Parents have more choices than ever when it comes to selecting a school for their children. Gone are the days when kindergarten enrollment was a simple transaction—fill out these forms and you’re good to go. Instead, crafting an effective district enrollment marketing plan is about storytelling, keywords, and connecting to potential families.
Jennifer Valley, Director of Marketing & Communications at Richfield Public Schools (MN), and Janet Swiecichowski, APR, Vice President at CEL Marketing PR Design, presented invaluable tips for developing an enrollment marketing plan at the 2022 Niche PK-12 Virtual Enrollment and Marketing Summit.
“The pandemic really taught us that families can work and learn from anywhere,” said Swiecichowski. “School marketing is no longer just about enrolling the people that walk in your door.” This generation of parents does their research. They’re looking for the right fit for their family, and they’re using all their resources to find that fit. Swiecichowski shares that families often start their research with an internet search. So, search engine optimization (SEO) is important, as is a school website. That first impression your website makes is critical.
Your School System Website
Richfield Public Schools has taken that advice to heart by developing a website that is mobile-first and user-first. “We know from our analytics that 50-60% of our users are coming to us from a mobile device or tablet,” said Valley, “so making sure their user experience is just as rich and rewarding as a desktop is super important.”
Richfield Public Schools has incorporated custom landing pages and conversion tracking to drive web traffic and understand how users are experiencing their site, what pages they visit, and what they’re stopping to read. But beyond analytics, how do you know what content your users want to see?
Reaching your audience requires knowing who your audience is and what drives their interest (or disinterest!). Always begin with research.
1. Formal surveys can help you understand your audience and their expectations and needs. Consider adding exit surveys for current families who choose to enroll elsewhere—what is their impetus for leaving?
2. Annual feedback from staff, students, families, and your community to understand their values and define what your school system wants to be known for.
3. Competitive analysis to determine where you’re losing/gaining students and understand your competitive advantage.
4. Demographic and psychographic studies to understand your community and family audiences.
5. Online audits to understand your online presence—families are looking at sites like Niche, Google, and social media; what are they learning about your district?
6. Community engagement
“Community voice and student voice is incredibly important to our district,” said Valley. “We’re constantly looking for ways to engage our larger community.” Richfield accomplishes this goal through strategic planning and community engagement initiatives such as hosting World Cafe’ forums, community newsletters, and surveys.
Valley also shares the value of having your community act as spokespeople and advocates. How your community members and graduating students speak about your school system can be one of your greatest strengths, but your broader community needs to be engaged before they can speak highly of your district.
Define Your Brand
Your community can’t share your messages if they’re not clear on what those messages are—be certain that you’re developing key messages that ring throughout all of your website and marketing/enrollment materials. As you develop brand ambassadors in the community, having a strong brand with clear messaging will help strengthen your presence.
Richfield Public Schools wants to be known for “real community, personalized learning, rich opportunities, and innovation in action,” shares Valley. “We try to embed those messages in our website, our social media posts, through branded hashtags, in every opportunity we get.”
Share Your Expertise
Parents today are searching for value when it comes to their school enrollment research. What do you have to offer their family or student? Schools are full of experts on child development, and that’s expertise you can leverage. Whether you develop blogs, a webinar series, roundtables, or any other method, find ways to showcase that expertise.
Parents are handing over their most precious resource to schools, and they want to be certain they’ve chosen the right place before committing. Your brand and key messages tell a story of your school system, and your expertise can back up those claims with evidence. Website users will stick around to learn more about what you have to offer when you’re providing content with real value that is relevant to their family.
School enrollment time used to mean updating paperwork to hand over to families, but now the entire user experience for school enrollment matters. Is your school system rolling out the red carpet for prospective families or falling flat? To find out, consider ‘secret shopping’ your enrollment experience to provide advice on what you’re doing well and what could be shored up.
“Our team does this for districts every year,” said Swiecichowski. “We start with the website: am I finding what I need? Am I finding stories that will resonate with me? When I call the school, what is the reception, are they telling me to go back to the website (where I’ve already been), or are they having a conversation with me about how proud they are to work there and work with children, and to be champions for the future?”
Secret shopping your enrollment process should be both a quantitative and a qualitative process. Are families getting the information they need and are they excited to join your school? Does what they see and learn generate an emotional connection with the school?
“Best Schools in America”
When parents are selecting a school for consideration, they’re gathering tips from a variety of sources. They’re reading articles with titles like “Ten Tips for Choosing the Best School” and reading Niche’s lists of the 2022 Best Schools in America. How do you stack up in a pro/cons list? Ensure that your enrollment process ticks off the boxes on checklists like these. You have amazing work going on inside the halls of your school; be certain it is visible to prospective families.
This is also a chance to get creative. When the pandemic shuttered school tours, many districts turned to developing video tours. A positive byproduct is that many families who might otherwise not schedule an in-person tour could interact with the school and feel engaged despite never stepping a foot inside.
On the flip side, some districts scheduled 1:1 after-hours tours with prospective families during the pandemic. But what story did that send? Many schools discovered that taking families through tours after hours resulted in families feeling that schools were sterile and unwelcoming. Though the intentions were good, these tours backfired because school staff lost sight of the real goals: storytelling and showcasing the district’s key messages, not pointing out where the bathrooms are.
Marketing is Everyone’s Job
The bottom line when developing an enrollment marketing plan? “Marketing is everyone’s job!” share both Swiecichowski and Valley. “I can create the best brochures in the world,” said Valley, “and keep the website up-to-date and put fabulous things on social media. But what happens if someone walks into the school office to register and the secretary is having a crabby day? We could have just lost that family. It takes everyone. Everyone influences our enrollment and marketing.”
Richfield Public Schools tackles this through internal communications and support.
1. Customer service training for all client-facing and enrollment positions.
2. Cultivating relationships with key staff members and community members who can be spokespeople for the school system.
3. Social media training for every school, so all content creators understand the purpose of social media and how to effectively use it.
4. Internal marketing training to help administrators and staff understand key messages and how to articulate them.
Once you’ve developed key messages, a strong brand, and content focus, you need to execute your enrollment marketing plan.
Execute Your Strategies
1. Clearly define what you offer
2. Train your frontline staff
3. Share testimonials
4. Update your website
5. Look at online reviews and encourage families to leave reviews
6. Develop your digital strategies and online presence
7. Follow a defined editorial calendar for website and social media content
8. Engage students and teachers to generate stories
9. Claim your listings (such as Niche, Google My Business, etc.)
Set Measurable Goals
When developing your enrollment marketing plan, focus on measurable goals. Do you want to enroll or re-attract local families, connect with alumni or increase open enrollment? Develop a clear way to measure each goal, strategy, and digital tool so that you can evaluate the effectiveness of your campaigns.
Your enrollment marketing plan can convert a transactional relationship between prospective families and your school system into a partnership. The research and relationship building that you develop as you craft your enrollment plan provide invaluable information and resources that you can use across many aspects of your strategic planning. And when something unexpected happens, those relationships and positive experiences will form a strong foundation of support for your district.