Surprises in the Data

There were three big surprises in the data from our research on how teens use college and university websites, reinforcing the realization that you can't take their needs for granted.

December 13, 2016

When I reviewed the findings from our latest research, Mythbusting Websites, I was reminded that you can’t just extrapolate from what teens do in their very personal social lives and assume that it applies elsewhere. It can be easy to forget that teens are complex and astute in approaching (some) complex decisions. Even after years of consulting with colleges and universities on marketing to prospective teens (and living with a teenage girl!), there were many research findings from Mythbusting Websites that surprised me.

Last year, in our Mythbusting Admissions research, we explored teen reactions to college marketing tactics and compared their responses to those of college marketers. One key finding is that while teens spend inordinate amounts of time using social media on their phones, they don’t particularly want adults creeping on their Facebook pages or Instagram feeds, or even texting them. Unless they explicitly invite us, those channels are reserved for communications with their friends.

This year, our research focused on what teens like and don’t like about college websites. And, again, we asked similar questions of college marketers, admission officers, and web developers so we could see where there were overlaps and gaps in their understanding of teen behavior.

And some of what teens told us really surprised me.

A big surprise — teens and video on .edu websites
For example, everyone knows how much teens love video, right? They follow YouTube stars, they share their own short videos, they stream anything they can. But when it comes to college websites, they prefer text and headlines to videos. Surprised? I was. When we asked teens what media they preferred on college websites, 64 percent said that text and articles were most important to them. Photographs (60 percent) were a close second in importance. Videos came in fifth (40 percent).

Mind you, that doesn’t mean that teens won’t watch videos on a college site (or on a university YouTube channel). But they don’t want those videos to get in the way when they’re browsing your site for the information they need in the moment. If they find what they came for, they may well consume video content.

Another shock: Though they do use and value official university social media — it allows them to get a feel for an institution — teens don’t click through to social media sites from college websites, or vice versa. One of the takeaways I’ve offered in conference talks and workshops is that since everything is connected to everything else online, your website should be connected to your social channels and vice versa so people can move back and forth easily. Well, it turns out that teens don’t do that very often — though of course, some do and the links are valuable to others.

And then there’s the really interesting (and counterintuitive — to me, at least) finding that slightly more teens (67 percent) said they used campus maps while 64 percent said they used virtual tours. I assumed, as so many campus professionals have, that teens valued virtual tours a lot more than maps because they’re cooler. But when you think about this, it makes sense. You can tell a lot from a map that you can’t from a virtual tour and you can explore a map in the way you want to, looking for the information you want. For example, you can see that your residence hall is the closest to the math building, so you can wake up at 7:45 and still make that 8:00 am calculus class.

Don’t jettison rich media — but pay attention to fundamentals

None of these findings indicate that you should remove the video from your site, take down the Facebook links on your pages, and ditch your virtual tour. They’re all valuable — to some teens and to other audiences besides teens.

But here are some takeaways for me:

  • Remember that teens don’t necessarily like stuff we think they should like nor do they do things that we think they should do, in life or on the web. (Did I mention I live with a teenager? I’ve observed this firsthand!). So just because a blog post or a consultant assures you that you should adopt a new technology because “Teens!”, be skeptical.
  • When teens are doing a college search and making choices, they want basic information. Make sure that they find it — especially in the places where it matters most, academics/majors, admissions, and financial aid. Impress them with clear, jargon-free text and easy-to-follow lists. And use clear, well-labeled photos. That will go a long way toward making them very happy with your website. Not to mention making applying easier.
  • Finally, while teens use websites consistently throughout their college research, choice, and application, they’re smart enough to know that even the best sites provide a limited view of what an institution is really like. So it’s important that other sources of information — social media, campus tours, etc. — be well-thought out and managed. And it’s also important to pay attention to intangibles, especially your reputation.

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