By Vanessa Woy
In a typical week earlier this semester, Rider’s homepage displayed 18 links to announcements, stories and multimedia. Of these 18 items, seven, or nearly half, had little to do with current matters of learning, new courses, student accomplishments, future guest speakers and so on.
Instead, those seven items on the main website focused on recruiting future students. The homepage promoted open houses, transfer information sessions and future applications for enrollment, all the while reminding readers: “Apply to Rider University.”
This marketing emphasis on Rider’s homepage is right in tow with fellow institutions. A Rider News survey of 13 nearby and peer university websites in February found that 11 had about the same high proportion of student-recruitment content.
Overall, homepages displayed an average of four “advertisements” soliciting new students for every seven items of content aimed at informing current students and staff. The universities surveyed were Drexel, Fairleigh Dickinson, Iona, Monmouth, Penn State, Princeton, Rutgers, Rider, Saint Joseph’s, Seton Hall, Swarthmore, Temple and TCNJ. Here is a closer look at three of them:
On Rider’s homepage, there were 13 tabs on the top and main menus. Most yielded dropdown menus when rolled over, but five, when clicked, led to sub-sites for Alumni, Events, News, Campus Updates and Athletics. Two of the tabs, “Prospects” and “Admissions,” seemed aimed at the same target.
Beneath those menus lay a slideshow displaying photos from Admitted Student Day, “Learn On A New Level” and the addition of new programs. Scrolling down, there was a grid of nine links, with the first being a red button with the word “Apply,” written in capital white letters. Following, the page offered links to Rider success stories, open houses and campus tours. At the bottom of the page, social media were featured in a grid of items from Facebook and Twitter under the heading “What’s Trending at Rider.”
Temple was another local example of ample university website marketing, despite its public funding and enrollment weighing in at over 28,000 undergraduates. It dedicated its homepage to a social media campaign entitled “Make Temple Your Next Stop.” Beneath the main slogan were three headlines: “Why Temple,” “Experience” and “Student Life,” all of which pertained to prospective applicants. Scrolling down further, the website went beyond marketing, offering its viewer the tagline: “Temple University’s momentum is undeniable: Now at No. 115, Temple has risen 17 spots in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings in the past five annual editions.”
With a slideshow of seven images at the top of Iona’s homepage, ranging from registration dates to accepted students’ day, the theme of marketing was again prevalent. Lower down, the page displayed a photo of students beneath the headline “Prospective Students,” where the university offered links to more information on why Iona is the right choice. Only beneath this link did the website offer a separate portal for current students, making the college’s priorities visually obvious.
Emphasis on persuading
Even at universities that differ in location and student body size, the website was used largely as a means of attracting new students.
Though college websites are created for both internal and external audiences, Rider and its peers put heavy emphasis on persuading as opposed to informing. With homepages set up to draw attention from prospective students, on-campus buzz gets lost amid a year-round “campaign.”
Clear exceptions were elite schools in the area like Ivy League neighbor Princeton University and highly ranked Swarthmore College on the Philadelphia Main Line. They featured content on their websites that was far less “hard sell.” Of course, Princeton gets tons of applicants — a record 29,303 this year clamoring to get into its freshman class of 1,322. Rider, with its rolling admissions process, received 9,850 applications last year for a projected freshman class of 950, said Enrollment Management Vice President Jamie O’Hara.
Princeton’s website, top-heavy with campus news, current events hosted by the school and student achievements, offered only one modest link to “Admissions,” targeted directly to high schoolers.
Likewise, Swarthmore’s homepage was all news except for one tab, “Admissions & Aid.”
Rider and most other colleges also offered exclusive student portals where on-campus information was shared. However, on MyRider — a site that requires an EasyPass login afforded only to current students — there was still mention of “Transfer Tuesdays” and other material seemingly irrelevant to a current student selecting courses or checking a transcript. Furthermore, some of the additional journalistic information featured on MyRider — faculty accomplishments, student features — was not highlighted on the university’s homepage.
“Rider’s website is dedicated to recruiting students. I transferred here, so I get it,” said Jessenia Acuna, a sophomore secondary education major. “But even logging into MyRider doesn’t feel like it’s for me because it tells me information about mass amounts of students, and then I have to click a separate tab to view material that actually benefits me.”
Tara Laposa, director of enrollment digital strategy, said, “The Rider website and homepage have always tried to strike a balance between what is promoted and when.
“The Rider homepage is only one vehicle that allows us to communicate campus-wide. Our approach is a holistic one in that we communicate through a multi-channel approach — to reach students, prospective students, parents, faculty, staff and the community.”
Laposa shared a list of the most heavily attended events at Rider recently as reflections of website traffic. Among the top 31 events were Rider’s Admitted Student Day, undergrad instant decision day and open houses for both undergrad and grad, as well as events for current students. Though the list offered a mix of opportunities for prospective and current students, it solidified Rider’s reasoning in maintaining a year-round marketing theme on its homepage.
Laposa said the administration wants to take a closer look at student-based needs.
“What I’d like to know is how we, as a university, can better communicate with you, the student,” Laposa said. “How would you like to find out about stories, events, things to do? Specifically, what is it you really want to be in touch about, and how do you want to receive that information?
“Personally, one area I have a strong desire to improve is the promotion of campus-wide activities and events. This involves the integration of several systems so that at the end of the day, students have a comprehensive event calendar that allows them to easily access what’s happening on campus.”
“The focus of the webpages should always be on current students as well as prospective students,” said O’Hara. “What I think the prospective student is always looking for is, ‘What is my experience going to be if I go there?’ So as much as we require a need to communicate potential-student events, we’re always trying to talk about current student experiences as well as accomplishments.”
O’Hara said the university wants to showcase students through internships, job offers and on-campus opportunities. He said social media provides a conduit for all universities, serving as a medium to spread student success at a quicker rate and to a much larger audience.
The bottom of Rider’s homepage features tweets from the cranberry community and images by amateur photographers to show “What’s Trending at Rider.”
However, O’Hara thinks having more current students’ experiences profiled on the website would benefit recruiting as well as current community members. Student stories are “what sells the institution more than just talking about the experience of attending an admitted students day,” he said. “The Engaged Learning site is working to drive the types of stories that students would like to see running on the main page. We have a student who’s been accepted into a Ph.D. program at Yale, and another student who’s receiving an honorable mention for a Goldwater Scholarship. Those are the stories, the announcements, that really aid the student body.”
O’Hara aims to give more weight to the college experience year by year, rather than prioritizing post-grad opportunities afforded to alumni and seniors.
“As administrators, what we now love are these aspects of social media that aid college news,” he said. “Everything gets to press quicker with shorter stories, photography and tweet-style messages.”
Dr. Nancy Wiencek, who teaches communication courses and is designing a social media minor, has some suggestions for curating the current website.
“The university has so many wonderful things happening on campus — student projects, faculty initiatives, art, lectures and athletics — but we’re not doing an effective job at promoting those events,” Wiencek said. “If we just promoted those things on our website, that would be enough to attract students to come to Rider without having to do the hard sell of marketing.”