Year-long research with prospective students reveals the ways college websites unintentionally turn off potential enrollees.
From evidence that digital tactics play a key part in enrollment, to entire conference panels dedicated to enhancing higher ed websites, it’s clear that college websites are a must-have for enticing prospective students. But what happens when a great website is all that matters?
That’s the question higher education web development company KDG (formerly The Kyle David Group) was interested in researching: “As digital presence begins to matter more and more to internet-raised generations, can a poorly designed college website push students to choose an inferior college with a better digital strategy?”
“Our research revealed five mistakes that colleges often make on their websites,” said Kyle David, CEO of KDG in a statement. “These mistakes may seem trivial, but they are the primary reasons many students often choose an inferior college that just happens to have a better website.”
The report is the result of a year of research and user testing, and examined prospective students’ experiences with dozens of college and university websites. Using one-on-one user tests, focus groups, and user-experience studies, KDG asked hundreds of prospective students to provide feedback on their experience with college websites based on the following criteria: usability, uniqueness, focus, and message retention—especially as compared with competitive schools.
“When we reviewed the data, we found that prospective students are no longer forgiving of sites that fail them in certain key areas,” explained David. “Traditional prospective students have grown up in a world that sees the usability, simplicity, and readability of Facebook and Buzzfeed to be the standard. Websites have to compete with that standard and do it successfully.”
As indicated by the report, college websites increasingly impact prospective students’ interest in a school and, therefore, enrollment rates. According to KDG, institutions that have failed to elevate their websites to meet students’ changing expectations experienced a 30-40 percent decrease in overall unique visitors during the past admissions cycle.
(Next page: The college website mistakes that turn away students)
According to an overview of the KDG report, college websites turn away prospective students by:
1. Reading like the New York Times.
Styling complex information in short, digestible chunks is actually an issue for all of today’s websites, but at least they may have some older readers—not so for colleges and universities.
According to the KDG report, prospective students are not only used to reading short bits of information thanks to social media, but many incoming freshman read at a 7th grade level.
“This means your college website must be at the 7th grade level, especially the sections used to attract prospects and to guide them through the application process. No, we’re not kidding,” writes Rick Martin for KDG’s blog. KDG recommends using short paragraphs and simple words to convey just the necessary information students are looking for.
2. Requiring Form Fills.
Mirroring the “don’t be tedious” aspect of mistake number one, KDG says prospective students are often fatigued by long forms that they must complete in order to get the information they need and will quickly leave the website.
Martin suggests considering alternatives for collecting information, such as establishing and maintaining a live chat portal. “Not only will a live chat feature save students time, it can also save your admissions office time answering questions from prospects and applicants. Well-designed Q&A pages can keep the chat system from being overtaxed,” he explains.
3. Not Understanding What’s Important.
This is a mistake notable higher education designers cite often, including college website wizards Andy Hoang, associate vice president of Marketing and Communication at website award-winning California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and Reed Sheard, vice president for College Advancement and CIO of Westmont College.
According to KDG’s report, college websites often weigh down their home page and “force students to straddle several pages to get information on a single aspect of the college.”
“Don’t let every department have their say,” explained Hoang. “Otherwise, you’d get a front page cluttered like a community board with random tidbits from every department on what they feel is important. Choose what goes on the front page very carefully and focus on your priorities; which, for us, are community and alumni engagement.”
According to Josh Pennino, national sales manager for Acquia, Inc. (the cloud server hosting CSULB and KWALL’s website) it’s important to build the website—especially the front page—on solution-focused content and a user-based platform.
“Be sure to look at the whole site, too, not just the front door or first level,” said Sheard. “A lot of times institutions make the front page dynamic, but then when a user clicks to go deeper, the secondary content pages look like relics from the early 2000s. A user can leave a secondary page just as fast as they can the front page.”
However, Hoang said that there’s a delicate balance between static and antiquated, and being too interactive. “Don’t get so caught up in the design that there’s a disconnect between what your institution is and marketing gimmicks. You also don’t want super technical, information-filled pages.”
“A poorly organized site loses visitors and applicants, and you can ill afford to lose either,” emphasizes Martin. “Your biology department may be on the verge of curing cancer, but if your website wastes students’ time, you will fail to attract the bright minds that you need to keep your college strong.
(Next page: College website mistakes 4-5)
4. Using Fake Images.
For an institution seeking to attract students by showcasing a unique community, using non-unique stock images is a major no-no.
“Neither students considering applying at your university or their parents want to see photos of students on a campus,” writes Martin. “They want to see photos of students on your campus. And images of students posed for the camera won’t do, either. They want to see students, like them, doing the things students do on campus—with exceptions, of course…Candid images, combined with some documentary-style photos from important events on campus, will go a long way toward creating a website that invites visitors to look deeper.
Going one step further, Hoang suggests looking to interactive content to truly engage prospective students.
“We took a look at how students are engaging with websites and how they access social media. One of the major takeaways is that students are more engaged with the inclusion of digital media content, especially video content…the idea of having an extremely personalized, interactive site to keep prospectives on-site by feeling engaged with the mission-specific content is a large component to success,” he said.
From that point, Hoang’s team came up with a list of site must-haves, including stand-out first impressions; authentic, emotional images and content; responsive, intuitive design; and calls-to-action based content.
“We really wanted the university website to feel like a destination. So we also looked at sites like Airbnb. We knew we had to seamlessly integrate social media and web design.”
5. Using Clichéd Statements about Passé Issues
They may read at a 7th grade level, but that doesn’t mean they can’t recognize a cliché. Call it internet-surfing savviness, but today’s prospective students have heard it all, usually from every other institution.
“To be frank, no one cares to hear that your institution ‘provides individualized attention to students to help them adapt to a rapidly changing hiring market.’ Of course you do. You’d better,” says Martin. “But so does every other college. Sorry, but it’s all been said before. Time wasted spinning marketing clichés or waving your campus colors is time that you could have used to talk about what makes your college unique.”
Instead, Martin suggests boasting about unique accomplishments with current relevance for students in a down-to-earth way, such as mentioning a good acceptance rate or a special program for those with learning disabilities. Positive statistics about campus crime rates, successful career counseling efforts or facts about innovative STEM programs are also good talking points.
For more information on the KDG report and blog synopsis, click here.