13 11, 2018

Visual Storytelling: Designing an Effective Homepage

By | 2018-11-13T12:25:03+00:00 November 13th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development, Creative Design|Tags: , , , |

Brands are big in our society. Wherever we go – out to dinner, to a concert, for a cup of coffee with a friend – we see branding. In addition to communicating (sometimes) complex ideas, branding is also used as an identifying element. It’s how we know that the store we’re walking in to is the place we mean to be.

The same is true online. We’ve discussed the idea of the website as the centerpiece of higher ed marketing strategy previously. If your website is your digital storefront, how do your visitors know that they’ve come to the right place after typing in your school website URL or clicking on a link?

Of course, the user’s expectation is that they’ve arrived at their intended destination. The homepage, then, first and foremost, needs to confirm that expectation. The easiest way to do that is to lean on your school’s branding.

The homepage is where the user journey starts on your website. For colleges and universities, this is where prospective students gain their first impressions of your school. As a digital doorway onto your campus, the homepage needs to display your institution in a visually striking way that resonates with your future students. It needs to scream your school brand… loudly.

Show Them, Don’t Tell Them

How do you create an authentic brand experience? Making use of compelling campus imagery is a vital first step. The goal is to relay your school’s narrative mainly through visual elements.

Letting your prospective students enter your world via stunning and interactive visuals allows them to become part of your story. They want to see themselves there, reflected in the student body. That’s why shots of students walking through a busy part of campus is such a fixture on higher ed websites.

Aspects that exemplify the personality of your school are also perfect muses for the page. Be it an iconic landscape, a specific department, or a philanthropic spirit, these hallmark additions draw users in and make a big first impression.

Imagery serves as a great alternative to extensive text. While packing your homepage with tons of written information may seem like a good idea, it can actually hurt the overall experience. The job of the homepage is to wow your prospective students, and then guide them to the next step in the recruitment process – campus visits, application, or a deeper dive into the academic offerings.

Make It Easy, And Tell Your Story

You know what prospective students are searching for… maybe even better than they do. So, help them out. Since the homepage is almost always designed for the prospective students, tailor the homepage experience for their needs. Structure the page to match the questions and interests of this audience group.

That doesn’t mean that your campus events are not important. They are. It just means that the homepage is probably not the ideal place to feature the events widget prominently.

The layout of the page should create an easy to follow narrative: This is who we are, this is why you want to be here, here is what you need to get started.

Keeping with the theme of easy, provide direction and navigational guidance for your visitors. Be sure to include CTAs like “Apply Now” or “Schedule A Tour” at appropriate panels throughout the page. Be cognizant of where your buttons are. Placement is key for visibility and engagement.

To ensure you are on target, use Google Analytics data to monitor your CTA engagement levels. You can always tweak the appearance or wording of your CTAs to optimize performance.

Don’t Forget That Your Audience Is Mobile

A lot has been written about adopting a mobile-first approach to website development, including our recent post on the topic. But, what’s the impact on homepage development for higher ed websites?

While online college applications typically get filled out on the bigger screens of desktops and laptops, your prospective students are just as likely to first check out your school website via their mobile devices. As such, the homepage needs to be optimized for the mobile experience.

That doesn’t mean that the homepage should be stripped of any complex functions. It just means that your foundational page elements need to scale easily and efficiently to smaller screen sizes.

Beacon Does Web Design

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t know where to begin your homepage revamp efforts? No worries, Beacon is here to help. Request a complementary audit from our expert team today.

3 10, 2018

Higher Ed Branding & Digital Marketing Strategy

By | 2018-10-04T07:12:08+00:00 October 3rd, 2018|Categories: Digital Marketing, Higher Education|Tags: , , , |

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about competition between colleges and universities? For most people, the answer is college athletics — in the form of football and basketball games, or the other collegiate sports across the nation’s campuses.

But higher ed institutions don’t just compete on the gridiron and in hoops. The other, more important and intense competition is for students.

Big, public, state schools jostle for top billing among the best and brightest home-grown talents. Smaller, private universities go after their own, well-defined student profiles, crossing the proverbial swords with other, similar institutions. Community colleges compete with each other and all the four-year universities out there, while at the same time serving as feeder programs for these schools.

One thing is for certain – there are a lot of options in higher education. If you have a junior or senior in high school with decent grades, odds are good that your mailbox is a frequent depository for marketing collateral from a multitude of colleges and universities. Teens are also often flooded with information via emails, texts, social media ads and other targeted campaigns.

Where they end up going to school isn’t just the biggest, most exciting decision of their life. It’s also a decision-making process that thousands of higher ed professionals sink massive amounts of time and resources into.

How does your higher education institution assure success in the war for students?

Leveraging Your Brand: What’s your unique value proposition?

In a highly competitive environment, it is essential to differentiate yourself from your rivals. Higher ed institutions already know how to do this, almost instinctively — via mascots and nicknames.

The tradition of school mascots is rich. However, while Rameses the Ram, Sammy The Banana Slug and Artie the Fighting Artichoke may do a superb job of firing up your student fan base, they don’t necessarily excel at communicating your school’s value proposition – those things that make your institution exceptional and enticing to prospective students.

Identifying and supporting those unique elements is key to strong, memorable and effective marketing. Ideally, those elements should also reflect your institution’s values. Your brand is built upon and defined by these concepts. So, even if the other aspects of your brand change over time (and every brand needs a refresh and update eventually), the heart of your message remains.

Successful brands build their messaging around their core values, allowing themselves the flexibility to express those values in new and innovative ways. Consistency doesn’t have to be boring. There are countless, creative ways to communicate who you are. And the ability to do so well is exceedingly valuable in an industry where the customer profile is non-homogeneous and constantly changing.

Your Website: The centerpiece of higher ed marketing strategy

As you probably know, advertising campaigns have a higher chance of success if they are tightly targeted to specific demographics. So, as a marketer for your higher ed institution, you should be running all sorts of different campaigns to attract the next batch of diverse, motivated and talented students to your school. And all those direct mail brochures, emails, digital ads, Facebook and Instagram campaigns should lead your respective audiences to your website. That’s where all those separate audience streams coalesce into one – prospective students.

The job of your website is to close the deal – to convince students that your school is the one where they will attain their best future. To be effective, there has to be a smooth hand-off from your marketing campaigns to your website. When prospective students log on to your site, it must feel like a continuation of the same experience they started with the brochure, email, digital ad, or any other piece of collateral they saw.

Your website is the nexus of information about your school and the first place people go to find out what it’s like on campus. That means that your website has to do a credible job of accurately reflecting your school brand, with subsequent marketing efforts drawing on those brand elements. It also means that your website should be strategically recognized as the centerpiece of your overall marketing strategy. Whatever public marketing initiatives you undertake should start with the website, and emanate from there.

Beacon Knows Higher Ed Websites

If your current higher ed website is not leveraging your brand as effectively as you think it should, Beacon can help. Request a complementary audit from our expert team and let us help you shape your site into the marketing force it can be.

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.