9 08, 2018

Design Is More Than Meets the Eye

By | 2018-08-09T15:20:34+00:00 August 9th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development, Creative Design|Tags: , , |

Undertaking a web re-design can provide the liberating feeling of starting anew, from scratch. But, most of the time, that’s not really the case. Pretty much all of the websites undergoing a re-design still have a base of existing users.

So, while you do want to focus your re-design around fresh, modern and relevant elements, you should make sure that your new website still accommodates your loyal followers.

You can do so by analyzing your Google Analytics data and taking note of the browsers and devices your current users utilize. We’ve parsed GA mobile and audience analysis in an earlier post. These data points can have a significant influence on your design. After all, what good is a shiny, new, website, when it doesn’t display or load correctly on the devices your primary audience use most.

Designing for Mobile

In today’s mobile-heavy society, designing a website using a mobile-first approach is a must. With search engines placing particular emphasis on mobile-friendly capabilities, it’d be foolish to ignore how your website looks through a mobile screen.

That said, while everyone typically buys into the mobile-first approach, as the design/development process stretches out, sometimes the focus shifts to other priorities. Most often, the design approach morphs from mobile-first to mobile-constrained.

What’s the difference?

Instead of the mobile experience driving design, mobile elements (like smaller screen sizes) guide the initial design parameters and then take a back seat to content concerns deemed more important. This is what web design insiders call progressive enhancement — or, a focus on core content first, and adding richer elements that enhance the user experience second.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as key elements are geared toward the mobile experience, like responsive templates and main navigation built for smaller screen sizes, you should be in good shape. Just make sure the website works for all the devices your audiences use (yes, even the old ones).

Designing for Browsers

The kind of browsers your website audiences utilize can also impact your re-design. Not everyone automatically updates their preferred browser when new versions come out, no matter how many times the IT guy recommends it. The impact of old browsers can be felt in a couple of ways.

First, older browsers simply won’t be able to support some of the newer design elements  — or, won’t be able to handle them well. If you know that a large portion of your users relies on an outdated version of a browser, that can limit your design choices and nix that really cool feature that you wanted to include.

One tool that developers use in cases like this is caniuse.com. This site allows users to see what versions of browsers support a particular feature through a simple search.

The other concern with outdated browsers is security. Browser updates are often issued in order to patch up vulnerabilities in the underlying code. If users don’t update their browsers they don’t just leave themselves exposed, they spread the risk to the entire ecosystem.

One way to protect your site is to remind user to update their outdated browser via an “old browser alert.” A pop-message can be set to trigger anytime a user with a vulnerability logs onto to the site, and encourage them to update.

Lately, coders have even made an effort to encourage users to update their browsers in order to protect not just themselves, but everyone else, too.

Beacon Knows Web Re-design

If you’re observing declining traffic or cratering conversion metrics on your website, it may be time to consider an overhaul. Request a website audit by our knowledgeable digital marketing team and see how you’re doing.

2 08, 2018

Beacon is Going to edUi 2018

By | 2018-08-02T10:23:15+00:00 August 2nd, 2018|Categories: Beacon News, Higher Education, Web Development|

Beacon is going to edUi 2018 in Charlottesville, VA. If you’re a web professional who works with colleges, universities, libraries or museums, you should, too. In fact, we’ll help you get there.

Register here and receive $100 off the registration fee. Or just apply the code “Beacon” on the regular registration form to access the discount.

The conference always features a great line-up of speakers and workshops, and this year is no different. Check out the blog posts from this year’s presenters, and this guest blog post from our CEO and President Mark Dirks.

We hope to see you there. Come and say hello October 8 – 10.

17 07, 2018

Google Analytics: Understanding Your Audience

By | 2018-07-18T07:20:49+00:00 July 17th, 2018|Categories: Google Analytics, Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , , , |

What Does the Data Tell You About Engagement?

The competition for students in higher education is fierce. With so many excellent options for undergraduate and graduate studies, colleges and universities spend a considerable amount of time and resources recruiting prospective students.

