Hallway, via Miss Millificent on flickr

Your website acts as a hallway of possibility.

Recently, I had to send my CV to a company that I’d like to work with.  I ended up using their job application software and I was honestly shocked by the poverty of the online experience.  The software gave terse, bald instructions laid out in small blue text on a plain white background.  An automated response told me that my upload had worked and that someone might contact me.  Eventually.  Maybe. (But don’t count on it).

Quite honestly, they might as well just have sent a reply that said ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

It was interestingly soul-crushing.  This is probably just typical of modern institutions who are flooded by job applications. Unfortunately, it set up a negative feeling about the organisation right at the start.

Do you invite people to go further or do you stop them right there?

Other institutions can behave rather differently.  I have been involved in several website projects for universities, where we looked at the student experience from early enquiry and application to final registration.  These particular institutions were hungry for the right people to join them, and they knew that their websites played an important role in students’ decision-making.

In the research with school pupils choosing universities, I found that they were desperate to get a sense of advance belonging.  They wanted lots of authentic information about the daily details of living there, along with the functional information about courses and careers.  They also wanted to subtly check out whether the other students were people like them. Or perhaps, like their ideal selves.

You’re probably not offering 3 years and a qualification, but I think there’s something important to learn here.

Your content frames the customer experience in advance.

It can make people excited to come forward and contact you, sensing common ground.

It can also make people step back, uncertain about what you have to offer.  They might move straight on to the next provider, or they may explore your site with some anxiety and suspicion.

In some circumstances, it will be appropriate to screen some people out – those who don’t have the qualifications, for example, or are looking for something that you simply don’t provide.

But it’s important to ask yourself whether your communication is turning away people who may be perfectly qualified to {work with you, buy from you, visit you}.

So, action steps.

Think about your site.  You might want to look at language, images, information, and tone of voice.  Do you give a genuine flavour of the experience you provide?  Does your design invite people to move forward in their relationship with you?  Is it easy to take the next step?

And do people who approach you feel welcomed and respected?

In the comments: I’d love to hear what works for you when you’re deciding whether to go further with an organisation online. What are the little things that welcome you in?