Seeking education in the wonderful web

Keri Beckingham finds out why the university homepage is more than just a shop window

In today’s digital age, it’s never been more important for universities to make sure that their websites get top marks. But in terms of what makes a good university website, what features are needed and what trends should institutions be aware of when it comes to re-launching their own digital offerings?

The importance of content and branding

Eric Stoller is a higher education writer, consultant and speaker. He thinks that branding and user-generated content is absolutely vital for successful HE marketing and communications, and that a university’s content should reflect the reality of their community and stand out against the competition too. He said: “We are all bombarded by content creation these days.

“The best universities in terms of marketing, communications, engagement and brand are the ones that get that creativity, experimentation, measurement and empowerment are what matters.”

Ryan Bromley is Marketing Content Coordinator at Zengenti, creators of the Contensis web-content management system (CMS). When it comes to student recruitment, he believes that universities need to remember that they are targeting a demographic that are most discerning when it comes to digital experiences, and that a strong brand has a lot of power. He said: “Over a third of British teenagers spend over six hours a day online. They consume high-quality content from top brands on a daily basis and they have high expectations.

“Your branding also sends a message about what your institution stands for and what it offers students. If you get this right, potential students should be able to picture themselves at your institution without ever setting foot on campus.”

Absolute Media are a digital marketing agency that has worked with a number of university clients. Due to the competitive nature of the HE marketplace, Chris Hodgen, Managing Director, believes that brand consistency is key for the success of a university website. He added: “Brand consistency, clarity of message and engaging content is key to holding your audience, because the moment you let that slip, even if you’re at the top, you’re in trouble, and you could find your reputation diminishing.”

How websites are evolving

In 2017, 38% of people that visited The University of Bath’s website used a mobile phone or tablet, and as a result the majority of the website now works on a mobile device. As part of its commitment to continuous improvement, the University’s digital team also regularly release enhancements to their course search function which are based on user feedback and analytical data, and they also want to ensure that they keep up with the latest technological trends and allow their staff and students to share their stories.

Commenting further, Richard Prowse, Head of Digital said: “The growth of smart speakers means that it’s important that we’re prepared for the future. Bath is structuring its content so that it can be understood by devices like the Google assistant.

“Our most recent work focused on making it easier for people to tell stories. Our new case study template allows authors to easily combine words, pictures, videos and audio to create compelling content for distribution across email and social channels.”

Colin Cheng is Head of Strategy at MintTwist, who recently worked on a website for City, University of London. In his experience, young people are now relying on their own website research as part of the student recruitment process, rather than just using prospectuses as they would have done in the past. He said: “This gives universities more ownership and control of that journey but also means you have to ensure that the website meets these different expectations throughout the user journey.

“We see examples where the course pages are written like they would fit into a prospectus – but this is not ideal and potential students are looking for more.”

Chris Hodgen also thinks that university websites now have a bigger focus than just student recruitment and has started to see the needs of all stakeholders now being considered. He said:  “Based on information gained from earlier experiences we can turn the website from a student recruitment portal to a student or staff portal with the blink of an eye.

“In addition, the alumni do not necessary need to see a course finder and neither do the current students, for example, so priority might be moved to fundraising or work partnerships. There is also a need to deliver a much better experience for foreign students, who maybe can’t get to an open day, through the use of video, animation and virtual tours.”

Trends to be aware of

Paul Bradley is Co-Founder at eQafy, providers of registry and quality assurance services for university websites. In today’s marketplace, he believes that it’s important for universities to consider the importance of structured content, in order to maximise the impact and reach that is achieved. He said: “University content management systems hold the content ‘building blocks’ used to display website content. But, much of that content could be re-used in social media posts or on digital signage or elsewhere.

“If properly tagged or marked-up much of the content could be created once and be re-used everywhere.”

For Ryan Combley, he thinks the rise of voice search and the popularity of wearables is driving change in the way that website users find and consume information. He added: “Imagine asking your watch which university has the best engineering course in the UK and it giving you a straightforward answer!

“While it might be a while before this becomes the norm, organisations need to start preparing now, which means structuring and marking up content in ways that make it easy to search.”

In addition, Chris Hodgen believes that customer experience is the biggest trend at the moment when it comes to university websites, and that research is a key part of putting the customer first. He said: “We are into so much detail these days that you can’t afford to launch anything without having tested it in the right channels first.”

With this idea in mind, Arden University are currently in the process of redesigning their own website based on the feedback that they’ve had from students and other users in the past, building the entire process around the customer journey. Commenting further, Ed Horleston, Head of Digital Marketing, said: “This includes substantial research into our audiences, how our offerings meet their needs and how we demonstrate this through our website. Our goal is to ensure that users are provided with the right information at the right time, with minimal barriers in their way.

