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Higher Education Marketing

Are Microsites Right for Your School?

Date posted: August 23, 2013

A college or university’s website has the tricky challenge of simultaneously communicating with several audiences, including alumni, faculty, parents, and many variations of present and future students. There are inherent limitations of attempting to engage so many diverse demographics without getting cluttered. In this age of shrinking attention spans, microsites are one tool that some schools have employed to draw visitors into a singular, targeted online experience.

A microsite is essentially a mini website, functioning as an independent off-shoot of a parent site, customized for a specific purpose or market. They are particularly useful for generating interest and excitement around a student recruitment or fundraising campaign, taking advantage of the directed focus to instantly connect with visitors in a fresh and more emotionally gratifying way. By functioning as a stand-alone website with a unique URL, there is an opportunity for creative interaction with your chosen audience using a different tone and look than the traditional institution’s. Many microsites feature fun content and visuals with snappy, memorable URL’s that convey the desired branding message, such as Auto Training Centre (ATC)’s


Do you really need a microsite?

Before committing the resources to developing and maintaining a microsite, it is important to determine whether it is right for your school at this time. Decentralizing an institution’s official web presence with quirky microsites can make it harder to keep a consistent branding strategy and risks confusing users. A good microsite provides unique content that fulfills a set purpose, with interactive components that accumulate leads, such as video, social media, games, contests or virtual tours. Will it exist for a long or short time? Microsites are often used for brief promotional campaigns, so searching for that previous ATC microsite, for example, would now return you to their main site.

Microsite Strategy #1: An inside look at student life

One strategic decision to make when considering microsite development is the extent that it will be connected to the main page. Some believe that the relationship between the main site and microsites should be intuitive, and there are many examples of colleges that feature an inside look at student life with content created by the students themselves. These “for students, by students” microsites may include a live stream of student tweets and storytelling blogs, providing a platform for student self-expression and a valuable alternative perspectives of how campus life really is. Online forums where prospective students ask questions and converse with current students and staff can be a great lead generation tool, particularly when visitors must register with their email address to interact. Some sites include quizzes to playfully test how much they know about the school or to help prospective students determine which majors would be the best fit for them.

Example: Lakehead University’s offers many resources for future students, including testimonials, live chats, campus tours, high school visits, and a tweet stream.


Microsite Strategy #2: Stimulate curiosity and interest

A microsite doesn’t necessarily need to directly reference your brand to be effective. An engaging microsite may aspire to create a viral movement or stimulate curiosity and ideas by asking a provocative question related to a school’s program offerings. The University of British Columbia’s “rewrite the rules” campaign (with the help of microsite) asked the community where the future of business was headed, sparking active discussions on social media channels with over 10,000 people from over 70 countries.

British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) increased the number and shaped the quality of prospective students in their database, while raising awareness of their school as a driver of change with their campaign. Visitors had an opportunity to show and tell what they wanted to change about the world, their career, or anything, without being influenced by their perceptions about BCIT. The site was not branded as BCIT and didn’t follow institutional graphic standards, but intended for visitors to discover the connection to the institute through exploration and dialogue on the site. In this way, visitors would change the way they think about BCIT or start thinking about it in the first place.


Microsite Strategy #3: Foreign language international recruitment

Some schools have launched microsites in the languages of hot international recruitment markets like Arabic, Portuguese and Chinese. Although not physically on the main university server, these sites retain the look and feel of the school, with links directly to the home site to reassure prospects they’re getting legitimate info. Translations are as much or more for the parents’ benefit, who often make the final decision for international student enrollment.

Other microsites

Microsites are often used to highlight specific programs, clubs or student services. Some are completely integrated into the website, such as Dalhousie University’s undergraduate program microsites, which are in effect richer extensions of the main site. Concordia University has been developing an ambitious research resource that will encourage exploration of scholarly topics through a wealth of descriptive searching tools and interactive links to faculty and course information.

Tips for Effective Microsites

There are many types of microsites but here are some general guidelines:

  • Have a distinctive strategy and purpose with a size and scope that fits your budget and resources to develop and maintain
  • Specific features should engage your audience in interactivity, including user-generated content or personalized facts and data
  • The site’s name is a great way to generate awareness and recall
  • Subject matter and call-to-action should be clear, compelling and highly targeted (i.e. a small and agile but “meaty” site)
  • Maximize SEO for higher education by using topic-specific keywords throughout the content
  • Don’t forget to actively promote it in marketing communications, such as emails to prospective students

Of course, your school’s main website should be your priority and it would be a mistake to create new sites without addressing old and outdated content. While the pros and cons of microsites must be carefully considered before investing in such development, creative campaigns and complementary services have proven that microsites have the potential to dramatically enhance a college or university’s lead generation and interaction with targeted audiences.

What has been your school’s experience with microsites?