Getting found and setting yourself apart
Marketing, particularly with the evolution of online marketing and social media, has become increasingly complex over recent years.
In this section we distill down what we believe to be the most salient points for developing a marketing strategy for your school and identifying a few channels that can be effective in meeting your enrollment goals. With knowledge of who you want to reach, a great website, and a few well-selected channels, you can get in front of the right people and make an impression.
When you get into the specifics of marketing, you’ll find that all of your choices are based on who the target audience for the message will be. For example, if you’re advertising for hiring teachers or staff, your audience is going to be educators and those with support staff experience, not necessarily every person out there. Similarly, when you’re looking at how to get families to attend your school, you might think about who in the family is going to view your content and what their needs are. How you approach marketing to a student versus their mom is going to be a different approach. There isn’t one right or wrong way to handle this, but it is probably wise to look at the wants and needs of the primary decision maker, which for most families is the parents. What do parents want out of a private school? Why might a parent choose a private school for his or her children? Once you understand the needs of your target audience, you can create marketing efforts that are more focused and will be more successful.
Who are your prospective customers?
Remember all that thinking you did in the school identity section about your core values and mission? That is going to come in handy again here. You might be thinking your prospective customers are all the students and families that live near your school – but that’s probably not accurate.
Based on the type of school you’re opening, the tuition you’re going to charge, the courses and activities you’re going to offer (or not offer), your target families are going to narrow down. Take some time to think about who they are and what they are like. Understanding your prospective families is key to making smart marketing decisions, so the more you know about them, the better off you’ll be.
Next, it is time to really narrow down your audience by thinking about who your ideal buyer is. You may be in the business of directly serving children, but do children make the decision about where to attend school? Not usually.
Marketers that sell to consumers often recommend the development of one or more “buyer personas” that can be used to help you understand your prospective buyers better. In the niche you want to serve, are education decisions usually made by one parent or two? What is the age of these parents? What is their typical income or occupation? Where does that parent shop? What are their interests and what websites do they visit? All this and more goes into developing a persona.
Two great starting points for writing buyer personas include:
A Step-by-Step Guide For Creating a B2C Buyer Persona - This guide published by Iterative marketing details 12 attributes to consider when developing a profile
10 Buyer Persona Examples - These examples, published on the Alexa marketing blog, demonstrate what completed personas will will look like
Use the personas you develop to guide your marketing efforts. If you know the questions & concerns of your ideal buyer, and know where they shop, how they like to get information, and what institutions they respect, you can more easily ensure that your message will be seen and will resonate with the right people.
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What is marketing?
Marketing is the process in which you help potential customers learn about you, your product or service, and how your offering might benefit them. This can come in a lot of different forms, which which we cover below, but the end goal or mission is the same: to ensure that the prospects who might want to send their kids to your school know who you are and what you offer.
If what you offer aligns with what they want, this should lead to further discussion and possible enrollment.
How marketing works
Marketing works best when you’re providing some kind of value or benefit that solves a problem or need for your potential customers. In the case of a new school, you might offer a unique curriculum that isn’t offered elsewhere nearby, or a more individualized approach to learning, or a unifying philosophical or spiritual lens that informs your school culture.
Whatever that something is that makes your school special is often known as a “brand promise” - this is going to be incredibly important to making your marketing campaigns successful. Your job as marketer is to take that something special and make sure the right people, for whom you can solve a problem, know about your school and trust that you can deliver on your promise. If you can do that, you’re marketing!
Evaluating the success of a marketing campaign
The simplest formula for measuring the success of your marketing efforts is by calculating return on investment, or ROI. The basic calculation for ROI is revenue generated (in this case, tuition money for new students) divided by the amount you’ve spent on marketing. If you’re making more than you’re spending, you’re on the right track!
In practice ROI is more sophisticated — it is unusual that a single marketing activity will lead directly to student enrollment without some intermediate steps. Accordingly, there are often multiple steps and multiple metrics you’ll want to monitor.
In the world of digital marketing, professional marketers often look at metrics like open rates and click-through rates on emails sent to prospects to judge how good the email content was in the eyes of the recipient. You can also track conversion rates, which is the number of people who sign up/request information/reach out through your website compared to your total number of visitors.
Similar metrics can be applied to non-digital campaigns, such as counting open house visitors following a flier campaign.
As your school naturally grows, you’ll likely find yourself more interested in diving deeper into more complex marketing strategy. For now, let’s cover the basics.
Is traditional marketing still relevant?
As we’ll discuss shortly, online marketing is a great way to get information about your school out to a lot of people without as many logistical hurdles. That being said, there are still plenty of opportunities for marketing your new school that don’t depend on the internet to get the word out.
