The business world has capitalized on the evolution in technology, media, and consumer attitudes to reshape strategic decision-making. While there is still a place for educated hunches, business marketing increasingly leverages data from a customer’s actions and attitudes to drive choices in products, messaging, channels, and content.
And just as the education field has followed the business world in its reliance on digital marketing, social media, and video, so too will be the case with data-driven marketing.
Relevant data is almost always found in the marketing activities affecting a school’s pillars of sustainability: attracting new students, keeping current families happy, and raising funds from constituents. These crucial functions rely on virtually every marketing medium, depending on the breadth of your strategic thinking and budget. Nearly every school can capitalize on data drawn from its website, email, direct mail, advertising, admission funnel, and fundraising processes.
With data-driven marketing, school leaders can make more informed decisions on what audiences to target, what channels and media to use, how to best allocate resources, and how to increase relevance and engagement. Your constituents and trustees expect effective stewardship of your school’s marketing investments—and data-driven marketing can help you accomplish that.
Why Use Data NowPertinent data has grown from just email click-through rates, website visits, and number of online gifts to include information about a student’s extracurricular interests or a prospective family’s path through the admission funnel.
But fear not: While data is more pervasive than ever, data-driven marketing need not strip your school of its humanity, or create a cold, impassive communications culture. Few marketing and communications scenarios are as black and white as data. Your institution still needs branding, targeted messaging, emotional connection, and many other “artful” touches. Data is your guide but not your boss.
Schools are increasingly impacted by demographic, financial, and societal changes, and data-driven marketing can help meet those challenges for the following reasons.
• Transition to digital channels. As marketing programs migrate to multiple digital channels, data is much more accessible than when print ads and direct mail dominated.
• Improvements to analytics tools. Ongoing enhancements to Google Analytics and social media tools such as Hootsuite have made it much easier to track basic web and social media activity and produce sophisticated reports. In addition, many of these analystics tools are now free or low-cost.
• Database enhancements. Today’s database platforms allow broader data capture, better correlation between data entities, and more intelligence to connect the dots.
• Data visualization tools. This fast-growing area can help you sell your data-driven recommendations to school leaders. Tools such as Plotly and Tableau increase the impact of your argument, simplify the message, and resonate with visual learners.
• Personalization. With the integration of databases, marketing automation systems, and websites, school marketers can more easily tap relevant data to create effective personalized communications,
especially for admission and development purposes.
• Predictive analytics tools. Predictive models can forecast your future markets based on demographic and psychographic data.
Data-Driven Marketing in ActionThe following case studies show how three schools used their marketing data to improve their performance, results, and return on investment (ROI) in a crucial area.
Sewickley Academy: Rethinking the Open HouseSewickley Academy (PA), a pre-K to 12 school, had a problem. In the fall of 2011, Brendan Schneider, then-director of admissions was concerned about the declining effectiveness of Sewickley’s open houses. Long a marketing staple and significant source of inquiries and applications, the events now required more management time and community commitment, but were bringing in fewer families.
Sewickley had already trimmed the number of open houses from three to two per year. As Schneider reviewed the data from several years of the Saturday morning events, he saw attendance waning but the costs for hosting and advertising rising. Fewer than 15 families, a marked decline, appeared at each open house, and in the last year, none of the attendees applied to the school.
Half the school’s teachers were required to attend each open house, and the drop in prospective families affected morale. The faculty, in addition to staff, students, and parents, were becoming worried about the school’s outlook. And there was concern about prospective parent overload, because the school’s rigorous application process required an on-campus visit regardless of open house attendance.
Simultaneously, Schneider, a pioneer in school inbound marketing, had started “pulling” potential customers in through relevant website, blog, and social media content versus “pushing” ads. He wondered if results would be better if the school replaced the open houses with webinars, which would also bolster the school’s content (inbound) marketing. Fortunately, the school’s marketing culture had long supported innovation and testing.
Schneider compiled trend data on declining attendance from open houses, amplified by the higher hard (financial) and soft (morale) costs. The head of school was quickly swayed by the rationale to end the open houses, but curious about the alternative. Schneider explained that webinars would not just be a substitute for the open houses, but a linchpin in the broader marketing strategy. By leveraging the content Schneider’s team presented in these webinars, Sewickley would improve web traffic, message integration, and social media sharing while still attracting new prospects and reducing costs. Schneider got the green light.
The webinar program evolved into a concise series of sessions focused on educating parents. Topics range from raising boys and empowering girls to financial aid and college guidance to “we don’t teach to the test.” These 40-minute presentations feature subject matter experts, such as the director of support services and the director of college counseling, and conclude with an extensive Q & A period.
In the last three years, Sewickley has averaged 29 registrations per webinar with 50 to 55 percent participation, putting the attendance close to the open houses. The broader inbound marketing strategy, to which the webinar content is crucial, has helped increase inquiries each of the last five years, while eliminating a significant cost bucket.
Culver Academies: Connecting Community Through VideoCulver Academies (IN) is a boarding school with three different components: the Military Academy for boys, the Girls Academy, and a summer camp of 1,400 attendees ages 7 to 18. When Bill Hargraves, director of strategic marketing, came to Culver in 2006, he sought a marketing platform to create connection among these different constituents and their parents, Culver’s faculty and staff, a global alumni base, eager prospective families, and a vibrant local community.
Hargraves believed movies could engage and unify people, and he saw similar possibilities in the nascent medium of video, despite early hurdles in production, distribution, economics, and viewing. Video wove visual and visceral elements into storytelling, crucial to experiencing the environment and understanding its appeal. Furthermore, Hargraves felt that inviting students and faculty to help develop, star in, screen, and support videos would create a key external marketing tool and shared internal passion.
The first test was for the summer camp. In 2007, video delivery was primitive and analytics unknown; Culver made DVDs the primary marketing vehicle for prospective families. Camp registrations soared, so Hargraves enlisted Head of School John Buxton and his wife, Pam, to feature their unique perspective as a way to connect with the school’s broader constituencies. Community affirmation led to more videos, and by 2010, Culver began using Vimeo and benchmarking views against colleges.
In 2010, as video traffic jumped from dozens to hundreds and gradually to thousands, Hargraves proposed a major strategic shift: dropping the viewbook and broad-based print to cover the costs of a full-time videographer and targeted direct mail. He tested a new style of on-camera interviews versus narration and saw traffic rise by 10 to 400 percent, depending on the video, with multiple videos having more than 1,000 views.
In response to changing market tastes, Culver recently began creating shorter videos and posting them on Instagram, where several have garnered more than 1,000 views. Videos that appeal to all members of the Culver community, including “Culver Academies Overview,” “The Promise,” and personal stories such as the surprise homecoming of a returning veteran, have enhanced the brand and gained up to 28,000 views. These, as well as other targeted videos based on interests, age, culture, and background, have complemented foundational efforts. This content has helped Culver increase new enrollment and retention in the last several years despite challenging market conditions. In addition, video is integral to the school’s parent ambassadors program in which ambassadors email prospective families with links to general videos such as “Learning to Learn” or to videos focused on subjects (like horseback riding).
Hargraves emphasizes, however, that data is just a means to an end. “Our videos are both data-driven and brand-driven,” he says. “When they create engagement and positive feedback about Culver’s unique value, we expect marketing success to follow.”
Ravenscroft School: Enhancing Recruitment and RetentionJason Ramsden, the chief information officer at Ravenscroft (NC), a pre-K to 12 coed day school, has found that data is essential to spotting trends and strategic opportunities in enrollment and retention. Ramsden supports not only marketing but also admission, division heads, and the business office.
Ramsden uses his home-grown model to forecast enrollment for the lower, middle, and upper schools. To create the model, Ramsden used historical data as the baseline. He then tracked each grade from 2010–2011 to 2017–2018, focusing on year-to-year additions and subtractions, percentage changes, and at what juncture those changes occurred (especially the critical transition years between divisions).
This basic historical data drives forecasted enrollment, which informs budget numbers, retention targets for division heads, and admission strategies for the next year. The granular class-based forecast directs admission priorities, highlights attrition red flags, guides targeted marketing campaigns, and creates a friendly retention competition among the divisions. In addition, the approach ensures Ravenscroft meets its commitment to existing parents so that no class is oversubscribed. How well does the model do that? In 2017, Ravencroft had 1,142 enrollments vs. a projected 1,143.
Ramsden was also part of a team to address challenges in lower school enrollment: The school wanted to add new bus stops to attract and retain families who might otherwise think Ravenscroft is too far away. To determine the new bus stop locations, Ramsden benchmarked a school bus network in Atlanta, a city similar in size and growth rate to Raleigh (where the school is located) and used Google My Maps to create a cluster map based on ZIP codes of inquiries and current families from 2013 to 2017.
