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Considering that the website is a university’s most-visible and most-used marketing and communication channel, just what makes a higher education website great?

I wanted to find out what others thought, so last week I searched to see which higher ed websites were considered to be best in class. I thought that my search would turn up some authoritative “best of” lists or lists of award winners. Instead, what I found were lists compiled by pundits and agencies who observed a slew of higher ed websites and determined which ones met their subjective criteria for greatness.

It might not surprise you that a lot of these criteria are visual, a response to what people see when they pull up the site:

  • “ … solid typographic hierarchy is balanced with an exemplary use of white space.”
  • “ … huge fields of color and immersive photography….”
  • “… attractive, seamless design….”

Other criteria are related to the overall perception about the institution that the site creates. For example, “A well-defined value proposition for the institution.”

Others focus on technical attributes of the site: “A strong mobile presence.”

Like you, I’m sure, I’d certainly agree that these are essential characteristics of any great website in 2019.

What’s the missing characteristic?

In the meantime, though, notice anything about these criteria beyond the fact that they’re all subjective? What other essential characteristic of a higher ed website isn’t mentioned?

The most important of all. Results.

While you can tell pretty easily by a quick visit if a website meets your aesthetic criteria and whether it contains tech and features that you like, it’s a lot harder to figure out whether the site actually gets results.

Therein lies a huge failure of most of the awards programs I know of, which consider just what’s easily apparent. I became keenly aware of this first-hand: I helped found the website awards program for a leading higher education association and led panels of judges in awards deliberations for more than a decade. At each judging session, there was invariably a lively discussion about how much to credit websites for cutting edge design and technology. People who filled out the awards applications seldom included details about what purpose technology served or whether the institution user-tested it, so all that we really knew was that they thought it was impressive and therefore award-worthy. Other sites featured tech or design that wasn’t as cool, but they could demonstrate that their approach was based on research and/or yielded real results. Which sites deserved awards?

I’m not suggesting there isn’t value in awards — we certainly celebrate when a site we designed and built at mStoner is recognized for its excellence by a respected awards program. But our job as an agency is to deliver results for our clients, so I’m a lot happier when one of our sites delivers more requests for information, downloads, applications, or gifts.

This isn’t magic but it does require a focus on understanding what visitors to a higher ed website care really about and then paying careful attention to user experience and search so that they can find it. There are plenty of ways to do this but they need to be built into the plan for designing and implementing the site.

A process, not a project

Once a site is launched, it needs to be monitored and tweaked. Perhaps 18 years ago when we first launched mStoner, we thought of a website as a “product.” But we learned pretty quickly that you just don’t launch a site, you have to keep it up to date. And it must continue to evolve: if program pages don’t result in more requests for information or if admission pages aren’t converting, they must be fixed. And fast.

No institution has to trade off beauty for results. It’s true that white space and clear hierarchy in the site’s typography help orient the eyes of visitors and allow them pick out various calls to action. Great stories may inspire them and entice them to explore more deeply. A clearly organized program finder helps visitors identify quickly the specific degrees or other options they might want. Better search helps those who prefer to search a site find what they want more quickly. And once they find what they want, they may respond by asking for more information or taking other actions.

These and other choices result from the understanding that the primary role of an institution’s website is to inform, to engage, and ultimately to convert visitors. Design, storytelling, user experience, and technology are there to generate an emotional response and help them stay engaged. Ultimately, though, their response needs to result in actions. That’s what makes a higher ed website great.

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

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