Learn to Love Your Marcom Director (and Vice Versa)

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Two hands holding a friendship locket labeled "Marketing" and "Admission"

Raise your hand if you’ve been through this before. You’re an admission director who’s seeing low numbers in a certain age group, so you send a last-minute request to your counterpart in the marcom department. You need more inquiries stat! You fire off an email to the marcom director and … crickets.

Or, you’re the marcom director on the receiving end of the request. Several follow-up questions come to mind: What was our goal in the first place? How can we generate leads for a specific grade? Where will this fit among the 70 other things I was asked for today? Your head starts to hurt, and you snooze the email for two days. 

Welcome to The Great Marketing-Admission Divide, a phenomenon affecting independent schools everywhere, in which the marketing and admission teams are out of sync when they should be extremely close. In many schools, marcom directors are like line cooks in a restaurant kitchen, reviewing order tickets, pulling them down, and making meals on-demand. Need an ad? Check! Website update? Check! Landing page set up? Check, check, check! Where marcom is behind the scenes providing support, admission is the team that Gets Things Done, performing the wizardry that brings in new students every year. 

There are a lot of reasons for this. A big one is that the marcom function is still relatively new in K-12 schools, and as a result, it’s often misunderstood. Once upon a time, the marcom director was mostly in charge of publications and walking around campus with a camera. The role has expanded significantly but the perception hasn’t. And marcom’s value as a strategic partner for admission can get lost in the daily demands of balancing enrollment marketing with serving as an in-house marketing agency. 

On the other hand, the important role admission plays by recruiting students is better understood, and ultimately, more valued. Nothing can happen in a school without students (or the revenue they bring), and for faculty, administrators, and even your board, that’s more tangible than the behind-the-scenes work that often happens in marcom. 

But admission directors still need love too. While they’re juggling all of the things that compete for their attention over the course of an admission cycle, having the time to take a step back and strategize with a marketing colleague is a luxury, especially for schools that are persistently under-enrolled. Marketers need to be patient with their friends in admission. 

So if you’re leading one of these teams, what can you do to bring them together? Here are some things that I’ve learned about bridging this divide and the magic that happens when you do:

Get to Know Each Other Better

First things first. It’s hard to partner when you don’t understand what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes. How well does your marcom director actually understand the admission process at your school? This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you’ve been working in the kinds of silos I just described, they might not understand much about how their work impacts your ability to recruit families. Plus, InspirED School Marketers’ 2020 Private School Marcom Survey showed that nearly 50% of the school marketers who responded came from outside the private school world. If it hasn’t happened already, a conversation about your school’s admission process and the marcom team’s role in supporting it is an important one to have.

If you’re a marcom director, how well does your admission director understand the scope of services your office provides and the other demands being placed on your time? If you’re a department of one, this is really important. School marcom departments are notoriously understaffed — set clear expectations for what you can and can’t do, any processes you have in place for taking on new projects, and ask for help with prioritizing requests. 

Having these honest, necessary conversations will help you build trust across departments and better understand where your counterpart on the other team is coming from.

Partner on Your Plans

Instead of a marcom director fulfilling requests based on an enrollment management plan they haven’t seen, marketing and admission should work on that plan together, every year. When both of you — and your teams — are aligned on your goals, priorities, and KPIs, the work is not just about “what” you’re doing but also the “why” behind it. It also gives you both something to refer back to when a colleague returns from a conference with a brilliant idea, or emails a link from another school to something you just “have” to try. Partnering on your enrollment marketing plan empowers you both to say “yes” to the things that will help you achieve your goals and “no” to the things that won’t. 

Get Your Data in Order

To take things a step further, integrate your data. Reports with inquiry, applicant, and enrollment metrics are table stakes, but they only tell part of the story. Where are your inquiries coming from? How are they getting to your website? Are you having more success from paid social campaigns or paid search? This is the kind of information that often lives in the marcom office. Pairing it with enrollment-centric data allows you to tell a richer story about where your new families are coming from and demonstrate the marketing-admission partnership that moves that process along. For marketers, this is huge — if you’re looking to raise your department’s profile, connecting your work to your school’s enrollment numbers should be at the top of your to-do list. 

Learn to Speak the Same Language 

This one might take time, but the more closely you work together, the more natural it becomes. While admission pros are using words like “funnel,” “yield,” and “melt,” marketers are talking about creative briefs, keywords, and style guides. Try sharing resources like newsletters, blog posts, and books related to your disciplines, and if you have the budget, attending industry conferences or local professional development events together. 

In addition to working thisclose with our director of enrollment management and financial aid, my having one foot in marketing and the other in enrollment management (in addition to the arms I have in other functions) has significantly increased my team’s ability to support hers. The reverse is also true. Using and understanding common language makes collaboration a lot easier.

Keep Each Other in the Loop 

Marcom directors often have a 30,000-foot institutional view that’s hard to come by in admission. While the admission team is on the front lines recruiting and enrolling new families, the marcom director is aware of the programmatic changes, crises and cultural shifts happening on the other side because they have to write about them. Admissions can connect the dots about what’s resonating with prospective families, while marketing can make broader institutional connections that can inform interactions with the families in your pipeline (and warn admission about potential communication curveballs). 

From an operational standpoint, get ready to talk to each other … a lot. At a minimum, once you’ve done the work of planning together, schedule a standing meeting to review where you are with the time-bound aspects of your plan, to brainstorm ideas, and simply give each other a heads up about things you both need to know to support each other’s work. Doing this creates accountability (no more snoozing emails), ensures that everyone is on the same page about where you stand with your enrollment marketing plan, and allows you to anticipate each other’s needs. The results are fewer marketing surprises, more thoughtful decisions, and fewer frustrations — for both of you.

So there you have it. Even though tension between marketing and admissions is common, it doesn’t have to be. Your marcom and admission teams are more effective and efficient when they work together — I’ve experienced it first hand. Without giving away trade secrets, I can tell you that my school is on track to see it’s highest fall enrollment in seven years, and that isn’t by accident. It also isn’t because of some secret sauce that exists in my team or in the admission team. It is because two people decided to put their energy into creating a partnership, learning from each other, and aligning on a shared sense of purpose.    

Angela Brown

Angela Brown

Angela Brown joined Niche in 2021. Before joining Niche, she was director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School in Virginia. In her role at Niche, Angela creates content, research, and insights to help PK-12 marketing, communications, and admissions professionals refine their strategies, hone their craft, and elevate their roles in schools. In addition to creating content for Enrollment Insights, Angela is a regular presenter, writer, and podcast guest. She is a member of the National School Public Relations Association, American Marketing Association, and The Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP), and serves on the Advisory Board for the Marcom Society, an exclusive online community for independent school marketing and communication professionals. Since November 2020, she has served as a judge for the Brilliance Awards, which honors marketing and communications work from PK-12 private schools around the world.

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