He then overlaid the map on the school’s current and planned bus routes to highlight optimal spots for new bus pick-ups. For 2017–2018, Ramsden’s analysis pared the number of new bus stops from three to two, one in a location with growth potential. The expanded offering sparked a marketing test campaign with the tagline “You get them up, we’ll get them here,” which is now a permanent part of the school’s transportation webpage. Ravenscroft will be watching ridership closely this year and adapting future routes accordingly.
Getting StartedYou might be sold on the power of data-driven marketing, but unsure how to start. Here are ways to get the ball rolling:
• Define a significant problem or area of opportunity. Though campaigns affecting admissions, fundraising, or retention usually have the largest financial effect, most institutions can improve in many other areas. For example, you can use basic campaign data to learn what best motivates alumni to return to campus, including different strategies for planning 50th reunions vs. 5th.
• Analyze the data to illuminate your areas of concern. Take a closer look at your data to find out why you are having problems in certain areas. If admission is down, perhaps the percentage of families inquiring but not applying is increasing. If the annual fund is off, maybe renewal gifts among targeted alumni have dropped, or the click-through rate for the parent e-newsletter is down. By following the data, you can discover potential improvements in your offerings, image, processes, people, or other key factors. You may need market research, committees, testing, or other diagnostic approaches to uncover the full scope of the problem.
• Develop a plan to address the root cause(s). Solutions can range from simple to complex. You could add videos to your website or images to your social media posts (low degree of difficulty), redesign your website for improved mobile presentation (medium), or reshape your academic offerings, admission process, or brand (high). Regardless, your plan must include the goal, ownership, specific deliverables, timeline, and success metrics.
• Assess the results and take corrective action along the way. Don’t wait until the completion date to assess your plan. Use relevant data and constituent (including internal) feedback to monitor your progress and take steps to improve. Depending on your project, the data may tell all, most, or just some of the story, so start there and broaden your analysis as needed.
Data is transforming the way we live, work, and market. It has become indispensable to businesses that must make hard choices about strategy and resource allocation. It should become indispensable to independent schools, too.
Bonus Case Studies
Buckingham Browne & Nichols School: Expanding DiversityIn 2006, the board of directors at Buckingham Browne & Nichols (MA), a K to 12 coed school, assessed the demographics of race in Cambridge and Boston, and wondered why the school’s student diversity didn’t reflect that of its broader target market. Minorities made up only 24.7 percent of BB&N’s student population in the 2007-2008 school year.
The board set a goal to increase diversity in the student body by 30 percent by 2016-2017. At first, the school used traditional outreach—including fairs, advertising, and partnerships with organizations that serve diverse families. But Geordie Mitchell, director of enrollment management and strategic initiatives, had to think creatively when those tactics didn’t lead to an uptick in minority students.
As a strategic and cultural concern, BB&N required that the diversity initiative not recruit predominantly scholarship students. Mitchell, nationally respected for his data-driven approach to governance and admission, looked at the presence of blacks and Hispanics in the community, and how the populations correlated with income levels. Mitchell chose “ring studies” to provide broad data surrounding a central point and learned where minorities live in relation to the school. He also reviewed neighborhood growth projections for five and 10 years.
Mitchell soon recognized that data was only the starting point. To achieve a strategic and socially impactful program, he recruited local competitors to share admission data, prospective families, and marketing efforts. He reached out to Shady Hill School, a pre-K to 8 school in Cambridge, and The Park School, a pre-K to 8 school in Brookline, and the partnership grew into a consortium that eventually included Brimmer and May School, Cambridge Friends School, Cambridge Montessori School, The Chestnut Hill School, The Fessenden School, and Kingsley Montessori School.
Together, the schools created a marketing plan. They leveraged their own minority parents who shared their independent school experiences, helped develop messaging, and served as ambassadors and word-of-mouth marketers. The parents as well as teachers and alumni held evening panels for prospective families. BB&N adopted Mitchell’s proposal to expand the bus program to reach a wider range of socioeconomic families.
The program has helped BB&N far surpass the board’s original goal of increasing diversity by 30 percent by 2016–2017; the 36 percent minority enrollment for 2016–2017 was nearly a 50 percent increase from 2007–2008. In the lower school, 41 percent of the students are minorities. This diversification has enhanced the school’s culture and created opportunities for a breadth of new families. Mitchell also says, “Despite competing for students, the consortium members developed collegiality and respect as we worked toward a common, higher-purpose goal.”
