NAIS Research: 2021 State of Independent School Marketing Survey

By Joe Corbett and Margaret Anne Rowe
NAIS Research Analysts

Executive Summary

Since NAIS last surveyed marketing professionals in independent schools in 2011, the independent school landscape has changed immeasurably—as has marketing itself. Digital marketing has grown into a dominant force, and marketers now must contend with pages of web analytics, complex social media algorithms, and difficult-to-master search engine optimizations (SEO), with supposed best practices changing what seems like every day. To that end, NAIS, in partnership with Metric Marketing, surveyed independent school marketing professionals to understand the scope of their work and how they do it in 2021, with extra focus on digital strategies, analytics usage, and SEO. In particular, NAIS aimed to understand where schools were struggling and provide related insights from Metric’s marketing professionals.

Nearly two-thirds of responding independent schools reported having a dedicated, centralized marketing team, while 29% have a single person in charge of marketing. More than half have an overarching communications department that handles marketing, and two-thirds of chief marketers report directly to the head of school. Virtually all marketing teams surveyed run advertising, school websites, public relations, and publications. To handle all of this, the typical independent school employs three or fewer full-time staff with marketing responsibilities, although the number of staff increases with school size and department budget. Forty-two percent of all schools have annual marketing budgets of more than $85,000, while an additional 18% have budgets over $55,000. Just over half of respondents believe their head of school views digital marketing as “very important” and an additional 35% believe he or she views it as “important.”

Digital marketing is hard, and many schools report struggling with it even as it brings them results. Half of all respondents rated their digital marketing performance in 2020-2021 as “somewhat effective,” although 39% rated it as “very effective.” (Schools whose heads were perceived as viewing digital marketing as “very important” were more likely to report “very effective” marketing performance, at 52%, compared with just 24% of those schools whose heads viewed it as “somewhat important.”) Schools shared many common problems in digital marketing, such as having enough resources to do it, keeping up with seemingly endless changes to platform algorithms, and measuring the effectiveness of their methods.

Only two-thirds of marketers know the conversion goals they track in their digital marketing reporting software, and just 20% have a plan to use their analytics software to measure their success in their yearly marketing objectives. Virtually all schools do use reporting software, but a mere 16% use attribution modeling to track conversions. And while three-in-four schools have a formal method to follow up with new prospective families, only 39% use a customer relationship management (CRM) tool or program to automate the process. Additionally, when it comes to websites, 43% of schools update their content weekly, compared to 12% updating daily and 28% updating monthly. About three-in-five schools update their website every four to six years, while one-in-five do so every two to three years.

A majority of respondents (58%) report having “some” understanding of SEO, while 20% report a “strong” understanding. Virtually the same numbers report having some or a strong understanding of paid search engine marketing. Eighty-five percent have a good understanding of the importance of developing frequent, unique content for SEO, and 59% have seen visitation from organic search increase from the year prior. Spending on digital channels varied wildly by school, but schools that used at least 41% of their media budget for digital marketing were more likely to report very effective digital marketing performance.

Just over half of respondents, and in particular, 63% of elementary schools, credited social media as one of the digital marketing channels most effective at driving new student leads during the year prior, followed by organic search (37%) and paid advertising (33%). Indeed, 91% of schools reported using Facebook advertising within the past year, while 75% had used Instagram and 71% Google AdWords. However, only half of respondents reported that AdWords and Facebook were most effective in driving new leads; Instagram, just 21%.

Even in the era of digital marketing, marketing departments still rely on multiple traditional channels, in particular word of mouth (89%) and magazines (74%), although respondents largely reported that word of mouth alone was the most effective (83%). However, 60% of respondents felt that virtual tours were effective, compared to just 15% who did not.

Sixty-one percent of schools had completed a brand positioning project within the past five years, and 92% had developed messaging that reflected their brand. A majority of schools attributed parent loyalty to their people (75%), reputation (72%), and different or unique programs (58%). They felt that they were differentiated from their competitors by culture (87%), faculty and staff (76%), and offerings (64%).

The 2020-2021 school year was challenging across all departments of independent schools, and marketing was no exception. Despite the myriad difficulties of digitally marketing a school, schools showed they have a solid launch point for their next endeavors. With tips from expert marketers and benchmarks set by their peers, marketing professionals from all types of schools can craft a plan to spotlight their institutions and prime themselves for growth in 2022 and beyond.


NAIS surveyed marketing staff at member schools to learn more about the state, structure, practices, and needs of marketing teams at independent schools. Two hundred eighty-nine people responded to the survey, representing a 37% completion rate. The survey was open from July 27-August 17, 2021.

This report was written by Joe Corbett and Margaret Anne Rowe, research analysts at NAIS. Expert advice was provided by John McDonald, president and CEO of Metric Marketing. Totals may not equal 100% due to rounding.

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