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Avoiding web missteps that repel college recruits

Incoming students respond to short, easy-to-digest communication
University Business, July 2016
Poorly designed websites can turn students off to a college or university, a new report warns. (Gettyimages.com: Anatolii BabiiI)
Poorly designed websites can turn students off to a college or university, a new report warns. (Gettyimages.com: Anatolii BabiiI)

When it comes to website design, universities continue to make common key mistakes that turn away potential students, according to an annual report from KDG, which advises higher education institutions on website redesigns, enrollment management and alumni engagement.

The report, based on a year of research involving more than 1,000 prospective students and dozens of college websites, shows that schools often miss the mark when trying to appeal to a generation raised on short, easy-to-digest communication popularized by social media and websites like Buzzfeed.

Many institutions don’t present content in a manner that most traditional students want, though there also are a few other areas where websites fall short.

“If students start using a college website that doesn’t conform to their experiences and expectations, it really puts a bad taste in their mouths,” says Kyle David, CEO of KDG.

Busy students just don’t have the patience or inclination for deep dives of information. “The schools that are willing to provide the Cliff Notes version are speaking to students in a way that’s respectful of their time,” he says.

Schools tend to overshare their advantages in boring, clichéd language. Some also make visitors complete too many long, involved forms before offering additional information. “Otherwise really great redesign projects have neglected the fact that they have forms that are totally laborious, and if you’re on a mobile phone, they’re impossible,” David says.

Any such form should be whittled down to name, email address and area of interest, and serve as a first step to a deeper, personalized dialogue.

For its survey, KDG conducted one-on-one user tests and focus groups to evaluate a website’s ease of navigation, uniqueness, focus and message consistency.

Although the report focused on websites, David notes, institutions also need to be aware of how they’re being talked about online and on social media.

“Students have become incredibly good stalkers,” he says. “They know every way to ferret out a bad review or find dirt on a school. It’s incredible how well-informed these prospective students are before even coming to the college website.”

The 5 most common web don’ts

  • Poor readability: Big blocks of dry, scholarly text don’t connect with a generation that generally reads on a 7th-grade level and is accustomed to getting information in short, social media-like messages or even bulleted lists.
  • Stock images: Cold, generic images turn off students who can usually distinguish between a genuine campus photo and a stock shot.
  • “Self-grandiosement”: Some institutions lay self-praise on too thick—and with effusive marketing-speak. Instead, use simple, powerful language to tell your school’s unique story.
  • Long forms: Students with short attention spans don’t want to fill out detailed, burdensome forms just to obtain more information. Grab their attention by providing more information than you ask for.
  • Time-wasters: A poorly organized site that requires users to hunt for information, has confusing overlap or is outdated, makes a college look clumsy—and drives potential students away.

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