What artificial fruit flavors can teach us about content strategy


I love a good fun fact. So it wasn’t unusual when I found myself sitting with a friend one day, marveling at the nuance of artificial banana flavor — and how that connects to the topic of college websites. Stay with me here: Fake banana is one of the most polarizing flavors out there, and it tastes nothing like the real fruit. I’ve always wondered why someone hasn’t tried to evolve the artificial flavor and make it taste more like real bananas. They surely have the technology to make it better, so why don’t they?

There are lots of theories on why banana flavoring tastes different. But the reason it hasn’t evolved? Consumer preference. The flavor that we’ve come to know and love (or hate) is what we associate with banana-flavored items. And while it isn’t an accurate representation of actual bananas, it’s now what everyone expects. 

So what does that mean for college websites?

In higher education, many institutions have been using the same website strategies for decades, without considering the generational differences between their audiences. But what’s right in the minds of your site’s developers might not make sense for your primary users. You may understand that you should be putting the user first, but are you making conscious, practical decisions to do that? To put it simply: Is your website built for the people who run it or the people who use it?

Here are a few things to consider as you think about making your site work better for your primary audience: prospective students.

TERMINOLOGY // Do high schoolers understand the terms you use? Or are you leaning on jargon they don’t get? 

How old were you when you knew what a bursar was? How about the terms undergraduate and graduate? Higher ed sites are full of lingo, but the way you use that lingo is often very different from how prospective students perceive it. 

Here at Ologie, we recently fielded a study on how prospective students (all of them high schoolers) behave on higher ed websites. As part of this work, we explored how familiar students were with words and phrases commonly found at those sites. For example, our study showed that 79 percent of prospective students were familiar with the term graduate, and only 45 percent were familiar with the term undergraduate

But it gets even more interesting: If a student said they were familiar with a term, we asked them to identify what it meant. And the definitions they gave often varied significantly from how higher ed professionals use these words and phrases. Without context for the terms, prospects defined graduate variously as someone graduating, finishing school, or completing a course. Those who said they knew the term undergraduate defined it as the first two years of college, first year of your graduate program, underachievement, or insufficient credits to graduate.

For some prospects, this language (and the gap in understanding) may keep them from getting the information they need to succeed. With this in mind, it’s important to consider how you can adjust your website to serve prospective students first — because they’re your primary audience. This might take shape in many different ways: your institution could add educational content about terminology, or you might create a clear navigation system that prioritizes prospects and their guardians. 

CONTENT // Is your site organized for prospective students? Or does it just reflect your internal hierarchy?

We’re just gonna say it: Your institution’s org chart should not be the standard for structuring your website.

Let’s go back to our target audience. As much as we wish it were true, prospective students don’t spend their time analyzing and comparing higher ed websites combing through the similarities and differences of the Academics, Advancement, About, and Admissions pages. Instead, they’re likely hanging out on social media and e-commerce sites, based on their interests.

So take a look at your institution’s site. How does it compare to what users expect to see, based on the other sites they visit? Take the “About” page, for example. Traditionally, this is where colleges and universities speak to prestige, listing stats, rankings, benchmarks, and other facts. Some also use this space for their president’s bio, a faculty directory, or a list of links for students to (hopefully) find their own way to what they need. But — as we learned through our research — this isn’t the information that students are looking for. Remember, their expectations are influenced by the other websites they frequent. For example, e-commerce sites tend to use the “About” page in three ways: (1) to tell their origin story, (2) to explain their “why”, or (3) to clarify their market position. Sometimes, it’s a mix of all three. This means that prospects go to your “About” page hoping to learn more about what your school stands for, and how your values align with their own. 

So you might consider making some changes so that the page mirrors something familiar to them. This will give prospects a chance to learn and connect with who you are and may push them to explore deeper. Of course, the “About” page is just one example. But the principle remains: The way that higher ed traditionally organizes content doesn’t match how these priority users are consuming content. And it’s worth looking carefully at your site through their eyes.

USER JOURNEY // Is your content set up to allow for individual exploration? Or is the information siloed and hard to find? 

This may seem straightforward, but many higher ed websites make it hard for students to explore and find all the information they need. By offering relevant opportunities for prospects to “choose their own adventure,” you can give them more chances to see if your institution is a good fit for them. This increases their time on site, which in turn could get them a step closer to submitting an RFI or application. 

So what does this mean, practically? A prospect’s user journey might go something like this: They enter your site, and after looking around a while, they head to the academics page and learn about your institution’s approach to learning, which then makes them more curious about the programs offered on your program listing page. Then they wonder what clubs they could join related to their program of interest, which takes them to the page that lists your clubs and organizations. Perhaps then they want to explore what their life would be like outside the classroom, and seeing an example of a dorm room layout on your student life page might seal the deal. 

With some work, the prospective student could get to all those places on their own. But by offering clear direction on specific actions to take, you can give them a much easier and more seamless experience on your site — where they enter at one point but always have multiple places to intentionally explore and “hop out” to, learning more about clubs or their professors or their dorms. For students who visit a second or third time, intuitive navigation can help properly guide them to where they need to be. But by directing first-time visitors to the information you want them to know, you can set them up for a successful web experience.

Final thoughts. 

If you take away nothing else, remember this: your website is not for you. 

We all know this in theory, but it’s important to truly incorporate this idea into how higher ed websites work. As we’ve seen, what feels right to so many higher ed professionals just doesn’t work well for prospective students. With every decision you make, it’s imperative to be aware of how your information is presented and whether it makes your web experience clearer or more confusing. Because isn’t it more important to do what works, rather than what’s expected? I think so, and I think the makers of artificial banana would agree, too.

To learn more about prospective student user behavior, check out our Web Study.