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In this post, we will outline a process to audit your site with the sole goal of improving international recruitment results.

The audit process is best conducted as a team, as it will bring up lots of juicy issues for you to tackle together, some of which may require input from other units. Plus, you can divide and conquer the work.

By the time you’ve completed these three steps, red flags and opportunities should be clear, allowing you to refine the content and, possibly, the structure of the site accordingly.

Step 1: Groundwork

Answer the following questions to the best of your ability. We’ve found that when there isn’t clarity with these questions, there will be problems later on. We’ve also found that teams often think that there’s clarity until they have to answer these questions in a formal way.

A. Goals/markets: What are your international recruitment goals and target markets? Be as specific and detailed as possible.

B. Current results/metrics: What do you think your website data say about the site’s performance for international recruitment? Can you tie activity on the website to real-life results (inquiries, applications, enrollments)? If not, what would you need to do to make this happen?

C. Likes/dislikes: What do you think are the best and worst parts of your existing website, in terms of international recruitment? What have people told you they like or dislike? What other websites do you like or dislike and why?

D. Context/channels: What are the primary ways international prospects come to your website? How does that differ in your key recruitment markets?

E. Action: What action(s) do you want visitors to take after looking at your website (call you, start an application, send an email, tell a friend, etc.)? Have you identified different actions for different parts of the recruitment cycle?

F. Limitations: What challenges do you face in terms of multiple stakeholders needing to approve content, too little time or lack of qualified staff members to maintain content for international prospects, etc.? Is there anything you need to take into consideration in terms of technical or design limitations (word counts, areas that cannot be changed, etc.)? Do you have design standards in place, including defined logo usage, color palettes, fonts, et cetera?

Step 2: Messaging

Think about your key international markets and how your current university messages may need to be tweaked to speak to those prospects more effectively. Some considerations:

A. “Unique Selling Points”: What qualities make your institution, program, and location stand out for international prospects? What are people in your international target audience(s) most pleasantly surprised to hear when you tell them what you offer?

B. Competition: Who do you see as your competition and/or peers (for global recruitment)? How are you different and/or better?

C. Feeling/Tone: How should international prospects feel when they’re on your website (interested, nostalgic, curious, connected with your institution, impressed, etc.)? What tone should it have (serious, academic, informal, humorous, etc.)? Do you have an editorial style guide in place that considers the linguistic needs of your key international audiences (British vs. American English, somewhat simplified English level, etc.)?

Step 3: Analysis by Category

Click through the most critical parts of your website for international prospects and answer the following questions.

A. Navigation/Usability

  • Is there one highly visible point of entry for prospective international students? (Ideally one that leads them to more than visa info!)
  • Are key international audiences likely to overlook important pages related to recruitment, regardless of where they enter the site, i.e. directly entering a program page via search, etc.?
  • Would primary navigational headings be clear to international visitors? 
  • Are there any potential challenges with important user pathways for international visitors, i.e., would they be able to apply, find information, contact you, etc. without trouble?

What’s the most important thing you can do to improve this area? What could you do tomorrow?

B. Branding/Messaging

  • Have you clearly articulated the benefits of the program, institution, and location for international audiences wherever relevant?
  • Are important characteristics of your institution highlighted, such as research, student life, etc. in terms that international prospects will understand and find important?
  • Would it be clear to international students that they are welcome at your institution – and that attending your institution will help them achieve their professional goals, bring them and their families respect and prestige, and that they will feel comfortable and at home? (These items may change for your individual markets, so feel free to weight them differently.)
  • Does the institution successfully position itself as a member of an elite group of domestic and international academic and corporate partners? 

What’s the most important thing you can do to improve this area? What could you do tomorrow?

C. Content

  • Does the content (text, images, videos, etc.) drive home your key messages?
  • Are career outcomes for international students who want to return home and/or stay in the US clearly and persuasively outlined?
  • Do you have clear information about the content and structure of programs?
  • Is there easily accessible information on costs, funding, and accommodations for international students?
  • Do you explicitly address safety concerns?
  • Is it easy to find practical info about deadlines, how to apply, eligibility requirements, etc. for all international markets?
  • Do you have videos or other features (virtual campus tours in multiple languages, Instagram feeds from international students, etc.) that engage international visitors and help them picture themselves at your institution?

What’s the most important thing you can do to improve this area? What could you do tomorrow?

D. Text/Tone

  • Would the text be understandable for international visitors (particularly those who are non-native English speakers and/or are more familiar with British English)?
  • Have you used short sentences and simplified English in a way that makes it easy to read for non-native English speakers on the web?
  • Do you back up claims with concrete evidence such as rankings, specific career outcomes, measures you take to ensure quality teaching, etc.? Does any of this evidence include facts that international students would relate to particularly well ?
  • Is the tone appropriate for the various sections of the site?

What’s the most important thing you can do to improve this area? What could you do tomorrow?

E. Visual Appeal

  • Would the design be appealing to your primary international audiences?
  • Are there a number of high-quality photos that give a good sense of the institution or the people who work and study there?
  • Do you use simple, non-colloquial headers, subheaders, and other graphical elements to drive the reader further down the page (or wherever you want them to go!) and emphasize key messages for international audiences who may skim the pages?
  • Are there images of international students and/or faculty on your site (ideally clearly identified via captions)?

What’s the most important thing you can do to improve this area? What could you do tomorrow?

F. Mobile Compatibility

  • How well does your site work on cellphones?
  • Does what appears on the mobile version of your site work well for international prospects or does it tend to emphasize things like campus visits, etc.?

What’s the most important thing you can do to improve this area? What could you do tomorrow?

What next?

What happens next really depends on how much time (and possibly budget) you can devote to making the changes you’ve identified – and how much external input or permissions you might need to make certain changes. If there’s any great reason to set a deadline for a more international-recruitment-friendly website (upcoming fairs? board meeting? new digital campaign?), it can help to generate momentum, which can lag as staff rush to put out other fires.

If it seems as if you have basically no money or time to do any work, the best strategy I’ve found is to start with the items you listed as ones you can do tomorrow. Quick changes to something as simple as a header can have a large impact on actual results, and those results can be motivating.

We like to map out the changes in a calendar that includes the entire creation, editing, approval, and uploading process – and realistically account for travel schedules or the fact that one person on the team may need three weeks to find a picture to go with a new page.

Doing this process once a year can be a great way to make sure everyone is on the same page and to train any new team members on the markets and messaging. It will also help you generate a new list of improvements based on your changing strategies or the market!

Megan Brenn-White has nearly two decades of experience in international education and content development, most of which has been helping higher education institutions communicate more effectively online with international audiences. She founded The Brenn-White Group in 2010.​​