Four ways to optimize your higher education website

Donna Bungard

Build trust through effective content strategy.

Higher education students, like many others, are facing hard choices this year. COVID-19 has changed things, and though some students are happily returning to school, others have opted to wait. McKinsey’s student enrollment survey found 15% of students are very likely to defer by at least a semester in 2020. Other studies predicted that nearly 30% of students would delay. Though the actual numbers vary by school, area, and so on, there is a lesson for us to learn from and a unique opportunity to optimize your higher education site. Start the conversation and build a connection with prospective students who need to decide what they will do for the 2021 winter semester. 

Let’s start by recognizing the great work you’ve done so far! We know many institutions have had to quickly pivot and make changes to address user needs. We’re into the fall semester, and you’ve helped many students figure out what they’re doing for the next few months. 

Now is the time to ensure your website meets your users’ needs and supports your institution’s goals for the rest of the calendar year. A college’s website is the most influential resource used by prospective students for their higher education search. You can risk losing your audience by not paying attention to your website and the power it yields. Additionally, there’s a risk of your school looking out of touch and underprepared if you don’t adjust your content strategy in light of COVID-19. 

A McKinsey report stated, “normal operations may not resume for US higher education institutions until summer 2021.” By strengthening your online presence now, you can turn people nervously researching your post-secondary school into enrolled students who feel confident and safe starting their education with you next year.

Here are 4 content strategy fixes you can make to your higher education website to increase student enrollment:

Review user personas 

We suggest taking a close look at your existing user personas and exploring how the pandemic may be affecting what they need and expect from your website content. We looked at the most common user personas held by our higher education clients and how shifts in their needs may affect your content strategy:

  • Prospective students may want reassurance their education won’t be negatively affected by changes your college or university has made as a result of COVID-19. Moreover, they may fear the choice to defer a semester could negatively impact their long term success. Ensure your content addresses their concerns, and manages their expectations. Be transparent about what you are doing to alleviate their worries, and what you’ll do to make the experience as genuine as possible. In the end, every user needs to feel valued and heard. Make content relating to their needs (financial aid, admission updates) and desires (you paused, not stopped) easy to find and simple to scan.
  • A parent of a prospective student worries about the long and short term impact COVID-19 will have on their child’s education. 85% of parents said they need to know more about what colleges and universities are doing to ensure student safety. Others are looking for what comes next. It’s vital to bring this information front and center on your website.
  • Alumni often have a deep connection and want to support their school. Make it easy for them to make a difference: from clear user pathways to donations to empowering users to share their stories, updates to your strategy can give them a clear path forward to support you during this unprecedented time.

Improve site navigation

Make it easy for students to find what they are looking for by improving your website’s navigation. 

  • Make sure your site has multiple welcome mats. Research from last year explains more and more that students are not always entering your website through the front door (your homepage). People search the web using keywords and phrases and are navigating directly to pages on tuition fees, particular majors, top professors, and campus life. Wherever a prospective student ends up on your site, they should find consistent, relevant, and up-to-date information that guides them on their journey through your site.
  • Improving your website’s search functionality can do wonders for students trying to navigate to the content they want and need, quickly and easily. Explore “fuzzy” search or optimize a no results page to help them find what they are looking for. 
  • Ensure users can access your content. Users cannot take action if content is out of their reach:
    • More than 60% of users are surfing on their phones, and more than 50% of searches take place on a mobile device; it’s vital your website offers a robust mobile experience. 
    • Approximately 25% of US and Canadian adults self-identify as disabled. With nearly a quarter of your audience affected, accessibility is more than a legal matter. 
    • Many sources have estimated that nearly 50% of searches will be done via voice by the end of this year, which means that the accessible features you build in will help more of these users find you. 

Your content should be as easy to perceive and navigate regardless of what medium the site visitor uses. Take a look at Kanopi’s top tools and tech to use to help you meet accessibility standards.

Refine call to actions (CTAs)

Audit the existing CTAs on your landing pages through the lens of someone who may be anxious about enrolling in college during a pandemic. Do your CTAs take into account people’s current fears? Do they reassure prospective students while at the same time convincing them to do something? 

  • Make it personal. Use pronouns ‘you,’ ‘us’ and ‘we’ to build a digital connection with prospective students.
  • Use empowering, reassuring language, and an empathetic tone. The unpredictable nature of COVID-19 has made students anxious about starting college. Address this in your call to actions to connect with your users emotionally to empower students to take action.
  • Simplicity converts. The key to a successful call to action is to tell people what they should do and why they should do it in the most direct way possible. 
  • Make CTAs accessible. don’t use vague language like “learn more” or “read more.” For blind users, it might not be clear what will happen when they click. Instead, get specific, such as “download the white paper” or “subscribe now.”

Where possible, go virtual  

We know the pressure is mounting on many colleges and universities to embrace more online learning tools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If your institution has plans for virtual learning, you should focus on moving towards that, and your online presence should reflect and complement this.

  • Virtual tours can give people a greater sense of what your school represents and help prospective students decide if it’s the right fit for them. Even if you choose to deliver a large proportion of classes online, virtual tours can strengthen your school’s brand, presence, and create a sense of community. Make sure to include captions so all users can perceive this valuable content. 
  • Consider new ways to connect prospective students with faculty, staff, guidance counselors, and each other through your website. Could short video clips give students a clear idea of what they should expect from a particular curriculum, and what enhanced support is available? If you go that route, remember that representation matters! 
  • Help alumni tell their success stories online. Allowing for user-generated content will make it easy for them to share photos, videos, and quotes explaining how attending your school impacted their lives and careers for the better:
Image from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music case study
San Francisco Conservatory of Music case study

Building connection

Engaging prospective students through a robust online presence and by building a digital connection with them, you can build on students’ trust that your online classes now and the 2021 courses you’re planning will be just as rewarding. 

Need some assistance with how to optimize your higher education website to increase enrollment? Kanopi can help! Kanopi has years of experience building and supporting higher education websites across the United States and Canada. We’ve partnered with UCLA, Stanford, and the University of British Columbia, to name a few. Contact us to start the conversation