The best school websites serve many critical purposes. To accomplish those many objectives, they must also be functional, usable, and accessible (which we covered in Part 1). Once you have fulfilled the required functional aspects of the best school websites, you need to turn your focus to the day-to-day website management of accomplishing the most important communication goals of your school. Here we’ll not only cover what should be on a school website but how to target and satisfy your various audiences.
Two of the most common goals of any school website are:
#1. Engage and inform your existing students, their parents, and your staff.
#2. Market your strengths and successes to potential students and staff
These two goals target different audiences with different needs. So, the best school website will address both. What we commonly see on high-end, private school websites are sites devoted to marketing and enrollment goals, but little else. We sympathize with this need since attracting new students each year is critical to a school’s continued existence. No funding = no school. This is also the most common approach for university and college websites. However, we see the opposite approach in much of the K–12 market, particularly public schools. They tend to ignore marketing efforts altogether.
The reality is, whether you are a local public school, a charter school, or an independent school, you must attract new students and their parents AND if you expect to earn and maintain a parent’s trust and loyalty, you better do more than just that initial sales pitch. You better prove you are worthy of their loyalty and trust day in and out through all of your communication efforts.
No worries. You can accomplish both goals. But you must use your school websites effectively. Let’s start with engaging and informing the parents of your enrolled students. These are the folks with whom you must build long-term trust and confidence.
One of the most influential factors in a student’s academic success is parental support and encouragement. So, engaging parents in their child’s education is vital. One way to help parents get and stay engaged with your school is to keep them in the loop. However, this can be quite a daunting task, depending on what a parent’s personal experience was when they were in school. If a parent had a negative school experience, their biases might be difficult to overcome. But, there are some effective options. Here are a few:
- Show the love. Every parent, regardless of their own bias toward schools, will love those who show they care about his or her child. When you can demonstrate you have your students’ best interests at heart, you’ll win the hearts of their parents, in spite of their own childhood experiences. A personalized approach is necessary and will likely come from each child’s teachers. Notes home, especially positive ones, are a great start. Every teacher should have had positive contact with each student’s parent before contacting them with a problem. A teacher website, a phone call, or a personal note are all easy ways to begin showing the love. Principals, secretaries, and support staff can also have a powerful impact on a parent’s perception of your school’s sincerity.
- Tell your stories. There are great stories, successes, moments of wonder, ah-ha revelations, enthusiasm, spirit, dreams dreamt, and personal growth happening every day in every classroom, playing field, and hallway in your school. The trick is to recognize them for what they are and share them. Share them in the teacher’s lounge, let them make the news on the school website, post them to your school social media, contact the local media, create school videos, and record personal testimonials. Then, reward the staff and students who help you gather these stories so you can share them. When the school leaders make this a priority, you’ll see more of these wonderful and true stories to share. Set up an internal process to 1) gather stories, 2) share those stories, 3) reward those who share, and 4) repeat often.
- Quality and engaging content. Your website and school social media channels are the ideal channels to engage parents and students. Excite them. Incite school spirit and enthusiasm. We all want to be on the winning team, including the parents of your students. Let them know when they are on the winning team by sharing successes (and not just of the school as a whole, but individual student stories carry possibly more weight than a school-wide recognition).
We all like to see ourselves or our children as the possible hero of stories, so share your school stories liberally! You should fill your website news pages with them. Spotlight your teachers and support staff. Spotlight your parent volunteers. Spotlight your administrators and governing board members. Not by listing some boring ol’ bio, but share their humanity, their dreams, their interests instead. The personal touch lets you relate to them as fellow dreamers, engage your community, and turn any foes into fans.
- Readable website content. There are certain formats that make reading information from a website far more enjoyable. You’ll want to apply these strategies when writing your website content.
- Use short paragraphs. It is easier to read and encourage people to keep reading. If their eyes fall upon a large block of text, they tend to skip over it, whereas a smaller paragraph won’t seem overwhelming.
- Use informative, brief subtitles. This will help readers stay engaged. It will tell them immediately what the topic is, and they will be able to scan the content quickly when looking for a specific area of interest.
- Bullet points and numbers. Use bullet points or numbered lists to help organize the information and let the reader quickly get to the meat of the topic when they are scanning.
- Avoid industry jargon. If you are using terms only your peers would know, you are not only creating content that will be uninteresting, but you may inadvertently come off as condescending. Avoid educationese.
- Keep it short, sweet, and conversational. Never use a big word when a small word will do. Sometimes a bigger word is the perfect choice, but be aware of your audience and don’t make them drag out a thesaurus. Remember you are having a conversation, not writing a dissertation. Keep it conversational. Feel free to use conjunctions. Avoid passive voice. Be positive, inviting, and friendly. Imagine the person you are speaking to as you write to help you hit the right tone.
- Engage parents. Both district websites and school-level websites are the norm for many schools. Traditionally, public school websites will have a district website or the main office site that contains all the business aspects of running a school; it serves a wide range of grade levels. The district website content contains information about job postings, hiring processes, department contacts, contact and location information, enrollment forms, district-wide bus routes, administrative and board of education leaders, etc.).
