How important is a first impression? Very. Whether we like it or not.
But why is that first impression so critical? It has to do with what is known as the halo effect. Our first impressions create a perception, whether positive or negative, that causes us to associate other qualities with our original impression.
For example, if our first impression when we walk into a school office is that it’s chaotic, disorganized, and our presence is inconvenient and unwelcome, we are likely to jump to the conclusion that the education for our children will be less than stellar. There might be no connection between our front office experience and what happens within the classroom or the interactions with students, but without an experience that forces us to change our opinion, our future judgments will be influenced by the halo effect. First impressions can change, but not without concerted effort.
What’s your school website’s first impression?
Often, the first impression parents and community members have of your school comes from your school’s website. Is it prejudicing the very folks you are trying to attract? Is keeping it attractive and current low on the priority list because everyone’s to-do list is longer than the Nile? Or would some initial effort in this area actually shorten some of those to-do lists?
Let’s discuss how the design, layout, and management of your school’s website can create positive and long-lasting first impressions that will influence parent attitudes about the work you are doing at your school, opinions toward school staff, and even enrollment numbers.
#1 Put your best foot forward
If you are going to a job interview, you prepare to make a good impression by dressing professionally, combing your hair, etc. Your goal is to create positive social cohesion and avoid negative impressions leading to biases and prejudice. Well, consider your website as a job interview. It is just as critical for your school to put its best foot forward as well, and this begins with its appearance.
- Navigation. It must be intuitive. The information a site visitor is looking for must be easy to find (ideally within 3 clicks). Our recommended page navigation for K–12 schools has been copied by thousands of schools because it has proven to be logical and clear (so feel free to copy our nearly two decades of experience). It also needs to be consistent from page to page. Don’t change up your navigation, even if it seems clever and edgy, or you’ll lose and frustrate users.
- Layout. Keep your website clean and uncluttered. This means allowing for generous white space (which just means not crowding a page full of text and images but allowing enough white space around these elements for ease of reading and to keep your brain from exploding). Also, keep your design elements and colors consistent with your brand across the site (white space, visual, consistent brand, cohesive colors/style). So, choose and stick with no more than 2–4 colors.
#2 Be helpful
- Up-to-date content. This seems like such common sense, but we see school websites in the thousands that are so outdated it’s flat-out embarrassing. Your content needs to be relevant and current. When parents or community needs to get information about anything at your school, they should be able to use your website as their most reliable resource. Earn their trust and keep it by getting and keeping your website current. More tips to keeping current.
- Useful and convenient information. What do your site users look for most often? Make that information easy to find. Not sure? Ask your staff what questions they are asked most often, and be sure to answer those needs on your website.
- Accessible. Having an accessible website means whatever the device, your website should be available and easy to navigate. So, your school website should be responsive (mobile–friendly). It must also be ADA accessible to the estimated 19% of the population with some form of disability (it’s also the law).
#3 Smile and talk about their needs
- Use content and tone that is inviting and conversational. It is a conversation between your school and one site visitor at a time. Make it welcoming. Avoid jargon. Make it engaging. Remember it is about them and not you.
- Tell stories. It will be your stories that help parents and prospective staff learn if yours is the school for them. They will influence, inspire, and engage your visitors. Tell your school’s stories often and well.
- Select word choice wisely. The right words can deliver better customer service and make site visitors feel welcome and engaged, or they can repel and discourage.
- Provide proof for your claims. This includes the use of testimonials from parents, staff, students, and alumni. Create videos to share your stories and successes that help parents envision their child succeeding at your school. Share successful statistics that deliver on your promises and goals. Provide stories and photos of successes and progress on your news page and in your school social media channels. Help them believe that you mean what you say.
Manage your website strategically
As you can see from the three steps described above, there is nothing quick and simple about creating and managing a school website that not only provides a positive first impression but maintains that opinion of your school over time. It takes planning and a strategy to support your school’s mission.
So, who is responsible for your school website? Is it “other duties as assigned”? Or is it a task given to some department other than those expert in communications?
It is common for public schools to assign this task to the school’s technology department or IT director. We advise against this practice since there isn’t a single industry other than K–12 schools that would ever consider such a strategy. You must match skill sets with the task, and to ask your technology folks to put on the hat of communications, marketing, public relations, and customer service is just unrealistic and silly. Besides, it isn’t as if they don’t have enough to do without expecting them to tackle an additional field of expertise.
Consider the following few steps involved in effective website management strategy:
- Gather content, information, stories, and successes on a regular basis from those in the trenches who know what is going on—teachers, office staff, departments heads, and principals. Create a process that makes contributions easy, and then reward those behaviors. Include (or require) all grades and areas from athletics and art to kindergarten and the senior class.
- Update regularly and consistently. If parents go to your website and nothing is new or engaging, they won’t come back. If your website analytics indicates parents aren’t visiting your school website often, that is on you. It means there is nothing there to draw them. Create a consistent schedule to keep the information flowing so your site is always current and interesting. Then use your social media to drive them to your website for more details and the rest of the story.
- Follow best practices. The ideals for website best practices include regular quality control checks to remove any broken links and outdated information; update contact information and staff contacts; check for website accessibility compliance and correct grammar and spelling mistakes; maintain a consistent tone of voice and the following of a style guide.
Ideally, anyone who updates your website or writes content for it should be fully trained. Not just on the website software, but in each of the areas mentioned above. One update completed by someone who isn’t aware of these important areas can not only take your website out of compliance (making your school a target for an accessibility audit) but can make a poor impression by introducing errors.
Reconsider your website’s long-term value
Just like the halo effect can distort reality, so will overlooking the value of the first impression you are making with a poorly designed and managed school website. The halo effect often creates long-lasting assumptions, from causing witnesses or police to wrongly identify suspects to teachers over- or underrating a student’s potential. Recognizing that fact and choosing to use it to our advantage is just smart. None of us wants to make our jobs any more difficult than they need to be. So, take another look at your school’s website, and consider how it represents your school and staff.
If you don’t like what you see when evaluating your own school website’s first impression and need help getting and keeping a school site that creates a positive halo effect that benefits your staff and school for years to come, give School Webmasters a call at (888) 750.4556—or request a quote and tell us what you need.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.