What are the Catholic School Website Design Best Practices?

August 13, 2019 Daren Worcester

A family looking at Catholic school websites on their laptop.

Regarding design aesthetics, Catholic school website design adheres to the trends and best practices of private school websites. From this perspective, Catholic schools looking for design inspiration should read our most recent private school design trends article. This said, there is an element of Catholic school website design that is different from other schools.  

How? 

It’s less about design form and function and more about the competitive landscape. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, the number of students attending Catholic schools in the United States since 2009 has declined by 18.4 percent. In elementary schools that number climbs to 19.4 percent nationwide and 27.5 percent in urban dioceses.  

In short, Catholic school websites must work harder to reel-in admission candidates. Let’s talk about how to do that. 

1. Have a focused message.

As a Catholic school, you must convince prospective families that your school is the best fit for them over rival parochial schools, private schools, and public schools. It’s vital to communicate your school’s unique value proposition and to do so as quickly as possible. “Educating the whole child” is good for a mission statement, but as a marketing message it doesn’t differentiate your school—any school can claim it, and many do. 
 
An excellent example of a Catholic school that sets itself apart in short order is Marymount High School in Los Angeles
 
A Catholic School website example of Marymount High School showing a student praying with the message "We Are a Force for Good."
Through featured images on the home page with carefully crafted positioning statements such as “We Are A Force For Good,” followed by the school’s mission statement directly underneath, I learned in less than ten seconds that Marymount’s brand promise is to educate and empower young women to become ethical leaders.

2. Make a great first impression. 

First-time visitors may not know what to expect from a Catholic school, especially parents who didn’t attend a parochial school. Therefore, it’s important to immediately impress upon them that your school provides a fun, academically challenging, and safe environment for their child. The best way to achieve this is through professional-quality photography. 
 
Yes, you can get some great images with your smartphone, but when it comes to homepage worthy photos, professional shots make a big difference. An experienced photographer will know how to frame the photo to capture emotion, how to adjust to the lighting in different facilities, and will make color corrections and other edits before delivering the final images. 
 
You’ll want to guide the photographer by requesting candid, action, landscape-oriented images (for most designs) that avoid staged and clichéd subject matter. Aim to make the homepage photos representative of school life with a mix of age, gender (for coed schools), and ethnic diversity, as well as highlight programs that distinguish the school. 
 
Forest Ridge of the Sacred Heart School in Seattle does a good job of balancing a few great photos with the school’s messaging: 
 
A screenshot of Forest Ridge school's home page showing a student in a dance performance with the message "She Finds Inspiration."
Another popular option to wow first-time visitors is video. Schools using video on the homepage should keep it short because video significantly adds to the overall page size, which can have an adverse effect on search standings. When choosing a video homepage, keep an eye on analytics, as it is also possible that a decrease in search traffic may balance out with an increase in visitor-to-inquiry conversion rates. 
 
Regis Jesuit High School in Colorado has a homepage video that captures the student experience for prospective families: 
 
The Regis Jesuit High School homepage video showing a girl getting her face painted for a school spirit event.

3. Tell your school’s story. 

Once you’ve set the hook by establishing the school’s unique message and impressing visitors with eye-catching visuals, reel prospects in by continuing to tell the school’s story throughout the website. There’s a variety of ways to accomplish storytelling, from profiles of students and alumni to featured statistics. Marymount builds its homepage messaging and imagery into a call-to-action—“See Their Journey Continue”—for the school’s matriculation list.   
 
This well-placed testimonial on the homepage for Monte Cassino in Tulsa, Oklahoma also caught my attention: 

A testimonial that reads, "If you're looking for education and curriculum, this is your school. If you're looking for faith and stewardship, this is your school. If you're looking for creativity and the arts, this is your school. If you're looking for a community that will inspire your children to leave the world a better place than they found it... this is your school."
The key with school website storytelling is to weave these callouts into top pages and high-value content that visitors are seeking. For example, if you create a page called testimonials that lives in the About section, it’s unlikely that many people will see the page; weaving individual testimonials into high-traffic areas such as the Admission, Academics, Arts, and Athletics landing pages will significantly boost impressions.  
 
Learn more website storytelling strategies here

4. How will you cast Catholic school imagery in the design?

For many Catholic schools, the website design is a fine balance between showing religious imagery and symbols and emphasizing other aspects of the school to attract students of all denominations. 
 
Marymount currently accomplishes this in the design by subtly and respectfully including the prayer photo (shown in the screenshot for #1 above) in the homepage rotation that links to the Spiritual Life page. It’s important for every school to have a plan for how to handle religious imagery before engaging a designer to keep the website looking cohesive throughout. 
 
The school’s logo or crest—especially historic ones—are often tricky in website design. Discuss as a team whether the crest is so important to the school’s branding that it must fully display in the header? Or does it simply have to be included somewhere and the footer is acceptable? Or can the designer try other techniques such as a watermark? 
 
When shown in full, it’s best to display the crest as a single color to keep it from distracting from the design as Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, New York has done (also a strong example of combining imagery with messaging): 
 
A screenshot of the Academy of the Holy Names website with a blue and white logo in the header.

5. Bait the hook with SEO. 

Any fisherman will tell you that different bait is used to catch various fish. Schools looking to land admission prospects interested in Catholic Schools should use search engine optimization to attract the right people to the website. This is done by prominently featuring the keywords “Catholic school” and the school’s location in the home page title tag and meta description, as well as in other text on the page as Academy of the Holy Names has done: 
 
A screenshot of a Google search for "Albany Catholic school for girls."
Don’t stop at the homepage. Have a page on the site optimized for “Catholic school education” or a similar keyword phrase that’s popular in your market. Any Catholic school references throughout the site should link to this page to build its topical authority. Learn more tips for SEO page optimization here and ask your Blackbaud K–12 account representative about our SEO services. 

For more resources to help with your next Catholic school website design, check out the following: 

About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 16 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

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