Learning From Experience: 3 Lessons From Building K-12 School Websites
We’ve had the pleasure of working with some high-profile schools and school districts on redefining and refocusing their digital strategy. Often, schools come to us asking for a simple website redesign. Like many clients, we often help them to look past just the website and consider the larger strategy behind the site and the foundational brand elements that underscore a great web presence.
This means that part of our job is to help schools develop not just a new site, but a comprehensive strategy that will help them reach their goals. A school district may come to us thinking that it has outgrown their website, but it often opens the door to a larger discussion of their big-picture objectives and how they can be achieved.
Objectives come first
Why does a school district need a new website? Usually because the information and design becomes stale, functionality “just stops working”, and, overall, everyone has become frustrated with the existing site. Much like any marketing project, it means that we need to do more than just fix the immediate problems — which are usually just symptoms of bigger issues — but, we need to dig deeper to understand the fundamental changes in the organization that have made their site less effective, and look forward to how we can help them get to where they are headed in the future. To do this, we need to start by setting clear objectives for the site — what actions do we want visitors to take?
Understanding the needs of your audience is key. And here’s where it gets tricky: In the area of education, there are more potential audience groups than most industries ever need to consider. Parents, students, teachers, staff, community, media, open enrollees, other districts, local government… all of them at every age imaginable. We need to address all of them and their unique needs and goals within one (or, perhaps a few) site.
In order to make sure we address every audience, we start by outlining each of them and their specific goals on the site — what information are they looking for, how are they most likely to access the site, etc.
Once we have started with a list of specific goals for the site, we can start to put together a solid strategy to address each of these needs. During this process, we also begin to address tactical questions that will come into play during the design and development phase: What sets our district apart? What are our weak points? How can we deliver an exceptional experience?
Information and presentation
Most school district websites are a landing pad for information. (I say “landing” specifically, because they so rarely take off.) Schools not alone in this respect. Many organizations struggle to grapple with all of their content and how to properly organize and maintain it in a user-focused way. In certain regards, even corporate websites are guilty of being a graveyard for content. Our job is to help wrangle content and put it to work rather than to let it wither.
We’ve mentioned before that not all content is created equal, and this is especially relevant to a school district’s digital presence. There needs to be a clear understanding of organizational goals and user priorities — and then the content to span those gaps should fill in the difference.
Controlling content is also an important step. Every school district needs a “digital content manager”– an individual or small group that regularly monitors the district’s digital presence, manages new content, and updates or removes old content. This includes news posts that appear on a school’s front page, photos used to represent athletics and performing arts, even Twitter and Facebook accounts that staff use to communicate. The most successful districts that we’ve partnered with understand the importance of relevant content and invest the time to create and maintain it.
Defining — and maintaining the definition of — relevant content can often be just as challenging as managing it. This is almost always a moving target. As audience groups continue to evolve, they use new tools and have new expectations. A school district must keep pace with their expectations.
Every school has a brand
The term “branding” is sometimes swallowed up by corporate behemoths like Apple, Nike and Disney – companies that have long understood the value of consistent identity, messaging, and appearance. But, the reality is that every company or entity has a brand — whether it’s intentionally crafted or not. School districts are no different. Though they might not have the ability or need to stretch to national levels, creating a consistent color scheme, persona, language, and messaging helps to create a unified brand for the school district in the minds of consumers.
Often, branding is the first topic of discussion when we’re working with a school district. It lays the foundation for every aspect of the strategy– from the website URL to the treatment of photos. So why is branding so critical to a school district’s digital presence?
The easy answer is: Community. Look at the spirit of a successful school district. You’ll see posters adorn local businesses, bumper stickers on family vehicles, logoed sweatshirts on every man, woman and child. And the thing that sets school districts apart from higher education branding is that everyone understands the academics are just as important as the sports. We love our kids, so we love our district.
Everyone wants to be part of a community. A school district website is the critical extension of your school, often the glue holding the brand together. It’s your opportunity to tell the world what you believe just as much as what you’re doing.
Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive look at what goes into these projects. We’re constantly learning new techniques and strategies for creating the best web experience possible and school and district projects often push us to try new things and learn new solutions.
Each site has its own features, goals, and challenges. But, with every project we become better.