Higher-Ed Web Trends To Watch In 2023

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By Chris Rapozo — Mar 9, 2023 11:00 AM


The 2023 Cascade User Conference was a tremendous success. More than 300 individuals representing over 100 organizations attended CUC23.

To keynote the conference, Hannon Hill's Kat Liendgens, Bradley Wagner, and Brad Kazmer collaborated with Beacon Technologies' Christy Phillips, Keana Massey, and Andrea Cole in a "fireside chat" to discuss higher-ed web trends for 2023 and beyond!

The panel's combined experience working in or with higher-ed adds up to nearly 100 years. 

Of course, no roundtable discussion can succeed without someone to keep it on track. And for that, we invited Troy Singer, co-host of The Higher Ed Marketer Podcast, to moderate the event. Troy kept the questions flowing, invited people to talk, and added some of his own thoughts when appropriate.

To view a recording of the discussion, visit this link: Higher-Ed Web Trends for 2023 and Beyond.

The following is a recap of the panel discussion with some of the most important takeaways:

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What have been the most prominent higher-ed digital strategy trends in 2022?

Kat Liendgens, Hannon Hill's CEO, started the discussion by sharing a positive trend she observed on college websites that focuses on content tailored to specific personas, highlighting diversity at the institution and a personalized approach serving relevant content to the right audience.

Inspired by the ease of use of Southern Utah University's program finder, which earned SUU the prestigious Cassie Award during the 2023 ceremony, Liendgens realized a trend on college websites focusing on helping visitors find what they want quickly. Several 2023 Cascade User Conference presentations also touched on page and program finders implemented on their websites. Certainly, a trend that shouldn't be ignored.

Keana Massey, Beacon Technologies, VP of UX Design & Development, mentioned the student-first-focused content seen on university websites.

"Schools create an image that's going to resonate and attract the next generation of students with an increased focus on student life and involvement for those that aren't touring the campuses as much anymore," Massey says.

Create a site that is engaging and gives students a feeling of personality.

To do this, use compelling imagery, video content, or anything else that will show students what it's like at your institution without having to set foot on campus while they're looking for a school to call home.

What technology or strategic trends are you forecasting for higher-ed in 2023?

Beacon's Christy Phillips, VP of Project Management Office, continued highlighting the student-focused approach she observed on university websites and predicts that this trend will continue in 2023 and beyond.

How about a content audit?

"We're seeing a lot of people pull unnecessary content off websites that doesn't focus on students and putting that content into intranets so that everything is prospective student-focused," Phillips says.

With the rise of AI and technology combined with the decrease in staff across colleges and universities, those in charge of the websites should invest in automation and third-party tools that help make for a more dynamic, streamlined process.

Hannon Hill's Brad Kazmer, Director of Professional Services, sees an increase in the utilization of rudimentary AI to provide an even smarter way to personalize content.

For example: 

Social proof in terms of testimonials builds trust and increases enrollment. But a repository of testimonials serves very little if hidden five layers deep into a website.

Utilizing AI and personalization tools to identify prospects through geolocation API will help identify where your visitors come from and show relevant testimonials from current or former students native to the visitor region to form an even deeper connection. 

Bradley Wagner, Hannon Hill's VP of Engineering, supports Kazmer's suggestion by offering the following points:

  1. “There is a trend towards more individualization of websites, forcing organizations from a strategic standpoint to think about how to cater all this content in their sites to specific people.”
  2. On the technology side, see chatbots as a website feature with built-in AI, which is customer service oriented to help prospects ask questions and get answers on the spot.

And with a new generation of analytics and the switch to GA4 come July 1, “a lot of colleges and universities will revisit at how they collect data on their sites, what's important, and how to use that information to make decisions,” says Andrea Cole, Beacon’s VP of Digital Marketing & Analytics. 

How can colleges and universities increase the effectiveness of their web content?

Seth Godin coined today's business and marketing environment "the connection economy." The label's based on the premise that real value comes from the connections a brand fosters.

"Many sites are just written using overly formal and academic language that is potentially off-putting to student readers," observes Massey during content audits and focus groups with her clients.

This high-level academic jargon, however, causes a disconnect between an institution and its potential students.

Keana Massey suggests that higher-education institutions address the terminology issue and make content more personal. One simple way to do this, Massey explains, is by addressing students in third-person statements such as "students at [school] study" to second person, "you will study…" A simple yet, effective way to build trust and form a sense of belonging.

"Diversity of voice and diversity of content produced by contributors from different walks of life that focus on storytelling can help visitors of all backgrounds find connections at your institutions," Liendens explains.

Turn students and faculty into content creators, give them the ability to share their experiences through blog posts or podcasts, and make these subject matter experts available to the public and easy to find for the media with an expert search tool to foster earned media and build further trust through social proof.

