The Changing Role of K–12 School Websites

How your school website influences parent choices

The Changing Role of K–12 School Websites

Every year the number of families that have a choice about where their child attends school increases. Not only are public school districts offering parents more choices at their existing schools, but there are more alternative choices as well. There are options like online schools, homeschooling, private schools, and charter schools from which to choose. 

Could the information on your school websites influence parents about the choices they make for their child’s education? It can and does, whether you want it to or not!

Parents traditionally cite academic factors as their most important considerations when choosing a school, but when looking at the choices they actually make, other influences often take the lead. They include values like geographic location, school safety, extracurricular activities, and student composition (including proficiency rates, race, and ethnicity factors) in their priorities. 

One study also shows that parents’ social networks have an impact on their choices (their social circles influence them when they share their own experiences of satisfaction or dissatisfaction). So positive and negative influence matters, even from those who don’t have students at your school.

Impacting school of choice

But how do parents get the information to make the best decision for their child? Sometimes it is by word-of-mouth (social circles, friends, neighbors, family), often it is online research using sites that rank the various school choices by geographic location, test scores, and reviews, or it is your school’s website. Regardless of the source, your goal must be to create a positive impact on how customers perceive your school at each touchpoint.

So, how can your school make a positive impact and influence parents’ choices?

  1. Be transparent. Aim to attract those “ideal” students to your school. By that we mean the students whose needs (or their parents’ needs) will be a match to what your school’s strengths are. If you offer great vocational programs, you will target parents/students who are seeking excellent foundational training for jobs in these fields. If your claim to fame is safety or inclusivity or college-bound or athletics, you want to emphasize these strengths to attract parents/students with matching goals and values. 
  2. Be targeted. If you try to be all things to all people, you will satisfy no one. And yes, this does apply to public schools as well. It doesn’t mean you don’t educate everyone who comes through your doors, but every school has a focus, strengths, and some areas of excellence. What are they at your school? When you know that, shout it loud and proud. You will have greater success with the students you enroll when both your school focus and the parents’ goals are aligned. 
  3. Provide proof. Deliver evidence that what you claim to provide as your school’s strengths are, in fact, succeeding. Depending on your strengths, it could be anything from test scores, word-of-mouth testimonials, alumni evidence, scholarships earned, graduation rates, racial or class integration, or just happy, engaged students. Use videos, testimonials, statistics, awards, stories, interviews, or other methods to provide evidence of what you claim. Basically, you must support every criterion that a parent puts as a priority with evidence, either statistic data or with emotional, human-based, proofs. Also, how you display that proof on your website can have an impact on the influence it provides (see Education Week’s How website design can influence parents’ school choices). 

School marketing and brand management

If all of this sounds like marketing to you, you’re right. That is precisely what it is. If you don’t take steps to influence your school’s brand and reputation, you are leaving the outcome to the mercy of others. That can be a big mistake and not something any school leader should allow. Be proactive in all the avenues available to you. Let’s look at a few of those touchpoints:

  • School websites. Consider your school website as your personal media outlet. It should be the primary go-to source for information about your school or district. If it isn’t now, it is because you haven’t used it as such, so it isn’t a trusted resource for your community to use. If parents or community members go there and it is difficult to find what they are seeking, it is out of date, it is unprofessional, or it is unengaging, they will leave and never return unless you provide a reason for them to do so.

    Your school website should be the primary resource for potential parents, current parents, community members, taxpayers, staff, and local media to be informed, enthused, and engaged. The information you provide on your school website should meet the needs of each of these audiences. To find out how you can get it there, check out some of these articles by topic: Best Websites for SchoolsSchool CommunicationsSchool MarketingSchool Social MediaSchool Public Relations, or School Customer Service. Or partner with the experts who can get and keep you there (that would be School Webmasters, of course).
  • School ranking lists. If parents are looking at ranking lists online (sometimes called school shopping directories), shouldn’t you be taking proactive steps to be portrayed accurately? Is your school’s data accurate and current? Are there areas you could improve upon that would influence your rankings on these sites? Some rankings are out of your immediate control, like test scores, but others are not. Focus on what you can impact. For ranking sites that allow input, you can encourage parents to post reviews that mention the areas of your school’s strengths and successes. Maybe you don’t have the highest number of ivy league scholarships, but you do have excellent graduation rates and alumni who are successful and productive—so that is what you highlight.

