University websites have matured significantly over the last 2-3 years. There are fewer pictures of buildings and smiling faces, and greater focus on helping students decide why they should enroll.I've just finished a masterclass with about 40 people running mainly UK university websites. I have run many such events over the years, and it really struck me this time about how much better university websites have become.
During the day we discussed the needs of prospective students to the exclusion of every other audience. Not a single voice was raised to say, 'but what about ...'. That was so refreshing. Years back there was even debate about whether students were actually the primary audience of a university website.
It's not that, as the day progressed, we weren't aware of all the other audiences that might come to a university. Rather, we were behaving like managers. We were deciding how best to focus scarce resources. We were examining where the most value was and how best to tap that value.
Years ago, university websites were all over the place as they tried to speak to every audience imaginable. Of course, they didn't have resources to do that professionally and thus the content was of poor quality and often out of date. Not just that, the homepages became cluttered with lots and lots of links, making them difficult to navigate. Or else, these homepages had large, meaningless images of buildings or a bunch of students smiling happily as they bounced along to class.
Because we were able to focus on the needs of prospective students we were able to start addressing some key issues. When a prospective student examines a university website, there's a couple of questions in their heads: What makes you special? Why should I enroll with you and not that other university whose website I just visited?
This leads to a very difficult challenge. Many universities excel in certain areas and are average in others. It becomes a political debate about whether they should be upfront about what they excel at. From a website perspective, the answer is that you most definitely must be.
Get those jewels and polish them and place them bang center on your homepage. Tell people in compelling and clear words what you excel at, where you are better than everybody else. Particularly on your homepage you must deliver compelling messages that embody a call to action. Having a picture of a building on your homepage, for example, merely says: 'We're a university and we've got buildings.'
Of course, the dirty word "ranking" also came up in discussions. It seems that a great many prospective students are keen to join a top-ranking university, with quality professors and prestigious degrees. However, many universities feel that it is somewhat beneath them to boast.
This is the age of the Web. People want you to get to the point. They're tired of reading polite, meaningless words. They already have the general context, because otherwise they wouldn't be at your website. Speak to them in their language about things they really care about. Do it clearly. Do it concisely. And make sure you always have a call to action.