These efforts include email campaigns, mailers, deployment of recruiters to high school campuses, and many other marketing programs. But, one of the most effective tools in your recruiting arsenal is your website.

A higher education website has to be geared to many audiences and be able to accomplish a multitude of tasks — keep the campus informed about news and events, allow students to register and schedule classes, provide accurate parking information for visitor, and much much more. However, serving as a primary marketing vehicle for prospective students is one of the higher ed website’s main goals.

But, how do you know if your website is doing the intended job? Or, if it’s doing it well? How can you make sure that your visitors are engaging with your site and taking the actions you want them to take? Your website is not a grocery store. You can’t just follow someone around and see what they’re putting in their shopping cart.

Luckily, the digital nature of the internet allows you to track all sorts of interactions users engage in with your higher ed website. With a properly configured Google Analytics (GA) account, you can learn a lot about your target audiences — from how long they stayed on your site and how many pages they visited, to the geographic area from which they logged on and the device they used.

GA Device Analysis

One of the cooler things that GA can tell you is how many of your visitors use a desktop computer, a smartphone or a table device to access your website. Why is this important?

Not too long ago, device usage data was used to justify an investment in a responsive website design. A responsive design allows for a dynamic display of information based on the type of device you’re using to access the site and the size of your device’s screen. If you’re accessing the website from a smartphone, the elements of the webpage shift to accommodate mobile-friendly viewing. Logging on to the site from your desktop is often a richer user experience, due primarily to the advantage of a bigger screen.

Today, however, a responsive design is almost a must for a higher ed website — or, any website, really. With mobile devices set to overtake desktop devices as the preferred browsing tool sometime in the near future, many developers are recommending a responsive design as a default.

So, if justification for mobile-friendly sites is no longer necessary, what else is device tracking used for? Well, there’s a treasure trove of insights that can be discovered by tracking certain metrics along with device data.

You can compare the bounce rate, pages per session, and average session duration data between desktop and mobile users to see if there’s a significant difference. If your bounce rate for mobile users is higher (as in the pictured example), it can be an indication that your site is not geared toward mobile users enough. That should lead you to audit the mobile experience on your site and make improvements to any discovered shortcomings.

GA Audience Analysis

What else can GA data tell you about your audiences? Setting up some custom tracking can help you segment your audiences, track their various click paths and evaluate conversion metrics.

There are certain pages on a higher education website that attract a specific audience. For example, the Admissions page is a good bet to be primarily used by prospective students and their parents. The Career Services page, on the other hand, is most likely to be accessed by current students. Enabling tracking on these landing pages allows you to track the different audiences and learn about their usage habit and interests.

You can also zero in on any problem pages from which a significant amount of users end up leaving the site. Fixing these pages could go a long way to improving the experience for all your users.

There are also some simpler factors that can help you better target your marketing efforts. The Demographics, Geo and Behavior tabs in your GA account allow you to track age and gender, geographic location, and repeat visits of your website users. This data provides a rich foundation for decision-making in several areas, including in what part of the country to spend your marketing dollars.

Beacon Knows Google Analytics

Want to know more about how your Google Analytics account can drive a more fine-tuned marketing program? Give our experts a call at 855.695.2408, we’d be glad to talk to your team.

21 06, 2018

CMS: Proprietary or Not?

By | 2018-06-25T08:57:11+00:00 June 21st, 2018|Categories: Cascade CMS, Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , , , |

What’s Best for Higher Ed CMS?

If you’re considering upgrading your school’s website, selecting the wrong CMS can have lasting ramifications. And, with so many options out there, it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed.

Google “proprietary vs open source CMS,” and you’ll receive over 50 hits to your search query. Some even come with catchy headlines, like: “Battle Royale: Open-Source vs. Closed-Source CMS” and “The Battle of Open Source vs. Proprietary Systems.” Clearly, the debate regarding the best type of content management system is still ongoing… and, apparently, fight-level intense.

There are a lot of content management systems out there, that’s for sure. So, how do you choose the one that best fits your higher learning institution? Understanding the difference between the two main CMS types is a good start.

