Your school's website is a critical tool. Consultant Mark Mountain evaluates whether you are using it well.

Your school’s website is the most critical and cost-effective element of your marketing strategy. Properly used, your website will maximize the effectiveness of “word of mouth” marketing, offer more information than printed materials, and present your school to a broader audience. As you create an uplifting, useful website these principles can guide the decisions you’ll make.

Begin with a plan

If you don’t have a comprehensive, strategic marketing plan, you should not be designing websites, printing brochures or spending resources on any marketing initiative. Reactionary marketing based on hunches and anecdotes is a speculative use of precious resources and typically provides little benefit.

Analyze the effectiveness of previous marketing initiatives.

Research the marketplace. Gather data. Then build your website and determine its content based on what you know the need is.

Something for everyone.

We live in an age of sophisticated information consumers, and it’s not just prospective parents that are using your site. Avoid the error of targeting prospective families to the exclusion of other constituent groups who regularly want information about your school—current parents, students, donors, prospective faculty and the community at large.

By keeping your current constituents engaged in your school and up to date on long-term strategic goals and day-to-day events, you give them a reason to visit your website regularly. If parents are proud of your school and its website, referring people to your website will be the most common way they introduce others to your school.

Organization is key

Web usability research suggests that site visitors should be able to find the information they’re seeking within 2 clicks of the home page. Organize content into “portals” or entry points for each constituency. Each portal should contain sub-navigation structure referring to content relevant to their interest.

How a user moves from page to page (“page flow”) is as important as overall navigation. A truly user-friendly, intuitive website is one in which the pages follow a logical presentation of information—much the same as you present your school in a logical method in an oral presentation.

Keep it simple

Statistically, a web user will generally spend no more than 3 to 5 minutes on their initial visit to your site. What do you want to tell users about your school in five minutes? You want to pinpoint their need for your school, tell them how your school meets that need and make it irresistibly simple for them to get more information. Don’t fall into the trap of “overselling” by giving an exhaustive presentation of your school online.

Keep it fresh and relevant with feature-rich content management. Limited, well-organized content for every user group is only valuable if it is relevant and up-to-date. Again, usability research suggests that outdated content is one of the quickest ways to lose visitors. Is the former headmaster’s photo still posted on the site? Are you touting standardized test scores from 3 years ago? Is the September “Back to School Parent Orientation” still listed on the calendar in December?

If your website content is dependent on a time-strapped volunteer or a faculty member who manages the site “on the side,” then you should consider migrating your website to a hosted content management system (CMS). Content management systems give you control over your website content without requiring any experience in web development or HTML (the primary programming language of the internet). This allows you to assign maintenance of site pages to several individuals, so that no one person is responsible for keeping up with the whole site.

Untie the shoestring

When it comes to websites, the adage “you get what you pay for” rings true. Taking full advantage of your website means that you’ve got to fund it. Avoid the tendency to t your website initiative into a pre-defined budget. Instead, build your budget around an honest assessment of the need.

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