Impact of Internet Images: Impression-Formation Effects of University Web Site Images
 
Student Researchers

James F. Gyure & Srividya Ramasubramanian (PhD students)
Nasreen M. Mursi (M.Arch. student)

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar

For a complete report of this research, see:

Ramasubramanian, S., Gyure, J.F., & Mursi, N.M. (2001, November). Impact of internet images: Impression-formation effects of university Web site images. Paper presented to Visual Communication Division at the 87th annual conference of the National Communication Association (NCA), Atlanta, GA.

Introduction

High school students are increasingly using the Web as the primary medium for forming impressions about universities that they have not visited. Research suggests that visual representations play a key role in creating an experiential sense of place determining the inclination to visit and duration of stay. Recent studies suggest that images of campus landscaping and architecture play a crucial role in student evaluations. The present experimental study focuses on the types of impressions formed by college-bound students in response to architectural representation and contextual greenery represented in Web site images of campuses. Accordingly, we asked the following research questions:

RQ1: For college-bound high school juniors, controlling for Web site content, what is the relationship between the type of architectural representation and the nature of impressions formed about the university?

RQ2: For college-bound high school juniors, controlling for Web site content, what is the relationship between the presence/absence of contextual greenery and the nature of impressions formed about the university?

Method

Forty-four college-bound high school volunteered to participate in a 2 X 2 between-participants, factorial experiment in their school computer lab. They were randomly assigned to one of four conditions. Each condition was exposed to the front pages of two Web sites of fictitious universities (Haisoll and Reston), modeled after typical university Web sites and constructed solely for this experiment. The web sites were identical in content except for their visuals. The independent variables were Architectural Representation and Contextual Greenery. 'Architectural Representation,' was operationalized as the compliance or defiance of traditional (Greek and Roman) architectural styles as represented in a single building (see Trachtenberg & Hyman 1986). This variable took on two values: 'traditional' and 'non-traditional.'

'Contextual Greenery,' was operationalized as greenery (lawns and trees) and sky. This took on two values: 'With context' (presence of contextual greenery) and 'Without context' (absence of contextual greenery).

The dependent variable, Impression Formation, was operationalized in terms of two variables, Attitudes Towards the University and Behavioral Intent, and measured via responses to likert-type scales in the questionnaire.

Results

Perceived academic prestige: Those in the 'With context' condition were more likely to perceive the university as academically prestigious than those in the 'Without Context' condition. Those in the 'traditional' condition rated the universities significantly higher on 'academic prestige' than those in the 'non-traditional condition.'

Perceived athletic reputation: Athletic reputation of the university was likely to be enhanced by the presence of context as compared to the absence of context.

Perceived 'invitingness': In the non-traditional condition, the perceived invitingness was more pronounced when viewed in context rather than in isolation, while in the traditional condition, the presence of context slightly decreased the perception of 'invitingness.'

Key: "T" refers to traditional representation, "NT" refers to non-traditional representation, "W" refers to presence of context, "WO" refers to absence of context.

Students formed strong impression of academic quality in response to traditional representations, suggesting that they associate quality with what they think they know, rather than with the unusual or unfamiliar. This explanation is reinforced by the students' perception of the traditional architecture as being more Inviting than modern architecture.

Conclusions

The findings reinforce what visual communicators argue ­ that visuals can convey a powerful message about an institution and its mission. More importantly, results suggest that college-bound students do form impressions about the more abstract qualities of an institution on the basis of visual images of its physical identity. We believe the findings also have very practical implications for Web site design, higher education administration and campus planning to make decisions about what types of architectural visual representations to showcase in order to create favorable impressions amongst its target group.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at sss12@psu.edu or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University