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Designing Websites for Higher Ed: An Interview with Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson is the president of Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC and partner at Customer Carewords, Ltd. He’s worked with 82 higher ed institutions since 2006, helping them improve their websites and develop better approaches to marketing. At Connect 2016, I got a chance to talk to Bob about designing websites for universities to help increase new student enrollment.

What are the basics of a good university website?

Higher ed institutions need to be aware that their website is often a student’s first impression of them. That’s tremendously important, but I’m not talking about how pretty a website is. An attractive website can be helpful, but only if the website’s also functional. How quickly can a student get the information they want? Once your page shows up on a student’s screen, you’ve got about five seconds to connect with them. Make that time count, and make sure you apply that thinking to every page on your site.

What mistakes do you see university websites make?

Oh, there are plenty. People want fast task completion, so anything that gets in the way of that goal will drive potential students off your site. Maybe your hero images are too big and take up too much real estate on your site. Maybe the way your site flows is counterintuitive, or the navigation isn’t easy to find or use. Maybe you front-load your site with too much marketing copy.

Colleges are being pushed to innovate a lot these days, and that can lead to fad-chasing. There’s this instinct to say things like, “Pokémon is changing traditional marketing as we know it!” But that’s stupid, honestly. Pay attention to the fads, sure, and learn from them. But a new one comes along every couple of years, and you’re not going to be able to capitalize on every one. Chasing the fad can lead to a website that doesn’t behave the way the user expects, and that’s its own kind of problem.

You mentioned using too much marketing copy. Is there a right amount?

There’s certainly a wrong amount, but it’s a little more complex than that. For one thing, people are pretty savvy to marketing these days. Millennials especially have very finely-tuned marketing detectors, and they don’t like being advertised to. They want authenticity and transparency, not salesmanship.

But even if you’re being authentic, too much content is also a bad thing. You don’t have to keep everything “above the fold;” that’s not the way things work anymore. But you should keep your top two or three tasks above the fold, the ones students are most likely to want to use. Make it easy for them.

I should also mention that Google has started penalizing sites that have large amounts of content but that are seldom visited. Increasing the amount of content you have on your site is not necessarily going to help. Elimination of content that is rarely visited in favor of less content that is easier to find will help both your visitors and your SEO results.

So what should universities be doing instead?

Higher ed websites should be task-oriented. If your goal is to get students to apply to your college, make it as easy as possible for them to do that. Put the top five or so things that students come to your site for front-and-center: Academic programs, costs and financial aid, ROI after graduation, adult online programs. Prospective students don’t really care about the college’s history or mission statement; they care about why they should attend your university specifically instead of a different one. Anything that doesn’t help them answer that question and act on that information should go, because it’s probably hurting your search rankings and your lead conversions.

Many colleges and universities have things like history or alumni information; should they just discard it?

If it is visited regularly, no. Just don’t let it get in the way of potential new students who want to complete their goals as quickly as possible. Don’t let links to this content reduce the visibility of links to academic programs and affordability content, for instance.

If you have 10 years of press releases and faculty committee minutes on your website that people seldom visit, then yes, you should delete it from the main .edu website. But they can put that information on another domain, so it doesn’t hurt their main website’s search rankings.

What about things like blog content?

Blog content serves a purpose as long as you’re being realistic about content and frequency, but that purpose is a lot like that of social media. It’s not the primary reason a student comes to your website, and it doesn’t help them achieve the goal of learning why they should attend and how to go about doing that.

That said, like social media, students are often going to gravitate to blog content once their essential needs have been met. Don’t make it a speedbump to those essential needs. Things like reading blog content, connecting on social media, getting info about alumni, all these things are at the bottom of a potential student’s list of priorities when they come to your website for the first time.

What, specifically, should higher ed institutions be prioritizing with their websites?

It’s going to vary a little by institution, but there are some best practices. Give the user a prominent search box. Keep your inquiry forms brief and available, and repeat them, especially on your academic program pages. Have a “what can I expect next” page so the student isn’t in the dark about what the next step is after requesting information. Promote flexibility and career advancement in your marketing copy. Address affordability: students want to know how much their education will cost them. And make it easy to start the admission process. Don’t require a login, request a social security number but don’t require it, make your inquiry form visually easy to navigate by letting people see the entire form as the page opens.

Not every university will be able to do all of this, but it’s still worth going through this list and figuring out what you can implement.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: