Let’s face it. Your school website is a marketing tool. And while “marketing” tends to be a taboo word in the field of education, without an intentional marketing strategy, your school is likely missing out on opportunities to connect with new families and effectively engage with existing ones.
As we shared in our September blog Family Engagement 101: From Recruitment to Retention, family engagement doesn’t begin on the first day of school. It begins with the first encounter a family has with your school, and oftentimes this is well before a family has made an enrollment decision.
Your school website is one of the first places a prospective family goes to learn more about your academic program, leadership team, clubs and activities. It’s where prospective staff members, donors, and community partners go to see if your school is a fit for their needs.
Yet a majority of school websites today cater almost exclusively to the currently enrolled family with their daily calendars, latest news, teacher pages, and endless links to health forms, policies and handbooks.
With student enrollment and teacher recruitment a top priority, how can you use your school website to effectively share your story and create excitement around the opportunities that exist in your school community?
Common Pitfalls of Today’s School Websites
In our experience, the majority of school website vendors are technology specialists. They are selling you a product. They are not marketing experts. They are not content strategists. They are not copywriters or editors. They will make sure your website is up and running with minimal downtime. It is your responsibility to take care of everything else.
Some of the most common mistakes we see today:
Websites cater almost exclusively to currently enrolled families.
Many schools are anxious to recruit new families but you would never guess this by looking at their school website. Enrollment details can be hard to find. There’s no story about the school or what makes it different from other schools in the community. Even if your school district is handling the enrollment process, families that reside out of the district may not know where to look for this information. Make it easy for interested families to take action.
Pages have outdated content and spelling errors.
What you publish on your school website is a direct reflection of the school culture you support. Parents have little patience for a school that publishes information with grammar and spelling errors, or never removes outdated documents. Don’t publish information that has not been reviewed by someone on your team. Recruit staff members, parent volunteers (or even students!) to do a quick review of your pages before they are live. And when it comes to policies or event details, don’t forget to remove the old version before you publish the new version!
Mobile experience is just so-so.
With mobile dominating how we access information, we’ve transitioned from a “click experience” to navigate from page to page to endlessly scrolling on our devices. Websites today have fewer pages, but typically more content on each page. The old “above the fold” rule no longer applies. In mobile development, it is all about reducing the number of clicks, and creating long pages that are easy to scroll.
Most school website platforms automatically convert the pages of your website into a mobile view. But these conversions aren’t perfect, so check your pages on your phone. As an example, if enrollment is a top priority and perhaps it is one of the main navigation buttons on your website (in desktop view), what happens to that option in mobile view? Does it disappear into the ever popular hamburger menu making it no longer visible to parents?
Analytics are not set up.
Educators love data, but when it comes to their school websites, they seem to ignore the abundance of data that is right at their fingertips. Beyond counting site visits, a basic analytics program can also tell you key information about how well your website is performing:
What pages are visited most frequently?
What pages aren’t visited at all?
What are the most common referring pages to your site?
What are the most common exit pages on your site?
What devices are used to access your site?
What are peak traffic times?
3 Steps for a Successful School Website Redesign
You don’t need a giant budget or fancy designer to redo your school website. Sure it helps if you have access to those resources, but even school websites with the biggest budgets can miss the mark. A great school website is about creating a user-friendly, easy to navigate experience for all of your visitors.
Step 1: Define Your Audiences
Consider all the people that might visit your website and rank them in priority order. For example:
Prospective families - including parents, students, caregivers, extended family members. If enrollment is a concern, this should be priority #1. Your school budget is dependent on student enrollment to support the programs and staffing which make your school great.
Prospective staff - including teachers, paraprofessionals, volunteers, partners and advisors. If you have several open positions key to your school program, this should be priority #2.
Currently enrolled families - this group ranks lower on our priority list because they are likely already navigating an avalanche of information in email, messaging apps, student information systems, handouts and social media. Do not send your currently enrolled families on a fishing expedition through your website to try and find what they are looking for.
Other audience types you might consider include prospective donors, alumni, community partners and other members of the community.
Step 2: Review Your Current Site
Next, make a list of the most common questions for each audience type. What information are they seeking when they visit your site? If you aren’t sure, talk to your school community. Reach out to new families and staff members. Talk to prospective families at information meetings.
We’ll help you get started:
Prospective families - Who’s on the leadership team? What’s their background? What type of curriculum is used at this school? What clubs and activities are offered to students? Where is the school located? What grades does the school serve? Is before and after care offered? What are the school's mask and vaccine policies? How do I enroll? How do I learn more? Can I visit the school?
Prospective staff - What positions are open at this school? What’s the hiring process? How do I apply? Does the school maintain its own sub list? What volunteer opportunities are there? How do I serve on an advisory committee? Can I take a school tour?
Currently enrolled families - Where’s the annual calendar? How do I report an excused absence for my child? What’s on the lunch menu? Where’s the staff directory? Where’s the school handbook? How do I access my child’s grades?
Once you have your list of questions, review your current site. Rank how easy (or difficult) it is to find answers to these questions. Is any information missing?
Step 3: Make a Content Map (a bit time intensive!)
The final step requires analysis of every page on your website. Obviously, the more pages you have, the more time it will take to complete this step.
We recommend using your favorite spreadsheet program to make a list of all the pages on your website and organize your notes. We like Google Sheets because of its collaboration features which allows you to easily divy up the sections of the website between several people.
To begin, make a list of every page on your website. You can also add pages to your list that may need to be created based on your analysis from Step 2. For each page, identify the following:
Link address (URL) - so you have a quick link to easily jump back to that specific page
Content owner - who is responsible for reviewing, updating content on this page
Action - note what action is necessary during your redesign (keep the page as is, revise the page, remove the page or create a new page)
Notes - any additional comments you notice about the page (i.e. formatting issues, images, etc)
Once Step 3 is complete, this should be a detailed list of all the updates you need to make to your school website for your redesign project.
Why You Should Get Rid of Teacher Pages
This is likely an unpopular opinion, especially among our school website vendors. But exactly what is the purpose of a teacher web page in today’s digital world?
Ten years ago, there was a need. Teachers were trying to keep parents in the loop and sending a group email was a lot more difficult than it should have been. So teachers began centralizing their class updates and assignment information on personal websites. They were colorful, animated, sometimes full of clip art, and no two websites looked the same (much to the parent’s dismay).
But times have changed. Our student information systems (SIS) have made it easier to set up groups for email communication. Our teachers are using learning management systems (LMS) like Schoology, Canvas and Google Classroom to manage class updates and assignments. And many others are using messaging apps or other tools that push information directly to parents.
The digital tools our teachers use today have made the “teacher page” obsolete.
What can you do instead? Reduce the number of places teachers have to post information, and parents have to seek information. It is highly likely your teachers are already posting updates in multiple places - their LMS, SIS (especially if the two aren’t integrated), and possibly email or some other communication tool. Ditch your teacher pages!
Then create a Communication Summary for parents which defines exactly what tools are used for what purpose at your school. And remember, keep it simple!
Join the Discussion
Websites are a marketing tool and a place for visitors to explore your school program. And if you haven’t been reviewing the content on your school website at least annually, you’re overdue.
But don’t get caught up in the technology, there are a lot of solutions on the market and they all have their pros and cons. If your school website platform is pretty good, or even just ok, it is probably worth using what you are already familiar with rather than trying to learn something new. Focus on better understanding the reason people are visiting your website and creating an experience for them that gets them excited about your school, the people and the programs you offer.
Have a school website tip to share? We’d love to hear from you!
About the Author
Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.