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.

28 06, 2018

How to Add a Simple Visual Loading Technique

By | 2018-06-28T08:40:11+00:00 June 28th, 2018|Categories: Web Development|Tags: , , , , |

Adding a simple loader message to a content heavy page adds for a better user experience. So for instance, if you have a large data table or directory listing that doesn’t load nicely. This can be updated to a simple loading message until the content has finished loading.

Also, adding in a little spinner or indicator is a nice touch to show the page is processing information.

Step 1: Create your loading CSS styles and HTML structure.

Step 2: Add the jQuery and update to your classes, as needed.

Step 3: Add the noscript tag with appropriate styles to show content for viewers browsers that have Javascript disabled.

Example:

CSS:

.loading-content { visibility: hidden; }

jQuery:

jQuery(window).load(function () {

jQuery(‘.loading-content’).css(‘visibility’,’visible’);

jQuery(‘.loading’).css(‘display’,’none’);

})

HTML:

<div class=”loading”><strong>Loading Information </strong> <img src=”/images/icons/loader.gif” alt=”Loading”/></div>

<div class=”content-area loading-content”> Content that will be loaded. </div>

<noscript>

<style>

.loading-content { visibility: visible; }

.loading { display: none; }

</style>

</noscript>

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.

21 05, 2018

Accessible Menus or Closed Items Using the Input Checkbox Method

By | 2018-05-21T07:02:38+00:00 May 21st, 2018|Categories: Web Development|Tags: , , |

When using the checkbox method to open and close an element, you don’t want to hide the input box. Doing that will make it non-accessible. Instead use this method for visual reference, but still allowing a keyboard to access the input checkbox.

Input Checkbox CSS:

input#IDname { position: absolute; display: inline; height: 0; width: 0; margin: 0; padding: 0; border: none; opacity: 0; }

Note: Make the action item the end user sees with an outline to indicate that they have something to access.

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.

19 02, 2018

5 Reasons to Perform Regular Website Audits

By | 2018-02-20T10:31:47+00:00 February 19th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , |

Whether you’re preparing for a website redesign or simply looking to optimize your existing website, regular website audits are a must. Here are the 5 top reasons you need to perform regular website audits:

Usability is the Key to Engagement

What do the users of your website look for? What do they interact with and how do we ensure that they leave having had a satisfactory visit?  Optimizing the experience for your user is a matter of getting inside his or her head. Understanding their behavior is key to identifying opportunities for improvement. Concise navigation is key.

Done right, a usability audit will help you identify the shortest point between your user’s arrival and whatever it is that came looking for. In other words, it’s about goal optimization. If usability is poor, your visitor leaves without having made a purchase or having provided a lead. It’s a poor experience for everyone involved.

Accessibility Avoids Lawsuits

Accessibility is a hot button issue, especially for colleges and universities. ADA (or Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance guidelines are meant to compel institutions of higher education (and anyone in the public space) to make provisions for those with disabilities.

The DOE has become more diligent in the enforcement of ADA and specifically Title II (applying to any institution that receives federal monies from the DOE). Should the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) find reason to file a suit against you or your school, they may very well do so.

Even more litigation results from the claims of students with disabilities. The National Federation of the Blind or the National Association of the Deaf often file complaints with the DOJ Civil Rights Division on behalf of these students.

Video accessibility (or lack thereof) is a common source of these complaints. However, ADA is complex and there are many other forms of online educational material that must also be made accessible. Develop an institutional policy that governs accessibility. Made necessary changes based on this policy. It may be advisable to consult an expert in ADA accessibility or a web development professional before developing such a policy.

ADA compliance can be difficult to interpret and even harder to implement. However, after a thorough audit, a qualified web developer will have a good idea where you stand and what you should do to get up to speed with ADA compliance guidelines.

Speaking of speed…

Load Speed: You get one chance at a 1st impression

Load speed (or the time it takes for a page to fully load) is important for the most basic of reasons. Research suggests that if a page takes in excess of 3 seconds to load, you’ve already lost 25% of your users. A similar thing happens with conversions. For each second of increased speed, you can expect a 2% improvement in conversions.

Page speed is a significant factor in SEO, too. Google has incorporated page speed into its ranking algorithm since 2010 and it has since placed even greater importance on this factor.

Dense image files and overuse of javascript are common culprits when page speed is below par. There are many online tools to measure and/or grade your page speed. While one can easily diagnose an issue, it may be wise to have a professional provide an insightful guide to remedy whatever may be ailing your page load time.

Optimized Forms Convert Better

Despite what some may say, there are no rules as to what works and what doesn’t. Only testing and optimization will provide you with those answers.

For example, it is generally understood that a lead generation form should not be too lengthy or ask too many intrusive questions. Also, a protracted pathway to conversion is desirable. Yet, there have been some notable successes with two or even three step conversion forms. The psychology for this makes complete sense.

