14 02, 2019

10 Things They Hate About Your Higher Ed Site

By | 2019-02-15T09:03:30+00:00 February 14th, 2019|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development|Tags: , , , |

Happy Valentine’s Day from all of us at Beacon! Many of us relish this day as an opportunity to express and share our appreciation with our partners and loved ones. We hope today is all about love for you, too.

But not all of us have that special someone to cuddle up beside this cozy, romantic evening. Not everyone is sipping champagne and eating chocolates on February 14.

For the singles among us, Valentine’s Day can feel cold, intrusive and, yes, maybe even a bit judgmental. It may not be an occasion to celebrate at all. In fact, let’s be honest, this day can easily bring out the sassy side of our personality.

Well, we just want to say, we hear ya. And, we’d like to put that emotional sentiment to good use. In honor of all the lonely hearts out there this Valentine’s Day, here’s a hate list of all the things that your favorite higher ed site might be doing wrong.

1. Poor Navigation

Ever tried to read a map with your eyes closed? That’s what it feels like using a site that has poor navigation. We come armed with an idea of what we want to accomplish but lack of clear calls-to-action (CTA) and visual cues makes the next steps anyone’s guess. So we stumble through the site and eventually give up and leave.

2. Clutter

A busy page isn’t a good thing. It is instantly overwhelming and leaves us wondering what do we concentrate on first? Not every page needs a widget, slider, pop-ups and video. Might we suggest choosing just the features that serve the purpose of the page and calling it a day? The right tools and tasteful use of white space will often enhance the appeal of a page.

3. Too Many Pop-ups

Pop-ups are universally despised and regularly misused. Nothing screams “LEAVE” louder than getting hit with the combo of a welcome message, virtual assistant and signup form all before you ever see the page content. This approach can come across as pushy and distracting, while making the back button look very appealing. Nowadays most users have ad and pop-up blockers installed to avoid being bothered. Strong CTA’s and intuitive design should be enough to guide your audience to their goals.

4. Not Mobile-Friendly

Few things will make a user rage-quit faster than having to execute the zoom-and-pan method to see your content. Even search engines are annoyed by pages that do not provide a mobile-friendly experience. So much so, that Google will exclude websites from mobile search results that they see unfit to use with smartphones and tablets. Mobile-friendly sites aren’t heavily adorned with fancy features, but they work. And consistent functionality on all our devices is all your users ask for.

5. Endless Scrolling

This feature is SO 2016. Your entire site doesn’t need to be one page. They do include page breaks in word processors for a reason. Pages that don’t end are annoying. A few seconds of scrolling makes it clear that what we are looking for may be there, but it won’t be easy to find. If we are determined to find what we need we might use your search bar. But most likely we are going to do business elsewhere and save ourselves the headache and hand cramp.

6. Stock Photos

Is there anything that shatters the illusion of authenticity quicker than the realization that you saw the same perfect, beautiful, smiling face on another website? Image search is a thing… passing off models as your students isn’t as easy anymore. Yes, it may be easier and cheaper to just buy photos from a pic farm. But your site is better served by pictures of your real students, doing real things on your real campus.

7. Auto-play Videos

Please stop doing this. Unsolicited videos are notorious for striking when there are no headphones to be found, in a quiet area, when we least expect it. We scramble, panicked and embarrassed, to find the offending page and close it immediately. Who cares what was on the page? Your users are now super annoyed… and gone.

8. Slow Loading Times

These days, we all live for and love instant gratification. So, when a website takes more than five seconds to load, we are likely already on to the next thing… or we want to be. Large files and lengthy auto-play videos are often the culprit behind glacial loading times. These page additions typically aren’t crucial to the overall experience and are hindering your users from getting to the content they came for. It’s even more important for mobile pages to be super fast.