Whitfield School: Discovering Big Opportunities in Social MediaWhitfield School (MO), a coed college prep school for grades 6 to 12, operates in a very competitive market with a relatively small pool of prospective students. Marketing—specifically on social media, according to Rebecca (Becky) Marsh, director of Communications & Marketing—would be key to positioning Whitfield as a leader. She already knew that Whitfield moms were on Facebook; dads were on Twitter; student influencers were on Instagram and Snapchat; and the school’s social media platforms were closely linked to Whitfield’s responsive website redesign in 2014.
Marsh selected website partner Finalsite to dive deeper into data and perform a social media audit. It went beyond traditional metrics, such as the number of likes and followers and the frequency of posts, to assess community engagement and how it compared with Whitfield’s competition. The report looked at external posts, retweets, shares, and topics that led to constituent involvement. Finalsite discovered that social media and word of mouth were crucial for all the schools—and a major opportunity at Whitfield.
Simultaneously, the school identified Whitfield’s college-counseling program as a key differentiator. At the end of students’ sophomore years, they work with two full-time college counselors. Prospective parents have been impressed by the results (nearly all Whitfield graduates are accepted to their top-choice schools), and in many cases, parents with children at different schools reported more satisfaction with their Whitfield student’s college acceptances. College admissions is a popular topic on social media, and Whitfield has already seen conversations about its program there.
Marsh’s proposed marketing strategy—based on Finalsite benchmarking data and the success of the college counseling program, and with support from the trustees and the head of school—would test Facebook and Twitter ads while reducing print advertising.
Analytics showed that social media ads, which Marsh tweaked weekly based on clicks, sharing, costs, web traffic, and other metrics, had the biggest impact. When compared with other components of the 2016 campaign, which included the website, direct mail, print and digital ads, and retargeting, Marsh saw the most success on social: double-digit increases in key Facebook and Twitter metrics; 73 percent of new web traffic and longer site visits; 38 admission goals, such as inquiry form submissions, Open House registrations, college counseling queries, or application downloads.
The enrollment of 445 for 2017-2018 is the largest since 2008. Marsh and her colleagues agree that “while this enrollment accomplishment is due to many schoolwide factors, the use of data-driven marketing to create the social media strategy had a significant influence.”
St. Anne School: Increasing Fundraising with Targeted AppealsIn its 25-year history, St. Anne School (CA), a Roman Catholic pre-K to 8 school, relied on event-based fundraising, primarily golf outings and an annual auction. Even without annual giving, there was generous support from founders, families, and friends. But when John O’Brien became president of St. Anne, he brought respect for school tradition as well as innovative, analytical thinking. He succeeded a leader without a background in traditional independent schools, and O’Brien believed conditions were ripe for an annual fund.
After collaborating with the board and head of school, O’Brien decided to launch an annual fund in the fall of 2016. With many West Coast families unfamiliar with annual giving in a school setting, O’Brien and his team immediately started a dialogue.
Students, who were incentivized with a “free dress pass,” were encouraged to remind their parents to participate in an initial survey. It received 255 submissions from 501 emails and asked about parents’ participation and what they thought of their children’s experiences. It also gauged their satisfaction and asked for improvement recommendations. These questions overlapped with charity-related questions, such as “How knowledgeable are you about the use of the school’s donations?” “What factors might encourage you to give more?” “What type of recognition do you prefer?” “Where does St. Anne rank in your philanthropic priorities?”
The responses provided clear direction for the fundraising strategy. Only 10 percent of parents were “very knowledgeable” about how gifts were applied, with 48 percent “somewhat or not at all.” Sixty percent chose “transparency” as the factor that would “encourage additional giving,” and 46 percent preferred making a restricted gift. This data drove the marketing tactics: An email to all parents summarized key findings, and pledged full transparency throughout the campaign and allocation of donations. The publication of A Parents’ Guide to Giving and Getting Involved followed.
O’Brien and head of school Steven Cunningham made a video, presented on the school’s website and in a parent email, which talked about how money would support technology enhancements and increase faculty professional development; both of these areas are high priorities for parents as identified in previous surveys and meetings. Last summer, O’Brien announced that the school achieved 600 percent of its annual fund goal. Gifts funded the launch of a four-year MacBook program for fifth- to eighth-graders, and additional interactive projectors ensured 100 percent classroom coverage.
Data was critical to the fundraising strategy, and it’s equally important for future forecasting. O’Brien knew the strong results mandated new thinking: The goal is 50 percent higher than total donations in 2016-2017, while parent participation that was 27 percent is now targeted at 50 percent.