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How is Education like Vacation?

Ineke Caycedo
VP, Brand Development

OK, time to ‘fess up.  For weeks now, we at the EMG offices have been obsessing over a critically important issue – summer vacation! As a result, we’ve been visiting various recreational and vacation websites, then sharing with one another what we’re finding.

And as we’ve discovered and discussed some great websites that are able to frame a vivid, compelling consumer experience, a thought occurred to us: There’s a lot that colleges and universities could learn from destination sites. After all, while colleges are not vacation getaways (well, maybe to some…), there are a lot of things colleges share in common with the resorts like Disney, for example.  Both offer a variety of theme-based options – be it Epcot or the College of Arts & Sciences, both (in many cases) offer lodging and are interested in having “guests” stay on site, both offer dining choices and are interested in drawing attention to specific amenities.

In the endless discussions about college website navigation and content today, what is most often overlooked is this fundamental issue: What do your consumers really want?

Companies like Disney and Royal Caribbean, among others, are experts in understanding what drives their consumer experience and how to translate that into websites that result in bookings. There is something important to learn from the web presence of these companies, given the many similarities higher ed has with these experience-based businesses.

The web experience for all of our audiences can be considerably more effective and satisfying if we begin with a philosophy of shaping a premier consumer experience rather than simply building a parking lot for page upon page of information and data. More importantly, websites that effectively package and convey the brand experience are successful at converting visitors to customers.

Creating a satisfying consumer web experience starts with four major visitor considerations:

  1. Get them to their own space…fast
  2. Give them the information they want
  3. Use multimedia to demonstrate reality
  4. Lead them to easy action steps 

Get them to their own space…fast

It’s been ingrained in us to think of a the college website as a single site, uniform in navigation and design.  An intriguing alternative is to envision the overall web presence as a cluster of interlinked audience-specific or experience-specific sites.  These can be subdomains or discrete sites within their own servers.

The interlinked sites should reflect the overall brand identity, of course.  Yet within the brand umbrella, each of these spaces should also present a unique virtual environment customized for the wants and needs of the specific audience segment targeted: A separate site geared toward alumni and donors; one for undergraduate prospects and parents; another for graduate students; one for research; the public, and so on. We’re talking much more than just a landing page, but a more immersive and comprehensive experience.

Colleges routinely take this route to spotlight NCAA athletics programs, but have not always extended the same strategy to other operational elements.

Disney Corporation – a real expert in understanding consumers – gives us a great example of product and audience segmentation.  Disney has many, many products that appeal to different audiences, just like colleges and universities.  They use the url as a quick distribution point to get audience segments to where they want to be. Click the images below to go to the live site.

Colleges and universities can use their home pages similarly, with the singular job of guiding visitors – through attention-grabbing brand images, graphics, and descriptive headers – to the area of the web cluster that is of specific interest.

Give them the information they want

Each subdomain or audience site within the institution’s web cluster would then hone in on the navigation and content that addresses each audience’s specific wants and needs.

For example, here is the Walt Disney World subdomain landing page.  Note the experience-specific navigation and design approach. Everything from the scale of the images to the invitation to price out your vacation is designed to inspire the visitor to book a stay.

Translate this to a university site for undergraduate prospects and parents, for example, and you might see a customized navigation bar that looks something like this:

  • Living (housing and dining)
  • Learning (academics)
  • Activities (student life)
  • Things to Do (local recreation)
  • Price Your Education (tuition, scholarships, financial aid, Net Price Calculator)
  • Looking Ahead (careers, grad school, etc.)
  • Getting Started (easy step by step application)
  • Talk to an Advisor

The trick is to present not all of who you are, but focus on the most compelling elements – for audiences, not faculty or staff – of what you offer. Don’t clutter sites with information that is not directed or useful to the audience or with information that is not relevant to the experience you are presenting.

Use Multimedia to Demonstrate Reality

Words are good – best when they are few and impactful. More powerful is presenting your experience with pictures, especially using motion and video.

Consumers today – especially young consumers – want to see what their dorm room looks like, not read a description of it. They want to see their world-class professor working side-by-side with students. They want to feel the excitement of the basketball game, and see what the classrooms look like. The great thing is that the web is now a place where you can really show them not just tell them.

Take this example of Royal Caribbean’s (RC) new ship the Quantum of the Seas.  From copy to imagery to the scale of design, RC pulls you into the ship and makes you want to cruise.

Imagine doing the same with your campus life experience. Getting the prospect to see themselves working out in the rec facility, sleeping in a dorm room, participating in an event.

NC State does a nice job of this to promote their extraordinary new Hunt library. The site is vivid and it’s scale makes you feel like you are really in this cool new space.

Lead them to easy action steps

This is nothing more than “sales.101,” with which many institutions are still struggling. It sometimes seems like we try hard to make our audiences hunt for what they should do next.

The process for completing an application or for donating money, volunteering for a project or simply getting more information should be as painless as possible. More importantly, if you’re site is doing the job of getting visitors to see themselves on your campus, then making it easy for them to take the next step is critical.

Don’t, however, mistake the act of putting an “Apply Now” button on every page as a solution. Just because the button is there doesn’t mean it will be acted upon. By packaging the essence of your undergraduate experience, for example, into a vivid visual narrative that allows the visitor to quickly and easily build a personalized picture of life on your campus, you drive him or her to want to find out more, to visit, to apply – that’s when you make sure that the act of scheduling a visit, or completing an application is easily visible as well as ready and waiting for the customer’s action.

So next time you are ready to update your website, think about taking a vacation.

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