One of the best parts of creating content for the web is that it is instant gratification with a redo button: you can get a ton of information about who comes to your site and what they do there. You can then react quickly to optimize the site, and then repeat. And repeat. And repeat. But where do you start and what should you be looking for when all that data starts pouring in?
Every website is unique, but here are my top three “guiding principles” for making your website more effective, particularly if you are trying to reach people in a different country who may or may not be familiar with your institution.
1) Be kind. Keeping your key target audiences in your mind, try and imagine if they will be able to understand everything on your site. Think about how you would adjust your language in person if you were introducing someone to your institution for the first time. Avoid jargon that will make new visitors feel like they don’t belong but feel free to use language that will make students, faculty, or alumni feel like part of the group on pages dedicated to them!
The best way to find out if this is working is to ask. You can create online surveys or do focus group testing with people in your target audience(s). People generally like to share their opinions and offering the chance to win a small prize to everyone who gives you feedback can dramatically increase the number of respondents. Don’t worry about being perfectly scientific; the most important changes you need to make will quickly become clear.
2) Be clear. You’ll be facing people with limited time and attention spans who don’t care about your institution nearly as much as you do – yet! Make sure they can get to the most important information within three clicks. The easiest way to do this is to think about the top groups you want your site to reach and what you want them to do. As just one example, if you want prospective students to apply for master’s degrees, they should be able to quickly check and see if there is a program for them, how much it costs, and what the application process and deadline are – within three clicks.
3) Be consistent. I get it. Your institution is big and diverse and there’s no way to centralize all the information that’s being produced. That’s true everywhere, so it would be foolhardy (or truly ambitious!) to aim for 100% consistency in language and visual style across media and the institution. But you can certainly aim for more consistency and make sure the areas you can control look the same by following a style guide that covers both design and text.
Why does this matter? Because we’ve all gotten used to big, fancy companies having a perfect lock-down on their corporate identities, so it can be confusing and slightly unsettling when you travel through a university website and learn about their “Bachelor’s,” “bachelors,” and “bachelor’s” degrees. Or when you can’t really tell whether a research institute belongs to the university or not because there’s a different logo and the colors are completely different.
Creating a style guide is a helpful first step. Finding ways to make it easy to stick within the guidelines – and giving people enough room to be creative – is equally important.
Just writing this particular article made me feel slightly overwhelmed and exhausted because it seems like there is so much to do – who has time for it? The sad truth is if we don’t take time to make sure we’re kind, clear, and consistent with all of our web visitors, they won’t bother to let us know. They’ll just leave our websites without ever getting to know the real us.
The good news is that there are ways to build these considerations into your existing processes, to train people to think about them, and to test if they’re working. The beauty of the web is that sometimes the smallest and easiest fixes make the most impact, so simply making a commitment to being honest about what’s working and what isn’t can ultimately lead to a transformation of the results you see.
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