Gone are the days when communications directors could send a press release to the local media and get coverage. There are no guarantees that a school’s announcement would even be seen if a press release were picked up. After all, there have been tremendous declines in readership and viewership for traditional media. We have entered a world in which independent schools have become their own storytellers and content creators.
Thanks to technology, we can share our stories using blogs, podcasts, videos, social media channels, online magazines, and digital newsletters, and can provide families with deeper, richer insights into our schools.
“Twelve years ago, if you got your newsletter posted, website and ads posted, that was all that was expected,” says Liz Ball, director of marketing and communications for The Westminster Schools (GA). “Today, communications directors are strategic partners for the entire institution, telling our story and engaging in strategic conversations.”
Communications and marketing directors are strategic leaders who support heads of school and leadership teams with messaging and positioning to advance the mission of their schools. They are developing engaging and effective content to achieve such institutional goals as attracting more prospective families, deepening their relationships with current families, increasing alumni engagement, and setting schools apart from competitors.
Developing a Content Strategy
Achieving school goals starts with developing a strong plan. You can’t just write any story about your school, post it on Facebook, and expect the phone to start ringing with prospective families. Stacy Jagodowski, director of marketing and communications for Alice and Nahum Lainer School (CA), says that before deciding whether to start a blog, produce a video, or start another social media channel, ask yourself, “ ‘What are my goals?’ If you know what your goal is, your specific purpose, then you can decide which platform is an effective tool to meet that goal.”
For example, if your goal is to increase inquiries for kindergarten, you might create a blog post featuring your lower school division head writing, “Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten?” Post the link on Facebook, and use Facebook’s interests and demographics tools to target families in your region who have an interest in education and who have elementary school-age children. When parents click on the blog post, there is a link to the school website where they can download a “Guide to Kindergarten Readiness.” To download the free guide, the parent provides a name and email address, giving you a potential new lead.
There are multiple resources available to help communications departments develop content strategies. Brendan Schneider, director of advancement at Sewickley Academy (PA), recommends Inbound Marketing: Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online by HubSpot founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah. Schneider, an early adopter of inbound marketing—the process of attracting prospects (such as potential families and students) to a website with relevant and helpful content and to continue to engage with them with additional content—uses HubSpot’s five-step process:
Once you have identified your goals, you can determine which platforms are best for creating content.
- Develop personas of individuals (parents or students) who you are trying to attract. What are their needs and goals?
- Research keywords that individuals are using to search and make sure your website is optimized for their keyword searches.
- Create content that attracts these personas.
- Use social media to share the content.
- Drive them back to your website.
Banking on the Blog
Some schools find that their blogs can be an effective tool for recruiting prospective families; for others, their blogs are used as a vehicle for retention, reminding current families why they chose a particular school. Mike Hatfield, director of admission at Powhatan School (VA), had simple goals with the school’s blog, Powhatan Pulse. “We wanted to drive traffic to our website, to showcase certain brand drivers, provide content that would position us as a thought leader in education locally, and obviously we wanted to increase communication with current parents outside of our normal channels,” he says. Since the blog launched, the school has received 14 percent more inquiries compared with the three years prior. “When we dig through the Google analytics, we see blog visits drove 27 visits to our ‘schedule a campus tour’ page on the website last year. Cross-reference that with 30 percent of our new families found us online, and I’m quite pleased with the results,” he says.
In a previous job, Jagodowski and her team at a New England boarding school developed posts such as “Are Boarding Schools Worth It?,” “How to Choose the Best Boarding School for Your Sport,” and “Are Boarding Schools Better than Public Schools?” The blog posts were shared through social media channels and drove readers back to the website for more information. “Over the three years, we saw a 30 percent increase in enrollment. We realized we could reach the audience we wanted to reach without spending a lot of money,” she says.
Think about how your blog posts can be turned into downloadable white papers that families want and are willing to give you a little information about themselves to access this content. At Sewickley Academy, if families provide their name and email address, they can download a free guide, “27 Questions to Help You Evaluate a School for Your Child.” “I call these pre-inquiry magnets,” Schneider says.
Storytelling with Videos
Videos create emotional connections and are the most shared content on social media. According to Adweek, videos get more than 100 percent more reach than photos on Facebook and are six times more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than tweets with just images.
At Currey Ingram Academy (TN), a K-12 school for students with learning differences, we know that families spend a lot of time online searching for resources for their children who are struggling in their current school environment. Our goal was to raise awareness about how we teach—students who learn differently need to be taught differently. We developed a series of videos explaining our methods and posted them on our website and social media channels to attract prospective families. We also include them in our weekly all-school newsletter for current families.
Liza Cohen, director of communications for Dana Hall School (MA), says, “We see video as another important tool in our arsenal of opportunities for outreach and engagement.” Cohen and her team created a series of short videos, which live on the school’s website and are used in email outreach, social media, and even a paid advertising campaign. The videos create an emotional connection with parents who want to develop the attributes highlighted in the videos—courage, leadership, and originality—in their daughters.
Videos also can help reinforce a school’s value proposition for current families, re-engage alumni, and steward donors. Hatfield recorded an event at Powhatan’s new outdoor facilities that featured nature experts participating in a wetlands project. The head of school sent the video and a blog post later that day to the donor. “It’s a way to steward the gift without the donor being there,” he says.
