THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. JULY 2, 2013. OK, I’ll admit that I’ve yet to see Monsters University, the No. 1 movie in the nation. But I’ve spent a good hour tooling around the promotional Web site for the fictional institution. It’s scary good.
Fascinated by how this portal both mimics and mocks real-life college Web sites, I asked Ashley Hennigan, assistant director of social-media strategy at Cornell University, to share her thoughts on the MU site—and what admissions officers might learn from it.
For one thing, the design is clean and consistent, a far cry from the hodgepodge, thrown-together look of some college sites. This one captures higher-education convention so well, Ms. Hennigan writes in an e-mail, that “I’m sure some universities have Web-site envy.”
The first things Ms. Hennigan looks for on college Web sites are a modern design, brand continuity, and simple navigation. On those counts, she says, the Monsters U. site is a success. The home page includes a carousel of images, with news and events featured prominently, and that design is carried through the secondary pages. This, folks, is a triumph of branding.
When visiting college sites, Ms. Hennigan also looks for connections to students. Do applicants have a way of communicating with the people—er, monsters—who know the campus best? “While these monsters aren’t blogging,” she writes, “they are making YouTube videos and providing their own testimonials.”
MU’s site conveys warmth, a sense of the folks students will meet on the campus (yeah, yeah, I realize these are cartoon creatures). Take the faculty profile of the inspiring Dean Hardscrabble, dean of the School of Scaring. “If you can survive a class taught by her, then the human world is a breeze,” says a former MU student. Note the emphasis on teaching here; there’s no mention of the dean’s publishing prowess.
Ms. Hennigan says she was struck by the welcome video. “Swap out the campus and the university name, and this would be a great promo,” she writes. “Hitting all of the great branding keywords—legacy, tradition, diversity, and integrity. They get bonus points for using YouTube throughout the site for recruitment.” I like the array of hilarious slogans that are no more hilarious than some colleges’ actual slogans (“Your future is knocking. Open the door.”).
On the admission page, there’s some advice for applicants from admission counselors. The applications that stand out, one counselor writes, “tell a great story” about how MU will affect the life of a student: “Great students can go lots of places. We want to know that MU and the student is a great match.”
Ms. Hennigan applauds that message. “I’m happy to see the scary counselor asking how attending MU will change the monster’s life,” she writes, “acknowledging that there are plenty of places to go and that being a great match is more important than just being a great student.”
What’s lacking? Oh, information about paying for all this. The financial-aid page doesn’t mention the cost of attendance, and there are only vague references to meeting financial need. The parents page is also thin on details about finances. “Our human parents would demand much more,” Ms. Hennigan writes. “They want to see real numbers, financial costs, and outcome statistics.”
And how much hunting should a visitor have to do? “It should take only one click off the admissions homepage to find location, academic programs and cost,” Ms. Hennigan writes. “MU could up their content with these quick facts and figures.” As she notes, though, there’s a campus-safety page, complete with reports of specific incidents (Thursday at 12:08 am: “Four female students report prank phone calls from an unknown male caller pretending to be a lost human.”).
I laughed at the following line before realizing that it’s more or less what many colleges tell families, with a straight face: “Don’t let a little debt scare you and your child away from the best educational opportunity money can buy.”
Perhaps no college Web site is complete without a little bragging. This factoid caught my eye: “Each year, over 26,000 high-school and transfer monsters apply to MU, but only a fraction get admitted.” You see, Monsters University is awesome, and it touts its acceptance rate as evidence. Can you imagine a real college doing that?