Let’s start with the definitions. Open source systems, like WordPress and Drupal, are built with source code that’s freely shared with everyone. This means that anyone can apply that source code in any manner they want. The advantages of open source applications is that they can be improved by literally anyone. If there’s a problem, a solution can be crowdsourced from the user community — often quicker than an in-house team with limited man hours.

Proprietary software, on the other hand, is kept secret by the developers. The applications are maintained and updated in-house by dedicated personnel. The advantage with proprietary CMS is that it is often designed for a specific market. There are CMSs out there tailored for the transportation, travel, hospitality, and yes, higher education sectors. Also, whereas open source CMS leaves customization to the end user, proprietary CMS can be set up on the front end for the unique needs of an individual client.

Let’s explore each type further.

Proprietary vs Open-Source: Let the debate rage

If you value portability, ongoing improvement/optimization, and adaptation, odds are good that you’ll be satisfied with a popular open-source platform like WordPress or Drupal.

If your website is built in WordPress or a similar CMS, it’s fairly easy to move into another CMS when and if you so choose. You may also feel secure in knowing that a large developer base is constantly working on improving the features and functionality of the platform. Such improvements are implemented through code updates, requiring very little effort from you and your staff.

However, there are also drawbacks. The code updates can create some technical issues with third-party plug-ins or websites running on older versions of the software. Because the code is available to everyone, it can be an easier target for exploitation and cyber attacks. And, chances are good that your site will require at least some customization, which carries added cost and the potential need for personnel skilled in HTML.

Closed-source programs offer some advantages over their open-source counterparts, chief among them is ease of use.

With proprietary software, there’s never a need for you or your staff to make changes in the code, because the CMS is already fully customized to your site’s unique needs. Any additional development is handled by the vendor. The software also allows for a robust user permission setup, allowing you to easily delegate tasks to appropriate team members.

Additionally, closed-source code has a reputation for being more secure. This makes sense, since potential bad actors don’t have the luxury of parsing the source code for vulnerabilities.

The only drawback with proprietary CMS is portability. While some programs make it fairly easy to transfer website content to another platform, there’s typically no such flexibility for the graphic and structural elements of the site.

The Ruling

So, what type of CMS makes the most sense for higher education? Because it’s better suited for specialized and customized content, we, at Beacon, view proprietary CMS as the better option. Cascade and OmniUpdate, in particular, are two platforms that we work with routinely.

OmniUpdate is specifically dedicated to the higher ed sector. It’s OU Campus platform was designed with features and modules intended for use by universities and colleges.

Cascade is another trusted and reliable CMS application. One of the cooler attributes of this platform is the ability to create flexible templates, which we focused on in an earlier post.

No HTML experience is necessary to work with either one of these content management systems.

Beacon Knows Websites

Want to see how your higher ed website stacks up? Request a free audit by our knowledgeable team and see how you’re doing.

7 06, 2018

Bringing Your Web Design to Life

By | 2018-06-07T14:08:43+00:00 June 7th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , , , |

HTML: The Foundation of Your Website

It’s common knowledge that, in today’s hyper-digital marketplace, your chances for success are limited without a strong website presence. As an experienced marketer, you know reflexively that a well-designed and expertly developed website is an irreplaceable marketing tool that differentiates your brand from your competitors.

What makes a great website, however, is a topic that can be debated without end. Ask a content strategist, a graphic designer, and a site developer that question and you’re likely to receive different answers from each — maybe even wildly different.

Regardless of their favorite website features or components, digital marketing experts know that, without a strong foundation, no site will ever perform up to expectations. So, what serves as the foundation of a website? What brings to life your creative vision, technical capabilities and conversion opportunities?

That answer is easy — it’s the underlying HTML code. Laying that foundation properly, to withstand the shifting sands of time, is the tricky part.

Mapping Your Creative Into HTML

At Beacon, we’ve developed a time-tested process for website development – our Brains, Beauty and Brawn approach. Foundation laying is brawny work. But it’s made easier by the steps completed in the Brains and Beauty stages.

