Research Insights: Understanding the State of Independent School Marketing

Spring 2023

By Joseph Corbett

This article appeared as "On Your Market" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

Do you know how much independent schools spend on marketing? Whether a typical marketing team reports to its head of school? What digital marketing tactics are most effective? 

Much like the independent school education landscape, the marketing world has changed drastically in the past decade. Keeping up with the changes and the latest strategies and tactics can be challenging, and for independent schools that need strong marketing operations and strategy to attract, enroll, and retain families, having answers to these questions is critical.

In 2021, NAIS surveyed member school admission and marketing leaders to learn more about the state, structure, practices, and needs of marketing teams at independent schools. Working with Metric Marketing, an agency with experience in the independent school sector, NAIS asked about marketing team structure and size, budgeting for various marketing techniques, use and effectiveness of traditional and digital marketing platforms, and more. Responses came from 289 schools, including day (83%) and boarding (17%) schools; almost 9 in 10 schools were coeducational (89%), and over half (58%) included elementary and secondary grade levels. The full NAIS report, “2021 State of Independent School Marketing Survey,” contextualizes the findings with advice for independent school marketing teams.

The Findings

We organized the results of the study into three chapters, each focused on a specific area related to school marketing efforts. Each section includes several key findings as well as insights for school marketing professionals.

Structure, size, budget, and strategy. Knowing what marketing teams at other schools look like, how they operate, and how much they spend can help you better understand not just how you compare to peer schools but also how to make a case for more resources. Chapter 1 discusses marketing team size, reporting structure, and budget.

Almost 90% of schools reported having marketing teams of three or fewer full-time employees. Half of schools reported having two to three staff members, while 34% reported having just one marketing staff member. Not surprising, larger schools were significantly more likely than small schools to employ more than three full-time marketing employees (36% of schools with more than 701 students, compared to no schools under 201 students).

Insight: If budget is not an obstacle, having two or three staff members allows schools to tap into a range of skills, such as creating strategic marketing plans or crafting communications pieces. When growing beyond this, schools should hire strategically, based on the types of tactical implementation required. 

More than two-thirds of the main staffers responsible for marketing report to the head of school. An additional 15% report to an advancement officer, 6% report to an assistant or associate head of school, and 6% report to a communications officer.

Insight: Reporting to the head of school provides the strongest connection to the chief decision-maker, creating a stronger connection between a school’s marketing and programming efforts. Heads of school need their marketing teams to bring them the data to make decisions, demonstrate return on investment (ROI), and secure funding.

Digital marketing. Given that 97% of schools engage in some form of digital marketing—defined as marketing using internet-based technologies—it’s important to understand what’s most effective and what other marketers are doing. Chapter 2 explores platforms, programs, and websites; participants’ perceptions of the effectiveness of their digital marketing efforts; and challenges and questions about tactics and measurement. 

Fifty percent of schools say their digital marketing performance was “somewhat effective” in the 2020–2021 school year. Thirty-nine percent rated their digital marketing performance as “very effective,” while only 3% of schools rated their performance as “not very effective.” Large schools and elementary schools were more likely to report very effective digital marketing.

Insight: Evaluating digital marketing performance across channels is key for schools seeking to define their brand position and shape their own narrative. Use data to identify which platforms will deliver the best ROI and to understand your audience and what they want to know. Then tie content planning and key performance indicators (KPIs) back to this.

More than 40% of respondents noted that their top question about digital marketing was how to measure its effectiveness. Another 41% said their top question was whether the right people are seeing or clicking on ads.

Insight: To measure the effectiveness of digital marketing, start by identifying outcomes and the KPIs that directly support them. Once schools measure the right things, they can organize channels, tactics, and content to drive those outcomes. 

It’s important to understand that every channel and ad has a different job, and no single channel or ad works in a vacuum. One way to guide decision-making is to look at the customer journey, a five-stage cycle that a family passes through on the way to selecting a school (awareness, familiarity, consideration, conversion, and loyalty). By determining where families drop off, schools can evaluate the marketing ecosystem as a whole rather than wondering if a single tactic is doing the job.

Marketing channels. Understanding the vast universe of available marketing channels and how other schools are using them can help school marketing professionals fine-tune their efforts. Chapter 3 explores the prevalence and effectiveness of search engine marketing, paid advertising, and other digital and traditional channels, as well as spending and brand positioning.

Almost all schools (99%) reported using social media last year. Other popular marketing channels were paid advertising (87%), email marketing (77%), and organic search (71%). Most schools (53%) said that social media was the most effective digital marketing channel at driving new-student leads over the past year. Thirty-seven percent felt that organic search was most effective, while 33% said paid advertising was most effective.

Insight: To identify which tactics and channels to use, start with a campaign strategy that has clearly defined objectives and measurable outcomes. The information gleaned from the customer journey mapping phase will also shed light on where audiences are looking for answers and the content they wish to see along the way. With this knowledge, schools can prioritize channels and the appropriate content for each.

Generally, schools were less likely to use traditional marketing channels. Only 44% of schools used direct mail, and even fewer used other traditional methods such as radio or billboards. However, three-fourths of schools still reported using magazine advertising.

Insight: As more marketers allocate more of their budget to digital advertising, there is less competition for some traditional advertising media, such as magazine or radio advertisements, so it can make sense to keep these in the mix. Broad awareness messaging platforms—billboards, television, radio—might make sense when a school is largely unknown and there is a large potential audience or when such media offer targeted potential (a billboard near a major employer that hires potential school families). That said, it’s usually best to get the right message to the right audience at the right time, which is more easily achieved through targeted advertising (a print ad in a relevant magazine or a direct mail piece to a specific demographic).

Action Steps

The marketing landscape will continue to shift along with the market and demand for independent schools. School marketing professionals will better set their schools up for success if they focus on creating systems and processes to collect better data, understand the customer journey and build recruitment campaigns based on that, and invest in and use customer relationship management (CRM) software to execute an automation strategy for the marketing and admission funnel. 

Get better data. If you don’t know what’s working, you’ll never get to a place where you’re getting better data year over year.

Build a recruitment campaign for your customer journey. Get more out of your media dollars and convert more right-fit families with a well-researched campaign—one that creates an emotional connection by getting the right copy and creative message to the right people at the right place and time.

Build and execute an automation strategy. Use CRM software, email marketing, and other automation software to connect with prospects and qualified leads at key inflection points, shepherding them down the marketing pipeline and admission funnel.
Joseph Corbett

Joseph Corbett is product marketing manager at Clarity, a financial aid solution for K–12 schools. He was most recently a senior analyst at NAIS.