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Website marketing strength... "Clean & Simple" is best

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Marketing strength in website design: don't try to "Blow the doors off"

Last week on a Listserv for university web developers someone asked for recommendations for design firms whose work would "blow the doors off" typical higher education websites. The request caught my attention. What were university websites that fit the "blow the doors off" definition?

I'll confess to membership in the "less is better" and "clean and simple works best" school of website design. That comes from marketing experience, usability research, and membership in the Carewords partners group
  • The websites that best build brand strength are the websites that let people complete their top tasks as quickly as possible.
One "blow the doors off" answer came along right away... a new home page at Bucknell University. I visited and was disappointed. This page certainly does not give priority to top task completion. It does use a design style growing in popularity in the mobile era. And it sure throws a lot of stuff at visitors when the page opens.

You have less than 5 seconds to make a first impression. The Bucknell site wastes those seconds on a large graphic image. 
  • A large image when a page opens may capture the interest of a few. For most, it is just an obstacle to get past.
Next came news of a new home page at the University of British Columbia. And then a Carewords partner sent word of a change at University of Oxford to what was once one of my favorite sites for easy linking to tasks from the home page. Alas, no more.

(Don't miss the detailed 9-point critique of the Bucknell site from Gord Hopkins, Carewords partner and Chief Technology Officer at Neo Insight in Ottawa in a follow-up blog post.)

"Clean and simple" beats "Blow the doors off"

These designs may win creativity awards for being "cool" and "blowing the doors off" conventional university websites. In the marketing world, they fail against the clean and simple top task approach introduced last year at University of Ottawa. Based on research to learn the top tasks of site visitors, Ottawa gives page prominence to just 4 links placed in the center of the page. 

In the mobile world, "clean and simple" is even more important

The need for a strong first impression in seconds is greater on a smartphone. These new sites fare even worse in that environment.

Compare the first three mobile sites here from Oxford, British Columbia, and Bucknell with with two sites that follow from Ottawa and UC - San Diego. You'll see right away that images are most important for the first three. Links are most important for the next two. For marketing strength on your website, give priority to links that get people as quickly as possible from the home page to top task completion within the site.

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University of Oxford

If you came to the website to celebrate Shakespeare you'll love this site. If you did not, perhaps you'll check the other four images in the carousel. More likely you will not. Very few people come to a home page to review what's in the carousel.

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University of British Columbia

Exactly what is happening here? Visit the home page on a large screen for a truly unusual home page approach. You just can't get the full flavor of things on a smartphone.

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Bucknell University

Yes, sustainability is important. But I suspect that not very many people are traveling to the Bucknell home page to learn about how sustainability is being advanced by that school.

And is there a university that does not profess a commitment to sustainability? That commitment does not rank high as a point of marketing distinction that sets one school apart from another.

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University of California, San Diego

Visit the UC - San Diego home page and you'll see that the university had to make a critical decision re what came up first on mobile: the large image or the links to the left of the image.

Folks at UC - San Diego know that most visitors move rapidly from the home page via one of 6 links on that page. And thus a wise decision: give priority to the links.

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University of Ottawa

Four links dominate the Ottawa home page when you visit on a PC or a tablet. If you had to give prominence to only 4 links on your home page, how would you make that decision? Ottawa based their choice on the results of top task research

Two of the links are focused on student recruitment: "Find a program" and "Estimate costs." For potential students, that's critical information most want to find quickly.

That's all for now.

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