Examples of traditional marketing channels include:
Print advertising – Depending on the area in which you live, you may have local print publications you can advertise in. Think about newspapers, local magazines, community calendar publications or similar.
Radio – In many markets radio can be an effective way for reaching targeted demographics and can be less expensive thank you might think. Announcing your opening or your deadline for applications on the air can be a good approach for general coverage and awareness.
Local / public access television — if you can identify programs watched by your target families, becoming an advertiser or sponsor can help get you noticed.
Advisory boards – In addition to providing helpful insight into the organization and planning for your school, advisory board members often have networks that can include prospective staff and families. Be sure to talk with your advisory board members about recruitment when the time comes.
Word-of-mouth advertising – People trust people they know, which makes word-of-mouth advertising a great way to help new families learn about your school. Put your network to work, and ask friends, family and those in your community to share news about your new school with people they know. If you’re looking for some tips to really take advantage of your word-of-mouth advertising opportunities, check out this list of tips assembled by a school marketing professional.
Best practices to follow
When considering traditional marketing channels, go back to your buyer personas. Where are the places your buyers like to spend time? What activities do they participate in? What publications do they read?
To make the most of your offline marketing, business consultants Humanity recommend the following:
Engage local media
Rent billboard space (if you can afford to)
Create branded merchandise
Network all the time
Connect with your community
Distribute printed materials
Hand out business cards
The first place most people go today when doing research is the web. It is critical, therefore, to have a website early on - before you open your doors - that does three things really well:
Tell your story - Visitors want to learn your story and what sets you apart, and must be able to do so quickly, via a site that is easily navigated. Bonus points to you if your story is told not just in words, but with photo galleries and videos that illustrate your school culture and let your students and/or faculty speak for themselves.
Demonstrate professionalism visually - We’ve entered an era where people assess the quality of your program as much by the presentation of your content as the content itself. Clean, consistent, visually appealing sites with quality design and graphics are a requirement to reinforce your competence.
Present on all devices - Your prospects may not be near a computer when they hear about your school, but everybody has an internet-connected phone in their purse or pocket today. Your website must be just as beautiful, functional, informative, and easy to navigate on any phone or tablet as it is on a desktop browser.
Remember that your public website is best suited as a recruitment tool for prospective students and staff and should be optimized as such. The public website should make it easy for visitors to understand who you are, and to get in touch or apply if they want to become part of your community.
Keep your website free of clutter that is intended for current students and families. Any details about current assignments or classes, announcements about clubs and meetings, notices for parents about policies or events — all such content should be shared through your private, secure school management system, and should never be part of your public marketing website.
As a service built as a one-stop for independent schools, Twine includes great school websites.
Our websites for schools are beautifully designed, easy to setup and maintain, and even include online applications for staff and students. Best of all, Twine’s websites require no specialized technical knowledge or skill.
Alternately, there are a variety of low-cost, stand-alone website solutions you might consider. Note that most of these solutions will require that you build or modify a web template, design your site navigation and menus, and then fill in and maintain content. In many cases you’ll want to engage a professional designer to get the most out of these platforms, even if starter templates or free options are provided. Common general-use platforms include:
Social media can be a good way to get word out about your school without having to invest a large amount of money in advertising or marketing budgets. Social media can be particularly effective once you’ve connected with supporters who will help to spread your message by sharing posts with their networks. One word of caution, though: to be effective, any social channel you choose will require regular updates. If you're not sure you have the staff or time to post fresh material on a routine basis, it is best to limit the number of social channels where you're active.
Facebook is a great place to start. We recommend that at a minimum you set up a business page that provides your school name, its location, and provides a link to your school website. Note that Facebook regularly sets up ‘placeholder’ pages for registered businesses, whether you do anything or not. This means that if you do nothing, users who try to find you on Facebook may end up at an empty page with your school’s name but no other information. With millions of users, you’re likely to encounter some traffic from your school’s Facebook page.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is an ideal place for posting photo updates. If you’ve got a compelling photo that you think would catch the eyes of your prospects, Instagram is the best place to post. Another benefit – you can set up your Instagram to automatically post to Facebook, saving you some time and getting those updates in front of a large number of people. Remember, though: Facebook and Instagram are best suited for prospects. When sharing daily or weekly updates about what your 2nd graders did in class this week, use your authenticated school management system where you can talk about specific student’s achievements and progress, and where students and parents can participate openly without privacy concerns.
If you have short updates on your school’s progress, its opening date, or other little snippets of information, Twitter is a great place to have a social media presence as well. Twitter has a character limit for posts, but it allows you to have a presence in another area online and potentially interact with families, teachers, and other schools that could serve as good resources for you now or in the future.
