With 4,500+ colleges and universities in the U.S., standing out is a very real challenge.
With marketing goals that likely center around enrollment and elevating the institutional profile, it’s not surprising that every marketing pro in higher ed needs a website that is distinctive. In my many years as a consultant, the higher ed communication professionals I meet with take it a step further — they want a website that is different from every other higher ed site.
Different is not synonymous with great. Different does not guarantee more applications from right-fit students. Instead, I suggest focusing on making your website memorable.
Your website is a surrogate. It makes a first impression late at night when a 16-year-old is narrowing his college choices. It reintroduces you to a Class of ’68 graduate who takes a quick trip back in time after friending her college roommate on Facebook.
Here are four suggestions for a more memorable website:
- Make it work for exploration.
Research tells us that prospective students (and their parents) explore academic offerings. They expect a quick and convenient list of academic majors; organizing degrees within schools and colleges is less important to them.
Degrees & Programs at LMU
- Offer the right amount of detail.
The graduate school teams at Tufts University understood that prospective graduate students have different decision-making criteria than undergrads. Knowing that location was a key factor, they created content that filled in the gaps about what it would be like to live in the Boston area.
Tufts: Boston & Medford/Somerville
- Participate in the conversation.
The web communications team at Tulane University understood that parents make comparisons between institutions. They wanted parents to know that, at Tulane, “Research isn’t just the province of graduate students or faculty: Undergraduate research is an important part of the experience…”
Research at Tulane
- Give it authentic personality.
The marketing team at Saint Louis University understood that relevant and interesting visuals make a lasting impression. They knew that animated line drawings of iconic buildings on the SLU campus would catch the eye of prospective students and parents.
Those suggestions make sense, right? If so, why are marketing and web teams fighting an almost daily battle against sameness on the website?
Memorable communication involves risk.
In an effort to appeal to everyone (and no one!), we often sound like everyone else, and we avoid staking a claim. Here’s some advice:
Not everything is a differentiator.
Five years ago, I wrote about the Monster’s University website and video as demonstration that our messaging to prospective students is so similar, our websites are stereotypes. Remember, certain things are table stakes; for higher ed, high-quality academics, committed faculty, and a welcoming community are the minimum price of entry. You have to say more, and you have to talk about your differentiators in a different way.
“Wisdom, experience, morality, critical thinking, creative problem-solving. This is what Fordham students take into the world.” (About Fordham University)
“Your pursuit of greater truth starts here. We’ll push you to be better, to think clearly on your own and to seek higher meaning in the service of others. We won’t be shy about it.” (Academics at Saint Louis University)
Generic language is boring.
We tend to avoid bold statements in higher ed. But generic, vanilla language doesn’t reveal brand personality, and it doesn’t engage the audiences we care about. The right words and phrases are tools for creating an impression; they help you stand out.
“William & Mary is an academic powerhouse.” (William & Mary Academics)
“So, you’re looking for world-changing research. So, you’re looking to make a difference through service. So, you’re looking for a really good po’ boy. You’re in the right place.” (About Tulane University)
Let’s worry less about being different and worry more about being memorable to those who land on our websites ready to be influenced by the first impression.