Then there are the grade-level school websites. These typically focus on a specific school facility that serves certain grades. For example, a public school district might have a district office website and three individual school sites, all linked from the district website. There might be one for the elementary school, one for the middle school, and another for the high school.
This is a useful website best practice for many reasons. Each school website is often created to reflect the interests and needs of those students and their parents. This is not only intuitive for parents, but it allows principals and staff at those grade-level sites to focus on their unique audience needs and interests.
As a parent who just enrolled my child in your school district, where I used the district website to learn about your district’s strengths, programs, values, and how to enroll them, now I care most about my child’s day-to-day activities. I don’t necessarily want to wade through a news page or calendar highlighting the high school students’ successes and upcoming activities when I have a kindergarten student. This is where the grade-level school website shines.
A savvy school principal can create a respected and trusted school brand just by providing the type of information the parents whose children attend his or her school want and need. Not only will the website be much smaller, so it is more intuitive and simple to navigate, but the colors, images, and stories will all reflect that school and its students. Those great stories you are gathering, those videos you are creating (or having students help you create), those student and parent testimonials, those teacher spotlights you created—are for just the right audience. For many more tips for grade level school websites read, “Don’t bench your grade-level school websites.”
Now comes the information that targets the interests of the prospective parent or staff member. We touched on this above, but let’s get serious and talk about school marketing. If I am new to the community, or maybe I’m trying to find the school of choice that will meet my child’s needs, I’m going to shop around. Your website should influence those selection choices.
- Create targeted content. We encourage our schools to create an area of the website specifically for student enrollment efforts. Consider a “Why Choose Us” category, and use some of your best stories there so prospective parents can envision their child being one of these happy, successful, students who fit in and thrive in your school. Show off your strengths here as well. At what does your school excel? What are your differentiators? Parents are looking for the best match for their child’s interests. Let parents visualize the possibilities through the stories your website tells, and continue to promote them through your school social media content. This marketing section is typically located on the main office or district website. Keep it front and center so first-time site visitors will notice it quickly.
- Integrate and promote through school social media. Your school social media channels will take your messages and stories to your audience. And your audience is on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest, so be sure you are there to engage them. This means your school social media strategy should be part of your school marketing plan. It should be a focused, coordinated effort. It should be used to drive visitors to your website, where you have “the rest of the story” to engage them further. It should ask questions and gather information from your audience (surveys, comments, engagement). It should be used to recognize and congratulate your staff and student successes and progress. And, nearly every post can support your school’s mission and its marketing goals for the year. Get more school social media ideas at School Social Media Management 101, Part I and Part II or This is not the end of Facebook.
- Build strong school public relations. What is PR for schools? It is your deliberate, strategic communications efforts focused on building relationships. Ignore public relations at your peril. If you don’t manage it, it will be managed for you and not often in your favor. Done right, public relations will establish and strengthen your school brand. It will create a positive connection with your community. It supports your school marketing plans. Public relations means listening to your publics (surveys, parent advocacy groups, etc.), establishing relationships with the local media (supplying them with articles, stories, videos, being accessible to them), and planning messaging and goals to support your school’s mission.
- Create school videos. Creating engaging and informative school videos is a powerful way to market your school. It is visual, quickly conveys lots of information, and helps the viewer identify with those at your school. It turns your school from a cold, uncaring institution into real people with whom they can relate. It is one way to break through the onslaught of information bombarding those you need to reach and get your message heard. Learn more at “Creating a school video that won’t break the bank.”
- Train for customer service. Here at School Webmasters, we believe having high customer service standards is a tragically overlooked aspect of successful school marketing. How we treat others, what respect we show, what words we use, and how we live our values (each as representatives of our school’s mission) speak volumes. The expression, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say,” applies here. Your staff’s actions speak far louder than your marketing messages. When your marketing and the actions of your school personnel match up, you have a winner! You need to ensure all your school staff know what it looks like to live the promises your school’s mission makes. Check out “Parents: raving fans or raging foes?” and “Choose your words wisely…it matters!” or download our free eBook “How to Create Sensational School Customer Service” for some school customer service tips.
What to avoid
There are some things you’ll want to avoid (no matter what someone on your staff thinks might be cool).
- Avoid background music (especially when it autoplays).
- Don’t use Flash (but I’m sure everyone knows this by now).
- Avoid a splash page (where you have to “Click to Enter”) unless it is a secured, member-only area.
- Never grab an image or content from any other website. This is plagiarism or copyright infringement. If it is “published” elsewhere, you can’t use it without permission unless it is royalty free or the owner indicates you can use it.
- View this article for more tips about what to avoid, “20 Tacky School Website Practices Schools Should Avoid.”
So, there you go. Now you have plenty of ideas to make sure your school has one of the best school websites around. It ain’t easy, but it’s worth it! (If you don’t like the hard parts, we hope you’ll partner with School Webmasters. We make it easy and worth it!)
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.