5 things college parents need to hear you say

August 9, 2013 by Leave a comment
college parents

How can you ease college parents' concerns?

Sending kids off to university is a huge step. And even if  it doesn't involve outright fear for most parents, when it's time to choose a college there's usually at least a healthy level of concern about things like:

  • Their child's future
  • Their child's safety
  • An empty nest
  • Even emptier pockets
  • Perhaps just the teensiest mid-life crisis?

It's doubtful you can do much about the mid-life crisis, but good communications can help ease that worried brow - and keep your school in the running as a strong contender.

But first, the elephant in the room.

That whole 'helicopter parent' thing

The so-called 'helicopter parents' of the 21st century get a bad rap. They're accused of being interfering, controlling, and incapable of 'letting go.' Time magazine even went so far as to run a cover story on 'The Case Against Over-Parenting' back in 2009.

Is all this parental involvement healthy? Who knows. It's a moot point, though, because as Susan T. Evans makes crystal-clear in 'Helicopters or Helpers?', 'Parents of college students.... want to be involved, they need to be involved, they WILL be involved.'

In fact, 61% of parents and 49% of students report that parents and students will make the final enrollment decision together, so ignore them at your peril.

What college parents will be listening for

If you can communicate even a few of these things to prospective parents, they'll thank you for it.

  1. 'We understand you're making a big investment - here's why it's worth it.' Practical concerns top the list of how parents (and students) decide on where to enroll. The 2011 National Parent Satisfaction and Priorities report by Noel-Levitz spells it all out. For instance,
    • Will my child be able to find a good job after graduation?
    • Can I be sure your academic offerings are top-notch?
    • What will it cost?
  2. 'We want to keep you in the loop.' And here's how we put that into practice:
    • Our website is easy to use (and highlights the information we know you want).
    • We've created a Parent Liaison Office.
    • Welcome to our Facebook page.
    • We'll keep you informed about [xyz] by email.
    • Of course your son or daughter will do better if you stay in touch!
    • (Fill in the blank with any other steps you've taken to enhance communications)
  3. 'Your child will never be just a number (or cash cow) to us.' Can parents really trust that you've got their child's best interests at heart? Here's how you can demonstrate that you do.
    • When parents at your school say, 'my child gets a lot of individual attention,' you know you're doing something right. If you're getting this kind of feedback (in relation to academic advisors, counselors and faculty), let prospective parents know. Make sure your staff hear about it too. The occasional pat on the back goes a long way, and will motivate them to keep up the good work.
    • A university education is about dreams, aspirations, a brighter future - YES. But marketing platitudes and clichés about these same higher principles - please, NO! Instead of producing the same old empty fluff, be ruthlessly concrete and specific about what your students and graduates have achieved. If they volunteer for the elderly, or create health-friendly mobile apps, or become influential leaders, give us all the nitty gritty details. In other words, make it real.
  4. 'Safety and security is a top priority.' One of the reasons parents ask embarrassing questions on college tours about parties, sex and drugs is that they're worried. Make sure you have effective policies to protect your students from these and other safety issues, and make sure parents know about them.
  5. 'Our net price calculator will give you all the details you need about costs, financial aid and scholarships.' Will it? Have you got your (federally mandated) comprehensive calculator in several obvious places on your website?

What would you add to this list? What do parents at your school want to hear from you?

 

 

 

 

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How safe is your university’s reputation from marketing tone misfire?

July 29, 2013 by 2 comments
tone of university marketing

Are you trying too hard to be hip?

If you have to work hard to be cool, well . . .  you're not. And it shows.

I recently heard a story from an associate whose son is shopping around for a college. One fine day he received his first piece of mail from a certain unnamed, top-ranking American university.

You might be thinking it had something to do with:

  • Information about world-class academic programs
  • Stories of happy and successful alumni
  • The feats of a high-profile sports team

If you guessed any of these fairly predictable but useful themes, you'd be wrong.

It was all about a coffee shop.

Huh? Would prospective students (and their parents) really shell out upwards of $60,000/year (which is where this school comes in) on tuition because they liked the look of a coffee shop?

What do prospective students actually care about?

In a word, no. Coffee shops aren't anywhere near the top of the list.

