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Six secrets of smart school website design

You aspire to a website that creates a great first impression of your school, conveys its unique ethos and encourages prospective families to get in touch.

Sounds simple. It would be, were you not also single-handedly delivering the rest of the marketing plan with modest resources, running admissions or even teaching Chemistry.

Having helped several very different schools create bespoke but equally smart sites over recent years, here are our six key steps to successful school website builds.

1. Start with your key users and their needs

Do you know your key users, and what they need from your site? This sounds obvious, but it can be tempting to rush this vital stage in defining your spec. Perhaps you need to meet a Head’s tight deadline, or you have already seen a site you want to emulate. Resist the urge to dive straight into design and begin by thinking about, or even talking to, your users.

Some sites are intended primarily for prospective parents and would-be staff, and some for prospective students, while others are used by the current school community and its alumni. Be disciplined. At the very least, jot down who will use your site and for what purposes, pin that page up next to your computer, and – crucially – revisit it regularly during the project to check you’re not unintentionally drifting away from your original objective. Hold onto that piece of paper – it can prove a godsend long after the site has gone live as a protection against well-intentioned colleagues requesting inappropriate content.

2. Map out the links with your other systems

In all likelihood, your website will need to talk to another system – perhaps prospective parents’ personal details collected on the site will go into your Management Information System, or you want an events calendar in your intranet or parent portal to display automatically on your website. Pick a web agency that has some experience integrating sites with school systems, and put them in touch with the staff responsible for your systems from the start. With experience, integration is usually fairly straightforward, but building in a little time to iron out q is always helpful.

3. Focus 80% of your effort on the top 20% of pages

Before launching into the design of your new site spend an hour looking at the Google Analytics for your current site – or ask your web agency to – and save yourself a lot of time in the long run. Identify the pages that get the most frequent and/or lengthy visits. In our experience these will probably be school section landing pages, admissions, fees, term dates or calendar and news. Others will get high traffic at certain times of the year, such as exam results in August. Focus on making sure these pages will not only work particularly well for users, but will be easy for you to update. Consider ways to incorporate news and promotions on these hot pages to keep them fresh and to encourage users to go more deeply into other relevant areas of your site.

4. Choose the content management system that best fits your needs, then tailor it

In our experience, schools typically update at least one element of their content every single day, whether they are announcing the first XI’s county win, uploading a video of senior chorale or having a final push on an open event. All of this is great for SEO, but can be time-consuming and frustrating if your content management system is clunky. Some schools like the reassurance of a CMS created specifically for schools, others prefer the greater flexibility and transferable skills that working with leading platforms like WordPress or Craft can offer. Have an early discussion with our web agency about the back end of your site, and consider talking to other schools for their experiences of CMSs. Weigh up the pros and cons together with the agency to find the best CMS for you. Make sure they will fine tune the system you select, removing any clutter you don’t need.

5. Cross-populate your content

School marketing people are some of the busiest clients we work with. They benefit from being able to enter content once for automatic re-use in multiple places. A news story tagged ‘maths’ for example could display on the maths subject pages as well as in the news section, an event tagged ‘hockey’ could appear with the vacancy for a coach and a blog by the Head could instantly be promoted on the admissions pages and social media. This is not only a smart way to populate content, but also makes your site feel more dynamic and tailored to user interests, with little to no ongoing effort on your part.

6. Fine tune your site in the three months following go-live

Getting a variety of users to test your site on a development server before it goes live is standard practice to resolve any unexpected issues. Go one step further and use the period after go live to refine the user experience. Free tools like Hotjar allow you to get instant feedback from users about the new look and feel or the ease of finding information. Combine findings with your Google Analytics data for an early evaluation of the live site, and use what you learn to refine it. Often it is the post go-live tweaks that make the difference between a good site and a great one.