A new study by Utica College public relations assistant professor Pat Swann confirms what I’ve long suspected: The vast majority of public school district web sites just aren’t making the grade.

After analyzing the content and interactivity of 137 K-12 school district web sites in New York state, Swann found that most school district web sites are hard to navigate, full of obsolete information, and don’t tailor information for specific audiences such as parents, volunteers, or students.

Journalists–a critical audience for any organization that relies on taxpayer support–were particularly neglected by school district web sites in the study, according to Swann.

While 42 percent of sites posted some kind of news or announcements on home pages, only 5 percent made any attempt to package information for reporters, and no web sites studied had an online press room.

School district web sites also could perform better in terms of interactivity and responsiveness.

Only 34 percent provided an eMail link or contact button on their home pages. And, when researchers eMailed administrators, only 53 percent responded. Chat rooms, instant messaging, and online bulletin boards were virtually non-existent.

By ignoring the web’s most powerful feature–the interactive communication channel it provides between the organization and the site visitor–school districts aren’t able to use the web to build stronger relationships with the people who matter most.

School district officials apparently are still enamored of marketing learning by showing the outside of buildings, as 36 percent of all web sites studied showed photographs of school facilities.

(Note to readers: Unless your school building is either new, under construction, has historical significance, or features award-winning architecture, it’s not a positive selling point for parents!)

Organizing district information in a way that makes it easy for parents and other key stakeholders to access it is another lost opportunity for most district web sites. Swann suggests that most of the content could be organized for eight key publics: students, parents, teachers and staff members, alumni, community residents, prospective employees, journalists, and volunteers.

Like Swann, most online experts agree it’s better to duplicate and cross-link information in a special section for each audience, rather than make site visitors search through hundreds–or even thousands–of web pages and Portable Document Files (PDFs).

Interestingly, prospective employees emerged as the audience highlighted with a button or link most frequently by district web sites (44 percent). Community members came in second (33 percent), followed by alumni (29 percent), parents (26 percent), teachers and staff (22 percent), students (12 percent), journalists (5 percent), and volunteers (4 percent).

“School districts have a long way to go in maximizing the potential of this powerful communication tool,” said Swann in a press release.

As someone who reviews school district web sites on a regular basis, I can tell you that these problems aren’t relegated to New York state.

And, while Swann’s study is depressingly familiar, like any good teacher she also provides plenty of ideas for improving school district web sites in her study.

Here’s a reprint of some of her suggestions; for the complete study, see the link at the end of this column.

  • “Because studies show that parents and students are heavy users of eMail, districts should consider providing an eMail link or a ‘contact us’ staff directory button (including the staff members’ names, titles, phone numbers) on the home page. eMail provides parents the flexibility of communicating with school officials during and after business hours.”
  • “From a public relations perspective, schools could do a better job of identifying their key publics and creating specialized areas with tailored information to better address their needs. The idea of tailoring messages for key publics on a home page is a common strategy for public relations practitioners, but if web sites are created and maintained primarily by the district’s technology coordinator or even students, the concept of segmenting publics may be an unfamiliar one.”
  • “With 75 percent of journalists today using the internet on a daily basis to do their work, schools should take advantage of this opportunity to develop an active media relations program via the district web site.”
  • “Navigational features such as ‘home’ buttons (34 percent), search engines (23 percent), and site maps (12 percent) all help make the user’s experience productive and should be included to encourage return visits. Another feature that encourages return visits is a statement of how recently the site was updated.”
  • “Off-site hyperlinks to ‘cool’ or useful sites may encourage return visits but only take visitors away from the site, which may discourage building relationships. Off-site links were present on 28 percent of the home pages.”
  • “Students should be treated as a public with unique information needs. … [Schools should] create opportunities for students to access academic support services (tutoring, homework hotlines, homework assignments, notes, etc.) and be involved in extracurricular activities.”

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

See this related link:

Swann’s study
http://www.utica.edu/college/typology.htm