In fact, students are very serious about their education, as demonstrated in the Stamats 2012 TeensTALK® survey. When asked what the most important factors were in making their final college choice, here's what they said.

  1. Quality of my preferred major or field of study (16.2%)
  2. Graduates get good jobs (13%)
  3. Graduates are accepted into good graduate programs/schools (11.1%)

'Quality of campus amenities' (the home of our beleaguered coffee shop) comes in at a lowly 1.7%.

Students' serious intentions are also confirmed by what they most often seek out on college websites. According to the Noel-Levitz 2012 E-Expectations Report, students' content priorities are

  1. Academics (47%)
  2. Cost/aid (29%)
  3. Admissions process (11%)

'Campus life' gets a look in, but only at 3%.

When setting the tone for your school's marketing, it's all about balance

That's not to say prospective students don't care at all about the social life, amenities and activities at your school. It's just not top-of-mind in their search, so your marketing should mirror their priorities. Here's a handy graph from the same Noel-Levitz report that shows where 'cool' does fit into the scheme of things.

student expectations of marketing tone

Two lessons can be drawn from this information.

  • It always pays to do the research and find out what your audience is looking for 
  • Communicating your 'vibe' does have its place, but never at the expense of solid information about your offerings

How does your school ensure that you get the tone and balance right in your marketing?

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Take the PAIN out of your higher ed website

October 31, 2012 by Leave a comment

Here are some ways to make your website easy to use, and your visitors happy!

For more detailed discussion, check out this recent post.

A transcript appears below the video, in case you'd rather read this information.

[TRANSCRIPT]:

Welcome to another short, snappy video for higher education.

This one’s called, ‘Take the PAIN out of your website.’ So, you know what’s a REAL PAIN?

How about websites that make things really difficult to find?

Or really difficult to understand?

Or how about just really annoying?

In this video, I’ll give you a few short tips on how to make your website EASY, so that your visitors go away happy, and with a good impression of you.

The first big favor you can do for them is to give them what they expect on a website.  And the easiest way to do that is to follow web conventions.

That means, put a search field and navigation bars where they expect to find them, and make sure they can always figure out where they are.

It also helps to ratchet the ‘volume’ of your site right down.  So avoid visual clutter, noise like auto start videos, or cramming too much information onto one page.

And try to maintain a consistent visual style by limiting yourself to just a few colors and fonts throughout the site, and making sure that you locate your social media icons in the same place on every page.

That ends this short, snappy video for higher education.

For more information, check out my free report, ‘How to ace your higher ed website’ at the URL you see here. [http://juliewuthnow.com/HigherEdWebsites]

Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time.

[Report no longer available at that link, but email me and I'm happy to send a copy! - Julie]

 

 

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uses for higher ed video: pep up that website!

September 13, 2012 by Leave a comment

Here are 6 easy ways to put video to work on your school's website - all in 1 minute and 23 seconds!  For a more detailed explanation of how to implement these strategies, visit this recent post.

Happy viewing!

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why web best practice isn’t good enough

August 16, 2012 by Leave a comment
web communications research & testing

have you got research & testing in your quiver?

Ready for a glimpse into a nightmare?  Let's see if this scenario gets your palms sweating and your heart beating just that little bit faster.

Imagine that you're part of a web communications team that's been asked to overhaul your university's website.

You know what to do, because you know web best practice backwards and forwards.  So over a period of months you and your team

  • Bust your chops getting the copy just perfect
  • Carefully insert high search/low competition keyword phrases in all the right places
  • Develop a state-of-the-art content strategy
  • Painstakingly refine your design, navigation, wireframing, and information architecture

Then, finally, you launch.  The new site works.

Sort of.

It's not exactly a failure - the site is performing better. But you're not sure the marginal improvement was worth all the cost and effort.

What went wrong?

top-notch web communications require research and testing

Best practice is an essential part of success on the web.

But without a solid foundation of research and testing, you'll always be on shaky ground.

That's because best practice guidelines can only ever tell you what generally works.  If you want to ensure success for your site and your specific audiences, you've got more work to do.

target audience research is the place to start . . .

There are web strategies that work for 'students,' and then there are strategies that will work best for your students  (or faculty, donors, staff, etc.).

Okay - this part is a bit cheeky, since I've already talked about target audience research as central to best practice . But it's so important I'm willing to repeat myself.

