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Content is king

A university website is a complex beast, catering to numerous disparate needs and charming multiple demographics, says Larry Day

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 02, 2015 | Higher education

In this always-connected day and age, a higher education website is often the first port of call for many prospective undergraduates, and is also used frequently by current students and staff.

It’s a tough balancing act to support and appeal to such diverse audiences – and attention spans are chronically short nowadays. So websites must be engaging from the off, and they must be consistent in their approach to embed the brand in the minds of visitors.

“There are a lot of university websites that are hard to navigate and are a huge mess of pages”

Web designers and higher education content specialists Torchbox tell us that as well as engaging, a truly great website will also “demonstrate the University’s uniqueness and personality”. To help do this, they recommend “a proper editorial team and a publishing system that allows them to be creative” so that there’s a constant stream of articles, images, videos, and more to grab the eyes of readers.

Content management designers Zengenti agree, saying that “well-written, original content” is a must-have element. They also note the value of “usability and design”, saying that “there are a lot of university websites that are hard to navigate and are a huge mess of pages.” They additionally stress the importance of an internal content creation team: “Unique content that originates from the university itself, from lecturers, research or students [or] internal journalists to develop and articulate great stories to be published on digital channels.”

But a University’s website is not Buzzfeed, and it must adhere to certain things. “The key aspect of any website is that it both represents its brand clearly and that it is easy and intuitive to use,” say designers and digital marketing experts Fat Media. “It needs to be modern, responsive and work well for those who are searching for specific information. In addition it needs to convey the USPs of that particular institution. This is particularly important when it comes to higher education websites, especially when prospective students are shopping around.”

Evidently there’s lots of moving parts in a higher education website, and unless you manage to get them all functioning in unison, the site could splutter to an unceremonious halt, acting as more of a repellent than something to lure people in.

Fat Media warn of a range of pitfalls that institutions must be wary of – first and foremost, the layout. “Often institutions run into the problem that they know how they are structured but it’s not always obvious to the external user,” they say. “Making sure that searching on a site is easy is a key aspect of making a site easy to use. In addition, sometimes it’s hard to find important information that should lead off course pages such as fees, student support and facilities. It’s important that higher education institutions think about the links that they need to provide between pages so that prospective students don’t get lost.” 

“We are working on a content planner that involves news stories and student content too, so that we have a reason for people to keep coming back to the site to find out what’s happening…'

Simple, eh?

Zengenti highlight other issues that occur behind the scenes. Even if you have great branding, great content, and great layout, there are still potential spanners flying everywhere: “Internal wrangling over positioning on the website, lack of coherent strategy for governing the website, lack of alignment between marketing/communications and IT, [and] a mistaken view that the website is for the university and not for an audience.”

Conflict and interdepartmental woes crop up in Torchbox’s advice too, but they’re keen to stress the element of creativity. Even if you manage to toe the line with all of the above, a lack of engagement can be killer. “Great higher education sites publish content that transcends different types of user. Good content can appeal and engage anyone, so strive to provide fresh content with universal appeal.”

Torchbox go further to say: “Consider treating your site like a magazine that fuses the content and style of a Rough Guide (to your town), like DesignBoom, Science Magazine, RadioLab and Time Out. Pull that off and everyone will come back for more.”

This interactivity plays into the idea of not being (or not just being) a ‘shop window’. “A shop window infers a ‘broadcast’ mentality, lacks interaction and focuses on promotion,” say Zengenti. “While an underlying role for a website may be promotion, audiences are not convinced by being ‘told’ about something, they need to witness it. Show, don’t tell.”

The Sitemorse rankings, which are advocated and used by Times Higher Education World University Rankings, recently released their third quarter statistics. Sitemorse catalogues and analyses data from higher education websites around the world to give people an idea of which are currently faring best.

In the current rankings, FutureLearn, a distance learning service that partners with many establishments around the world, comes top – something you might expect from a dedicated online brand. More traditional institutions like The University of Manchester (third) and Anglia Ruskin (eighth) also score very well.

“While an underlying role for a website may be promotion, audiences are not convinced by being ‘told’ about something, they need to witness it. Show, don’t tell.”

The former explain that some of their success is down to “a complete overhaul of the site structure, simplified user journeys and [making] navigation more intuitive,” but, as is a common theme, content rules supreme. “One of the things we’ve learned from focus groups and workshops we’ve had with prospective students is that they want to communicate with their peers, want to know more about life in Manchester, and learn from the experience of others. We need to facilitate that and I think that’ll be the direction we’ll be taking in future.”

Manchester go on to say that simplifying the ‘journey’ was a vital step as “80% of our users are prospective students (or related audiences such as parents and teachers) who come to the site primarily to look for information about courses.” The University Of Manchester averages 700,000 visits a month, with over 39 million pages viewed each year – a quarter of these via mobile platforms.

Anglia Ruskin demonstrate a few of the things that Fat Media, Zengenti and Torchbox have advised, especially when it comes to communication and content.

“We hold weekly and monthly reviews to ensure we have all the content we need to reflect what’s happening at Anglia Ruskin as well as address our key priorities,” they say. “We meet with all areas of Anglia Ruskin on a regular basis and have a central repository for changes and feedback. We align the content with the academic calendar and try to serve relevant content at the relevant time.”

Continuing, they say that their focus is on video content. “We are working on a content planner that involves news stories and student content too, so that we have a reason for people to keep coming back to the site to find out what’s happening… we’re working on our social media presence and are constantly looking at new ways of engaging with all of our audiences. We encourage interaction with students and enjoy hearing their news and ideas.”

'We align the content with the academic calendar and try to serve relevant content at the relevant time.”

And we’re back to that old chestnut: content is king. It might seem daunting to hire a whole team for one aspect of the website, but there are opportunities for integration of the student body here. Delegating to students with strident voices is an asset – in exchange for the experience and CV-bolstering, many students will happily pen an article or two on their course or student life. First-hand experience is always a better selling point that a patronising, omniscient narrator – let the smiling faces on campus sell the establishment. A few pros here and there wouldn’t go amiss, of course – if your university runs a journalism or marketing course, you’re on to a winner.

It may not be a ‘shop window’, but the higher education website certainly borrows many of the main elements of the retail environment. This is a broad topic, and while both universities and design entities have diverse expertise to offer, they all circle back to the double-headed central tenet of branding and content.

ABOVE: Torchbox believes that not all universities can own a colour like Oxford

TOP 10 DOS FOR BUDDING REDESIGNS:

✔Clear branding – KISS! (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

✔Aesthetic cohesion (Fat Media say “web-friendly fonts” and a strict adherence to “acceptable colour contrast ratio” are vital, while Torchbox explains that “not all Universities can own a colour like Oxford or Cambridge, but even if you do, that doesn’t necessarily help because overuse of one colour across a massive site can be stultifying”).

✔Stick to the message. Make sure departments know what to do and are communicating effectively.

✔Acknowledge and implement social media trends – make sure they’re relevant though. Lots of cat pictures are perfect, if you have a course in Felineology.

✔Zengenti say that a sophisticated course search is essential: “it allows prospective students to easily compare courses, almost like a shopping cart.”

✔Longevity needs to be in the back of your mind; a website isn’t the finished article, but rather a work in progress.

✔Sector specific information can be hard to handle, but bust that jargon. Drop acronyms!

✔Gimmicks and flashy scripts. This is a professional portal, not PowerPoint 101.

✔Regular updates – if you are posting content, make sure it’s little and often, not info-dumping once a month.

✔Proofread! If you’re spelling basic words wrong, people won’t take you seriously.

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