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A quick quiz: What’s the most important question people come to your website to answer right now?

I’ll bet it’s something like “What’s the status of COVID on campus now?” or maybe “What’s happening with returning to campus this fall?”

That was the big question in our house this summer. I lived with a student who was in exile from her college since March. Return to campus was top of mind for her, for us, for her friends and for their parents. Her college was pretty good in communicating directly, but we also checked its website regularly for updates, news about preparations for fall return and plans for testing, classes and other aspects of campus life. Now, we’re checking to see how the campus community is dealing with the pandemic: there’s good news so far!

Their communications model made a lot of sense: emails to students and parents shared specifics, but when you wanted the most up-to-date information, you went to a microsite aggregating content about campus reopening and updates about COVID-19. This one-stop shop served all kinds of stakeholders including community members, media and concerned alumni. Now it’s updated several times a week as new test results come in and status changes.

Students and parents expect transparency from institutions at the best of times. In reporting on findings from their National Student Survey focused on fall reopening plans and other challenges, SimpsonScarborough noted,

You don’t need to hold daily press conferences through the fall, but you should lead with transparency and honesty to build students’ trust in your institution in the long term. People will be far more understanding of the circumstances beyond your control when you are transparent with your decision making and share your data with the campus community.

And, they noted, “Effective communications are essential for brand trust.” Especially now, this information is more important than ever. Your institution’s website must be a constantly updated source of the latest updates about how your campus is dealing with COVID-19 because that’s where people will look for information rather than sifting through emails, texts or social media posts.

Highlighting Fall Reopening or COVID-19 on College Websites

Given the need for this need for clear, accurate, up-to-date, authoritative communication, I wanted to see how the 2019 U.S. News top 50 liberal arts colleges were handling campus reopening plans for fall 2020 on their websites (because of ties, there are 55 institutions on the list). I accessed their websites on my laptop and checked them on an iPhone during the last two weeks of August.

So, how did institutions do?

Astonishingly, 20 institutions didn’t have a prominent, well-labeled link to campus plans for the fall or coronavirus/COVID-19 information at the top of the homepages when viewed on a laptop.

In contrast, 47 had this link at the top of their mobile site or on the second screen when I scrolled down the mobile site. I couldn’t find a link at all on five mobile sites. And one institution that had information prominently featured on its desktop site didn’t have a link to it on its mobile site.

I also wanted to see what happened when I searched for “COVID-19” using the on-site search in each website. This is important because even if the site features a prominent message about campus reopening or COVID-19 on the homepage, people who enter the site elsewhere -- from a page surfaced through a search, for example, or through a page they’ve bookmarked -- may miss it. And they may also miss it even if it’s featured prominently on the site.

On 28 of the sites, a page about campus reopening showed up first in the results. Eight sites featured information about COVID-19 on their campus -- and/or their plans for fall reopening -- in a box highlighted at the top of their results. On two sites, the first link surfaced through search was to a testing dashboard. And on several sites, the first link was to an archive of messages about the coronavirus.

Best Practices

What can you learn from my little research project? Here are some observations about how institutions should be treating information about reopening and COVID-19 on their websites.

I expected a prominent link to reopening, coronavirus or COVID-19 information clearly visible in the browser window when the site opened on my laptop. Why? Because people shouldn’t have to scroll for information that’s of such critical importance: it should be clearly visible and clearly labeled. It should also appear on the first screen of a mobile site or, at least, a visitor shouldn’t have to scroll too far to find the link.

  • Right now, we’re all immersed in our own challenges around COVID-19. So don’t make things hard for visitors to your site: they should see a prominent, clearly labeled link (such as: coronavirus, COVID-19, campus reopening) on the first screen on a desktop site and near the top of your mobile site.
  • Did I mention clearly labeled? Don’t make people guess what they’ll find when they click on a link: Colgate University hides its COVID information behind a link entitled “Colgate Together.” Skidmore’s site features a bright green button on the upper right hand corner of the home page labeled "Fall 2020." In both cases, you can guess that these are links to campus reopening, but they should be explicitly labeled as such.

An exercise like this one reveals how well on-site search works. Or not.

The lack of high-quality on-site search is a pain point for higher ed websites in general: it was ranked as a top-three pain point by 46 percent of respondents to a survey we did in 2019.* An exercise such as this one clearly illustrates the value of having a search tool that enables you to highlight the most relevant results for a query right up front and otherwise rank search results.

The University of Richmond illustrates this best practice well: notice that the information about COVID appears in a highlighted box perched atop the other search results.

Some of what I’ve just outlined isn’t complicated, but it does require a clear understanding of what’s critical to stakeholders in a time of crisis and how to convey essential information to them as quickly as possible.

*We explored the topic of site search in some length; see our white paper, "The State of Site Search on Higher Ed Websites 2020." The white paper was completed before COVID-19 lockdowns; some of our research for this initiative was conducted using the 2019 U.S. News top 50 liberal arts colleges.

Michael Stoner is the co-owner and co-founder of mStoner Inc., a digital-first marketing agency.

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