“We’ve focused on developing a prototype that reflects on the journey, rather than jumping straight into a design; our priority is how people interact and engage with regard to this.”

What makes a good website?

When it comes to re-launching their website, what are the top five elements that a university should keep in mind in order to make the project successful? Here is what our website experts think:

1. Mobile optimisation

Eric Stoller: “It is crucial that university websites look good and work well on mobile devices. Who cares if your staff are at a desk or sitting in front of a gigantic monitor, when all of your students are accessing services via mobile devices?”

2. Robust course search

Chris Hodgen: “The course finder is without doubt the most important area of a HE website from a student recruitment perspective. Its job is to drive the user quickly and easily to the most relevant courses available based on their results and requirements, and give them the ability to refine the search and compare courses to make sure it offers all the modules that they both want and need.”

3. High-quality professional photography

Ryan Bromley: “To demonstrate your university’s values, every image on your site contributes to the overall message you are communicating and establishes the personality of your institution in the eyes of visitors. So, carefully evaluate every image that goes on your site to make sure it’s consistent with your brand. And avoid stock images at all costs – you wouldn’t use another university’s copy, so don’t use generic images.”

4. Using data to maximise the user experience

Paul Bradley: “Use analytics (Google or equivalent) for ongoing testing of user needs/behaviour and then build website navigation around a clear understanding of these user needs.”

5. Good case studies

Colin Cheng: “Student testimonials or stories will help breathe life into your university brand and personality. Rich media of the university, campus, lectures and so on – potential students are looking to try and see if the university is a right fit for them and you need to try and give an honest and authentic representation of this.”

Things to avoid

One thing that all of our experts agree on is that university website design is an evolving process that shouldn’t have a set end date. As Eric Stoller summarised: “The site, and especially the homepage, cannot be allowed to get too ‘dusty’.”

At Leeds Trinity University, they are currently thinking about re-launching their website and governance is something they are considering in order to allow content to be easily updated in the future. Senior Digital Officer Willow Colios believes it’s important to look at how sustainable and deliverable the resources for a website project are, in order to assess whether the infrastructure can support what the university wants to do in the long-term. Commenting further, he said: “As an industry, I think we need to stop building things over and over again and need to be able to adapt more – since the mid- to late-’90s, this is what most institutions have done every few years, and the challenge now is to develop systems and business processes that support and allow evolving change.”

Reinforcing why it’s important for other universities to follow this example with their own website projects, Chris Hodgen also remarked: “Our experience tells us that universities need to employ a more agile approach and constantly develop over time. There is no real end date, it is constant development.”

Ryan Bromley also believes that it’s important to avoid running a website re-launch project in a ‘design by committee’ format as the user focus is often lost and replaced by the specific goals of each department instead, which can compromise the overall success. To make the process more efficient, he thinks that institutions should give the decision-making power to one person instead, and commented: “It’s not an easy job, and it’s not one that just anybody can do, but it’s the best way to ensure your project doesn’t end up a mess of conflicting priorities.”

In addition, Colin Cheng thinks that planning the structure of a website should always be the first step of a website re-launch project, as done incorrectly, this can impact the user experience as well as have SEO complications. He added: “Planning how the website is structured and thinking how the content can fit into the structure (or not) is better than starting with the content in the first place.”

Examples of good university websites

We asked our website experts to tell us which university websites stand out to them:

Eric Stoller: “I think The University of Glasgow and The University of Sheffield have done a great job with their websites. Each is different in terms of design, but what they have in common is a strong focus on storytelling, user experience, social media as a focal point, and mobile-friendly designs.”

Ryan Bromley: “We work closely with King’s College London. They have an absolutely vast website with tens of thousands of pages, which makes a one-off redesign a daunting, if not impractical prospect. So, they’ve put together an in-house team of designers and developers who are updating the website one section at a time. This kind of iterative approach avoids the need for endless battles over priorities and features that result from infrequent updates to websites.”

Chris Hogden: “I think that The University of Manchester, Keele University and The University of Derby all have really engaging websites.”

Colin Cheng: “Cass Business School have recently re-launched their website with a bold new design that reflects the business school’s branding, personality and impact. It has had a really great increase in engagement rates and better reflects the student experience.”

Paul Bradley: “In my opinion, The University of Glasgow, The University of Sunderland, The University of Hull and Birkbeck College, University of London are all examples of university websites that are worth looking at.”