In the dark ages of independent school marketing offices—you know, way back in 2000—the hot new trends of the day included printed newsletters, family directories, and—if your school was really cutting-edge—a website that had a few subpages beyond the home page. This was also the time when the average person was considering his or her first mobile phone purchase, and no one could fathom concepts like social media, email campaigns, SEO, or PPC. If your school had a marketing or communication office in 2000, it was the equivalent of a horse and buggy.
Just 17 years later, that horse and buggy has morphed into a completely digitized Formula 1 racecar. Today’s school marketing and communications directors are running full-fledged marketing firms—often alone—as webmasters, brand managers, social media managers, internal communication officers, crisis communication officers, advertising and email campaign developers, graphic designers, photographers, videographers, content creators, publications editors, blog writers, media relations liaisons, and other duties as assigned.
“It seems we keep adding [responsibilities to the job], but not taking away much of anything,” says Carol Burns, director of communications at The Swain School (PA). “Since I started 13 years ago, we’ve only eliminated a monthly print newsletter, but have added electronic communicatios to the mix, and that includes e-news, email campaigns, social media, display monitors, and more. There are heightened expectations for more photos, more videos, more stories.”
The marketing and communication role has become critical to success of a school—it’s the place where admission leads are generated, where revenue-generating summer programs are marketed, where the messages that promote the annual fund or campaign asks originate, and where the content that engages families and prospective families is created. Marketing is now a high-level financial strategy that requires a team of professionals. For schools to thrive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, a more sophisticated marketing and communications office is essential. Offices of one are no longer acceptable.
“Communications is never one person’s job. It’s a whole community’s job,” says Taraneh Rohani, director of communications at The Spence School (NY). “It’s tough to be a one-person shop. We can’t ask our employees to do things that aren’t sustainable. It takes institutional receptiveness.”
Properly staffing the marketing and communications office is critical not only to ensure that a school functions at a high level and has the nimbleness required in an always-on world, but also to ensure that talented staff
members thrive in—and remain in—their jobs.
How We Got Here
“Starting or growing a marketing and communications office is a complicated arena for schools because the job simply didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago—and if it did, it was a part-time job,” says Jane Armstrong, managing partner of Independent Thinking, a Boston-based executive search firm that works exclusively with independent schools to hire senior administrators. However, the reality of how people communicate in the world today is prompting schools to expand their administration. “You’ve gone from not really needing a director of communications to needing an office of communications. For even the smallest schools, one full-time person isn’t enough.”
Armstrong estimates that for the average independent school, three people are sufficient for a marketing and communications office. Most schools have one and a half. But why the seemingly sudden need for a more robust MarComm office?
Changing demographics play a large role. “Private schools, boarding schools—we’re a declining market,” says Stacy Jagodowski, director of marketing and communications at Milken Community Schools (CA). “As an industry, we’re losing 400 full or high-pay students per year. That’s a $15 million in revenue loss each year. Schools need to really wake up and think about the fact that they’ve tapped out their current markets. If they’re doing the same things they’ve been doing the last 20 years marketing-wise, I’m not surprised [that they’re losing revenue and students].”
Words like marketing, branding, customers, and consumers haven’t traditionally been appreciated at the school level, but “at the end of the day, an independent school is a business,” Armstrong says. “You need to have customers. You need to pay attention to those customers. The product that you turn out is important, valuable, and mission-worthy, but it is a product.”
The Game Has Changed
“We have to be thought leaders and share content of high value that is well-written, interesting, and covers a variety of topics,” Jagodowski says. “We produce between five to seven pieces of written content a week: blogs, whitepapers, landing pages.”
But it’s not just that the volume of work has increased, it’s that the nature of the work has shifted. It’s not about “posting on Facebook once a day and a few tweets a week,” Jagodowski says. “You have to have an integrated content strategy that moves the school forward and tells the story of the school the way we want people to understand it.”
Marketing and communication directors need to be able to be both tactical and strategic, Armstrong says. “You’ve got to be just as willing to update the website as you are to be in a board meeting talking about the strategic marketing initiatives for the next five years.”
At many schools, marketing directors—whether it is part of their job description or not—are often responsible for the entire customer experience. Elena Baranowski, marketing director at St. James Academy (MD) says, “There’s so much behind-the-scenes work that marketing and communication professionals do that many people don’t realize. Yes, we do the website and promote to families, but there’s so much more. Fewer millennial
parents are looking at print; they’re looking at digital, so we’re increasing adwords and SEO. Marketing even crosses over into athletics and extracurriculars. [The user experience of] our recreational soccer program falls under marketing. If parents go online and can’t register properly or have a bad online or customer
experience, then they’re going to go somewhere else.” That costs the school revenue and prospective admissions leads.
