- General Best Practices
This page has been updated since its original publish date in August, 2016.
School and district websites are seeing more traffic than ever before, as current families look to find essential information regarding health, safety, and distance learning, and prospective families conduct research entirely from home. So, it goes without saying that it is more important than ever before for your website's content and design to meet their growing expectations.
That being said, meeting the needs and expectations of current and prospective families simultaneously can be tricky. Prospective families want to know things like, “How has your curriculum adapted because of COVID-19?” while current families want to know things like, “What’s for lunch?” But, trying to meet the needs of everyone on your homepage simply cannot be done.
The Purpose of a Homepage
Every school's homepage — whether you work at a small Catholic school Texas or a large district in Utah — serves two main purposes:
- Engage and inform visitors with compelling content
- Provide clear direction as to where to go next to find the information they need
1. Engage and inform visitors with compelling content
While the old saying goes "you should never judge a book by its cover," we all do — quite literally. A compelling book cover leads a passerby to pick up the book and read the synopsis. Reading the synopsis leads to sifting through a few pages. And sifting through a few pages hopefully leads to a purchase. The same is true about your website.
A compelling homepage entices website visitors to stay, which leads them to explore and learn more about your school. Then hopefully — whether on that particular visit or a future one — they fill out a form to learn more about what your school has to offer.
Parents and students alike have virtual fatigue. And because it only takes about seven seconds for a website visitor to decide whether they are going to stay on your site or leave, focusing on your website's design is key for attracting new families and pleasing current ones.
2. Provide clear direction as to where to go next to find the information they need
This one is really important, and is the key to avoiding a cluttered homepage. Just because information is important doesn't mean it should live in your homepage. Would an author put their novel's plot twist on the cover of a book? No.
While your homepage's content should be compelling enough to encourage visitors to stay, it should also provide very clear directionals for both prospective and current families. Think of it like a table of contents! In a way, your homepage experience should say "If you find this interesting, go here," or "If you're looking for more information on this, skip ahead to this page."
Kansas City Public Schools is a fantastic example of a purposeful homepage with great directionals. For current families, navigating to the "Families", "Select a School", or "Reopening KCPS" happens in a single click. That "next step" is obvious. For prospective families, learning more about what makes KCPS special happens naturally through beautiful videos, photos, testimonials and written content.
While KCPS's new website certainly makes a great homepage (and website!) look easy. Many school websites make common homepage mistakes, including:
- Confusing navigation
- Unattractive design
- Too much content
- Outdated content
- Overwhelming graphics
- Slow load times
- Nothing that is special
- Content that doesn't match what they expected to find
To ensure that your school or district's website fulfills both its purpose of engaging and directing families to the content they care about, your homepage should answer the following five questions (in seven seconds or less!).
- What Do You Do?
- What Makes You Unique?
- How Can I Learn More?
- Where Can I Find You?
- Will I Fit In?
1. What Do You Do?
Your homepage should make who you are and what you do obvious.
To a prospective parent, nothing is more frustrating than Googling "best private schools near me" and then landing on a website where you can't tell which grades and genders are served. Your website visitor shouldn't have to travel far to find out whether you're a religious school, all girls or all boys school, boarding school, day school, or a public school.
One of the best ways to incorporate what you do on your homepage, is by simply stating it in plain text somewhere near your logo in your website's header and/or footer. (This is also great for optimizing your website for organic search.) For example, Paideia School says the community and grades they serve, while the image clearly denotes that the school is co-ed.
Fordham Prep incorporates a detailed statement about who they serve in the "mission" section of their homepage. Positioned to the left of a compelling infographic, finding this information is easy.
And in this example from Sterling Hall School in Canada, the creativity is noted by asking website visitors what they're looking for in a JK-8 all-boys' school.
If you work at a public school district, you may feel noting who you serve may seem obvious, but do it anyways! Providing some detail up front — such as the areas you serve, number of schools, or total enrollment — is important and interesting to families researching schools in the area. This example from Sun Prairie Area Schools in Wisconsin shows how easy it is to incorporate essential facts with compelling content.
2. What Makes You Unique?
In other words, why should I pay to attend your school, or move to your town to attend your public schools? Competition is tougher than ever with no two schools or districts taking the exact same approach to learning in a COVID-19 world, and you need to be able to effectively communicate what sets you apart. Your website now has to answer two essential questions:
- What makes your school or district's experience unique in a socially-distanced, hybrid learning, mask-wearing scenario?; and
- What makes your school or district's experience unique when things are "normal"?