 9. Broken Links

Broken links are like an “Under Construction” sign in the middle of a beautiful museum exhibit. They ruin the aesthetic of your site, and if there are too many of them, they also ruin user experience and your ranking potential. You can’t always avoid 404s on your site. But, in the least, you should have a plan in place to regularly monitor for broken links.

10. Lack of Accessibility

This has been a hot topic in website design circles in recent years, and one close to our hearts. Not meeting accessibility standards reduces your site usability for people with disabilities. Your site may be a work of pure design genius, but you’ll definitely lose brownie points if not everyone can read or use it. And search engines will ding you for it, too. Poor contrast choices, limited keyboard accessibility, lack of alt tags and open/closed captioning for videos all impede users’ ability to fruitfully navigate your site.

Beacon Knows Web Design

Is your higher ed site guilty of some of the above offenses? Not to worry. Beacon can bring the love of your prospective students back to your webpages. Request a free website audit today.

19 12, 2018

Is Website Personalization Right For Your School?

By | 2018-12-19T13:16:58+00:00 December 19th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development, Creative Design|Tags: , , |

This time of year, as students flee campus for winter break, the usual bustle of activity slows considerably. This affords the opportunity for faculty and staff to take a break from the breakneck speed of the semester.

For many institutions of higher learning, this is a good time to explore some new ideas and tactics to meet strategic goals. The end of the calendar year is, after all, a time for reflection and goal setting. For your higher ed marketing team, this may take the form of evaluating your website performance for optimization opportunities, or a discussion about implementing new processes or concepts.

One concept that’s been gaining steam in higher ed marketing for a couple of years now is website personalization. Can a personalized web experience make a difference for your school’s recruiting and marketing efforts?

Website Personalization Explained 

A personalization-enabled website delivers tailored content to visitors, providing a quicker pathway to relevant information and, hopefully, enabling deeper engagement with the site. The assumption behind personalization is that it will promote more loyalty from visitors. And increased consumer loyalty translates to better financial performance.

Traditionally, early adopters of the concept (see: Amazon and Netflix) would create a unique homepage experience for each visitor. The founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, famously said this way back in 1998:

“If we have 4.5 million customers, we shouldn’t have one store. We should have 4.5 million stores.”

Research backs up Mr. Bezos’ affinity for highly personalized web content. And the success of Amazon speaks for itself. For e-commerce websites, personalization has proven effective in improving conversion rates, engagement, customer loyalty and more.

That said, colleges and universities don’t run e-commerce sites. So, what works for Amazon may not necessarily work for your school.

In the higher ed sector, it’s difficult to personalize a web experience to the individual level. For one, schools just don’t have access to the same type of information about students that e-commerce sites are able to collect from their customers. It’s easy for Amazon to come up with unique content for you, specifically, when it can analyze your shopping queries for the last six months (or six years).

Without that level of insight, it’s more prudent to personalize content for a distinct higher ed audience, rather than each individual visitor. If you’re already segmenting your audiences, you have the data you need to begin differentiating your content strategy for each group. There’s a treasure trove of actionable audience data aching to be put to good use.

Implementing Personalization

If you haven’t gone through the audience segmentation process yet, make that the jump off point. You’ll want to start with the obvious groups: prospective students, current students, faculty, alumni, etc. Digging deeper, however, can reveal additional opportunities for personalization. Prospective students, for example, can be further broken up into geographic regions, undergraduate vs. graduate, or by academic interests.

With your groups defined, you’ll need to match each audience group with actions you want them to complete (conversions). For prospective students, that could be submitting a request for information, interest in a campus visit, or downloading an application. This is when tracking comes in – you’ll need to be able to analyze the number of conversions to know if your strategy is paying off.

Another helpful step can be to develop personas for the groups most important to you. Creating a “real” person to embody the needs and goals of the audience group will help you zero in on how these users will want to interact with your site.

Finally, you’ll need to design the personalized experience for each target audience group. This involves identifying the proper calls to action and conversion points, creating the actual content, tasking your development team with building out the needed pages, and making a plan to track performance, evaluate and iterate if necessary.

