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“Based on its reputation, we were really excited for our daughter to apply to USA Academy. She was accepted, but we chose a different school because of our experience with the admission process. It was different from what we expected.”
Every spring when admissions decisions go out, for every happy family celebrating admission to a child’s first-choice school, you can count on a few that had experiences like the one above. While some schools are nailing the connection between brand perception and the admission experience, for others, that connection can be overlooked.
When many people in school leadership think about branding, they focus primarily on what people see: logos, mascots, color schemes, fonts, maybe a style guide. And these items are typically the domain of the marketing and communications office. But your school’s brand is about so much more, and it can only have a meaningful impact if it is operationalized with a shared sense of ownership of it across your institution. That requires collaboration across departments and a constant evaluation of what aspects of the life of your school reinforce or unintentionally conflict with your brand—including admissions. In this post, we’ll look at some of the opportunities you have for your brand to show up as you nurture families through the admission process.
Your Niche Profile
When a parent or guardian begins the school search process online, Niche usually appears at the top of the search engine results page (SERP) for terms like “private schools near me.” And once a parent has narrowed down their shortlist of options, they’ll often return to the platform to compare schools. In addition to branded photography and general facts, schools have the ability to reinforce their brand messages with copy, special sections, and calls to action that highlight signature programs, videos, and more. All of these components work together to begin to tell your school’s story to prospective families, and this is a great opportunity for you to partner with your marcom office.
You’re probably thinking, “But communications owns the website!” That’s kind of true, but beyond the overall design and messaging, the admissions section of your school’s website is an opportunity for your brand to really shine. Does your school pride itself on innovation or a progressive academic program? If that message is being effectively communicated in the market, the families who come to your website will expect to see that reinforced on your admissions pages. They’ll expect to see the clean navigation and clear instructions for applying to your school that everyone should have, but they might also expect to see a knock-out virtual tour, powerful storytelling, and more modern tools like a (noninvasive, well-placed) chatbot for asking questions or a platform for connecting with current families.
Your inquiry form and communications flows are additional tools for incorporating your brand that extend from your website. The inquiry form should always be short, to the point, and distraction-free, but maybe there’s a question you can ask about a prospective student that subtly reinforces your brand promise. Subsequent communications offer unlimited opportunities to incorporate your school’s brand personality and key themes, from the programs you focus on to the tone you use in communications with prospective families.
Your Visit Experiences
After all of the initial marketing and customer service magic your office works with the marcom team, the “feeling” that a family gets when they set foot on your campus can make or break the rest of the process. Whether you’re thinking about personal tours or larger, open house-style events through the lens of your brand, there are opportunities to put your school’s values on display. If your school has a unique commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, are your spaces easily accessible to individuals with physical limitations? Does your open house include programming on how diverse perspectives are represented in your curriculum?
For tours, as families are guided around campus, student ambassadors and members of the admission team can use stories that align with your brand to describe spaces instead of the typical talking points about square footage or who a space is named for. Stories help families connect learning spaces to the powerful things that happen inside of them and to begin to imagine what that could mean for their children.
Interactions with People Outside of Your Office
Related to the visit experience, families’ interactions with coaches, teachers, current students/parents, and administrators outside of your office should all reinforce your brand promise. This goes beyond “staying on message” about programmatic offerings and student experiences (although that’s very important). It starts with who you choose—who are the individuals in your community who truly embody your school’s brand and culture? Will staff and current parents reflect the warmth that families experience in their interactions with the admission office? Will faculty and staff members’ attire align or conflict with your school’s brand? If you’re that progressive, down-to-earth school, seeing faculty and staff in ties, formal sport coats, and dresses could send a mixed message (hint: your dress code is another place where your brand is visible).
This is also one reason why it’s so important for your marketing colleagues to provide training for broader members of the community when a brand is rolled out—it provides critical context and guidance for broader members of the community when you need their help for admission activities.
The Acceptance and Welcome
Every year, private school admission offices wrack their brains to think of new and creative ways to welcome accepted students. Should you make a cool video? What about special swag or a custom portal to welcome new families? The right answer could be all or none of these, but how you decide to welcome accepted students to your school should be informed by your brand. It starts with the acceptance, which can sometimes feel uneventful for families. As you think about that initial notification, consider how you can adapt your message or even the format to reinforce what your school stands for.
When it comes to your welcome materials, there are unlimited opportunities for creativity, but the format should authentically represent your school. A welcome video doesn’t need to re-hash what families have already seen during the admission process. Instead, it’s an opportunity to reinforce what’s unique about your institution and why that’s a fit for a specific student. Are you considering swag boxes? Think like Apple. As a company that’s often commended for its strong branding, the company’s identity is famously reinforced in the way its products are packaged and the experience of opening a new Apple product. From the texture and weight of the box to the careful curation of what’s inside, you can actually say a lot about your school with a package.
There are a variety of other components to your admissions processes that can reinforce—or conflict—with your brand, but as you think about ways to connect your school’s reputation to the admission experience in the next cycle, you can start by taking a fresh look at the areas above.