The ubiquity of school websites with words hovering over photos of diverse and happy students is staggering. After a few websites, the phrases start to bleed together. Was _____school the one that championed solutions or was it the other small liberal arts college? Obviously schools want to proclaim their excellence, but I wonder if a photoshop photo is really an effective brand signal. If I cannot remember which school is the one with challenge, what’s the point?
What I do remember about schools typically have little to do with the slogans emblazoned on web photos. I remember X is the friendly school. I remember Y is the preppy school. I remember V is the elitist school. Now, some of these associations are positive, others are probably worth working to distance yourself from, but what I wonder is: why are the schools with the positive associations not doing more to strengthen these brand signals? Why are schools not talking loudly about what makes them distinct, and instead just playing copycat?
Every brand, and every school for that matter, must distinguish itself from its peers. If I cannot tell the difference between Colby and Bowdoin, why would I choose Colby? Maybe it will just boil down to financial aid dollars, but shouldn’t the choice be about more? Shouldn’t the choice come down to fit?
Most come to understand fit through a school visit and tour. Walking through the campus and mingling with the student and faculty body is a prospective’s opportunity to imagine himself in the community. The tour is a chance to try the school on and see how the fabric feels. On a site visit, the prospective gets to see more than the slogans, the prospective gets to see the school’s ethos lived.
But not every student has the opportunity to visit campus, and some students want to have the option to visit again. So how can schools offer these students the chance to try the school on? The answer, the website.
Slogans are not going to articulate a school’s values, but student stories will. Tell a story because unlike that silly meaningless slogan, the story is human and appears more authentic. Connect with the visitor’s emotions. Numbers can go a long way, but make sure the numbers (like 0 paper cups in the dining hall) are a thread in the school’s narrative, in this case, progressive and green policies.
When sharing these stories online, it is crucial you dare to be different and embrace what makes you distinct. If I see/hear another school bragging about the student teacher ratio or refer to the school as a challenging or comfortable place, I might scream. These narratives are trite, and again, if every school is using them, why should I give X school my time and money?
US news and world reports and Princeton Review tell me X school is academically challenging, so why not devote web space to talking about how X school is progressive or quirky or fun? I think I would remember school X a bit more vividly if the web had a feature on its fun mid winter pond swim. I would definitely remember X if every other school just told me about Jon Doe ’11 and how he meets with his teachers regularly.