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What Private Schools Do Right that Public Schools Suck At

Steal their marketing secrets to engage, convert, and enroll more students

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If we were to tell you just one thing that private schools do right that most public schools don’t bother to do, it would be to market their school’s differentiators. Maybe public schools see themselves as ubiquitous and feel they don’t offer anything different than every other public school in the country. However, I’m pretty sure that isn’t true. It is no truer than every private school offering the same services as other private schools, but they go to great lengths to prove otherwise through their marketing. Maybe public schools should follow their lead.

So, let’s begin there, with the importance of marketing your school.

School marketing

All top tier private schools begin by creating their school’s marketing plan. A simplified process looks similar to this:

  • What are your marketing goals? What do you hope to accomplish in your marketing efforts? Your goal might be as simple as increasing enrollment, or it could be complex and involve branding, targeting specific audiences, or working for a particular purpose like a tax levy or bond override.
  • Whom are you trying to reach? In most cases, for a K–12 school, that would be parents since they typically decide where their children will attend school. Then, depending on what grades you teach, how would you describe the typical parents in your target audience? What are their ages, educational background, concerns, and interests for their children? Those target audience personas will vary a bit since the parent of a kindergarten student has different concerns than that of a high school student.
  • Outcomes? What do you want each of your target audiences to do? Enroll their children? Tell their neighbors? Get excited about how awesome your school is? See their children being successful and fitting in at your school? Volunteer? You need to determine specific, time-bound, and measurable goals.
  • What platforms? What channels and methods will you use to market your school? In days gone by, that included advertising (TV, billboards, radio, magazines), but today they are better served (and you’ll spend far less money) by focusing on school websites, school social media, local newspaper articles (not ads), inbound marketing, blogging, search engine optimization, and content development. It means going where your target audience is to get your message out and make available the information they need to make a decision.
  • Getting it done! Once the strategy is decided upon and a written plan is in place, the rest involves getting it scheduled and accomplished. Typically this is a year-long plan, sometimes multiple years. There are often campaigns tied to each goal of your marketing plan as well. You'll make assignments and establish deadlines so you hit all your targets.
  • Analyze, revise, and repeat. Yep, you get to do it all over again each year. You’ll want to figure out what was effective and what was not. You’ll also factor in any new goals your school might have for the next year and go back and do this process again. You’ll learn from each unique experience and will factor in this knowledge to improve each year’s efforts.

Any private school that is trying to increase or maintain enrollment makes their marketing strategy a priority. Public schools seldom do, even when they are losing students to other schools, homeschooling, or online schooling. And it’s a big mistake. Parents are out there searching for the best fit for their child, and if a public school doesn’t provide the information necessary to make their case, they will not be in the running. Moreover, it is no one’s fault but their own. 

Marketing strategy is step one. Then using the following methods to implement your plans are the next steps.

Inbound marketing

If you aren’t a hardcore marketer, you probably don’t even know what inbound marketing is. However, what you do know, if you have tried other marketing efforts for your school in the past few years, is that marketing methods that worked ten years ago are not as effective today. Oh, don’t get me wrong, some advertising agency will still try to tell you it does, but the return on investment (ROI) is not there. Buyers (parents) needs have changed. They don’t want to be interrupted with your ads; they want to get the information they need to make a decision when it is time to make that decision. That means, sticking up a billboard (for thousands of dollars per month) is unlikely to be worth the investment. So, what to do?

Buyers make a purchasing decision to solve a problem or meet a need when that need arises. You have to help them see how your school can do just that. However, unlike methods like advertising (Google Adwords, Facebook ads, TV or radio spots, buying e-mail lists), inbound marketing is a strategic process where you focus on creating quality content that pulls parents toward your school through materials you’ve developed to help guide their decision. Your content must answer your prospective parents’ questions and meet their needs. The goal is to attract inbound traffic and then convince them to select your school. However, for that to happen, they have to find you and learn how your school best meets their needs.

Step #1: Attract

The first goal is to attract customers who are seeking what your school has to offer. That might be information about how to select a school for students whose interests are specific to one of your strengths whether art, music, STEM, sports, or college prep programs. It could be information to attract new teachers who are looking for a mentorship relationship with experienced, highly-qualified teachers. Whatever your marketing purpose, the goal is to provide the right content when they need it (which is when they are searching for such information through an Internet search or social media marketing).