People can become overwhelmed when they see too many questions on a lead generation form. When you divide the lead path into two parts, you may see greater completion rates. Since users generally prefer a shorter path to conversion, this may seem counter-intuitive at first.

However, users don’t like long forms and when they see too many questions at once, they bolt. So, by asking only a few surface questions on step one of your form and a few slightly more penetrating questions in step two, it appears to the user that they’ve been asked to do less. The only way to know if this works for you is to A/B test.

To further minimize effort, set question defaults. Optimize question types and provide drop-downs for ease of use.

Since mobile technologies are changing almost constantly, optimize your forms for mobile devices regularly. Use the proper mobile markup. If you use a captcha, that may be costing you leads as well. A/B test without one. There are spam filters that will do nearly as good a job anyway.

Content Writing Has Changed

This is true as it applies to user engagement as well as SEO. We’ll discuss them both separately.

Engagement

Users’ habits have changed considerably, too. Video drives traffic much more than ever before. Users not only engage with video content, they expect it. If you want eyeballs, you want video. Adding new, relevant video content is a key to improving engagement.

Go “all in” on visual elements. Don’t scrimp on photos. And interactive content shared through Instagram and other social media outlets is a must.

SEO

In the early days of SEO writing (the 1990’s and before), the objective was to appeal to a search engine algorithm rather than the end user. Back then, keyword stuffing was the norm. A myriad of keyword iterations were used on numerous pages, creating a redundancy that could actually be off-putting to the same users you were trying to appeal to.

In the late 00’s, Google’s algorithm changed considerably. The algorithm became more sophisticated. However, keyword signals still required some specificity and incoming links were very influential. Writing for SEO (to show up well in search rankings) didn’t mean the same thing as it did back in the 90’s.

Today, Google’s algorithm has been refined to focus on the fulfillment of the user’s search. In short, the algorithm is much better at measuring intent and providing a satisfactory result. What that means is that the content that best solves the searcher’s intent is much more likely to rank best. Whereas keyword matching was an imperative a few years back, intent matching is far more effective now.

Get out in front of possible issues with regular audits.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Regular website audits will not only boost your conversion rates, they may very well keep you out of court. The IT & SEO experts at Beacon can assist you in such an audit as well as providing remedies to any issues that we may identify. Send me an email or call Beacon today at (877) 994-6955 for more information.

 

8 01, 2018

Beacon Launches SITEXPRESS for Small Businesses

By | 2018-03-06T09:40:14+00:00 January 8th, 2018|Categories: Web Development|Tags: , |

GREENSBORO NC.  Beacon announces the launch of its all-inclusive, budget-friendly SITEXPRESS product for small to medium-sized businesses.  Packed with Beacon’s 20 years of web technology experience, smaller businesses can now get a high-end, customized website, with all the bells and whistles, to compete more effectively in generating leads and sales online.

“About 3 years ago, we started talking internally about how we could help smaller companies have great websites at a lower cost so they could level the playing field somewhat,” says Keana Lynch, Beacon’s Director of UX Design & Development. “SITEXPRESS contains the best-of-the-best from our designers, developers, digital marketing specialists and technology experts.”

With SITEXPRESS, customers get a dependable website on a platform that has been tested across 10 different device-browser combinations, especially mobile, but is also easy-to-use, SEO-friendly, meets accessibility requirements (for disabled users), and designed to engage visitors.  But that’s not all.  Customers are trained to update their own website and the price includes web hosting, ongoing maintenance/support and Google Analytics setup/reporting.  Wait, there’s more.  Beacon’s digital marketing specialists also created 3 unique upgrade packages, specifically for small business, to facilitate short-term, gradual, or accelerated growth in traffic to your website.  SITEXPRESS is a much more comprehensive, dependable alternative to WordPress.

“We’ve learned that smaller businesses need a turn-key website solution,” says Mark Dirks, Beacon’s CEO.  “With the complexities and changing design trends for websites, many small businesses don’t know what they need, nor have the time it takes to fully leverage the web to grow their business.  Nowadays, your website is the centerpiece for your marketing strategy and typically, the first point of contact for new business.  So we combined all the critical elements into the SITEXPRESS framework and services to make it easier and cost-effective for smaller businesses to stand out among their competitors.”

After the initial setup fee, customers pay a fixed monthly fee of $395 for 2 years, but may cancel at any time without penalty.  “We are confident that customers will like the results and value the support of our team, which is why the contract is not binding,” says Dirks.  “So they get a high-performing website, preserve cash by paying monthly and get a proven partner for support whenever you need us.  Not a bad deal.”

Beacon Technologies is a recognized leader in web design and analytics for Higher Education and Retail/Ecommerce with clients in 45 states and 4 countries.  As one of the first Certified Google Analytics Partners in the U.S., Beacon drives data-driven decision-making & business growth via a proven comprehensive digital strategy.

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