Infographics are a common way to showcase your differentiators. They are great to capture the attention of screen-fatigued families, and also work great on mobile devices. This example from Dexter Southfield School is filled with unique data that speaks to the school's value proposition.
Testimonials answer the question of "what makes you unique?" in words other than your own — which is key to earning the trust of millennials and gen z in particular. Showcase authentic testimonials from a variety of community members to tell an all-encompassing story. In this example from St. Mary's Hall in Texas, take note of the use of a real name and grade. Using a testimonial that is cited by "parent" isn't as compelling or authentic.
Photos and video are also an effective way to answer this essential question. Avoid using stock photography or "staged" images. Within your visual elements, focus on the 5% that makes you special — whether that is your campus, your classrooms, your spots, your location, or your people.
While St. George's in Newport, RI definitely has location on their side — it is absolutely one of their trademarks, and makes sense for them to lead with it in all of their visual elements.
And don't be afraid to directly call out your school's differentiators! We love Merchiston Castle School's "our differentiators" panel on their homepage. For boys interested in tennis or golf in Edinburgh, the message is clear: "look no further."
3. How Can I Learn More?
An "Virtual Your" button, or a "Request More Information" dropdown is a must-have element of a successful homepage. Your website's goal should be to convert website visitors into leads, and the most effective way of doing so is by providing a simple call to action button that fulfills their needs (and yours).
On your homepage, have a call-to-action that appeals to each website visitor at their stage in the applicant journey. For private schools in particular, only having an "Apply Now" button on your homepage could cost you some serious conversions.
An combination of calls-to-action may look something like:
- Inquire Now / Request Information
- Take a Virtual Tour / Visit
Often, schools also like to include a button for donations, which works well too.
Beyond answering the question of "how can I learn more" for prospective families, today directing current families to the information that's essential to them is key, too. Give current families a go-to place accessible in one click that is a one-stop-shop for their "how can I learn more?" needs.
In this example from Stevenson High School, the top public high school in the state of Illinois, their navigation is dedicated to directing current and prospective families to the content most important to them.
4. Where Can I Find You?
Believe it or not, we've seen plenty of websites where we had to do quite a bit of digging to find contact and location information — and it's no fun. Contact information should be available on your homepage so that your site visitors know exactly when and where they can find you — both in-person and virtually. This information is usually located in the footer.
It is important that this information is in plain text for search engine optimization purposes, and mobile user friendliness.
Remember: Contact information is no longer just your street address, as site visitors want to be able to find you on social media, how they can visit your campus virtually. Greater Atlanta Christian School incorporates a 360-degree virtual tour call-to-action just above their contact information. Brilliant!
5. Will I Fit In?
The best way to make students know they'll fit in is to feature photos and videos of students that have already found a way to fit in. Prospective families want to know:
- Does the school shares our interests?
- Does the school shares our goals?
- Does the school share our beliefs?
- Does it look like there are people like "us" at the school?
To answer these important questions, your homepage needs to focus on diversity in your community's people and programs.
Lakeside School in Washington does an excellent job proving that there is something for everyone on campus. Website visitors are greeted by an interactive header with rotating value propositions — each one showcasing a different aspect of life at Lakeside.
Scroll down on the page a bit more, and you'll find "The Student Experience" — a dynamic panel with a variety of photos to highlight the variety of programs available, and the people who take part in them.
While photos are great visual stories, it can be hard to beat a great piece of text content that comes from the heart of a student, parent, or faculty member. Testimonials are relatable, and provoke the kind of emotion that answers this question with a resounding "yes." Western Academy of Beijing has a fantastic "Student Voices" section on their homepage packed with authentic testimonials of life on campus from a variety of students.
Don't just speak to parents and students, though. Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma puts the spotlight on faculty on their homepage to drive home the fact "all are welcome."
A good homepage answers these five questions by combining both the qualities of modern design and logical user experience. Basic information is not buried beneath design enhancements; your school's mission and values are not lost in a yard sale of content that has acquired there over time; and most importantly, it passes the seven-second test.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mia is a creative and passionate school marketing thought-leader. Since joining the Finalsite team in 2013, Mia has produced hundreds of pieces of content with one goal in mind: helping private, public, and international schools improve their online presence. In her current role as director of demand generation, Mia focuses on full-funnel inbound marketing strategies. She's also a co-host on The School Marketing Show, a frequent blogger, e-book author, Expert Course consultant and webinar host. She loves putting storytelling at the heart of all communications — and before joining the Finalsite team, Mia was a TV and radio broadcaster, wedding cinematographer, and author for various online magazines. She is an army wife, mom, and rookie photographer currently living in southern Georgia.
- Web Design