In April, I was fortunate to get to spend a couple of fun-filled days in Anaheim. Disneyland?! Good guess, but nope, I was not at the happiest place on earth. But for someone like me—a data nerd who works at a company specializing in higher ed websites—I was somewhere just as good. I was at the annual OmniUpdate User Training Conference (OUTC19).
It was fantastic to have the honor to speak in front of and spend time with people who are as passionate as I am about improving web user experiences through data analysis, accessibility and inclusive design.
Let me back up for a second.
What is OmniUpdate?
If you don’t work in higher education—or even if you do—you may not know OmniUpdate. They are a proprietary web CMS provider specializing in higher education, and they’re one of our partners. Surprised? If you thought we were all WordPress, all the time, you’re only mostly right.
Because they’re dedicated to working exclusively with higher ed clients, OmniUpdate understands the complexities of building and maintaining what are typically massive websites, with many content managers across lots of departments. Their easy-to-use CMS, OU Campus, has modules based on typical higher ed content requirements but can also be customized to the precise needs of the institution, either by an in-house team (with support from OmniUpdate) or by OmniUpdate’s own team. OmniUpdate clients also benefit from ongoing support and training—including their annual conference.
Like OmniUpdate, Modern Tribe specializes in solutions for higher ed institutions. But OmniUpdate is focused on its backend solution and doesn’t solve for design, content strategy or front-end development. We, on the other hand, are rather good at delivering those services. So naturally, we became partners.
This year OmniUpdate asked me to speak at their annual conference on the topic of accessibility. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to take in a couple of workshops, so for those of you who weren’t able to be there, I thought I’d share some of my top takeaways.
Actually, there’s one central theme that I’d like to bold, underline, and put in all caps (but I’ll settle for just making it big).
The college website is everything.
These words come from consulting powerhouse Ruffalo Noel Levitz, whose VP of Creative Strategy, Stephanie Geyer, gave one of my favorite talks at the conference. It should come as no surprise that college websites are important—but Stephanie impressed upon us just how important they are.
High school juniors and seniors both rated a college’s website as the most important source of information in determining which school they attend.
Not among the most important. The. Most. Important.
So how do you optimize your website to help them make that decision—and hopefully choose your institution?
Make it easy for prospective students to find the information they want most.
What information is that? I’m glad you asked. Noel Levitz’s data tells us that students are getting savvier and more discerning about their college choices. They’re looking for what makes your college different, and a better choice for them: special programs, internship opportunities, and the availability of funding and scholarships.
In her OUTC19 talk, Stephanie really underscored the importance of financial considerations. It’s no secret that college can be obscenely expensive. I have a friend who graduated from a Big Ten school with $180,000 in student debt. You might ask: what kind of surgeon is she? Actually, she’s a graphic designer.
Today’s students don’t want to shoulder that burden. A generation disproportionately stressed about money, Gen Z is making their college decisions more pragmatically. They want to know how much a degree will actually cost them—start to finish, to the dollar. They want to know their options for online learning. Going to a physical college campus is less important to them; they’re happy to attend online, which of course increases flexibility and allows them to work and study at the same time. And they want to know what they can do with their degree—career prospects and earning potential.
Essentially, the takeaway here is to know what’s important to prospective students, and make sure your website is speaking to that. Your website represents half of a conversation that users are having with your organization. Make sure it anticipates and answers all their most burning questions. You can get an even fuller picture of what students are looking for in Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2018 E-Expectations Trend Report. And while their data is fantastic, don’t forget that your website analytics also offers loads of data—and that data has the benefit of being specific to the stakeholders using your website. (If you need some help figuring out how to use that data, we can help with that).
People really care about web accessibility (yay!)
Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for website accessibility, so it was an honor to be recruited to speak on this topic at OUTC19. My workshop was called Tame the Beast! Managing Web Accessibility with Data Analysis, and for those of you who weren’t at the conference, I wrote a blog post on the topic.
For the purposes of this blog post you’re reading, though, I want to say this: first, I was thrilled with how passionate about this topic the conference attendees were. Which is great, because it takes a village to make it a reality. Accessibility is technically not optional—it’s the law—but the journey to compliance and to creating a truly usable site for all your users is nuanced.
Besides being required by law, accessibility is in your best interest as a business. Think of it this way: if your website is the number one resource for prospective students deciding on a college, and it isn’t accessible to even a handful of those students, how much could you be losing? A lot, if those students take their search—and their money—elsewhere.
Of course, that’s only a small part of why web accessibility matters.
Inclusivity matters too. Make sure your website reflects it.
Inclusivity was a vibrant topic at OUTC, which is wonderful to see at a tech conference. There is no question that 2019 will be a significant milestone as the conversation on both inclusion and diversity are transitioning from social justice to pragmatic implementation of content strategy and technology. Just like people of all abilities should be able to engage with your website, so too should people of all races, ethnicities, orientations and cultures.
This kind of intentional accounting for diversity might seem unnatural, but it’s important. Popular design sensibilities favor non-minority cultures—specifically, white middle- and upper-class people. But can your institution afford to alienate minority students and their families? I’m thinking probably not. The choices you make for your website needs to reflect them too, not just in the photos used, but in the overall content strategy and user experience.
This topic could be a blog post all on its own. But what struck me at OUTC19 was that these important conversations were happening—and that they need to happen more often, across every industry.
A final thought
As I’ve stressed—perhaps overstressed—the central theme of OUTC19, for me, was the importance of the college website in student enrollment decisions. And yet—this blows my mind a little—only 3% of a college’s marketing budget tends to be spent on their website, in spite of the fact that it yields a 7-9% return on investment. If you agree that this math doesn’t add up, and want to talk about how you can get more out of your institution’s website, feel free to get in touch. I’m always happy to chat.