play a constant role among top-performing higher education websites.

We’ve curated a list of tips to help you set up a top-performing website and give you a bigger return on investment. Top-performing higher ed sites focus on the following:

User Experience Design

You’ve probably heard the term User Experience, or UX, used more frequently in the past couple of years. As we learn more about what it takes to create accessible websites, user experience pros are gaining attention—and rightfully so. At its core, user experience strategists help marketers, designers, and developers better understand the path a user might take once they land on your site, or on a certain page. Or, they’ll help set up your site in such a way that almost guarantees users’ needs will be met upon arrival. When creating and maintaining your institution’s website, it is crucial to understand your users’ journeys. What did they click on after landing on the homepage? What information did they inquire about in the search bar? Asking yourself these questions and diving into the answers will help determine where your gaps currently lie.

You should frequently discuss your short- and long-term goals with your UX strategist.

The bigger your school, the bigger your site probably is. Because each department and office on campus maintains its own page or sub-site, it’s common for users to find duplicate, contradictory, or incomplete information while clicking around. To avoid this, keep your personas and user journeys in mind, and conduct user experience tests—like heat maps and user flows—often. Heat maps help visualize data. When it comes to understanding user journeys, heat maps tell us the screen elements users attempt to click on, which parts of the screen they pay the most attention to, and more. User flows, on the other hand, depict movement. What do users click on first? Which pages are they led to from your homepage or landing page? These are questions your UX Strategist will work to address throughout a website design or redesign project.

Remember: You should frequently discuss—and, if necessary, alter—your short- and long-term goals with your UX strategist to ensure everyone is working toward a common end goal.

Mobile Experience

Mobile experience is everything. If your site isn’t optimized for mobile use, your institution is missing out on a huge sample of potential visitors and ultimately applicants. In fact, 68 percent of students visit college websites from their mobile devices. They want advanced features, quick load times, and captivating content.

What does a top-performing mobile site look like? When designing the mobile version of your site you should: make elements touch-friendly, de-emphasize distractions, create a visual hierarchy, allow users to quickly jump to different content, and maintain established brand guidelines, such as color and font.

Additionally, your mobile site’s header should include a search bar and the institution’s logo, as well as the same menu navigation as your desktop site in order to avoid confusion. Lastly, static hero images work best on mobile since users rarely swipe or wait for a new image to cycle through on their mobile device(s). We advise against using videos or complex slideshows on mobile sites because they are often too heavy for mobile experiences, resulting in slower load times and frustrated users.

Rigorous Process

Amidst the excitement that comes with developing a well-designed, mobile-optimized site, it’s easy to forget about the process. Process has its place within every marketing department, and it is important to adhere to an established process to guarantee the best results. Process, at a high level, means moving through research, planning, design, development, and launch of a website at the appropriate times. Process ensures your team sticks to a pre-determined timeline so the website is finished by the proposed due date. This timeline will look different for everyone, and will especially depend upon the scope of work and project goals, but typically, from start to finish, a full website redesign project will take three to six months.

There are a lot of factors to consider when designing and developing a higher ed website. Not only do you have to keep the standards, values, and long-term goals of your institution in mind, but you also have to consider all of the elements that make a higher ed website great. These elements include user experience design, mobile experience, and a rigorous process (and we’re just getting started!)

Top-performing higher education websites answer prospective parents’ and students’ questions. They are mobile optimized, on-brand, and user-focused. The best websites in any industry are continually analyzed and optimized to always align with best practices, accessibility requirements, and the latest trends. Website development is not a one time only job; to truly increase traffic, click-through rates, and enrollment numbers, you have to continually maintain and update the features on your site.

In the changing, competitive landscape of higher education, having a top-performing website will pay dividends for your institution. It can be challenging to determine what to showcase on your site and what to omit, but with the right tools in your toolkit, you can be sure you’ll make the “Best of” list in no time.

Erika Voeller

Erika is passionate about content creation and brand growth. As a copywriter, she uses her talent for writing to help elevate brands. When she's not writing, you'll find her practicing yoga, exploring Minneapolis, or sipping on iced coffee.