    Remember, not all parents want the same thing for their children. So, don’t be afraid to reach out to those with similar values. Take pride in what you do well and share that pride. Some of the school ranking lists (besides the ones in each state’s department of education) are School DiggerGreatSchools, or School Grades. Each ranking site uses different criteria, but test scores are predominant.
  • Customer satisfaction and loyalty. What happens after a parent selects your school? What are you doing to validate their decision and earn their continued trust, loyalty, and support? As we discussed earlier, some of the most compelling influence is from trusted friends and family, so what steps can you take to improve your customer relationships? As with everything else, it often boils down to effective communication as well as customer service. These two areas are the primary job of your school website in a digital age. This requires having a dedicated communications strategy for the parents of your currently enrolled students. It also means developing reliable, consistent website management that supports your communication goals. We’ll go into a bit more detail below.

What makes a good school website?

Aside from the obvious requirements of a school website (a fast-loading, mobile-friendly, attractive design, ), there are the too-often ignored requirements. Let’s discuss them one by one:

Easy to use. Your website must be intuitive so users can quickly get to the information they need. Keep the navigation simple and intuitive. We recommend basic, clearly marked top navigation, and to accommodate specific audience focused needs, we also provide what we call “category” navigation for each audience group, such as parents, students, staff, and community. The category navigation often links to those areas of the website that are commonly accessed information by that group’s areas of interest.

Audience-focused. Some websites, particularly private schools and large public school districts, often focus on one audience to the detriment of another. Many private school websites almost exclusively focus on attracting new students, so their sites are marketing focused, failing to address the needs of parents whose students are already enrolled. Public schools tend to do the opposite and focus on the needs of parents of enrolled students, ignoring valuable marketing opportunities. Your school website is perfectly capable of serving the needs of both audiences (as well as that of attracting quality staff). Consider all of your audience needs, and plan your website accordingly. The audience of school-level websites is definitely the parents of enrolled students expecting to find information that pertains to their children. How does your school-level website deliver? (If you need help, contact School Webmasters.)

Engaging content. Take a look at your website content from your customer’s perspective (or if you can’t be objective, get someone else to do this for you). Is it visually attractive? Is the written content engaging and informative? Is the tone inviting? Is it easy to scan (using bullet lists, sub-titles, etc)? Does it provide content that talks about your audience needs (not just about what you offer, but what they need)? Do you use stories to share real-life examples? Do you use multiple forms of presentation for your content, including videos, social media, quality photos, and testimonials? All of these important areas will provide your site visitors with engaging content, build trust, build a strong brand image, and provide authenticity. 

Online forms. Customer service is one of the biggest advantages of a school’s website. You can make access to information, forms, events, payments, and student information available with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger 24/7, whether you are in session or not. When your customers, parents, vendors, and community can find what they need, complete required actions on their own time and without requiring your staff’s time, that is a big win-win for everyone. So, put it online. That includes providing forms that your school requires for enrollment, job applications, calendars (that they can often merge with their personal calendars with a few clicks), and much more. You’ll be providing excellent customer service and saving your school money and time.

Accessibility. Every year, the percentage of users accessing websites primarily from their mobile devices increases. How does your school website look and function when accessed from a smartphone? It takes some planning and management, so don’t ignore this aspect of your website. Also, speaking of accessibility, remember that the law requires your website to be ADA compliant and fully accessible to those with disabilities (and that includes PDF attachments, online forms, videos, and other 3rd-party sites that you link to for access to required information like grades). 

For more tips on what makes a good school website, check out these articles as well:

How are you using your school’s website?

So, the question is, has your school’s website changed with the times? Is it still a static “brochure” that only gets updated once a year when you post a new calendar or the occasional state-mandated notice? If so, you are costing your school thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars (in wasted staff time), and you are severely limiting your customer service opportunities.

Today’s parents, many of whom seem to have been born holding a cell phone in their hands, expect to be able to access the information they need anytime, day or night, make decisions based on the research they gather, and resent EVER being inconvenienced. You are doing a terrible disservice to your staff and your community if you are not taking advantage of all the services your school website (combined with social media channels) can provide. 

Even five years ago, I would often hear administrators say that their parents didn’t have the internet or cell phones, so their website wasn’t a critical aspect of their communication strategies. I call hooey on that today, no matter where they are located and what socio-economic population they serve. According to Pew, in 2018, 89% of all adults were using the internet. Parent usage of the students you serve is even higher with the usage of 18–29-years-olds at 98% and that of 30–49-year-olds at 97%.

Lifestyles have definitely raised the bar on how school communication takes place in today’s schools. By utilizing your website to its fullest advantage, you will make your job easier, earn higher trust, see increased enrollment, and improve your reputation (while saving staff time and school dollars). It is SO worth the effort. If it seems a bit overwhelming, just contact the experts. We’ll make it happen painlessly and affordably. 

If you aren’t currently a School Webmasters’ client, we also provide website management services for other CMS providers as well. So, contact us at 888.750.4556 to learn if we provide management and website update services for your platform and stop worrying about website accessibility issues or out-of-date website content!

Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.