On July 11, Stamats and HigherEdLive partnered to stream the annual TeensTALK panel discussion live from the Stamats Integrated Marketing Conference in Chicago, Ill. The discussion always yields frank and enlightening insights about higher ed web marketing and recruitment, straight from the mouths of college-bound high schoolers, and this year’s event was no different.
But one exchange in particular stuck with me. The moderator asked the students about their experience using college websites during their search. One student remarked that, upon visiting the website of a school he really liked, he found the website difficult to use, likening it to an “labyrinth.” His love of the school, however, was strong to enough to not let the dissatisfactory web experience sway him.
The school in question is lucky that this student loved them so much that its crappy website didn’t put a kibosh on the whole thing. Because what about the student who’s on the fence? Or loves them some, but not wholly? In those cases, the crappy web experience could mean the difference between an application and a bounce. The research bears this out. According to the 2011 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations report:
- 47 percent of prospective students (and 57 percent of parents) said “A bad experience on a school’s site may have some negative effect on my perception of the school”
- 17 percent of students (and 16 percent of parents) said “If I don’t find what I need on the school’s Web site, I’ll probably drop it from my list.”
- 20 percent of students (and 13 percent of parents) recalled an occasion when they disliked a school’s site so much that they removed it from consideration.
In my talk “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing,” I emphasize that a holistic approach to web development is required to support a school’s narrative on the web. That means content, technology, design, user experience, the whole enchilada. All of these need to work together, in concert, in support of the brand and in the service of user needs. If one falls down on the job, the narrative is compromised, and no one’s needs are served.
But telling that story well extends far beyond the web.
Shut One Window, Open Another
Have you ever been in a car or a room where the air conditioning is on, but a window is open? “Close that window!” someone might holler. “You’re making the A/C work harder.” And it’s true. That open window is letting in heat, making the air conditioner work harder to cool the space to the designated temperature. It has more heat to overcome.
With a crappy website, you’re making whatever interest a site visitor has in your organization work harder. It’s like putting up a wall between you and your visitors and asking them to scale it. Sure, if you’re lucky, they like you enough to muddle through whatever labyrinthine web obstacle course you’ve laid before them. But even if they accomplish the task at hand and move on, that love is a bit taxed. The A/C may have achieved the target temperature, but it spent more energy to do so.
Every part of the university experience — from the landscaping to the website to the tour guide to the president — should support the school’s brand and story. They should all reinforce and support that idea of what the school is, means and stands for. A weak link compromises the story — it’s like finding out that pages 67 through 103 are missing from the book. Sure, I can get to the end, but I’ve missed something along the way, and I run the risk of abandoning the story entirely.
The connection that prospective students — or any target audience, really — have to our institution is a powerful, but also fragile tie. We can’t take it for granted, and we have to nurture it. We have to realize how all aspects of the university experience have the opportunity to either reinforce or sever that connection. For our purposes, that means always advocating for the value of a good web experience. Your web presence should reinforce and grow the interest a visitor has in your organization, not make it work harder to overcome the obstacles in its path.
By addressing the weaknesses on our end that are asking too much of our site visitors — prospective students among them — we are opening a window of opportunity whereby we can kindle that spark of interest into a heat that you won’t want to cool.
Photo by bixentro / Flickr Creative Commons