And give you a couple more ideas about how to get inside your audiences' heads. These examples are specific to students, but the same logic can be applied to any other group you're targeting.

  • Read student reviews.  Find out what students are saying about your school, and get a feel for how they talk.  Here's an exhaustive list of US sites that feature student college reviews for you to mine.  For UK schools, check out The Student Room  and What Uni?.
  • Read what your students read.  Start with your school's student publications, then find out what magazines they're reading, where they're getting their news online, etc.  Not only will you connect with what they're thinking, you'll get a feel for the types of content and design that they prefer.

but not the place to finish

As Eric Sickler explains in a recent webinar for new recruiters, you need to gather other kinds of 'intelligence' as well.

  • Product intelligence.  In addition to understanding the basics of what you do best, a good sense of history, a stash of interesting facts, and some great stories will serve you well.  Keeping good connections with people all over campus will help you accomplish that and more.
  • Competitive situation.  You need to understand your closest competitors well. Very well.  Because without that understanding, you can't distinguish what makes you different.  Or in marketing-speak, your 'unique value proposition.' It's the key to the castle in getting prospective students to pick you instead of 'them.'

Okay, so if you accomplish all that, and have applied everything you learned, you get an A+.

But no, you're still not done.

always be testing

You simply can't know how your carefully nurtured baby will fare once she grows up and goes out into the world.

Will people love her?  Diss her?  Completely ignore her?

There's no point in speculating.  Your only useful option is to watch what people actually do.

And that's where testing comes in.

* Usability testing

This is where you literally observe and listen to people as they try to use your site.  It could be a recorded screen capture, one-on-one testing, or variations on a theme.

Jakob Nielsen's usability report on 'College Students on the Web' gives a great overview of student web preferences, and is highly recommended.

But to get specific information about your site, conduct your own usability testing with even a few students and other site users on campus - ideally before you launch.  Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think gives a simple version of how to do this.  Avinash Kaushik details a more elaborate 'scientific' approach.

* Web analytics  

Using analytics involves tracking how visitors interact with your site using tools like Google Analytics.

Can be complicated.  Can be overwhelming.  Can mean people don't quite get there.

In fact, a recent survey shows that while higher ed is adopting web analytics, it's . . . happening . . . slowly.

But if you're not employing analytics tools, you're relying on hunches rather than data to inform the design of your site and its ultimate success.  Karine Joly makes a persuasive case about why you should embrace web analytics and provides useful tips on how to get started.

Or if you want to take things slowly, you could begin by

  • Doing some A/B split testing to test specific elements of key pages on your site.
  • Following Alan Etkin's advice on what he would do if he only had five hours a week to work on analytics:  'I’d automate as many reports as possible using the custom dashboard functionality of Google Analytics. . . .   For analysis, I’d focus on the key conversion events you’re able to track, whether they’re registrations or requests for information.'

Are you given the time and resources to do as much research and testing as you'd like?  What have your experiences been?

Photo credit: .Creative Commons License Neeta Lind via Compfight

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get smart with your higher education content

August 9, 2012 by Leave a comment
web content for higher education

the social web is always hungry for more content

Your mission: produce multiple streams of quality content that your audiences find valuable and shareable. Make sure it's in keeping with the basic principles of content marketing, and above all else, keep it coming.

It's a formidable task. But one that none of us can afford to ignore.

There are lots of reasons producing content has become imperative, including

  • Giving Google fresh meat
  • Demonstrating thought leadership
  • Generating leads
  • Cultivating a reputation for generosity and value, rather than death by advertising

I could go on, but this isn't exactly a news flash.  By 2012, content marketing has become essential and ubiquitous, in higher ed just like everywhere else.

The real issue, though, isn't the why but the how. That is, how is everyone supposed to become a regular publisher of fresh content?  And still hold down a day job?

Unfortunately, the constant pressure to produce is never going to be easy for any of us. But here are some ways to minimize pain and maximize gain as you carry out your mission.

invest in content

May as well start by dreaming big.

In a sobering rant on 'why higher ed sucks at content strategy,' Michael Fienen goes straight to the guts of it. 'Web communications is a system and discipline unto itself now, and it needs to be recognized, authorized, and resourced as such.'