In these first two phases, we suss out our clients’ cosmetic, functional and design requirements and create detailed webpage outlines. This work is informed by our research into target audiences and interviews with various stakeholders. The insights gained in this process are translated into page mockups with notes explaining how each included webpage feature should operate.

Our mockups include mobile and desktop variants. In order to make your site as user friendly as possible, it’s important to think about how the site will function across various devices that your target audiences use.  To ensure a smooth build-out process, these decisions have to be considered in the design stage, before development begins.

Once the mockups receive client approval, our developers start the heavy lifting — writing the HTML code and building out the site per the approved specifications.

Developing Flexible Templates

Our goal is to deliver a website that’s not only easy for users to navigate, but also easy for our clients to manage. Brains and Beauty take care of your site visitors. The Brawn phase is geared to make your website administrators happy by giving them maximum control. We do this by building flexible page templates that can be arranged into a number of different configurations.

Traditional website development calls for the creation of static page templates — home page, landing page, interior content page, etc. The larger and more complex your site, the more templates you’ll likely need. Additional templates add expense to an already costly development process. They also add confusion for your website managers.

We get around these problems by creating templates that can easily be manipulated into different variations by your staff. This puts them in control, ultimately making your website more responsive to your users’ needs.

Instead of restricting all design decisions to the front end of the development process, flexible templates allow you to continue optimizing your site for the duration of its life. The result is a living website that changes and grows with your audience.

Beacon Knows Websites

Have questions or concerns about your website’s performance? Request a free website audit, and let our team evaluate what’s going right and what could use a helping hand.

22 05, 2018

Functional/Audience Design

By | 2018-05-22T15:38:17+00:00 May 22nd, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , , , |

Audience is Front & Center in Higher Ed Web Design

What makes a higher education website effective? The answer can certainly be complicated. Universities, colleges and community colleges are large organizations, with numerous goals, many decision-makers and a diverse set of users.

Prioritizing among a multitude of sometimes competing needs can be tough. How do you decide what gets top billing? For your school, the answers lie within your specific mix of prospective students, current students, faculty and staff, and the larger community to which your campus belongs. The other part of the equation is research.

There are a lot of factors that go into building a great site. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to this: Understand the needs and user habits of your primary and secondary audiences, and shape their experiences on your site accordingly.

How do we do that?

User Experience Research

At Beacon, way before any technical development work starts, we dig in to help you understand your audience mix. In a previous post, we covered the specifics of focus groups and surveys. These methods are key in gaining actionable insights into your target audiences.

We’ve also talked about heatmaps, and how helpful they can be in identifying the portions of a webpage that receive the most attention and engagement.

The other tool in our tool-belt is session recording software. This is used to analyze user behavior patterns and areas of interest on your site. The results are helpful in spotting common user difficulties and identifying opportunities for improvement.

The results of that research is parsed and presented during the strategy phase. It’s then used to inform the decisions in the design and development phases of the website build.

Insights Drive Navigation

Our goal is to deliver a website that caters to all of your intended audiences, is responsive to all devices it can be accessed on (laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet), and satisfies all ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements. In short, we design websites that are easy to use and navigate.

Understanding your audiences allows you to create intuitive navigation paths that lead users to the information they are seeking in the shortest amount of clicks.

With higher education websites, we recommend structuring your main navigation menu around the needs of your primary audience: your prospective students. The menu items should focus on the needs of this group, which are gleaned during the research phase. The header should also include an expandable menu with links to audience-specific resources and other frequently visited pages, as well as an easy to spot site search feature.

To make your website mobile-friendly, all menus should reduce down to an expandable hamburger menu (appears as an icon with three short lines). It’s also helpful to have a site search feature that expands to cover the length of the device screen.

Beacon Knows Higher Ed Web Design

If you’re not sure if your website’s current design is meeting the needs of your students, we’ll be happy to take a look. Request a complimentary website audit, and our team will provide you with an honest assessment of your site’s strengths and weaknesses. No strings attached. Feel free to give us a call, too, at (866) 708-1467.

