School websites—the Swiss army knife of influence and communications

School websites - swiss army knife of communications

One of the most powerful tools a school has when it comes to implementing effective school communications is the school website. It’s like that indispensable Swiss Army knife with nearly every possible tool in one convenient location. 

Any school that cares about happy parents, attracting more students, recruiting quality staff, keeping everyone informed, and building a reputation it is proud of, will give top priority to its school website strategy.

Let’s take a look at just a few of the most useful tools provided by the best school websites:

Large blade: improved communication

The largest blade in your handy-dandy Swiss Army knife is the one that does the most work. The largest blade, and the main purpose of your school’s website, is to create and maintain a reliable and current communications channel for all of your customers. It means your parents will know they have an up-to-date and comprehensive resource they can use any time of the day or night to find the information they need. It means new residents in your community can check out what your school has to offer their children. It is the place where teachers trying to find the perfect match for their skill sets can end their job search. 

A school website, whether it is the district website or a school-level website, is the news channel that you control. You should:

  • Use it to educate your community about what you offer, and share the successes your students and staff enjoy. 
  • Use it to keep everyone informed and on the same page. When your website is a reliable resource, it will get used and appreciated.
  • Use it as a powerful way to cut through the gossip and misunderstandings that can quickly go viral and take on a life of their own. 
  • Use it to become reliable experts, not allowing some other resource with a bias to hurt your reputation or control the narrative.
  • Use your school website to control the messaging, build trust and confidence, and quickly dispel misinformation.

For more ideas to implement some great school communication strategies, check out: Effective School Communication is PossibleTelling Your School’s Stories, and 3 Simple Principles to Keep Your School’s Website Current.

Small blade: customer service

Another essential tool (and a primary purpose for any effective school website) is to meet those customer service needs. While it may not be the most obvious tool in the school website arsenal, it is vital to long-term success. 

The following are just a few of the customer service solutions your site can address:

  • Welcome them! Start your site with a welcoming message, just like you would in any conversation, whether with an old friend or a new acquaintance. It serves several purposes. First, it reassures site visitors that they are on the right website. Secondly, it shows them you recognize the importance of their visit and that you want to meet their needs.
  • Make it easy. Now that you’ve said hello, make sure they can quickly find the type of information they are seeking. Use intuitive navigation, be clear and concise, and don’t make them drill down to find what they need. 
  • Give them what they need. Your school website should make finding the most common and necessary information convenient and current. This online customer service is available 24/7 and will not only assist your customers but will save your staff time. If you aren’t sure exactly what this necessary information is, ask your staff, particularly school secretaries, what the most common questions are that they answer daily. Be sure the answers are on your website. This includes online forms that will not force parents to come by the office (often during hours that are inconvenient for them) to complete forms and permissions.
  • Make sure yours in a mobile friendly website. You’ll want parents to be able to access your site from their phone or other device, no matter where they are. A responsive website design for your school site has become a must.
  • For more ideas, check out these customer service blog topics: Roll Out the Welcome MatParents: Raving Fans or Raging Foes?From Good to Great: School Customer Service.

Can opener: school marketing

Schools that do a good job of marketing their successes and keeping their parents informed and engaged don’t have to worry about losing students to other schools. They often have a waiting list from those other schools. Your school’s website, used in conjunction with social media and family-school engagement efforts, can pry open resources you might not have considered targeting originally, like pride, enthusiasm, and trust. The stories you tell and the successes you share will make that a reality and the main resource will be your school websites. 

But to be effective, it has to be worth the visit. If parents go there and nothing has changed in a month, they won’t bother to come back. They also lose trust that you care about their needs. They want to root for you. They want to believe their children are attending the best schools available. But, if you don’t prove, through your news, stories, and communications that it is a reality, no one else will.

Use your website strategically to apply smart marketing efforts. Provide something for each of your key audiences. Include an area for your recruiting efforts that tells prospective parents or staff about the strengths your school provides. Include video testimonials from each audience that validate your claims. Include any impressive stats available, like scholarships won by graduates, alumni successes, state or national ranks or awards, and successful programs and services. And always, always include evidence of your priorities. It might be providing a safe environment in an area where security is an issue. It might be specialized programs not offered elsewhere, like music, art, or sports. If you provide help to students who struggle in a traditional environment, share those stories about how your students achieved goals beyond what they thought possible to them. 

Developing these stories and videos takes planning and effort, but will be well worth your time and focus. For other ideas, check out our 50-weeks of school marketing toolkit, or read a few of our school marketing blogs, like Why Marketing MattersDIY School Marketing, or School Marketing is Not a Dirty Word.

Pliers: public relations

Your school needs you to manage its public relations. That means you must plan for consistent and intentional communication if you hope to build mutually beneficial relationships with each of your audiences. Since public relations is all about the messages you communicate, your goals to strengthen your relationships, and turning negative messages into positive ones, your website is a critical tool. Like a good pair of pliers, great for getting a grip on things, your public relations efforts can grip your current school reputation and bend it into one that shows your strengths, builds trust and confidence, and creates advocates out of adversaries. 

Here are a few tips to get you started on using your website for PR:

  • Use your website as your online newsroom. That means keep it informative and engaging with current news and successes. We’re sure you have lots of feel-good stories to share, so do it! Get your staff engaged in helping you highlight them.
  • Use your social platforms to drive people to your well-written stories, your engaging images and videos, testimonials, and the information that lets your community get to know and recognize your school brand.
  • Make sure your website content is friendly, jargon free, and engaging to read. You must remember who your audience is and speak to them using tone and language that is not only clear, but enjoyable. Apply school copywriting best practices.
  • Make your website a journalist-friendly and handy resource, so when local media needs to do background research on a topic that comes their way, your school site is a reliable and inviting resource. And, if they call you wanting information, call them back and provide the type of information that will share your school’s perspective.