Which is quite different than what he views as the more typical scenario at the moment. Namely, web comms shunted between IT, marketing and PR. High staff turnover. Lack of strategy and continuity.

So is there hope we're about to enter a period where web communications will be recognized as an integral part of higher ed marketing? And be resourced accordingly?

Fienen isn't optimistic. And given the size and bureaucratic structure of universities, such a seismic shift in budget and staffing priorities is likely to take years rather than months.

But the relentless pressure to produce, strategize, and capitalize on content is simply not going to go away. So better to at least begin to steer the ship in this direction rather than pretend there's clear sailing ahead on the present course.

In the meantime, here are a few suggestions on how to make the content conundrum less onerous and more effective.

'efficiencies' and hi-tech tricks for creating interesting content

Your school does need to produce some original, high-quality content. But thankfully not all of your content stream needs to be conjured up out of thin air.

That's because sharing, curation, and repurposing are central to content creation in the world of 'social,' where

  • promoting other people's content makes you a good citizen
  • people expect to find content on their favorite channel, in their favorite format

For a sample of how to put these principles into practice, check out Pawan Deshpande's article “8 Ideas for Feeding Your Content Beast” . There are some great ideas in this post, as well as links to further resources on content creation.

But how do these ideas apply in the very specialized ecosystem of higher education?

social-friendly content for higher education

There are some advantages to being a large and complex organization. You've got lots of people, roles and activities that can all feed into your publication juggernaut.  Here are a few ways to take advantage of all the resources you've got at your fingertips.

1.  Recruit people outside of web communications to create content.  

I've written previously about why colleges should encourage student and faculty blogging . And faculty bloggers might be motivated by the fact that in 2007, 72% of prospective masters students in the E-Expectations Graduate Survey were especially interested in reading faculty posts.

Higher ed also benefits from a constant stream of visitors to campus, sports and community events, and appearances in traditional media. All prime fodder for interviews, articles, blog posts, Pinterest folders and videos.

And every time one item goes online, make sure to

2.  Repurpose content into different formats

A blog post can turn into a video can turn into a slideshow can turn into a podcast.

And it's not cheating, because people genuinely like to consume content in different formats, depending on

  • personal preference
  • how much time they've got
  • what device they're using

3.  Update existing content

So how many pages have you got on that website of yours? Probably thousands. Which can make it a nightmare to maintain, but also a goldmine of 'new' content.

But first of all you need to separate the wheat from the chaff. As the folks at Percussion Software explain in a recent white paper, 'You should always be striving to keep information fresh and up to date, and when you can’t, remove it from your website as soon as you can.'

So as time and resources allow, work away at the big tidy-up as part of website maintenance. Trash the outdated pages, and perform meaningful updates to freshen up the pages you want to keep.  Google will be happy, and so will your visitors.

managing content quality

It all sounds lovely, doesn't it?  Everybody contributing and sharing across multiple platforms to create a rich and fresh stream of content.  And in lots of ways it is, BUT . . .

It's also potentially a recipe for chaos.  To keep things from getting out of control,

  1. Take the time to look at the big picture.  What are your main goals?  Your central messages?  Developing a clear content strategy will ensure that your messaging is consistent and effective.
  2. For all the reasons I've discussed, you need lots of people creating content for your school.  This is where quality control becomes a real challenge.  The big debate at the moment seems to be over whether content management should be centralized or de-centralized.  The trend seems to be towards more centralized models, but it's worth thinking through what will work best given your own circumstances and resources.

What creative ways has your school come up with to produce quality content?  What kinds of challenges are you facing?

Photo credit: Creative Commons License Bruce via Compfight

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6 steps to effective college web copy – without the hype

July 26, 2012 by Leave a comment
effective copy college websites

Are you hesitant to write strong copy?

Many university websites takes a 'just the facts' approach to much of their content.  The prose is low-key, and shies away from anything even remotely 'salesy.'

There are a few common exceptions - 'about' and 'admissions' pages often take a slightly more promotional stance.  And academic departments will sometimes try to entice students with examples of future careers in their field.

But overall, the focus is on providing information rather than employing the persuasive techniques of copywriting.

University web marketers are right to be cautious.  'Copywriting' denotes sales and marketing, and Matt Klawitter has written eloquently on the perils of using 'corporate-speak' in the higher education environment.

