Microsites for higher education can serve as good platforms for short-term promotional campaigns (think fundraising and development) or as tools to bring print publications online. They can build out a college within a school or highlight a one-off program or unique educational offering. However, too often they’re brought online without a compelling reason or a well-developed strategy. They become a band aide for a bad website or transitional home for a program that should really live on the college’s main website.
When Is It Okay to Build a Microsite?
Giving campaigns are often annual events involving email and snail mail. Social media are used to generate buzz and call out to alumni and past contributors. Phone banks staffed by work study students follow carefully-crafted scripts to ask for money. It’s all a well-oiled machine. But for anniversary events—like centennials—or special-purpose fundraisers, you may want to direct traffic to a very specific page with a secure way to donate. Use a microsite. Follow institutional branding but make sure the microsite has its own unique location, separate from your college website. Opt for a user-friendly, simple design with clear messaging and an specific call-to-action. The MIT campaign for a better world gets this. Its microsite uses an MIT-affiliated url, espouses a clear mission with a simple call-to-action: Give now. Follow its lead. And be sure to use tracking to determine the success of your campaign.
Another purpose for a microsite is to provide a digital outlet for collateral that may be traditionally distributed by mail. For example, that 35-page, glossy brochure doesn’t need to have its own page on your website. It’s cumbersome and takes up space in a way that isn’t user-friendly, especially on mobile. Instead, create a downloadable viewbook housed on its own microsite.
So What’s Wrong with Microsites?
Anyone who knows anything about search engine optimization understands that it takes time and painstaking effort to achieve significant traffic results for your school’s website. So why on earth would you waste the good SEO you’ve spent years cultivating and send users away from your site? The solid domain authority you’ve managed is a sign of Google’s respect. Don’t blow it by starting from scratch with a microsite. Unless your “product” is markedly different from what you currently offer, stay onsite. If you have something new that needs its own home, consider landing pages that won’t kill your SEO.
Another common problem with edu microsites is that they tend to err on the side of duplicate content. In some ways it makes sense. Of course you need to tell users why your school is best for whatever you offer on your microsite. The problem is there are only so many ways to tell the world you rock. Not to mention, you probably had to jump through lots of hoops—especially compliance—to perfect the messaging and language of your website. So why not just copy and paste it on to your microsite? Because that’s a big problem for search engines. And while you can use canonical tags to tell Google which page—the original or the microsite—is the authority that deserves the traffic, that kind of misses the point. Don’t you want traffic going to your microsite too? Then you’ll need original content. Lots of it if you expect to rank for anything the pages promote.
One of the true benefits of digital marketing is that so much of your marketing efforts can be measured. You can tell which pages on your site resonate well and from where your traffic comes. On a more granular level, you can see the paths users take, how long they stay on your site and individual pages, and whether or not they’re taking the action you want. When you build out a new microsite, you’re starting at square one. Why?
A well-developed website can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And while a microsite will be significantly less expensive, it still needs to be built, populated and maintained. Maintenance is critical if you want your site to perform at all. That means a regular supply of fresh content and continual SEO checkups.
Do You Still Want a Microsite?
If you have a program unlike any other you’ve ever offered, or a brand-new college within your school, a microsite might be a worthwhile option—especially if you have significant brand equity. Harvard has no trouble with its extension school microsite and its adult ed audience. Likewise, schools that expand to executive education often use microsites to build a unique brand-within-a-brand. However, using microsites to expand into graduate or doctoral degrees, when a subdomain can achieve the same results without sacrifice, is often a waste of effort and resources. And for online programs, you need to decide if you have a similar on-campus program before you cannibalize it. The truth is that when it comes to microsites, you need to do some serious institutional soul searching. Do you have the name brand recognition to introduce new offerings into a competitive education space with a solid plan and endurance for the long-term?
If you’d like to us to evaluate your digital marketing plans to expand your offerings onto a microsite, give us a call before you move too far down a path with few exits.