Scott Allenby, director of communications and marketing for Proctor Academy (MA), says his team created a video of new students packing for their retreat, posted it on social media, and sent the link to the students’ parents. They also sent the link to alumni to re-engage those who might have remembered participating in the annual event. “We’ll repurpose the content for the different channels and different audiences,” Allenby says.
Packing a Punch with Podcasts
Podcasts are experiencing an enormous rise in popularity. In the most recent figures, more than 48 million people listen to podcasts weekly, according to Nielsen Scarborough research. Podcasts are easy to download and to listen to anywhere. For communications specialists to produce an episode, all it takes is a good microphone and some editing software. Like blogs and videos, the key is to make podcasts relevant to your audience.
At Powhatan, Hatfield had been researching ways to drive traffic back to the school’s website. Rather than uploading to iTunes or other podcast-hosting sites, Hatfield embeds the podcasts on the blog. They feature interviews with teachers and focus on project-based learning, cross-curricular projects, the makerspace, professional development, innovation, and other school themes. Powhatan’s head of school also does a monthly podcast that accompanies her monthly message to the community. “They’re very successful. And our teachers are open to it because they don’t have to be on camera,” Hatfield says.
Since launching in 2014, Powhatan has created 35 podcasts for the blog and three podcasts on “demystifying the admission process.” Over the past four years, the top 20 podcasts have received a total of 7,752 page views. The time on page is almost three times that of the average sitewide, and the bounce rate is typically 12 percent less than that of an average page. “At the end of the day, though, I always tie it back into inquiries/tours data,” Hatfield says.
Social Media Spotlight
With the explosive growth of social media channels, many schools poured content into them without much of a strategy. That was the case for Beth Stefanik, director of communications at St. Anne’s Belfield School (VA). At first, the team pushed out the same news across all social media channels. After seeing the analytics, they shifted to a strategy that puts different content on different channels. Facebook became a place for photo galleries and text, as well as a place to answer questions for prospective families. Faculty flocked to Twitter, and Stefanik engages with the local media through Twitter. “Instagram is where we have a lot of fun,” Stefanik says. “We might have an outlandish photo of the week. It’s so popular with our current students; they ask who runs the Instagram account and if they can be on it.”
While schools use their social media channels as vehicles to distribute content, these channels also build strong relationships across constituencies. The photos you use on Instagram, the tone you use on Twitter, and the engagement you create with followers on Facebook all contribute to creating connections to your school and to expanding your brand in the marketplace.
Using photography and visual storytelling on social media channels, Scott Nichols, director of digital communications for The Webb Schools (CA), wants to position his school like an East Coast boarding school. “We know the photo will speak for itself, but when you add a caption, which are underutilized, you can tell the story from a whole other angle,” Nichols says. “A lot of what we’re doing in terms of photography is building relationships. We capture these moments to make the viewer feel good, to evoke emotions.”
At Proctor Academy, Allenby is creating a group of parent ambassadors who are very engaged on social media and will share the school’s content. “If word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing, we could use faculty, staff, parents of alumni, alumni, and current parents and ask them to share our content on their social media network. These people are already in our market, they’ve been vetted financially, have children who are about the same age, they have intense buy-in. They are our most engaged audience,” Allenby says.
Independent schools still wrestle with analytics and how content creation equals achievable goals. However, analytics and metrics for websites and social media channels give us much more information about our audiences than traditional media, such as billboards or print ads, ever did.
Fundraising initiatives are an area that shows a stronger connection between content and goals. The Westminster Schools’ Ball says, “Fundraising is actually the space within which we are able to correlate our marketing efforts to the desired action, such as prospect engagement resulting in giving.” She explains that there’s a one-step action that is trackable, whether it be from a social ad or post, an email with a video embed, or a visit to a webpage that leads to an online giving form.
“To monitor how well content campaigns are doing, The Westminster Schools created custom dashboards to track the success of tactics within a framework that shows us how all pieces of a particular campaign are working together to achieve our ultimate goals,” says Ball, who is quick to point out that despite all the new technology and content creation platforms, nothing can substitute the value of personal interaction.
Knowing When to Press Pause
Perhaps even more important than developing content across multiple channels is knowing when to say “no” to a great idea. “We are constantly weighing new things as they come up,” Cohen says. “We looked at Snapchat and didn’t really see a return on it; it was not going to move the needle for us—right now. But six months from now, that might change. We’re trying to stay on top of trends that are cutting-edge, but don’t want to invest too much time on things that are too trendy and are not going to last.”
It’s that insight and knowledge that ensures communications specialists will always be valuable to a school. “Six or seven years ago,” Stefanik says, “people thought we would be out of work because everyone had an iPhone. Now everyone is circling back because there is so much content, you need someone to help you message that content, build strategy around it, and make it useful.” ▪
At Lowell School (DC), there’s an advancement team of three—the director of development, the director of admission, and the director of communications. They keep up with school events, digital advertising trends, and demand for published content, while attending board meetings and sitting on the school’s 10-person administrative team. Three years ago, the team embarked on a strategic branding and marketing initiative, proving that even small teams can develop a strategy, write a marketing plan, garner the necessary buy-in, and use a plan as a roadmap year after year. Read the full online exclusive, by Carolyn Law and Liz Yee.
Readings & Resources
We asked communications specialists what resources they use to stay on top of trends.
Inbound Marketing: Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah
Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is About Help Not Hype by Jay Baer
Harvard Business Review