Beacon Knows Content Strategy

Not sure if personalization can work with your content strategy? Let Beacon help. Our expert team is happy to evaluate your website content and governance structure against your goals. Give us a call today.

27 11, 2018

Cohesion: Key To Great Web Design

By | 2018-11-21T13:51:47+00:00 November 27th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education, Web Development, Creative Design|Tags: , , |

Does this sounds familiar?

You’re exploring a website and click into a major navigation menu item. The new page loads and, suddenly, you feel like you’ve been transported somewhere completely different. Nothing about the experience on the new page ties back to the page you just came from. The type face is different, the navigation menu is completely unrecognizable in both style and selections, the color scheme is brand new, as is the overall page layout. You check the URL… yep, still the same domain.

This confusing experience is replicated surprisingly often across the web. In fact, this issue crops up fairly consistently for colleges and universities, as well as other large organizations.

What gives? It’s 2018! Doesn’t anybody know how to design and maintain a good website?

Putting our incredulity aside, it’s important to remember that the reasons behind a bad user experience aren’t usually intentional. No one sets out to confuse their audience on purpose.

In most cases, a confusing website is just a result of competing needs. Sometimes you need to add a new landing page quickly. Sometimes, staff turnover makes replicating older page templates challenging. Sometimes, you’re asked to try something new and different just to see if it works.

All of these reasons are plausible enough. Also, the web is a fast-moving place. The instincts to evolve, try new things and move quickly are usually the right ones.

That said, nothing on your website should be a one-off. If you want to implement change, you have to have a plan.

Creating & Maintaining a Cohesive Web Design

It should go without saying that a cohesive website design will keep your users engaged, on task and able to replicate their sessions easily and intuitively. So, how can one create and maintain cohesion through the design process and beyond?

The first objective is to create consistency for the user throughout their journey. This is best accomplished by establishing your brand elements and maintaining predictable page layouts and navigation. Predictable doesn’t have to mean boring. You can have a great page, with lots of great, engaging content, that still follows an intuitive layout.

The other on-page elements that you must painstakingly keep constant throughout your site include:

  • navigation menus
  • header and footer
  • type face
  • color palette
  • accent graphics
  • imagery (quality and tone)

There are aspects of your higher ed website that can be tailored to highlight special features of various departments or schools. The above list, however, is absolutely hands off.

Elements of Cohesive Interior Pages

While the homepage introduces your users to your brand, the job of landing and interior pages is to deliver information that your users are searching for and help them complete a specific goal. These objectives are best accomplished by different means, and this should be acknowledged by your design.

Branding is done best through visual elements. As such, homepage design leans heavily on imagery and graphics.

Interior pages are concerned with delivering hard information. As such, the design and layout need to reflect the text-heavy nature of these pages. Branding can be injected through the use of consistent header  and text styles, button colors, voice and tone of the text.

Visual elements, while still very much important, are, nonetheless, a secondary priority – they help break up the text and keep the user’s attention on the page. Despite the reduced emphasis, the visual elements help tie interior pages in with the branding of the rest of the site.

Elements of Cohesive Landing Pages

Landing pages are a cross between the homepage and an interior page. When arriving at a landing page on your higher ed website, your users should feel like they’ve just flipped open to a start of a new chapter in a book. There’s an introductory feel, but also hard information presented for consumption.

Due to the dual-nature purpose of landing pages, they tend to integrate a bit more graphic elements than interior pages. The landing page are really a continuation of the user experience from the homepage. As such, they tend to carry over some of the visual design and interactive elements of the homepage.

Beacon Knows Higher Ed Web Design

Want to know how your higher ed website stacks up? Not sure if you need a refresh or a complete overhaul? Request a complimentary website audit from Beacon’s expert team. We’ll be happy to discuss your most pressing needs.

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.