Nonetheless, every school needs to communicate its unique value to prospective students, parents, donors and others.  Effective copy is key in achieving that, because in the online environment recruiters aren't there in person to listen to their audience and get a feel for

  • who they are
  • what they're looking for
  • what they're worried about
  • or what might prevent them from requesting more information or applying for admission.

Website copy has to anticipate all that, and give people what they need and want.  In effect, copy acts as a virtual salesperson.

It may seem like we're back in the realm of 'corporate-speak,' but never fear.

college web copy should work like a matchmaker, not a salesperson

That's how Eric Sickler of Stamats talked about what it means to be a recruiter in higher education in a recent webinar.  Recruiters need to find (and recruit) the right students for their school, because mismatches always end badly - for both students and institutions.

It's a very apt metaphor, and it applies equally well to your web strategies.

University websites also need to attract and engage the students who represent a good fit.  And it takes solid research, clear communications, and effective persuasion at the right time and in the right way to make that happen.

The moral of the story?

You need strong copy, but it must be copy that's suited to the higher education environment.

the 6 pillars of web copy for higher education

Here are the main things to focus on to write effective copy for university websites.

1.  Know thy target audience(s).  Think about the strengths of your school, and which groups are best suited to what you've got on offer.  Then use web analytics, surveys, feedback from faculty and recruiters, social media updates, student blogs, and any other intelligence-gathering tricks you can think of to draw a clear picture of your site visitors.

Consider creating personas to refine your results and make it feel real and easy to use.  Segment your audience into your most important groups and write to each individually.  Using a generic student won't reach anyone effectively.

2.  Establish a clear and distinctive identity (or brand), and communicate it consistently throughout your website (and the rest of your messaging).  Bob Sevier has some useful advice on how to avoid branding clichés and come up with ideas that will be genuinely compelling.

3.  Place your visitors at the center of your copy.  You've got lots of cool stuff happening at your school, and you want people to know.  That's great - never hide your light under a bushel.

But, never forget that your visitors aren't inherently interested in you.  They want to know what you can do for them (that is, the benefits to them).  So every time you utter, 'We have 2 Nobel laureates in our molecular biology department,' don't forget to answer the 'so what?/why should I care?' questions.  As in, 'Now that they're so famous, do they still teach undergraduates?', or, 'Will they work with me on the research I'm interested in?'

4.  Write for skimmers, not readers.  The biggest challenge in writing for the web is getting and keeping people's attention.  To keep people with you and encourage them to read more deeply:

a.  Utilize benefits-oriented headlines and subheads.  Can visitors get the gist of what a page is about just by reading the heads and sub-heads?  They'd better, because it might be the only thing they read.  And if done well (i.e., the benefit to them is obvious), headlines will entice people to read the small print.

university web copy

let there be light

b.  Short scannable sections. Let there be light . . . and air, and photos and lots of space on web pages.  The kinds of paragraphs academics tend to write (i.e., long - and I was one of them) are dense and hard to read online.  1-4 lines per paragraph is a lot easier to read than 10.

c.  Short words, short sentences, chop out the fluff.  Save the complicated stuff for class.  Get to the point, in as few words as possible, in easy, everyday language.

5.  Tell people where they are, why they should care, and what to do.  This is all about giving clear instructions and calls to action.  Web visitors won't mind - it saves them from having to think too much.

So, for instance, if you've got a page that comprises 50 links, avoid just listing the links (as I've seen on many pages).  Give visitors a clear benefits-oriented statement of what's on offer, how to use the page, and what to do next.

6.  Strategic use of keywords.  A detailed discussion of keyword optimization is beyond the scope of this post, but it's a factor copywriters can't afford to ignore if they want to appear in organic search rankings.  Here are some basic principles:

    • familiarize yourself with basic keyword research
    • identify which keyword phrases you want to rank for (are you getting enough applicants for your award-winning MFA program?  Are people able to find it online?)
    • use keywords in the places where search engines are looking (meta title, meta description and headlines/sub-heads, for starters)
    • always prioritize readers over search bots.  That means no keyword packing or awkward phrasing in order to 'game' Google.  It's getting smarter about sniffing out these strategies and punishing sites for them, so they're more likely to hurt than help.

What have I missed here?  And what do you find most challenging about writing copy for your school's site? 