It’s Not an Expense, It’s an Investment
Accepting and funding this new reality, however, has proven difficult for many independent schools. “How to carve that out of the budget—all the money that needs to be devoted to communications including staffing, the various platforms, marketing, branding, design support, or bringing in consultants to audit what you’re doing—it’s not an inexpensive undertaking,” Armstrong says.
In addition, schools often struggle to pay, or even think about paying, what is necessary to hire and retain the talent and experience they desperately need in this arena. “Within the Boston market, at what you would consider equivalent schools, we’ve seen a $60,000 to $80,000 gap in salary. Some schools think ‘We can get a director of communication for $70,000 to $80,000,’ and other schools are paying $150,000. That gap is a huge challenge,” Armstrong says.
Rick Newberry of Enrollment Catalyst, tells clients, “If you want to succeed, you should staff for success and budget for success.” This mantra—which sounds like common sense but isn’t all that common in schools—is critical.
“Schools will hire someone in a part-time capacity and think too small—and hamper what that office or position could potentially do,” says Rudi Gesch, director of marketing and enrollment management at Eastern Christian School (NJ). Gesch points out that it’s vital to get buy-in from the head of school and the board, and he worked with Newberry to do just that. Newberry explained to the school’s leadership that, as an industry standard, 1 to 3% of a school’s annual budget should be invested in marketing efforts. This ballpark for where a school should be allows leaders to scale the investment regardless of the school’s financial situation.
“We’re careful about what we’re spending,” Gesch says, “but we don’t view [the MarComm function and salaries] as an expense. We view it as an investment.” A large part of Eastern Christian’s success in boosting enrollment can be attributed to being able to hire the right people and get the right budget in place. “We have three different campuses. There are a lot of nuances among the type of families we’re marketing to, so without a more sophisticated office, there wasn’t much more [the school] could do to succeed without adding to this office.”
Gesch was successful in expanding his office by framing the conversation in terms of revenue generation and demonstrating the value of a staff position in terms of students. This past spring, he hired a community connections coordinator, an 80 percent part-time employee. Among other things, this staff member is tasked with being a retention specialist. He spends a lot of time following up and following through with families that have told the school they’re leaving or thinking of leaving. “Prior to this position, we weren’t putting much effort into ‘What are we doing to keep families here?’ That new focus is bringing big dividends already. If this coordinator ‘saves’ two kids, he pays for his salary,” Gesch says. “In his first week, he was able to fix a bus issue for a family that has three kids here. They were going to leave Eastern Christian, but now they’re staying. That one change has paid for his position for the entire year. Anything else that we do this year is gravy, and we plan on a lot of gravy!”
It’s a Retention Issue
Grace Church School in New York was PK–8 for 125 years. In 2012, it opened a high school, making it imperative to share the success stories of current families, specifically with current middle school families who could grow into the new high school. When Topher Nichols started as Grace Church’s chief communications officer—a new marketing role—four years ago, he came to the job with a nontraditional approach. Nichols placed the focus on internal communication over external marketing and hired additional people in the department.
“My first year at Grace I was an office of one. By the middle of the second year I told my head of school, ‘We have ambitious [enrollment] goals. We’re going to need more resources.’” After Nichols made a thoughtful case, the head committed to adding either a half or full person to the department every year for three years. Currently Nichols has two full-time and three part-time communications and marketing staff. Some of those part-time positions are by design, Nichols says, explaining that one part-time staffer also works in development and another also works in technology. “They are bridging gaps. We can’t be a stand-alone office. We really need to be keyed in to what’s happening across the school. That design of having folks who report into communications but still work somewhere else in the school is intentional.”
Has the staff growth paid off? “Improving internal communications made our parent word-of-mouth messaging stronger,” Nichols says. “Because our retention rate has grown [from 40% to 65%], our applicant pool has grown. Two years ago we had around 300 applicants, but from the previous school year to this school year we went up to 600 applicants. We think that’s a product of our current families being really happy and talking to their friends and making them consider us.”
Advancement goals are head of school goals. “Our head of school has prioritized advancement, including
communications and marketing, as a budget item and ensured that it has a seat at the table,” says Jenn Burns, director of advancement at Solebury School (PA). “I have been a member of the senior staff since the end of my first year here, and I find that the perspective of advancement is sought frequently in high-level decisions. In addition, our school has made its focus on advancement as a priority very clear by elevating the role of director of advancement, my original title, to include explicit mention of external affairs. Next year, my position will be assistant head of school, advancement and external affairs.”
