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School Websites: Leader, Lemming, or Loser?

drawing of a lemming

There are always leaders and lemmings in the world. Of course, you want your school website to be viewed as an asset and representative of your outstanding educational services. But often, unbeknownst to many respected educators, their school websites are lemmings, or worse, they are losers, and the school administrators are not even aware of it. 

What is a Lemming?

So, what is a lemming and why don’t you want to be one? 

A lemming is a small rodent from the family including rats, mice, and hamsters and are usually found near the Arctic. There is a longstanding myth that claims these little rodents jump off cliffs and commit mass suicide. Metaphorically being called a lemming means you might be following a leader who is either foolish or just has a lousy sense of direction.

In reality, lemmings have been known to make some bad choices because of their built-in migratory behavior. Some species migrate in large groups when their population density becomes too great. Because they can swim, sometimes they choose to cross a body of water en masse in search of a new habitat. This doesn’t always work out so well (sans Google maps) if the body of water happens to be an ocean or is so wide that the little guys exceed their physical capabilities. Lots of drowning follows.

business men walking off a cliff

What does it have to do with your school website?

So, how does all of this apply to school websites? Because the most common issue we see at School Webmasters with school website development is when administrators (or whoever is put in charge of the school website’s redesign project) assume other schools know what they are doing and blindly follow the poor examples when redesigning their own school’s websites. 

Basically, to be accused of being a lemming means you assume those other schools must know what they are doing because they are bigger, have been around longer, get good press, charge higher tuition (or have more funding), or its the way you did it in your last district, so you follow their lead. Unfortunately, like the poor lemmings, if you don’t know the desired destination and don’t have the right map to take you there, you could be headed over a cliff.* 

Don’t get me wrong; I get it. Schools don’t want to make mistakes and are prone to play it safe and follow the lead of other schools that have managed to stay out of hot water or have received accolades. Often, this works. But occasionally, you will miss out on some valuable opportunities.

Is your school really a “business”? 

School personnel, especially those in the public schools, don’t think of their school as a competitive business. Education degrees seldom require courses in marketing or sales. But the business side of things is a reality in education. If we can’t convince parents to send their kids to our school, we don’t have the funding to hire staff to provide students with an education or the materials and equipment to deliver that education. So, let’s take a look at the differences between business websites and typical school websites. Maybe we can learn from companies whose very existence depends on the effectiveness of their website and the communication value it provides.

business man wearing super her cape

What business websites do well

A business website knows it is selling something. A business site provides proof in the form of customer reviews and testimonials. Effective business sites put a high priority on customer satisfaction and use storytelling, examples, and successes to influence and convince their site visitors. Their websites are a resource to get answers, place orders, and provide frictionless customer service.

A business website understands its customers’ needs and its website markets to those needs. A business recognizes it has competitors and strives to show customers why their services or products are going to meet their customers’ needs and tells them how. They know their products and services and provide proof to win customers’ trust in what they offer.

A business website knows if it fails, the business might fail too. Consumers have lots of choices, and if a business doesn’t give the customer what he needs, and quickly, they can always go elsewhere. This means the site needs to load fast and be easy to navigate so customers can find what they are looking for quickly and get answers to questions they have. They provide contacts and solutions to resolve problems quickly and efficiently.

A business website is reactive to the client’s needs. This is because most businesses are functioning very close to their funding source. As a business owner, if I lose customers because I’m failing to satisfy them, deliver on my promises, or provide poor quality services, the revenue disappears and I’m out of business in short order. The further a school or business is removed from its funding source, the less likely it is to be reactive to its customers’ needs. A businesses’ employees know the service they provide has a direct bearing on the success of the business and their continued employment.

school staff member giving thumbs up

What school websites should do well

A school website must recognize it is selling something. If your school website doesn’t recognize that fact, then you will miss out on a critical aspect of its goal. Your school website needs to highlight what you have to offer and show parents why their child’s needs will be met with your programs and services. Your site should provide proof and build confidence and trust that you can and do deliver on the promises you make. Your site must provide existing parents with continued proof they made the right choice and provide transparency to build trust and confidence and provide evidence you care about your students’ success.

A school website must understand its customers’ needs. Many school websites function as public service announcements. That’s well and good, but this approach doesn’t trigger an action on the part of your customers (parents). It doesn’t generate enrollment, encourage enthusiasm or pride, or build trust. Those must be some of the goals of an effective school website. Your site must provide customer ease and respect your customers’ time. It must make information convenient and accurate and save them time (online forms, access to staff, calendars, answers to questions, and rationale for the decisions your school makes that affect their lives and those of their children).

A school website understands that if it isn’t effective, students’ education can suffer. Schools, at least most public schools, don’t feel the threat of failure if they don’t satisfy their customers. We’ve all heard of school districts that were failing for years before the state or district stepped in to take over and fix what was wrong (or before they were shut down). Unfortunately, such knowledge doesn’t provide much incentive to fix what is broken. Meanwhile, think of the students adversely affected when the quality of education drops. It would be nice if we humans were always motivated to do what was right just because it was the right thing to do, but sometimes the status quo wins—even when it isn’t working. 

A school website should be reactive to the client’s needs. Because school personnel are not functioning close to their funding source (since it comes in the form of tax revenue or tuition), job security is seldom threatened on a personal level. In fact, in some states and institutions, it takes an act of congress to fire school personnel. (Just ask California DOE how long it takes to get a poor teacher removed.) Businesses see an immediate impact to their bottom line when customers are unhappy, but if parents don’t have educational choices in their community and the school has no competition, there isn’t an immediate impact, so poor customer service may continue unabated. School employees tend to be further removed from their funding sources than typical business employees. If a business has a cranky receptionist, she won’t last long. In many cases, we can’t say the same about a school’s front office staff.

So, not to belabor my lemming metaphor, but with 18 years of school website development and writing the content for thousands of websites, when you are doing the next redesign on your school website, don’t merely look at neighboring school sites and focus on the colors and font selection, but consider the actual purpose of your school website. Don’t be a lemming and certainly don’t let your school website become a loser by not keeping it current and informative.

Remember, your website isn’t just for posting emergency notices when you have a snow day or the governing board meeting or agenda because state law says you have to. Let your school website lead the way:

  • You must provide customer service and market your services. 
  • You must market to prospective customers as well as the ones you’ve already got. 
  • You must make sure your site provides the information parents and students are looking for—and make it easy to find. 
  • You must provide parents a way to contact staff and administrators.

Don’t forget, if you want to avoid the whole lemming issue, you can always contact School Webmasters. We haven’t a single lemming on staff, and we strive to make sure your school website leads the way and helps you reach your goals! Call 888.750.4556 and talk to Jim or request a quote!

*One of the most influential (and tragic) examples of suicidal lemmings was the presentation of the myth in the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which even won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature and in which the producers threw the poor lemmings off a cliff to fake footage of a "mass suicide."