Before a parent or student physically sets a foot in a school building, there’s an opportunity for them to make a ‘virtual visit’. A school’s website provides a window into that school, and that window can leave a unique and lasting impression.
This first impression offers an opportunity to highlight the school’s best qualities and to show how welcoming the school community is to all stakeholders, be they parents, students, business leaders or members of the local community. A shop front to the world, the school website will be the first port of call for prospective parents and Ofsted inspectors.
It’s also a communication tool for informing parents of upcoming events, school improvements and students’ achievements. As such, it’s the most important communication and marketing tool a school can have.
Once a positive impression has been made, the website can provide a wide variety of information, from exam schedules to announcements of early dismissal because of inclement weather. The website can also communicate the school’s vision, mission qualities and offerings to all stakeholders. In effect, the school website presents the personality of the school.
But what separates a decidedly average school website from an award-winning and highly engaging one that actively inspires its visitors, motivating them to learn more?
For an insight into what the very best websites can do and the value they can add to their respective schools, it’s worth looking website design awards such as the Communicator Awards, the Summit Creative Awards and dotCOMM Awards. When a school website receives an award in one of these competitions, it’s a very high honour indeed – the entries are judged by industry professionals from multinational corporations such as Google and Disney, and are drawn from a talent pool comprising hundreds of companies and organisations from around the world.
So, taking our lead from those award winners, here’s my advice for creating a truly great school website…
Understand your purpose
Successful schools understand their purpose, brand, core values, messages and audience – all of which should be reflected on the website. Make sure the key messages and values are personal and placed upfront. Defining your website’s purpose is vital – is it an archive or repository? Should it store your historical newsletters and other materials for evermore?
Keep things up to date
It’s all well and good starting out with the best intentions, but outstanding school websites are constantly updated with new and engaging content on a regular basis. The key is to be consistent, informative and engaging, and it’s important to make sure that all of your content can be found by the target audience quickly and simply. Parents will baulk at having to trawl through your website for 10 minutes trying to find where you’ve placed the PE fixtures, for example.
The best way of ensuring the site remains true to its original purpose is to assign one individual whose role is to maintain and update content. That way, your website is far more likely to remain relevant, consistent and accurate. Some content will be required to meet Ofsted’s statutory obligations, so it’s vital that routine audits or healthchecks are carried out to ensure compliance.
Segment your content
Segmented content provides a more personalised journey for visitors. Rather than providing standard navigation, segmented content prompts visitors to identify with a particular interest. For example, your home page could be presented as a collage of photos, enticing visitors to click each photo to learn more, with the different photos directing them to an appropriate landing page. By presenting its website content in this way, a school can control the journey its website visitors take and increase the chance of a conversion — which is always the end goal.
Ensure your site is future-proofed
With over half of all web browsing now carried out using mobile devices, your school website must employ a responsive design that displays well on smartphones, tablets and desktop computers. Integrated social media is hugely important too – over 60% of schools use Facebook, and Twitter offers a terrific way of engaging with potential business sponsors.
Bring your site to life
Pages of text are a big turn off for visitors. It’s unrealistic to expect that potential new staff recruit or parent to wade through a two-page mission statement from the headteacher. A 60-second video introduction from your head boy and/or girl will be far more effective. Digital video clips featuring student-led school tours (especially effective at boarding schools) and short ‘talking heads’ clips from members of staff will be far more appealing to new recruits, new students and parents.
In 2016, the large state boarding school Wymondham College redefined its core values and integrated them into all of its promotional materials, including the school website). A three-minute video featuring a new student ‘Facetiming’ her parents provided the centrepiece for the home page, replacing pages of text-heavy content.
Justin Smith is an ISBL fellow and founder of Chameleon Training & Consultancy.