Common mistakes that schools make on their websites.

A website is not a piece of art – because it has a clear function beyond the aesthetic and would look silly on a plinth. It’s not a kitchen utensil because it has no one purpose or role. Your website is not an information leaflet because you are doing so much more than passing on information. It’s not a TV show, a map, an instructional guide or a photo album. Yet, it may have all these elements and make all the mistakes they sometimes make. An art gallery that looks too imposing; instructions written in English translated from Swedish; a TV show that’s… well, Love Island?

Your audience

That’s an unfair judgement on Love Island. If your potential website viewers are young, glamourous hedonists, that a TV show could provide you with a lot of website ideas. Because forgetting to build a website around who it is appealing to is a common error. In a game of word association ‘children’ may well follow ‘school’ but children are rarely your primary target in setting up your website. You are out to entrance and entice parents, community members and potential staff. Even with this knowledge, many websites make the mistake of appealing only to parents with children already at the school.  Beyond that there are parents searching for a school and they are a diverse group – probably some are Love Island fans – and there are current staff, potential staff, community groups, students, families, governors, inspectors and people who clicked on the wrong thing.

A school website needs to show enough so that viewers get a feel for the physical school itself, but too many cartoon characters, the ubiquitous autumn leaves falling down the page, or a concentration of primary colours, might be wrong for parents and staff seeking the right school. Whilst parents, like policemen, are getting younger, they are all grown-ups and this needs remembering when you design a website, the shop window for your school. People accessing the website fall within a broad range but are easily identified if you consider the purposes of your website. You want parents to enrol their child; you want to provide existing parents with opportunities to get information and interact; you want to appeal to anyone in the wider school community – local media, linked establishments, community projects; you want to show off to governors and to OFSTED, who require you to have a website but don’t tell you how to make it remarkable… And, of course, you want somewhere that a generation of pandemic children can log on for online learning.

Many schools make the mistake of letting their website bat eyelids only with OFSTED, or only with new parents, or with potential recruits to teach Latin, or with Great Aunt Maud who is so proud because she didn’t think you’d ever make anything of yourself and now you’re a teacher and once applied to be on Love Island. The person putting the website together, often without marketing expertise or in-depth knowledge of potential audiences, will design the site to appeal to whoever is dominating their thinking at their time, usually heavily influenced by what they see as the key purpose of the website.

Great adventures

Love Island has a lot to teach us. Along with other highbrow TV shows, it has adopted the idea of participants being on ‘a journey’. It seems a bit hackneyed now, but in the school context, it can provide us with a useful approach; here it’s less about a person learning to dance or eating witchetty grubs and more about them going through a series of steps. An early step is viewing your website and it’s the website’s job not to let it end there. A person’s progress can be tracked from the time they view your website, through actions they take to reach their end position. This sense of the various journeys people are to take provides the foundation on which to build your website.

Your own journey is from blank page to effective website. The best way to set out is with a map in hand (not literally, though a map on your website’s Find Us page is probably a good thing); a map is a plan that starts with the purpose, which determines structure and content. Too often schools skimp on the planning and then try to squash too much in, ending with repetition, squashing too much in, and repetition.

A complex website that is hard to navigate will see many people abandoning their journey as it’s so difficult at that first stage. The best websites will make it clear how visitors take that next step. Another common error is websites not including a ‘call to action’, a click or enquiry or other response that takes the person further in. This is not about hard sell ‘buy now or lose out’ but it is about making the process easy and intuitive. Too many clicks, words that don’t quite make sense, an appeal to the wrong person – it’s easy to put someone off by being obtuse and/or unappealing.

You can keep track of the journeys and responses made by visitors to your website by use of analytics – the basics are not at all difficult and well worth it to measure the effectiveness of what you have created.

Part of something bigger

A school website isn’t a standalone – it’s one of several products that are themselves part of a marketing strategy. Schools, especially when pulling together a website without specialist input, sometimes forget it needs more than the school logo to make the branding work. The school ‘brand’ may well include concepts of openness, achievement or individuality, and a website must reflect that brand, whatever it is, in order to be authentic and a good match for those it is trying to attract.  It is a mistake not to let it grow from a clear strategy with specific aims.

If you get this right, you won’t win a prize or get paired off with someone with blue acrylic nails, but you will get great results.