A Strategic Partnership to Drive Enrollment

Winter 2019

By Meghan D. Hodgin

There are many ways independent schools organize their leadership structures. Some schools have marketing and communications offices hidden deep within the development or advancement functions. Such offices may be tasked with providing support on events, proofing, and copywriting for the website or social media. Other schools have elevated the office, giving the communications and marketing role a seat at the administrative table, where it can help make strategic decisions on enrollment and crisis-risk management. Most schools, however, fall somewhere in between. But it’s no longer a question as to whether admission and marketing and communications offices should be strategically aligned to drive enrollment. It is an absolute necessity.

In 2015, as part of the strategic planning process, Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child (NJ) hired an outside consultant to perform an audit of the school’s internal and external communications practices. Conducted over several months and including the admission and communications teams, as well as the head of school, the results of the audit led to elevating the office out from under the umbrella of advancement. The office of marketing and communications became its own autonomous department with its own budgets, with the director reporting to the head of school. Now, the team is more closely aligned with the admission office and includes annual objectives based on the school’s overall strategic plan and goals.

The school’s enrollment management goal in the strategic plan now asks us to raise visibility, name recognition, and brand awareness. After this shift, the marketing and communications team partnered with the admission office over the 2017–2018 school year to beta-test an enrollment marketing approach, focused heavily on content marketing, with lower school admission to gain more inquiries and leads.

Embracing Shared Goals

The marketing and communications office once served as the internal agency for other teams, providing in-house writing, editing, printing, and graphic design services to departments across the school. Admission was a major client, placing orders such as open house online registration form creation and event banners and flyers to promote events. While the marketing and communications office still serves that role, there’s now a much deeper strategic vision. That means we must make hard decisions about whether we need to work with outside consultants because of resource and time constraints.

As the partnership took hold, admission and marketing and communications came together with an understanding that they were on the same team. As two major administrative functions, it was key to see the strengths of both departments. The four-person admission team needed to understand that the two-person marketing and communications office was no longer an agency for placing orders; marketing and communications was now a major decision-maker when it came to the way the school presented itself to the public. Marketing and communications needed to understand the inner workings of the admission office—goals, software, challenges, and limitations.

There is a natural connection between admission and marketing and communications. Admission teams are experts in recruitment and sales, but they need the help of marketing and communications to visually tell schools’ stories. We needed to take a look at how marketing could help strengthen some of the admission initiatives—admission and marketing collateral, website content, advertising, event planning, enrollment communication, and more. One of the biggest joint initiatives has been the development of a mapped enrollment journey. Created with a traditional buyer’s journey in mind, we produced an enrollment journey with the goal of understanding how, when, and where we communicated with prospective families as they traveled through each stage of the enrollment process (see “Enrollment Journey” below).

As we reviewed this journey, we conducted an internal audit of the various communication efforts put forth by the admission and marketing and communications teams. We saw our weaknesses and understood where we might be falling short on follow-up with prospective families. We also saw where we overlapped—there were many cases when we were duplicating efforts in communicating with the same inquiries and leads. We began to streamline our processes and work toward our common goals.

Carrying Through with Content Campaigns

Based on our understanding of the enrollment journey, we came together to map out a series of lead-nurturing campaigns to ensure there were no holes in our admission-communications process. This included a series of content, including a video about overcoming separation anxiety (drafted by our admission director), an e-book on 10 ways to prepare your child for kindergarten (drafted with the help of admission and teachers), and an e-book called the Freshman Survival Guide (written by current seniors).

Together, we brainstormed ideas to provide relevant and helpful information to our target market, establish ourselves as thought leaders in education, and collect contact information of families who fit our target market. Admission provided lists of segmented audiences that were then pushed a series of automated emails from marketing and communications. Those interested in downloading our content were asked for contact information in a form before they received the desired content.

We also created a blog with helpful parenting and general school advice. The content, geared toward parents as well as our older students, comes from the marketing and communications office and has occasional student and faculty guest bloggers. At the end of each post, we encourage our readers to subscribe to our blog, click to learn more about our school, or download content. The goal of every blog post is to draw new leads. Every topic covered has to pass the test of, “Would a prospective applicant or parent be online searching for this topic?” We use Google Analytics, consider search engine optimization, and tap the brain trust of the admission team, teachers, and students to come up with blog post ideas. This helps to ensure we are considering prospective applicants with every post.

After someone subscribes to our blog, downloads content, inquires about the school, or registers for one of our open houses, we use the HubSpot marketing automation platform to drip a series of relevant emails to recipients. These emails are responsive and are only delivered to those who take certain actions (open the emails, click on certain links, etc.). The purpose is to guide prospective families through the enrollment process by encouraging them to either register for an open house or apply to the school.

Reaching Our Goals

Year over year (2016–2017 and 2017–2018), we saw a 72 percent increase in lower school applications. Although we didn’t roll out the full campaign for the upper school last year, we started using drip marketing for that group, and we saw a 30 percent increase in upper school applications. Overall, our school saw a 48 percent increase in lower and upper school applications, year over year. We’re not fully able to attribute the increase in applications solely to our admission-marketing partnership and the content marketing approach, but we are able to track conversions from our blog and content offers to see the significant impact.

We have conducted A/B testing on our email workflows to see which emails resonated the most with prospective families. This is trial and error and means the marketing and communications office has to really pay attention to the types of emails being sent and the types of people who are responding positively—or negatively—to that content. We’re learning when to send emails and ideal open and click rates, and also the type of content that really resonates with our target audiences. Going forward, we have been able to strategically map out the types of emails we send to prospective families to make sure they’re relevant.

For the 2018–2019 school year, we’re taking the partnership a step further, with marketing and communications influencing the types of communication sent to applicants after they apply. This includes current student and alumni success stories, curriculum spotlights, and news from the school. Marketing the school does not end once an applicant hits “submit” on the application form. It continues well beyond initial enrollment. Because of the competitive landscape, many schools are courting the same students, so it’s about continually reinforcing our school’s brand well after they commit—and the most strategic way to do that is by coming together.

Meghan D. Hodgin

Meghan D. Hodgin is director of marketing and communications at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in Summit, New Jersey.