Just what do you need to know when planning your next school website? Early in the journey, you’d be wise to consider these 4 pre-planning musts when building a school website. They will not only make for the best possible website, but make you a better buyer in the process.
Planning a new website begins with a pre-planning discipline that should weigh not only the implications of launching a successful website but the consequences of having a not-so-successful one. That is, a website that does not meet your goals and solve the communication challenges your district or school faces, is one you could be saddled with for a long time.
Consequences and opportunities
Being stuck with an underperforming website could be a liability in more ways than one, especially today given the importance of a digital communication foundation. Expectations for a website are high; as well they should be. There are expectations from your school community stakeholders to create a web communications hub that is:
- Organized strategically to meet your goals and help solve your communication challenges
- ADA compliant and accessible – barrier-free for anyone with disabilities
- Mobile friendly – most people are accessing your website via tablets and phones
- Designed to engage – a website that reflects your mission, is easy to use, and engages
If your website does not accomplish these things at a minimum, you are frankly falling short of your obligation and shortchanging your school community.
Conversely, the opportunity to build a new website is an exciting opportunity – one that can transform a school’s communication foundation. And one that may only come along but once or twice in a school administrator’s career.
Consider that entering into a contract with a new web hosting provider is in many ways, “Like a marriage,” as Steve Williams, co-founder of SchoolNow points out. “It’s a can be a 5-year cycle in many instances. Factor in the contract, content migration, and overall costs, it’s a relationship, so you need to be pretty diligent in your planning.”
1. Set a launch date
The first order of business is to set a launch date for your new website. Determining when you want to go live with your new site will set boundaries and mileposts for accomplishing what’s necessary to ensure the best possible decision.
Even if it is more than 12 months out – not unusual for many school districts “window shopping” for a new web provider – a launch date gives all involved the opportunity to complete the necessary steps to make informed decisions along the way.
A firm launch date is critical to getting buy-in from your school leadership too. If you're the communications lead on the project, experience shows us you'll get more effective contributions from your team the sooner that launch date is set.l
Like a marriage, the wedding date – I mean, launch date – for your website makes it clear to everyone on your team when the ultimate goal is due, and keeps you focused on a critical path. Without an actual date in mind, the subsequent steps are still quite applicable. If, for example, your projected launch date is more than 12 months out, what’s gained from the other pre-planning steps are nonetheless important.
Give some major thought to the timing of your launch date. Beware: don't try to launch your new website right on top of school opening. Summer, however, is an excellent time – and popular – for it gives your team time to get familiar with the new site, and avoids the sometimes-crazy first few days/weeks of school. Another time you may want to consider is the first of the year, or right after winter break – a great time to spotlight your new site.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Be sure to check your existing website provider contract – you may be forced to launch your new site prior to the end of a contract. BEWARE: Some vendors have 'auto-renewals' built into contracts requiring you to notify them 30 days prior to the effective date of the contract.
2. Benchmark, measure and set goals
Launch date in hand, it’s now time to set goals for your new website, and in order to do that effectively, you need to first know where your current website stands.
By benchmarking, you’ll be able to measure the progress you achieve with your new website. A great website starts with a clear articulation of achievable goals that, of course, have the support of your school leaders.
Measuring where you stand (and mapping out where you’re going) with your website requires using Google Analytics. A treasure trove of powerfully useful data, Google Analytics, which Google Analytics is free and easy to set up, helps you understand what is working and what is not working on your existing website.
With it, you can analyze your data all kinds of ways and learn valuable insights like what your popular pages are, where visitors are coming from, and what exactly they’re searching for. By using Google Analytics, you’re establishing an ongoing way to measure your website performance.
Google Analytics will help you establish your goals, and in turn, help you communicate with your potential website providers so you can gauge which vendors are a good fit for you.
3. Soak up knowledge
This third insight, while the most time-consuming of the bunch, is also the most enlightening part of the pre-planning process. A practical understanding – one that entails planning, selecting, designing, launching a website – is a multi-faceted undertaking and one that requires a lot of homework.
Your homework starts with research – not just the web providers, but the issues driving good school website best practices. SchoolNow has a repository of many free resources, articles, training, and ideas, is a very valuable resource for school communicators that provides a forum to get up to speed on the issues shaping today’s and tomorrow’s school websites.
Beyond knowing what the issues are, learning how to execute best practices is also part of the Academy, which provides numerous professional development opportunities for school administrators, including certificated training in web communications.
I strongly urge you to first focus on getting your arms around the issues driving school website design and management before ‘kicking the tires’ on the top school website CMS providers. Most vendors will have video or personalized demonstrations that can be arranged. Some even will allow you to test drive their systems in a simulated environment.
4. Get social proof
Seeing is believing, right? Listening and talking are too. That’s why another important step in your planning research is to look around and see what’s working for some of the schools and districts doing it right.
One school district, for example, District 401 Elmwood Park in Illinois, looked at what neighboring top districts were doing with their websites. After a month of research, they learned what was good about their fellow schools’ websites, who the website providers were for those schools, and quickly narrowed the list to three possible vendors.
Recommendations, referrals and testimonials go a long way when making any major purchase, and websites are no exception. When seeking social proof, ask about key performance indicators such as track record in customer support, design strength, project launch coordination and the launch path process overall. Some providers offer detailed school website case studies that chronicle the considerations that went into a given school’s experience with selecting and building their website.
Planning, and more importantly, pre-planning – especially for those on the very front end of entering into a new website hosting contract – is critical for creating the kind of website schools need these days.
Given how the expectations and importance of a school website have risen in the past few years, a website can have a dramatic impact on how a school district is perceived, how it engages, and even how it performs when it comes to academic performance.
Follow these steps and consider these insights before building your next school website, and you’ll avoid the negative consequences of an underperforming, most-critical part of your school communications.
About the author
Director of digital communications for Campus Suite, Ted’s depth of experiences within digital communications as a former teacher and entrepreneur add insight and direction for communication strategies employed by schools and districts nationwide. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org