Many communities now have neighborhood networks. Nextdoor is a popular community site where neighbors can post information and share updates. You can create your own account for free and provide updates and announcements as you prepare to open your school and provide new services to the community.
Similarly, Patch focuses on local news, and local reporters are often looking for news to publish. The opening of a new school in the area is definitely news that is relevant for most communities. Reach out to your local contacts and let them know the details – and that you’re available for an interview!
Pay-per-click (PPC) is a common approach for paid advertising on the web today. With PPC advertising your message is displayed to potential prospects, but you are only charged when a prospect clicks on your ad and is taken to a page on your website. While cost per click can vary widely depending on a variety of factors, most PPC programs allow you to set a budget or maximum daily spend, so you can control costs.
Common places where PPC advertising is available include:
Search engines - Both Google and Bing offer paid advertisements, which appear alongside organic results for search terms. Search engine ads are displayed for specific target words or phrases you define, and can be restricted to narrow geographic areas such as a single zip code or municipality. The result is that you can target very specific audiences with paid search ads.
Social media - Social sites including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn offer advertising opportunities where your graphical ad can be presented to target audiences, defined by age, location, educational background, occupation, or other attributes. Remember those buyer personas you wrote? Here’s another place they’ll come in handy.
Banner ads / retargeting - Banner ads are graphical ads that you might see on any website you visit. Retargeting is a method for showing banner ads to people who have likely interest, such as those who have visited your website previously. By displaying your banner ads just to people who have visited your site, you increase the chance that your message will be relevant and that they’ll click-through to learn more from another visit, perhaps visiting a page with additional details, or a special offer, or application information.
Search engine optimization (SEO)
Wouldn’t it be nice if your school website came up as the first result in Google when someone in your area searched for “private school"?
SEO is the art of getting search engines like Google to rank your site as high as possible. The challenge with SEO is that you have competition from all the other schools in your area that also want to be the #1 result, and Google engineers are constantly updating their ranking routines to decide who goes where. The upshot is that SEO can quickly become a game of cat-and-mouse.
As a general rule, your ranking will improve based on the quality of the content on your website, the quality of your website structure, and over time as your website earns authority by being referenced on other sites. If this is interesting to you and you’d like to learn more, Moz has published the beginners guide to SEO with lots of detail about how rankings work.
So, do you need to become an SEO expert, or retain the services of an SEO consultant? Not necessarily.
Keep in mind that Google takes location into account when returning search results. This means that when someone in your area searches for “private schools”, Google knows to present results first for schools that are nearby. Rather than competing with 36,000 schools across the country, you’re likely competing only with other schools in the immediate area. The bottom line is that, while some companies choose to spend tons of money with SEO specialists to get their pages to rank well, spending a lot of time or money on SEO may not be important in your immediate market for your website to be found organically when people in your area are running searches.
There are truly hundreds of thousands of marketing resources available online and you could make it your full-time job to know and understand it all – in fact, lots of people do! Here are just a few good resources we’ve found helpful, but know that there are lots and lots more out there:
Hubspot Academy – This site offers training and tips for all things internet marketing, from emails, to social media, to creating content for your website.
PPC University – This is where to go if you want to learn more about PPC ads and how you can use them to find potential prospects.
Association of National Advertisers - The Marketing Knowledge center this organization offers is full of great content, including best practices and trends.
Vero – Here you’ll find a great blog focused on tips and tricks for reaching out to your website visitors.
Moz – Moz’s blog focuses on SEO and getting your website in front of the people who are looking for it.
Contently – This blog focuses on producing great content that you can use to attract potential customers.
AdEspresso – If you’re thinking about advertising on social media, this blog has some advice, tips, and best practices.
Convince and Convert – This blog focuses on all aspects of digital marketing and is a good read if you’re looking to enter the online marketing landscape.
If your website is only for prospects, where should you go to communicate with enrolled students and their families?
Too often, schools think they should try to communicate everything, everywhere. The result is that both prospective families and currently enrolled families all get frustrated, having to wade through content that isn’t intended for them. Instead, you should identify specific channels that you'll use to promote your school and get the attention of prospective families, and other (restricted) channels for communicating with active students and their parents .
As a general rule, your website and social media presence should be oriented toward prospective families, community partners and prospective employees. These channels should include information explaining who you are, what your school believes, and what makes you unique.
For anybody who is actively engaged with the school, including staff, advisors, enrolled students, and their families, communications should be centralized in a secured “portal” or intranet with one-stop access to discussion groups, calendars, committees, online class areas, news and updates, photo galleries, and individualized data about student performance, homework, grades, attendance, etc. We call this portal a School Management System.
At Twine, we have built our platform to support exactly this structure, combining an intuitive, comprehensive School Management System where enrolled students and their families interact with staff, alongside public-facing websites for prospects.