March 27

Should you Organize your Higher Education Website by Audience or Department?


by | Mar 27, 2017 | Blog, Featured, School Websites

The goal behind higher education website navigation is simple: make finding answers as natural as possible for the user. But is the best way to do that by organizing your website by department or by audience?

The question of how to best organize your higher education website navigation may be one of the most bitter rivalries in post-secondary digital marketing.

Like the legendary battle between fighter pilots Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and Tom “Iceman” Kazanski, both sides of the argument fight for valuable space on the homepage. They both want to be “Top Gun.”

(If you’re a die-hard Top Gun fan, be sure to check out official Facebook page for Top Gun 2, hopefully it will be released soon.)

The argument over how to organize the college or university’s website is a common one.

Navigation by Department

The one side of the argument says that the navigation bar should feature the various departments of the institute. So the navigation bar would look something like this:

  • Academics
  • Athletics
  • Admissions
  • Alumni & Giving

This strategy has a lot going for it. It just makes sense that the user would select the department most likely to have the answer to their question. Also, if an internal user—like a student or faculty member—needs access to an internal resource, they’d simply choose the department responsible.

But this strategy has its drawbacks.

What if the user doesn’t know which department is responsible to have the answer to their question? This happens more often than we’d like to think.

When you’re an insider, you just know where to go for answers. But your audience doesn’t always know what you know.

And what if there’s ambiguity over who’s responsible for what? Where does the user go then?

This happens quite often between marketing, alumni, and development, for example. These departments tend to have overlapping audiences and responsibilities.

So, the navigation by department isn’t the all-in-one solution it’s supposed to be.

Navigation by Audience

The other side of the argument says that higher education website navigation should be organized by the audience the user is a part of. The navigation bar would look something like this:

  • Student
  • Parent
  • Faculty
  • Alumni
  • New Student

This idea is that this strategy makes things even more natural for the user because it should be really easy for the user to know who they are and what they need.

But lots of problems come when the user is supposed to self-identify.

  1. The labels simply don’t work. The term “student” could mean prospective student,  traditional student, returning student, graduate student, adult student or some other non-traditional student.
  2. There are too many audiences to fit into the navigation. As demonstrated above, there are just too many groups that your site needs to address. They can’t  all fit.
  3. Users are often members of multiple audiences. Your user could be an alumnus of one program and a new student for another. They could be an alumnus, a donor, and a parent.

For these reasons, self-identification is difficult for many users and should be avoided if possible. So what is the answer? How should you organize your higher education website navigation?

Introducing: The Higher Education Website Navigation Formula

The following formula is a tried-and-true method for organizing your website’s navigation.

5a + 2c + x = Primary Navigation

Your website has to contain the basics. For most traditional schools, that includes the five “A’s”:

  • Admissions
  • About Us
  • Academics
  • Athletics
  • Advancement

These will make up the core of your content. They cover most of the main elements surrounding education marketing. Each area should show your distinctives, benefits, and provide clear call-to-action on every page.

After the five “A’s” you’ll add the two “C’s”:

  • Community
  • Contact

The Community section will allow a student to understand what life on campus will be like. The Contact Us navigation will provide direct action to immediate contact information such as phone, email, address, map links, directions, and other relevant information such as hours.

The next part of the formula is the variable. Based upon your brand, distinctives, and other features, you may consider picking one of the following:

  • Blog
  • Faith
  • Graduate
  • Etc.

While you might not use these exact words, they will form the alliteration for you to remember what is important. You’ll also note that the formula is based upon 8 primary navigation buttons. You should target no fewer than seven, no more than nine for the primary navigation.

So who wins the battle between navigation by department or by audience?

In the end, Iceman and Maverick realize they need each other. And so too, these strategies need to work together.

“You! You are still dangerous… You can be my wingman anytime.”
– Tom “Iceman” Kazanski

Use the formula above to mix these two strategies so they work in harmony to make a natural, simple way to navigate your higher education website.

Navigating this complex issue can be difficult with multiple audiences and dozens of departments to represent on your website—but you don’t have to go it alone! Schedule your free website overview call today so we can help you identify the best navigation strategy for you.

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