I work with high school students and have a keen sense of how they receive information, particularly when they aren’t checking for you; they want you to get to the point, fast.
Six years ago, I transitioned into my current role as Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs at a competitive independent boarding school. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that they weren’t going to read long emails, even when it behooved them to do so. Getting to the point often meant conveying my thought in the subject line of an email. When I couldn’t relay the message in so few characters, I learned to limit my emails to a paragraph. These days I can confidently say that they read more of my emails.
Like any consumer, the digital attention span of today’s students is short. They seek information that is direct, easily accessible, and visually engaging. Long-winded explanations or cluttered web pages will likely lose their attention. Therefore, it’s imperative to adopt a messaging strategy that can catch and keep their attention through succinct yet comprehensive communication.
7 Key Principles for Effective Higher Education Web Design and Content Strategy
A well-trained eye can see through the clutter and discern what will actually stand out to students. Here are seven essentials to knowing a successful page when you see it:
Concision is Key: Just as a well-crafted email subject line can capture attention, so too should the home page of your institution’s website articulate and illustrate its essence succinctly. Avoid lengthy paragraphs and opt for short, impactful statements to convey that.
Inspired by our strategic discovery process and in partnership with the team at Mackey Strategies, we delivered a homepage for Muhlenberg College that was visually driven and action-oriented, illuminating its key differentiators and value proposition. Concision is key.
Visual Storytelling: Utilize multimedia elements like videos to showcase a balanced campus life. A one-minute watch can speak volumes more than a five-minute read. Ensure these videos are authentic and easily accessible, preferably on the homepage. For an example of such, see the ambient video in the hero position on the homepage for Muhlenberg College.
Diversity and Inclusion: “See yourself here” – Students with marginalized identities (underrepresented students of color, queer, first generation, low-income, etc) are looking for straightforward visual cues, terms, and tabs that suggest the campus is welcoming and/or affordable. On the homepage, alone, it is essential to amplify your values because that population is often checking for that. When you are showcasing a classroom experience, who is in the room? What are they doing? Think: what unique events or experiences draw students together and how can I invite my audience to see that image with me?
Worcester State University needed a reinvigorated website that more dynamically reflected the vitality and diversity of the community it serves. Storytelling was our vehicle for narrative transportation, helping prospective students of many identities and backgrounds imagine themselves there.
Engaging with the Audience Where They Are: Understand the digital platforms where your target audience spends their time. Integrating social media links, especially to platforms popular with younger demographics, can be a strategic move. Integrating social media feeds & YouTube shorts on your website are effective tactics to tie your channels together.
For Muhlenberg College, we put this into practice by prominently integrating powerful testimonials and videos to let the student experience speak for itself, authentically and naturally.
Direct Access to Information: Key information should be accessible within one or two clicks. Whether it’s academic programs, campus life, or application procedures, ensure that users can find what they need without navigating through multiple pages. Ask yourself: what desired actions will help my user? How easily can they do that?
An exercise to improve accessibility: put yourself in the shoes of a prospective student or their parent. Reflect: what am I looking for? Navigate where feels intuitive. Did you find what you were looking for? Now, work to make that journey – the user experience – even simpler and move intuitive.
Clear and Bold Calls to Action: Whether it’s encouraging prospective apply, schedule a visit, learn more or learn more about a specific program, make these calls to action bold and straightforward.
How can desired action be built into often-overlooked components like the footer or the top-bar navigation?
Balance Between Academic and Casual Tone: The language used on your website should strike a balance between being professional and relatable. Overly academic language can be off-putting, while too casual a tone may not convey the seriousness of your institution.
Generation Z wants you to get to the point. In thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is a tendency to overlook the traits of this consumer base even though they are clearly the target audience. The reality is, their preferences are different than prior generations. It is critical for universities to embrace, rather than resist, this new norm.