3 05, 2018

Visual/Marketing Design

By | 2018-05-03T14:37:15+00:00 May 3rd, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , |

Essential Elements of Website Redesign

More than four billion people use the internet regularly, according to the latest statistical estimates. That translates to more than half of the world’s population. A lot of eyes on screens, for sure. Which is why it’s smart to invest in your digital storefront – your website.

But, it is 2018… everyone has a website. Maybe even several.

Not only is the competition fierce, but internet users have a notoriously short attention span. If you can’t communicate to a visitor what you’re all about in five to seven seconds, you can pretty much forget about winning their business.

That’s a pretty tough and complicated proposition. After all, odds are that you don’t have a homogeneous prospect base that seeks just one specific product/service and lives in a well-defined geographical area. Your students probably come from many walks of life, are interested in different educational services for different reasons, and exhibit diverse user behaviors.

Yes, you can target these audiences with well-sculpted digital campaigns. But, you still have to attract them to your site, and be able to keep them there long enough to communicate your value proposition. If your website isn’t prepared to handle that job, it’s time to consider a redesign.

Over-Arching Component of Your Marketing Strategy

Your website is the flagship in your marketing armada. This means that your site defines your brand, and all other marketing efforts support that foundation.

You’re likely to engage in many marketing activities to attract prospects. You may be fond of email campaigns. Perhaps you’ve found a PPC wizard and online ad campaigns are a key performer for you. Maybe traditional direct mail is your bread and butter.

Unless you’re trying to increase foot traffic on campus, all of those marketing efforts should be steering prospective students, and their parents, to your website. As such, your website has to be instantly recognizable as yours and ensure a seamless transition from the other marketing channels.

Brand, Personality & Messaging

When visitors land on your home page, there should be no question or ambiguity about whose site it is. Having a unique and engaging brand helps in this regard. When revamping your website, make sure that your brand personality is worked into the design and jumps off the page from the get go.

Users should also be able to use your site with ease. No visitor is going to stick around for long if they can’t quickly and intuitively navigate your menus or find the information they’re looking for.

Lastly, remember to keep your messaging short and punchy. Internet users skim – they don’t typically like to read a lot of text. Keep paragraphs short, use bullet points or lists whenever appropriate, and include visual content – videos, pics, infographics, etc. – as much as possible.

Does My Website Need a Redesign?

Beacon can help you answer that question. Give us a call at (866) 708-1467, and we’ll be happy to perform a detailed audit of your website.

24 04, 2018

Heat Maps & Site Search

By | 2018-05-01T07:56:42+00:00 April 24th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|Tags: , , , |

Are You Listening to Your Data?

Your website users can tell you a lot about how your site is performing. Of course, they don’t necessarily make it easy.

In our previous blog post, we discussed how to directly tap into your audience by asking questions via focus groups and surveys. The benefit of engaging with your audience in these ways is the opportunity to hear firsthand what your customer base thinks.

The drawback?

Your focus group and survey participants may not always be so great at assessing their own online behavior. Or, the nice people that they are, they may be tempted to tell you what they think you want to hear.

While direct responses from your website users are an excellent source of insights, you do want to make sure that what your audience tells you is reflected in their actual online behavior. There’s an old Russian proverb, often attributed to a former US President, that offers great advice: “Trust, but verify.”

The best way to do that is by taking a close look at what visitors are actually doing on your site.

Heat Maps: Pretty Data

Beacon homepage heat map

Heat map of Beacon’s homepage

Heat maps provide an extremely user-friendly method for identifying the portions of your website that receive the most attention. Instead of numbers, pie charts, columns or bars, a heat map presents user behavior data as colors on a warm-to-cool spectrum. This provides an intuitive way to interpret the information – lots of clicks equals warmer colors.

Heat maps can be used to represent any kind of data – not just website usage. But, they are particularly useful in showing where on a given webpage users click the most. And that information can be easily turned into an analysis of on-page performance.