Jagodowski admits she’s been lucky that both the heads of school she has worked for have understood the importance of a high-functioning marketing and communication office as it relates to the school’s strategic goals and overall success. In her previous role at Cheshire Academy (CT), she expanded the marketing department to five full-time employees: director of strategic marketing and communications, associate director of digital marketing & communications, assistant director of social media marketing, assistant director of public relations, and junior graphic designer and photographer. She also adjusted existing positions to make better use of staff skills and strategic needs, removing ancillary responsibilities people in the department were doing that weren’t relevant to marketing.
In her role at Cheshire Academy, she had hoped to add three more people to her department. “There will always be gaps, no matter how big you get,” she says, “because the more manpower and brainpower you have, the more ambitions, goals, and ideas you’ll have.”
Marketing is always changing, she says, and keeping up with current trends means constantly adding and adjusting existing outreach strategies—but not always taking initiatives off our plates. “Ideally, our teams need to grow to accommodate the ever-increasing workloads.”
When short on staff, prioritize the most important functions of the job.
Tight school budgets have made it hard for most schools to have an appropriately staffed communications office. When we’ve done searches, we ask the head of school, “What do you most need from your director of communications? Are you looking for a writer? An editor? Someone strategic to put together a strategic communications plan? Someone who can manage the brand? Someone to manage crisis communications?”
You can always communicate more and differently with the proliferation of social media channels. Schools should step back and ask what their constituents really need from them. Do they really need Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat? Do they need texting updates? What are the channels schools need to use—that’s complicated for them to figure out. I don’t think most schools can manage to do all of those things well without a giant staff.—Jane Armstrong, Independent Thinking
Be an advocate for your department’s growth.
We often go to our heads for permission. If we do that, we give an air that we’re not confident in this need [to grow our staff]. Instead, go in and say, “This is what we need to do. We’ve got to have a plan to move to this, to expand in the next year or next two years.” Then explain why and how you propose to do this. Because if you wait to ask, it will never happen. There is no magical moment when your head of school will walk in and offer you more staff.—Stacy Jagodowski, Milken Community Schools (CA)
[The request for help] becomes about you being busy (“I need more help”) and not an institutional vision. To be a part of those bigger conversations—it is a “we” thing. The first step for any person in any size shop is to begin the conversation always from the strategic outlook of, “let’s talk about being mission-centered and sustainable over time.”—Taraneh Rohani, The Spence School (NY)
Rethink advertising budgets.
Our budget has not changed significantly over the years, but how the budget gets spent has. For instance, we barely have a postage budget any more and most of it actually goes towards broadcast mail (Emma) fees. We do much less printing than we once did and much less print advertising, but we spend more on aggregating sites like Boarding School Review and Niche. The challenges include the constant struggle to keep up with where social media is moving, staying current with search engine optimization, and responding to the changing needs of the admissions and development offices, since personnel there seems to change more frequently than in other offices.—Sherri Bergman, St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School (TN)
I have worked in independent school marketing and communications since 2000, and I have witnessed firsthand the growth of the job’s responsibilities in contrast to the growth of staffing and budgets. I—like some of the people featured in this article—am an office of one, someone who fully understands that it can sometimes seem like lonely and thankless work. But I am comforted knowing there’s an army of us out there, all going through this professional metamorphosis together.
I am immensely proud of my ever-present MarComm tribe, out there every day, rolling up our sleeves, just as willing to update the website as we are to sit in a board meeting discussing five-year strategic initiatives. To wit, when interviewing Jane Armstrong, I mentioned I was in the process of rewriting my school’s social media policy, and she said, “The fact that you, in your role, are responsible for that policy setting—that’s high level work. You are working with school lawyers. That’s not making sure the basketball score gets posted within 24 hours of the game, though that also comes under the auspice of [your] office. Communications touches every arena of the school.”
Indeed, it does. As Sherri Bergman, director of communications and marketing at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School (TN) put it, “The MarComm office is like a traffic helicopter. We have a perspective on the lanes that gives us a broader picture of the full institution and, when used right, the ability to see snarls up ahead and ways to avoid accidents.”
I am hopeful that this article, in conjunction with an ongoing discussion of the ever-changing face of technology—and the demands of immediacy that come along with it—brings greater awareness to the workhorse of many schools: the MarComm office.