For more public relations articles, try: Public Relations for SchoolsDon’t Bench your School-level Websites, or Schools That Do More With Less.

Scissors: saving time and money

Cutting out wasted time and trimming expenses is essential in today’s educational environment. There simply aren’t enough funds to go around, so good leadership means making efficient use of the funds we have. Using your website as a ready resource to answer questions and provide solutions while keeping your staff focused on its core responsibilities is just plain smart.

Questions that parents frequently ask of your office staff should be available on your website. Online registration or materials available to complete forms without requiring parents to stop by the office is not only a time-saver for staff but a welcome convenience to parents. Frequently accessed school policies should be just a few clicks away, and a page for frequently asked questions can turn a rule-laden student handbook into a positive and informative tool. 

Use your website to eliminate redundancies, provide a consistent and reliable resource for answers, provide up-to-date calendars, and post news and events that will support your marketing efforts and keep everyone informed and engaged. These common-sense efforts are a low-cost way to improve communication and save staff and parents time. Anything that makes doing your job more efficient and effective saves time and money, and the good will engendered is a huge plus.

Magnifying lens: social media engagement

Engagement is about zooming in on relationships, trust, and common goals. Using your school social media effectively will greatly magnify parent, student, and community engagement.—good for improved communications.

With some of the changes in how posts are ranked, you’ll want to make your social media engagement as effective as possible. Here are a few tips:

  • Think photos! Post lots of school photos. Your parents and students look forward to seeing their friends in your posts, so be generous with images.
  • Focus on content that will encourage your communities to share, comment, like, and love your content. Ask questions, have fun, and create events to make participation irresistible.
  • Create video, including live video, for your Facebook posts. Find opportunities to use Facebook live, which will always get your post ranked higher.
  • Share your own music videos. For the next school concert, play, or half-time performance at the next game, video and share.

All of your social media engagement is working in conjunction with your website, where the more detailed information resides. When you create an event on your social media and then follow up with the huge success of your event on your website along with pictures and descriptions of the outcome, benefits, and purpose of the event, you’ll be promoting and then covering your own news. In the process, you’ll be creating fans, earning trust, and building a strong school brand. Here are a few articles with additional school social media ideas: Facebook’s new algorithmSchool Social Media Managers: A Calm Voice, and Use the Power-Packed Punch of School Social Media Analytics.

Tweezers: ADA compliance

ADA compliance is yet another area that requires attention and time when managing your school websites. Some administrators find it so challenging that they have considered eliminating the website in its entirety. But, since communication is essential for great leadership, failing to use the most effective channel at your disposal is simply foolish. It behooves us to turn this resource into a communication powerhouse. That will include making sure that everyone accessing it can get the information they need. As it is estimated that those with visual, hearing, or other impairments are 10–15% of the population, we will only benefit by making sure we are inclusive.

The other reason to make sure yours is an ADA compliant website is simply to avoid the expense and negative impact of having the Office of Civil Rights knocking on your door with a complaint. Once the lawyers get involved and the press grabs onto a sensationalist story, the fix becomes much more challenging.

So, take steps to make sure website compliance is included in your website management processes. I liken it to using those tweezers in your Swiss Army knife to remove a splinter or shard of glass. It may not be killing you, but the constant irritation and worry of living with the pain is just not worth it. 

So, how do you do that? We have quite a few resources to help you out. If you are the DIY type and are adding all website updates with your staff, train them how to do it right, check their work, and repeat often. If you aren’t sure what ADA website compliance entails, here are a few high-level articles to help you out: School Website Accessibility TipsSchool Website Accessibility FAQSchool Website Accessibility WorriesADA Compliance and PR, or How to Have an ADA Compliant School Website. Or, if you want to keep your staff focused on the jobs you hired them to do, hire School Webmasters to do your daily website updates and management for you, thus ensuring that your websites stay compliant. In other words, we’ll serve as the tweezers in your handy toolkit.

Use all the tools you have

K–12 education is changing. Schools are under constant scrutiny from the media and community. Polarizing attitudes about what should be taught and tested and who is responsible for it all is a popular political ball being enthusiastically kicked around. But smart educational leaders don’t assume that we can do things in the educational sector the way we did 20 or even ten years ago. We must manage our communications, earn the loyalty and trust of our customers, and market our schools’ strengths. 

Every day we see great examples of schools doing an outstanding job in each of these areas. These are the same schools that enjoy improved teaching and learning, student confidence and successes, and engaged parents. Is yours one of these schools? Are you one of these leaders who has the vision to lead your school to greater heights for the benefit of all your students? If so, you are putting a priority on communication and using your website as the driving force behind your strategies.

A few months ago, a school superintendent told me that his public school website was dismal. They didn’t update it often. But, he chuckled and said that it really didn’t matter, “because parents in our community don’t go to it anyway.”

What he didn’t see was that they didn’t go there because it wasn’t a resource they could rely on. It wasn’t that parents didn’t care about their children’s education; they just went elsewhere for their information. Those alternate resources were costing staff time (and wasting limited school funds) and were often inaccurate or negative. It was also an embarrassing first impression and an unprofessional representation of his school. 

That is the power you give up if you don’t effectively manage and use your school website to its potential. You are giving your most useful tool, effective communication, to others who don’t have your best interests at heart and showing contempt for the very customers you seek to serve.

Your website matters. It can change attitudes and improve your educational outcomes. It can turn criticism into trust and critics into advocates. This is all within reach. Just use the tools at your disposal wisely. Your school website is a powerful and effective resource. Put it to work for you!

Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.