Appendix B
Episode 045 -

How to design a higher ed homepage

Text reads: Appendix B How to design a higher ed homepage. From bravery media.

How do agencies approach designing a higher ed website? Joel and Kristin break down Bravery’s approach to homepage content strategy. This is the first in a series covering the strategies that higher ed web agency apply in designing a new university website.
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Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. I’m Joel Goodman. Kristin Van Dorn is with me in the video studio from afar. Hi, Kristin. Great to see you.

You know, we have been liking doing these little series every once in a while, and I really think that the kind of higher ed community that we work with and talk to all the time could benefit from an insider look into how we approach websites in general. Why do we make the decisions that we do? What decisions are we making for people when we’re helping institutions design websites?

And so, over the next several episodes, we’re gonna be talking about how we go about that section by section. what are the things that a higher ed marketer should be thinking about when they’re designing a homepage or when they’re thinking about content for program pages or that sort of thing?

And so, in the first episode of this series, we’re gonna talk all about everyone’s favorite place to start: the homepage. Now, I’ll also say I don’t think the homepage is the best place to start, but that’s beside the point. We’re gonna start there anyway.

What are your thoughts, Kristin? What do you think about first when you’re staring at that blank Google Doc and trying to figure out what is going on the page?

Kristin Van Dorn
Well, for most higher ed institutions and for many of our clients, their biggest source of revenue is tuition, and their greatest goal is to increase and stabilize enrollment. So the first thing I think about when I think about the content on a homepage for an institution is what information we want to put into the brains of our visitors and how we structure it in a way where it is memorable and they can hold onto that information and think more about that information when they leave that homepage because they’re not going to stay on our website all day.


So we want something that’s going to come up for them and remind them to come back. And we also want to structure it in a story that’s meaningful to them. And you know, I, Joel, you’ve heard me say a number of times that I’m not necessarily all about the story-driven content.

That doesn’t mean loading it up with a bunch of student stories. I just mean, what is the flow that makes logical sense so that they don’t have to work hard to remember the important key details?

I think alongside that, one of the key things that gets missed is that the homepage isn’t where you want people to stay; it’s kind of the entryway. When they get to the homepage, you’re trying to get them off to the places that they need to go, and so it’s creating a narrative that fits the path that they are trying to take on your website or even the path you want to guide them down.

And that path shouldn’t be: stick around on the homepage and click through a bunch of slides or things like that.

it should be data-driven. You should look at what people are looking for through your site search terms and where people are landing through your analytics, and then decide what those top things are that people need to accomplish when they get to your homepage.

And we all know that it’s, do you have my program and then how much is it gonna cost and can I afford it? And then you get into more of the world-building, right? You get more into telling about campus life and that sort of stuff. So I think that narrative flow that you’re talking about, the story, it’s being able to take a person with all the baggage that they’re bringing to your website and get rid of all that in some way, or at least cut through it a little bit and help them see clearly the path through hitting your website to finding that right fit program for them to figuring out if and how they’re going to afford your institution and then into what it’s like to be a student.

Now, that’s not to say that these have to be super delineated and cut off, and you can’t talk about the student experience within your financial aid stuff or the campus life sort of stuff within your programs.

It’s just that you have to make sure that there’s intentionality between what is being communicated in a primary manner versus all the secondary supportive storytelling.

Yeah, like a nice way to think about it is if you were running an event center. And your event center had spaces for meetings and had spaces for weddings and all kinds of different opportunities to host your event. Right? Do you want everyone who comes into the entryway of your event center to memorize the entryway before they get to the spaces where they’re actually interested in holding their event?

No! You don’t need to sit there and say, “Here’s the picture of the president of our event company. Here’s the picture of the people who have hosted events before.” You wanna get them right into the spaces, and you wanna get them right to the information that they’re looking for in order to make that decision.

So one of the strategies that we use when structuring this content is by prioritizing those tasks, those things that your visitors want to accomplish. And so, we tend to take the approach of a prospective student being the most important audience that’s hitting your, hitting a university website.

Part of that is because of the tuition-driven nature of most smaller institutions. But the homepage of the website, if that’s the default place people are landing, you need to figure out who’s most important to your bottom line anyway. And if it’s donors, then maybe shuttle them off somewhere else or find a better way to go about talking to them.