Are people using your navigation bar as intended? Is your CTA drawing the engagement you thought it would? Are page features being overlooked or overshadowed by other content?

Combined with a scroll map, you can also see if users are reaching the content at the bottom of the page. These insights make it easy to understand why a page may not be performing up to expectations, and help you come up with a well-targeted re-design plan.

Site Search: Know What They’re Looking For

Another tool that lets you peek inside the mind of your audience is site search analysis. If you haven’t installed a site search feature on your site, you should really consider doing so soon.

Site search makes your site more convenient for many different types of users, while maintaining emphasis on your primary target audience. It allows visitors to drive their own experiences on your site by letting them find exactly the information they want to access.

Through their searches, visitors also leave behind valuable information about their intentions, desires and future behavior. Between five and 10% of all internet users rely on site search – a healthy sample size from which pertinent and actionable insights can be pulled.

Site search analysis can help you identify new, relevant keywords; content that should be added; new product ideas; or unexpected reasons people are visiting your site. It can also highlight usability or navigational issues by specifying the locations from which users initiated their search and how many pages they viewed after completing their query.

We Can Help with That:

Want to know how heat maps and site search can help your website perform better? Give us a call at (866) 708-1467, we’d be glad to talk to you about your challenges. Insights and analysis are what our Digital Marketing Services team excels at.

10 04, 2018

Higher Ed Focus Groups & Surveys: Are You Listening to Your Students?

By | 2018-05-23T07:59:14+00:00 April 10th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|Tags: , , , , |

Colleges and universities are in a constant state of change. Every year, graduates leaving for the “real world” are replaced on campus by an incoming freshman class.

While the demographic mix of incoming classes at a given school typically changes little year to year, the students themselves — their interests, use of technology, social media interactions — are prone to more frequent change.

So, how do higher education institutions keep up with the changing student profile? How do they ensure that their communication efforts achieve the wanted response? As with any marketing endeavor, understanding your target audience is essential to meeting your goals.

Focus Groups Are an Excellent Source of Qualitative Data

One way to get to know your audience is with an in-depth focus group interview. There are many focus group designs — dueling moderators, respondents-as-moderator, dual group, and more. But, the classic format involves one or two moderators leading the session, and a group of eight to 12 participants answering questions.

Focus groups provide the opportunity to gain deep insight into the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and opinions of your target audience. In a higher education setting, the audience can be students already on campus, incoming students, or even parents of students (since they have a tendency to know their student pretty well).

Of course, you want to be selective in choosing your focus group participants.

You’ll also want to make sure that the group you end up interviewing is demographically representative of your target audience.

Surveys Provide Measurable, Quantitative Data

Another way to gain insight into your target audience is through surveys. In a survey, a small percentage of your target audience provides answers to a predetermined set of questions. The questions can be multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank, or open-ended. If the goal of your survey is measurable data, you’ll want to focus on the first three types and avoid open-ended questions.

Surveys can be conducted as an interview (in-person, telephone, or video conference) or as a questionnaire (via email, snail mail, or online session). To get the most out of your survey, the questions should take five minutes or less to complete and be available to participants for at least two weeks. Providing an incentive (cash, school supplies, or coupons) and getting the word out to student influencers (club presidents, student government representatives, etc) can help boost your response rate.

Applying Your Data

So, you’ve collected your answers. Now what?

The next step is to analyze the data and pull out relevant insights. With focus group results, you’ll need to carefully examine each person’s responses, organize the answers into categories, and evaluate how the data applies to your research goals. The following questions can help:

  • What big themes emerge from the responses?
  • Do the responses confirm a known, or lead to a new discovery?
  • Do the responses change your perspective?
  • What insights can be gleaned?

Because survey results are typically numerical, the analysis process is more straightforward. Simply tabulate your results and draw conclusions from the final data.

Need Some Help Getting Started?

Beacon has managed countless focus groups and surveys on behalf of our clients. These tools are important aspects of the research and strategic analysis we perform for any successful website development or redesign projects. For expert advice, reach out to our Digital Marketing Services team today, or call us at (866) 708-1467.

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