Photo credit 1: Creative Commons License Andy via Compfight

Photo credit 2: Creative Commons License amtrak_russ via Compfight

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discover your most powerful college recruitment tool – right under your nose

July 18, 2012 by 1 comment
college recruitment & student testimonials

Are you missing this crucial piece of the recruitment puzzle?

So maybe the fruits of your digital recruitment efforts are a bit disappointing at the moment.

You'd probably like to see a larger applicant pool, or perhaps a better fit between applicants and your school's core strengths.

To solve this problem you could:

  • Spruce up your website.  Give it a more contemporary look, including some video material and links to your social media channels.
  • Make sure it features your most recent awards, sporting achievements, and scholarships.
  • Do your homework on your target audience(s) and ensure that your web copy speaks directly to their most pressing needs, worries and desires.
  • Use that same target audience intel to refine your email and mobile communications.

And you'd be right to do all those things.  You probably already do - when resources and time allow.

But you're still not getting enough of the right people to sign on the dotted line and pick you.

What's missing?

college recruiting's secret sauce - student testimonials

In a word - trust.

Applying to college is a huge leap that entails a lot of excitement and even more angst.

In order to step off the cliff, applicants need to know what it's like to experience your school.  And they need to trust you.

Trust requires proof that you're the real deal.  And no one is in a better position to provide proof than the people who know you from the inside out - your current and former students.  By definition, they've got the authenticity factor in a way you never can.

So put students voices to work for you.  On your website, in active social media channels, in email communications, in your print materials.  Not only will it increase trust in your institution, it will also give prospective students a clear idea of whether your school is a good fit for them.

It's an incredibly powerful strategy, but one that's chronically under-utilized.  So here are a few ideas for how you can employ student testimonials in your digital marketing strategies.

7 ways to use student voices online

  1.  Embed videos of/by students throughout your site.  A previous post on using video on your college website gives a few ideas on how to do that.  Make sure the content is a good match for the page where it's located, and that the format makes it easy to view, expand, or watch on YouTube.  Don't be shy about adding lots of videos, but make sure they're not on auto-start so that viewing is optional.
  2. Provide detailed written testimonials.  This strategy is most appropriate on the pages where prospective students are seeking in-depth information (e.g., admissions or academic program pages).  One approach is to have current students reply to a series of interview questions about what they like, what is challenging, why people should consider your school/department, etc.  And make sure to add some open-ended questions too (such as 'anything else people should know?') to capture things that might not turn up otherwise.  Avoid having an editor summarize what students say  - use the students' own words so that readers don't interpret it as high-gloss PR.
  3. Student blogs.  Giving current students free rein on blogs is a great way for them to document the culture of your school.  You'll need to moderate posts, but do that with a light touch to keep it real.  If you over-control or over-regulate, it will show and you'll lose the authenticity factor.  You can expect things to get gnarly from time to time, though.  See Patrick Powers' recent post on 'How to Handle Social Media Comments' [link no longer valid] for how to proceed when they do.
  4. Let visitors 'ask a student' like Connecticut College does.  They can send emails to any of 6 current students to ask anything they want. A good range of disciplines is represented, and the ease of email makes this very accessible.
  5. Make students a full-fledged part of your admissions team like the University of Puget Sound has done.  These folks not only answer emails, but are involved in tours and interviews as well.
  6. Encourage strong engagement on Facebook and other social media channels.  They're a handy news feed, but that's only a very small piece of what they can do for you.  The more you can get students to comment, like, favorite, tweet, etc., the better.  You're creating an (accurate) impression of an active and interested student body, as well as allowing current students to draw a picture of what life is like at your school.
  7. Curate other people's content on your channels.  You're likely to have lots of students creating and posting YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and tweets about your school on their own channels.  'Favorite' the videos and photos you'd like to feature and they'll show up on your channel.  You can also monitor your school's Twitter hashtag(s) so you can retweet the tweets you like.

How has your school featured student voices in your digital channels?  What kinds of challenges have you encountered in doing that?

Photo credit: Creative Commons License Willi Heidelbach via Compfight

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make your classes challenging . . . and your website a breeze to use

July 11, 2012 by Leave a comment

'Making pages self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: it just makes everything seem better.  Using a site that doesn't make us think about unimportant things feels effortless, whereas puzzling over things that don't matter to us tends to sap our energy and enthusiasm - and time.'

Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think

web usability university

make your website effortless to use

web usability for higher education

None of us want to discourage or 'sap the energy' of our website visitors.  So being user-friendly, even hyper-friendly, needs to be a top priority for site design.

Now you may be thinking that as an institution of higher learning, your visitors are more sophisticated and patient than most. That they might be willing to expend more energy in looking for what they want on your site than your average guy or gal.

Don't.  They might be very interested in what you have to offer, and might dig deep into certain parts of your content.  But figuring out how your website works?  Nah.  Not interesting.  Save their energy for the good stuff.

So do your best to make their experience of your site feel effortless.  It can't help but contribute to a positive engagement with your site, and by association, your institution.

Getting to 'effortless' is no small feat for organizations as large and complex as colleges and universities.  But following a few simple guidelines can make an enormous difference in how people interact with your site.

don't be afraid to be conventional

Here's an easy way to do your visitors a big favor.  Put things where people expect to find them, in a format they're used to.  These common conventions are worth repeating unless you've got a good reason not to.

  • Site ID (your name and logo) in upper left corner.  Preferably on every page.
  • Main navigation either across the top or down the left margin.  Having main navigation across the top and sub-categories/local navigation down the left side is also common.
  • Use standard names for main pages, e.g., 'about,' 'contact us,' 'admissions,' etc.
  • You can go home again.  Make sure each page has a recognizable link to your home page in the upper left corner.  And for a real treat, give them breadcrumbs so they always know exactly where they are.
  • Make clickable links glaringly obvious.  In-text links should be a different color than other text, and the same color throughout your site.  Some would even go so far as to say they should be blue, since that's the most common color.  Use your discretion on that one.  And a button should look like a recognizable Button.
  • Don't make them search for search.  Put a search field on every page in the upper-right corner and give it a button called 'search' or the familiar search icon.

And as to the people who really shouldn't be conventional?  They would include design institutes, arts organizations and others in the creative industries.  These folks need to demonstrate their creativity (i.e., show, not tell) on their websites and everywhere else.  Their sites still need to be intelligible, but visitors expect to find something genuinely different here in a way they don't on other sites.

For the rest of us, people aren't all that interested in how creative we are.  They want to know if we have what they're looking for.  Which is a different matter entirely.

noise control

Thankfully higher education isn't a world populated by advertisements shouting, 'Buy now!' or 'Super special offer expires tomorrow!'  But there are still things to watch out for in keeping the noise level down on your site.

  • Too many words, too soon.  Avoid over-burdening your home page with a link to every single thing your school does for every single stakeholder. It's overwhelming to your visitor and most of it won't be relevant to any given person. Consider constructing some big signposts for different segments of your audience so they can travel easily to what's appropriate for them. And as a general rule, as they drill down into your site you can get away with more words. If they've arrived at an academic program page, for instance, you can assume they want some detail about what's on offer.
  • Auto-start videos.  Videos are a great, but not videos that auto-start. Give your visitors a choice about if and when they want to watch your video(s), rather than having it blare at them every time they open the page. The same applies to animations.
  • Pointless decoration.  The design of your site needs to be colorful, appealing and reflect your brand.  But avoid getting too creative with colors, e.g., white text on a black background.  It's hard to read, and we're going for effortless here.  And did you know that  according to the 2012 Stamats TeensTalk® Survey, the appearance of your campus only influences 1% of teens in their final college choice?  So swap those beautiful, perfectly composed campus photos for photos and videos that convey the experience of your school - for prospective students, for alumni, for donors, for faculty.  Make sure everything you include serves an obvious and useful purpose that goes beyond making your site look nice.
  • Choices, choices, always choices. . .  Keep to one key task per page where possible.  Like explaining the philosophy behind your philosophy department.  And then tell me what to do next.  Which might involve a few carefully chosen and clearly explained alternatives.  As in, 'Need more information about our faculty?  Go to the faculty profiles page (with link),' or, 'Ready to apply now?  Go straight to the admissions page (with link).'  Don't offer any options that aren't directly related to the task at hand.  And if people do want to back out and do something entirely different, if you've got key signposts in order (home page link, breadcrumbs), they'll easily navigate to where they want to go.