We’ll talk about Development pages later in another episode.

But we look at knowing which program fits first. And so the first thing that you should put on that page, and the first thing that we always put on a homepage, is some sort of program finder or call to action to get to the program listing that an institution has so that that question’s answered.

And what I always tell our client partners is that we’re trying to take that biggest question and answer it, and then like, oh. Well, okay, that wasn’t the question you had. Well, how about this question and go to the second biggest one. And so that would be financial aid, and that’s a little bit more difficult for some institutions to want to put their pricing front and center. But if that’s the second most important thing that people are looking for, the second biggest topic, then you have a rationale. You have a reason for moving that higher up in the hierarchy on your homepage.

And then the next section after you cover the meaty question of, do you have a program I’m interested in and can I afford you? What’s it like on your campus? And so once you kind of shepherd them through their main big questions, then you can start to get into the differentiating content about what your community is like, why people love being on campus with you, and What they would possibly expect from becoming a student with you.

Right. So, I like to think about it in terms of value, right? It’s not just value for money; it’s the value of the experience. It’s how much students are going to resonate with the activities that are available for them. With the athletics, the different areas on campus, the beauty of the campus, or the opportunities through your online programs, you know, whatever it is, and pulling out some of those key narratives and putting them on the page.

That’s where the storytelling can kind of come into place. And again, like you, Kristin, I’m not into just dumping a bunch of student testimonials and student stories on the page. I think they have a place, but at that point, I don’t think many visitors are looking to immerse themselves in someone else’s story. They’re trying to figure out how their own story fits into your campus. Um, and then from there, you can start working toward really painting that picture of what that experience is like.

Yeah, I think on a previous episode, we talked about storytelling a little bit, and we used the framework of, rather than thinking of trying to create a narrative that what you’re really trying to do is world build, so you wanna create this setting for someone else to imagine their story. And when you put a bunch of giving links, or you put something about your presidential search, you are creating part of that environment that they don’t need to be spending time or brain space interpreting as they’re building their story of what it’s gonna be like for them to be part of your campus.

So, what are the things for you, Joel, that definitely do not belong on a homepage?

I will never, ever say that news should be on the homepage. I will never say that events should be on the homepage, and most of the time, it’s not because that content isn’t important. It’s because, first off, most new people don’t care. It’s just taking up space and slowing down your page.

But second, it’s that higher ed does such a poor job of making that content convert into applicants or inquiries or anything meaningful to the admissions flow because they end up just on a separate site somewhere. There aren’t calls to action. The news isn’t linking deeper into relevant program information, financial aid information, or opportunity information.

For institutions that do a good job of that, you can find other ways to do it than a grid of stories. And this is where we kind of differentiate ourselves as content strategists. We are focused on the intentionality of the content that’s on the page. Every single thing that goes on any page on your website should lead to some action, should lead to something that is going to move someone along their journey into affinity with your institution.

And when we’re just putting up a grid of three to six stories, it feels more like walking up to a dart board and closing your eyes, and then just throwing the dart and hoping that it hits something. Don’t do that. Be intentional.

I also don’t think the homepage is the right place for “giving” appeals, ever. I think there’s too much risk in indicating to prospective students, someone who’s maybe never interacted with a college before, or their parents haven’t interacted with a college before, of signaling to them that you don’t have money and you need to ask people for it. There are other ways to go about soliciting donations from your alumni and your community. And I don’t think the homepage is the right place. No one goes to the homepage to look for a giving link, either.

Yeah, it is a decision that’s made about, like, the hierarchy or the importance of. Each office in your university rather than what the student experience will be like and who you wanna be talking to.

I think the hardest thing with all that is remembering and convincing other people across campus that it’s that prospective student that is more important than someone internal’s perceived need for attention, the perceived need for, maybe that one donor to find that that link on the homepage.

Everything that goes on a homepage that isn’t directed and isn’t purposeful for a prospective student is just noise. And it takes away from that, and it lowers your conversion rate. You’re just killing your metrics that way. But from a hospitable design standpoint, you’re not taking care of that person. You’re trying to take care of someone else.

It’s like going to a restaurant and having a server say, “Hi, welcome in,” and then never talk to you again. It’s very similar when you’re putting content on a page that is interrupting the flow of someone’s intention to interact and connect with your institution.