The Current State of Microsites

Back in the day, when college websites were subpar and institutions weren’t making the web a priority, microsites were the way for admissions and development units to get their jobs done. Admissions couldn’t wait for the university site to catch up; they had to recruit a class! Development needed to engage prospective donors during a capital campaign with a web experience of the highest quality. Frankly, microsites did the heavy lifting when .edu sites weren’t acceptable.

Things have changed. Most higher education institutions are more fully investing in digital communications and their .edu websites. Admissions and fundraising teams can count on a certain level of quality for their .edu site. Still, there are microsites. These days, microsites support discrete goals and allow for:

  • Publishing unique content.
    Content that’s entertaining, more informal and very focused is often a reason to use a microsite. Unique content is more acceptable on microsites than on the main .edu website.
  • Higher conversion rates during marketing promotions.
    Because microsites are focused on a particular demographic, they typically produce higher conversion rates. Focused messaging to more discrete audiences usually means more limited choices and more relevant calls to action. Microsites usually get more clicks and are a great choice for marketing promotions.
  • Greater design flexibility and more functionality.
    The theme, tone or purpose of a communications initiative may require flexibility and unique branding elements. The microsite extends what can quickly and easily be accomplished within a web CMS.

What’s everybody else doing?
Microsites often complement the main .edu website. And that’s a good thing because when there are similarities of design and user experience between an .edu site and a microsite, the overall web experience is more cohesive for site visitors. An example of this complementary approach is the campaign microsite for Appalachian State University. In the wild, colleges and universities are generally using microsites for:

  • Fundraising campaigns
  • Admissions
  • News
  • Temporary communication efforts like holiday messages or annual reports from the president
  • Sites that are tied to the institution but not part of the public-facing website (e.g., centers, institutes, grant-funded units)

What’s the downside?
So why not let a thousand flowers bloom? Here are some considerations for guiding your institution’s deployment of microsites:

  • Microsites should be used judiciously because they can put you on a glide path toward a subpar, patchwork user experience within the institutional web presence. Website visitors are often confused by microsites because they navigate for information with no understanding of the artificial barriers created by campus offices, projects and initiatives. It can be jarring for visitors to follow a path for information that includes new domains, separate designs and different sets of navigation.
  •  Requests for microsites are not always driven by business need. Consider that microsites are sometimes requested to satisfy 1) personal wishes to be more creative with web content that aren’t grounded in business need or brand guidelines; 2) preferences for designs outside (or barely outside) the central brand identity; 3) a desire to minimize (or escape) oversight from central authority.
  •  Microsites can be expensive because staff time is directed towards parallel design and implementation work. Also, microsites create a wall around content, meaning the content sharing benefits of a CMS are lost and maintaining duplicate sets of content on the main site and the microsite might be necessary.

Need some inspiration?
Within a few categories, here are some examples of microsites (and their parent homepages) in higher education.

Fundraising Campaigns:



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