Thursday, October 18, 2012

Improving Secondary Schools' Recruiting With Web Design [UPDATED]

[photo: D.C.Atty via Flickr]
If you’re an administrator at a secondary school, you don’t know me but you want me. Badly.

You want me and my recently graduated 18-year-old daughter with a 3.78 grade point average, stellar ACT/SAT scores, solid record performance in AP and International Baccalaureate classes, proven leadership through student council and volunteer work, mixed ethnic/racial heritage, and cash to pay tuition in full after scholarships have been applied.

We would make you and your enrollment numbers look great. We place little burden on your already-busy financial aid folks. Your instructors will enjoy a driven student used to self-directed study.

It’s not easy to recruit us. Quite honestly, yours may not be the school we need by virtue of the programs offered. We’re looking for something highly specific like Biomedical Engineering, for example, and you may not offer it. It may be beneficial to both you and us not to waste our time.

How quickly can my daughter and I find out whether you offer Biomedical Engineering? We’ve got at least 15 schools to examine. If you make this task cumbersome, we won’t even bother. Believe me, we’ll tell our friends/fellow students who are looking at similar science/technology programs how inefficient your school is with regard to technology. How can anybody trust sci-tech programs at a school that doesn't use highly organized and efficient design?

That’s the real bottom line: your school’s brand is at risk. A standard rule of thumb in the private sector is that for every dissatisfied customer, there are on average six other potential customers they tell about their negative experience. Your school doesn’t want this undocumented negativity. Even if we never apply to your school, we could still damage your brand because of our user experience with your site. But the website may be the only contact we may have with you, apart from a possible visit from a campus recruiter.

Let me tell you about another guy I know you very much want. Joe Lawyer and his 17-year-old daughter are on the hunt for a school right now. She’s another excellent student with a similar history of performance like my daughter, and Joe’s got tuition in hand. They’re a little less picky since Joe’s daughter is looking for a Mechanical Engineering program, and many schools offer this degree. We all know there are not enough women in STEM and you want her; how do you recruit her?

Make it incredibly easy on Joe. He’s completely lost in the alphabet soup of requirements for applying to schools and for scholarships. He’s a business owner since he’s founding partner of his practice; he can’t afford the time to mess around with learning about the entire process. Make it easy for him by spelling it all out, in a simple streamlined fashion. He’s got some basic questions that should guide you:

-- What does the school require for entrance?
-- What does the Engineering (or other) program require for entrance?
-- What does the application cost, and what’s tuition and board going to cost?
-- What scholarships are available?
-- What are all these acronyms and where can they be found?
-- What are the pertinent deadlines?
-- How can you be reached?
-- How do we know whether your school got the application, and where is the application now?

You would not believe how many schools do not have all this in one place, requiring parents and students to hunt and peck. Put all this on a single page with links to all necessary content Joe needs and you have him sucked in. His daughter will be happy not to have to deal with her father’s cranky questions about the process with regard to your school.

I’ve spent several hours coaching Joe this past year on ACT/SAT prep resources for his daughter. Your school could have done that for him with a website--and you would have retained his attention at your page for that long. Businesses spend a fortune for that kind of “stickiness” at their websites.

I sent Joe the link to another school’s explainer about FAFSA, yet another missed opportunity for your school (and look, here’s an example of a school’s successful use of technology building its brand). It wasn’t a perfect opportunity for the school I linked either, as they failed to explain why a parent with tuition in hand might need to fill out a FAFSA form anyhow. There’s room for improvement and you could provide what’s needed. Your school wants to be the link I’m sending to all my friends with near-term high school graduates.

Some administrators believe their sites need to be cool, like the FaceBook, so all the kids will use it.


FaceBook is where MySpace was not too long ago; who knows what the popular social media site will be in another year? (You do know MySpace had a near-death experience, yes?) Your school needs something more durable than any trend. It needs something that reflects its intellectual prowess and the benefits of attending and graduating from your institution. Your school also needs to be the institution kids talk about in social media, not used like social media. Think of this as the Apple approach--everybody wants it, talks about it, knows what it means when that brand name is mentioned. But they don’t rely on Apple to be the social network; they rely on it for performance. The brand delivers.

This is what you need to focus on to improve recruiting: your school as a brand needs to deliver, and you need not a social media look-alike but a presence on the internet to help you do so.

Oh, and one more thing: don’t make Joe or me dig for the basics.

In web design for the private sector there’s a rule of thumb: all key data should be no more than three mouse clicks deep or a business risks losing a customer’s attention. Take a look at the websites of the biggest household brand names you can think of off the top of your head--80% to 90% of the questions a prospective customer or investor has should be answered in three mouse clicks or less at their site. When researching your school’s site, a prospective parent/student should have a similar experience; if they have to click four or five times, they’d better be deep in a description of a department’s research.

Granted, most secondary school decisions aren't going to be made based on the number of mouse clicks it takes parents and students to get relevant information. It is the perception of your school, though, that reinforces a positive or negative sentiment which in turn influences their choice.
While necessary on any university website, a search tool is not an adequate end-all-be-all substitute for good website design; you’re asking prospective parents/students to dig through a list of results, not actually giving them what they need. You can do better with all that intellectual fire power you have on board.

P.S. Does your school have an internal social media use policy? A website design standard template required for use by all departments and functions? I sure hope so.

[ADDER 11:15 EDT 19-OCT-2012] -- Multiple browser formats and mobile--your website design should work for the largest possible number of users visiting your site, no matter what browser they are using. With more and more students and parents using smartphones and tablets in lieu of desktop and laptop computers, ensuring your website is accessible on these new technologies is critical. A good design firm should handle this request with grace.

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