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Most institutions consider prospective students to be the most important audience for their website. Given that reality, it essential to make sure that they can find the information they need when they’re shopping for their college education. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about how consumers “shop” higher ed websites (I wrote a blog post about “the shopping effect” and higher ed websites in 2004) — but I’ve been reminded that a lot of work still needs to be done, thanks to a number of research reports I’ve read in the past week.

On Monday, Google shared insights into the consumer path to purchase. Their post opens by reminding us, “The path to purchase, from start to finish, is rarely linear — it's more akin to a scavenger hunt.” That means that before a purchase occurs, customers potentially visit many different areas of many websites, including social media, third-party research, and influencer sites.

And “Brandshop’s 2016 Digital Consumer Preferences Survey,”reports that only 39 percent of shoppers believe that shopping with brands themselves are “highly satisfying” — the sites of online retailers such as Amazon are rated much more highly. The report points out how many opportunities brands have to engage consumers directly by providing robust information on their own sites, optimizing those sites for search, and providing mobile-friendly experiences.

This is certainly true in higher education. A college education is a complex and expensive purchase, and many prospects spend a lot of time researching their options. Approximately half of the respondents to the “2016 TeensTalk® Study” conducted by Stamats Market Research and Chegg, Inc,  said they researched seven or more institutions before applying; nearly one in three (31.6 percent) researched more than 10.

The sources of information they use are impressive, ranging from conversations with friends and family to websites that offer college information. Institutions have little control over most of these sites

But every institution does have control over what it publishes on its own website. In order to deliver the valuable, information-rich shopping experience that consumers need to make their purchasing decision, here are some must-dos for all colleges and universities:

  1. Make sure your website is connected to other key channels. You also control the content in print publications, emails, and, to a large extent, on official social media sites. It’s important to connect these disparate channels, where possible, by maintaining as much consistency in message, tone, and look and feel on them as you can.
  2. Your website must be responsive. This is especially important for teen recruitment. Even though they use laptops and desktops to research colleges, it’s likely that much, if not most, of their research will be conducted on a phone. For example, 62 percent of the high school juniors and seniors who responded to our Mythbusting Websites survey did so on a smartphone.
  3. Focus on information that’s important to your audiences. When they’re researching colleges, teens almost always look first at what majors you offer. They look for clear labels like “academics,” or “majors.” Is this information easy to find on your site? Does it answer their questions and invite them to explore further if they’re interested? If not, you need to rethink this key area of your website. Right now.
  4. Be careful not to overestimate prospects’ interest in rich media. We know that teens love video, right? Well, yes: They love to watch YouTube or Netflix videos. But they’re more discriminating when it comes to video on college websites. There, they do watch videos, but, like many of us, they want to make sure that the videos they watch are worth their time. So present them with clear headlines and information in text — and then allow them to engage more fully with video content.
  5. It’s really important that information on your site is well-organized and findable. In our research, 69 percent of prospects told us that the biggest shortcoming of higher ed websites is organization — “difficult to get around the site to find the information I wanted.” If you’re tweaking your site — and especially if you’re redesigning — make sure to focus on honing its organization and tuning up its search function. And please don’t disregard the now-standard .edu link labeling conventions. It’s one thing to think differently about your content or your site interface, but these conventions help visitors navigate across multiple higher ed websites and should help them navigate yours, too.

These may seem like basic steps, but they are essential ones for helping shoppers on your website find the information they need to make an informed purchasing decision.

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