consistency is a virtue

  • Maintain a consistent visual style.  Try to limit yourself to just a handful of fonts and colors, and keep a recognizable frame around your content on each page (i.e., the site ID and at least some navigation).  That way your visitors never have to wonder if they're still on your site.  You may need to be a bit more relaxed about pages like online magazines and athletics programs, but make sure to keep navigation visible that allows them to return easily to the main sections of your site.
  • Keep social media top of mind.  Do you really want people to join you on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Pinterest?  Then give them highly visible, recognizable icons for these platforms above the fold on every page.  That way they'll never have to remember to follow you once they get back to the home page, or . . . now what page did they see that on?  You get my drift.  Somewhere in the top right corner is common, but I love how Goshen College has a bottom bar featuring social media (and other key links) that follows visitors everywhere.

What challenges does your school run into in making your website easy to use and navigate?  And what solutions have you come up with?

Photo credit:    h.koppdelaney via Compfight

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6 ways to invigorate your college website with video

June 27, 2012 by Leave a comment
shaky dolly

time to get the cameras rolling!

I've written elsewhere about why online video is now a must-have for colleges and universities.

So let's say you're convinced it's a good idea but aren't sure where to start.

Here are 6 ideas that should get you going.

1. testimonials to connect with prospective students

Student video testimonials are simple to produce, and should be used liberally throughout your site.

Your visitors want to get a feel for what your school is really like, and videos of current and former students are one of the best ways to accomplish that.

Authenticity is the name of the game, so avoid anything formal, stilted or scripted, and don't worry about high production quality.

You can interview students with typical FAQs like 'what are the biggest challenges in 1st year,' 'what do students do for fun at xyz college,' etc., and then edit yourself out of the final cut.

Or just ask students to shoot a short video of themselves on their own smartphone or webcam talking about what they like best about your school.

One caveat - not everybody wants to watch video, so make sure plenty of written testimonials are also highly visible on your site.

2. events coverage to strut your stuff

Got a charismatic commencement speaker?  Successful service program in Nicaragua? Olympic pole vaulter?  Show them off with video.

This is where you'll usually want high production quality and skilled editors to ensure the end product is engaging.  Check out the 'Boston College Minute' series for some examples of how this can work.  Too bad they don't have some of these videos prominently displayed on their website!

You may also want to experiment with live-streaming popular events, and then placing an edited version on your website.

3. instructional videos for new students & FAQs

College is a daunting prospect for most new students.  Why not create a few videos that lead them step-by-step through the most common hurdles?

For instance, screen capture videos (interspersed with a few friendly faces of key staff members) can help students

  1. Apply for financial aid
  2. Book a campus tour
  3. Access help with study skills
  4. Perform basic library searches
  5. Change a course

4. showcase of student creativity

Flash mobs, lip dubs, and rap videos are always popular on college websites, although perhaps becoming predictable.  So why not push the envelope and show other expressions of student creativity?

This time-lapse video of a Stetson University chalk art contest is one engaging example of how to break out of the mold  with something a bit different.

Encouraging students to produce their own videos also opens up infinite possibilities.  Adam Brown has compiled a list of what he considers the 9 Best Student-Produced College Videos.

5. student-created ads

In what amounts to testimonials on steroids, Drexel University's Lebow College of Business is turning student words into advertising - literally.  Their 'Words I Live By' contest offers students the chance to win an iPad, network with the Dean, and appear in a bona fide advertisement in return for their '3 words'  on Lebow.

Not a bad use of a few minutes for students, and a great source of fresh ideas for Lebow.

6. bring your faculty to life

A college education is a huge investment, and both parents and students need to know that the teaching and mentorship available at your school is really worth it.

Rather than bragging about how great your academics are, show them.  Embed videos on your site that feature faculty

  • speaking passionately about their research
  • interacting with students in the classroom
  • doing good works in the community
  • talking from inside a book.  A few academics, for instance Douglas Frenkel, are experimenting with embedding videos in their books.  If you've got similar material, you could excerpt clips and put them on your website as a teaser.

How is your school using video on your website?  What are the barriers that keep you from doing more?  I look forward to your comments.

Photo credit: Creative Commons License Reinis Traidas via Compfight

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