One of the biggest debates that constantly happens is about the front page of the web site. So many people on campus have their own ideas about what ought to be there and what the function of that prime piece of real estate should look like. Luckily, it’s not a discussion that you need to fight too much once it’s been vetted by the higher-ups, there are still critical dialogues you can have about developing what I’ve tentatively called a “Front Page Strategy.”
Newspapers change their front page content everyday, but keep the front page of their newspapers pretty much the same. Sometimes for years or longer and when there is a redesign, it becomes a very big deal for everyone from the longtime subscriber to the Publisher.
New media is no different in this regard. But the difference with the web is the dynamism that the web offers you. Some folks will say that the web has “unlimited” space, but we all know that’s just not true. There are always limits; limits to storage capacity, width and heights of the design and other constraints that prevent you from having a “limitless” cacophony of information just strewn about the web.
And that’s a really good thing.
But let’s talk about Front Page Strategy for a minute.
The target of this discussion is really for any college that has a front page that’s massively cluttered. Especially smaller institutions that have no good reason for such things, because a lot of their programs and offerings are intertwined to the point where there isn’t a good reason – other than trying to make people feel important – to try to highlight everything all of the time.
I think the keys to Front Page Strategy are:
- Identify what the purpose of your front page is: If you have a web site mission or some other way of identifying what the purpose of your institution’s web site is, then it’ll be a lot easier to develop a front page strategy because you’ll have insight into deciding what information to highlight. For instance, if your web site is primarily admissions-driven and you’re a small four year college, you’re going to far more concerned with ensuring that your web front page is geared towards the prospective student (and their parents) looking at the site to find out more information quickly and effectively.
On the other hand, if you’re an institution that serves largely non-traditional students, you’ll want to take that under consideration. Larger schools have a whole host of constituents they’re trying to reach and have a lot more to do with the same amount of space.
2. You can’t be everything to everybody: The goal is the front page should ultimately be to entice people to go further in the site. If your front page is too cluttered, tries to do too much or fails to reach its intended audiences, it’s going to fall flat every time. Links to critical things that people who are internal viewers versus those who are on the outside looking in are obviously going to be different and it can be difficult at times to balance out those considerations. That’s where 1) using statistics to see what areas are oft-visited and 2) finding some sort of balance is key.
Consultants will do whatever you ask them to usually, incorporating best practices and keeping what your team wants in mind..but you need to spend less time navigating tons of other sites to see “What they do” and spend more internally figuring out what is important to your own people.
3. Know your institution and share that: Too many sites take too long to articulate what their school is about. They use the front page for this thing, that thing or the other thing and it all becomes muddled. It’s important to give people a glimpse into your soul by viewing your front page. Every school has virtues and things it should extol and those should be the things your front page captures. You don’t always need tons of images, flash and wiz-bang to make this happen. After all, your goal isn’t to lie to people.
I realize that all of these issues are really intertwined with the site map and information architecture that the college decides on, but I’m making the assumption here that you’re not that far along with those things or that they’re just not prominent on your radar. Even if they are, I’m approaching the front page strategy as a marketing piece and from the perspective of a visitor to your site rather than from the eyes of a developer.
It essentially boils down to: 1) here’s what we do 2) here’s what we’re doing and as a result, 3) come here and do it too or 4) give us money and we’ll do even more. If you can accomplish that through your Front Page Strategy, it’ll extend well into other pages and should set your institutional web presence on a strong course as it moves forward.