I doubt there are any independent schools or colleges that do not have a website. But have you, as a person responsible for attracting prospective students to your institution, ever asked what it is that your website is doing? Does it sit there and look pretty like an online brochure? Is your school's website a hub for community activity and exchange? Is it a resource, not just for students but for those who may have questions about independent schools in general or your school in particular? Does your website tell your school’s story and does it tell your story in such a way that prospects want to engage and interact?
The purpose of a school website, the purpose of your story, is to engage prospective applicants. If your story ends with they lived happily ever after and the prospective applicant leaves thinking ‘oh how nice’, your website and your story haven’t done their job.
Every page on the site – each chapter of your story if you will - should create the opportunity for an applicant to engage in the process of learning more about your school based on the applicant's own particular interests or needs. For some the need is to understand how a charter school is different than a public school. For others the question may be financial. Still others may want to understand the difference between boarding and day school environments. (A blog is a great place to explore these topics) The reality is that if your site is not satisfying this need for information that every applicant has, they will satisfy their need somewhere else – somewhere much further removed from your control.
A really great independent school or college website does tell a story but it tells a story with the express purpose of assisting a prospective applicant to self-select engagement with the school. Most school websites do not accomplish this objective and many don’t even measure whether they do or do not. Most school websites are either cookie cutter online brochures with an ineffective contact-us form or they are eye candy that hangs on the wall and looks magnificent but never really connects with the fundamental questions an applicant is asking.
There is a lot that independent school websites can learn about 'relational selling' from premium e-commerce sites like Amazon.com. I’m not suggesting that a school website should look like a product catalog but if you really think about the process you go through on every page you look at while on Amazon.com, you have to appreciate that in a very short period of time you have subjective product information, objective peer reviews and suggestions about alternatives. All the information you need to engage more completely or browse on to collect more information.
In the case of an independent school website, the prospect's choice may be to self-identify and dig deeper with meatier content you provide, browse the site further, seek peer reviews on your social media sites or submit an application online. However each time a prospective applicant takes an affirmative action, a properly designed website provides the school the opportunity to develop a relationship and measure its interaction with an applicant, just like Amazon.com does when you navigate its site.
So the question is, what is your independent school website doing for you? Is it attracting applicants and telling your story and giving applicants a way to interact with you until they are ready to choose to take a tour, speak to an alum or submit an application? It should be - or more importantly, it could be.