How can colleges and universities show their value more effectively in 2023?

Transparency is key when it comes to showing the value of an institution.

"In business, people always talk about the return of investment (ROI), and I think there needs to be that conversation in higher education as well," Wagner says. "Especially because people now have other options to educate themselves, whether that is online on YouTube or certificates that will get them a job without a degree.

Beyond the course catalog, schools should highlight the experience students have once they arrive on campus.

"Where do students hang out? What clubs or activities does the school offer when students aren't in class? What are the unique traditions that set your institution apart from other schools?" asks Massey.

Include the answers in your marketing messaging to help potential students feel connected before they set foot on campus. 

"Don't pretend to be something you're not," Massey urges. "Present yourself as who you are."

For example, if your school doesn't have much of a campus life, and the majority of students commute to campus or attend online, focus your messaging on attracting these students and dedicate yourself to meeting those students' needs. 

Brad Kazmer gave a perfect example when he highlighted Hannon Hill's client, Ontario Tech, and how the school maximizes the value of its content by tailoring its digital viewbook to each website visitor. 

All a visitor has to do to get tailored content is enter basic information about themselves, including areas of interest, like major, financial aid, campus life, what's the admissions process. Then, the personalization tool creates a view book, which is a microsite with content assembled on the fly.

What projects should colleges and universities prioritize in 2023?

It starts with seeing the institution as what it is – a business.

"Higher-ed institutions tend to be too altruistic," says Cole.

"Once people reframe and start thinking of universities as a business, priorities and the things that are important in terms of increasing enrollment become a lot clearer."

Determine your value and unique selling proposition, what your school stands for, its history, and the ROI prospective students receive when attending the institution. That goes beyond earning a degree. Provide additional values gained in terms of support, job placement and community. 

Bradley Wagner adds that universities should start thinking about creating an experience that mimics the convenience people get when browsing websites in a commercial setting, say Amazon.

"Not to say that we're trying to make the experience of browsing a college website like going to Amazon. But there are lessons to be learned in terms of engagement and how to get people to navigate to subsequent content and leverage analytics to really focus on what's most important," says Wagner. 

Thinking about who the intended audience is and letting that guide the decision-making on what projects to prioritize is the key to achieving one's goals.

What should colleges stop doing right now concerning their websites?

"Stop accepting data silos, especially when it comes to marketing and enrollment," says Liendgens.

"There's still a disconnect between enrollment and marketing, where marketing owns the CMS and owns the website, and then enrollment owns the CRM."

With two data silos, it's difficult for marketing teams to optimize their digital strategy. If higher-ed marketers don't see that their effort results in enrollment or the lack thereof, they will have a difficult time optimizing their messaging to reach desired results. 

Another common trend that Keana Massey has seen in higher-ed is the effort to use fewer stock photographs on university websites. 

"Using stock images is fine in some cases, but if your entire website is nothing but stock photos, it is very noticeable to users," Massey says.

Bradley Wagner added to the questions and advised colleges and universities to "stop asking for everything upfront" as individuals become more guarded about sharing personal information.

"Start small. Ask for a little bit of information to help drive the customer experience and then build that relationship over time," Wagner says.

"Don't ask them to marry you on the first date," the panel's moderator Troy Singer echoed.

Remember, a college degree is a big investment, and "the larger the investment, the longer the sales cycle," says Cole. "Use your marketing and your site to engage visitors at key points on their customer journey, build trust and move them down the funnel to enrollment."

How can a CMS help to increase higher-ed content effectiveness?

A great CMS keeps content contributors engaged through action items and encourages them to add fresh, effective content to their website that is "free of errors, accessible, and doesn't have any issues that might negatively impact the user experience. 

"Keep contributors on task, and don't show them things they can't control or aren't their responsibility," Liendgens says to help avoid decision fatigue.

Bradley Wagner stressed the importance of "guardrails" when it comes to Cascade CMS maintaining brand consistency and voice. He also highlights the importance of focusing on structured content over freeform WYSIWYG editors, where people can enter content any way they want.

"You encourage users to build within constraints, which breeds creativity in ways that they might otherwise expect because they no longer deal with distractions," Wagner says.

Concerning branding, a great CMS can be effective in allowing a multitude of people to contribute, but having a review process and content checks in place to ensure that contributors follow and stay within brand guidelines.


The panel discussion on higher-ed web trends for 2023 and beyond provided valuable insights into the direction that higher education websites are headed.

As we move forward into the future, it is essential that universities and colleges continue to stay ahead of these trends and adapt to meet the changing needs of their students. 

By embracing new technologies and implementing innovative strategies, higher education institutions can continue to provide high-quality education and support to students, no matter where they are located.

If you need help getting your website on the right track, fill out the form below and schedule a discovery call today.

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Chris Rapozo
Marketing Specialist


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