Step #2: Convert & Close

Once you’ve attracted a prospective customer (parents or maybe staff) to your website, where they can download your informative and valuable content, you get their e-mail in exchange. They get the information they are seeking, right when they need it, and you get their contact information so you can market specifically to them. Your goal is to be helpful, informative, and stay top of mind so that when they are ready to make a decision (like where to enroll their student), your school is the one that stands out as the #1 choice. To close, you must have a call to action (CTA) so they take the step to make the decision. Every page focused on marketing (whether for student enrollment or staff recruitment) should include a CTA. Make it easy to choose you!

Step #3: Delight

You might think that once you’ve converted a prospect into a student or a new staff member you've completed your work. You would be mistaken, of course. You will continue to engage them through ongoing content in the form of news articles, social media information, videos, and stories that consistently confirm their right choice in selecting your school over all the other options available to them.

To maximize your efforts with inbound marketing, you’ll want to consider how you will promote your content. One of the most useful options we’ve seen schools use is social media ads to expand and broaden their reach while still engaging the current parents. Invite your parent and student followers to share your content on their Facebook and Twitter pages as well. Just a few “shares” can exponentially expand your visibility. Another highly effective method is judicious use of your school websites. Search engine optimization, great storytelling, engaging videos, and new articles with a human interest angle will be worth their weight in platinum.

Blogging

Developing a school blog, or even considering doing so, might strike fear into the heart of even the most intrepid school administrator. Our experience has been that they tend to want to stay out of the line of fire and fear that such a public forum might make them a target for those who are aiming. However, when it comes to marketing your school, blogging can be one of the most effectual tools available. 

One of the benefits of blogging is that it improves your school website’s search engine rankings. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the use of specific keywords or keyword phrases used in an Internet search that will take the user to your school website. A blog is a natural way to grow your online presence and feed information to the ever-voracious search engines looking for new and relevant content. If a parent is looking for tips to help their child get into a respected engineering program and you have a blog post about your school’s outstanding program, why it works, and which universities seek out your students might be precisely the relevant content they were looking for. Now you are in front of the very audience you want to see all your school has to offer.

Another blog benefit is that it gives you excellent opportunities to tell your school’s stories. Not just from a news story perspective but from a human interest perspective. You can highlight individual student successes, make your staff relatable to your community members, and bring a level of transparency to your audience that only a first-person viewpoint can provide.

When your blog posts are entertaining, informative, and engaging, you also have an opportunity to include a call-to-action (CTA) where they provide you with their e-mail so you can continue to market to them. By allowing comments, even if you choose to moderate them, you also have an excellent chance to see concerns or resolve misunderstandings before they become a public relations issue; you can nip those in the bud with a response or clarification. 

You can also use your blog to invite guest bloggers to share their experiences and opinions on topics of interest to others. For example, you could ask alums to write about how attending your school helped them succeed in college or their career. A graduating senior could write about his or her most rewarding experiences and how it prepared him or her for the next phase of life. Get staff members to share their most memorable teaching moments. Your blog can also provide background and perspective on current topics that have the community all abuzz, providing the rationale for decisions that may affect them while building trust through transparency.

A blog, done right (which means it isn’t all about the author but about your audience’s interests) is a win-win for your school brand, your staff reputation, and your successful school communication strategies. Oh, and don’t forget to use your social media channels to link to your blog posts and encourage additional engagement.

 For some more tips, read “The School Marketer’s Dilemma: to Blog or Not To blog.

Storytelling

Whether we like to admit it or not, we make most of our decisions based not on logic and reason but on emotion. The best way to influence and engage emotion is through storytelling. The neuroscience behind how this works is fascinating and well documented. To better understand the benefits and uses, check out Telling Your School’s Stories.

The next step to implementing good school storytelling is to make story gathering a part of how you do things at your school. Your staff need to understand that those stories are valued, so gathering and recording them takes place. We all have stories and get new ones every day. The problem is, we don’t record them. But you make it an essential part of your communication and marketing efforts, you will see a tremendous positive change in your school culture, and your school culture has a direct effect on your school marketing. To implement storytelling at your school, you must:

  • Reward and recognize good stories. This means using stories in your own leadership style or your teaching as an example to others. It also means sharing others’ stories during staff meetings or governing board meetings and giving credit to the story-sharer. What you value and reward (even if just through acknowledgement) your staff will copy and implement.
  • Use story prompts to gather stories. There are prompts available in the article we mentioned called Telling Your School’s Stories. Share this with your staff at the next staff meeting, and see how many stories you can gather. Then, teach this method to them, and have them gather stories from their students as well. Not only will you gain some excellent stories, but you will also all learn so much from one another in the process and be rewarded with some positive emotions as you see the great things happening at your school.
  • Record the stories you gather. You might try using a simple spreadsheet with fields for the topics and the essential elements of the story to jog your memory. Others use OneNote or Evernote and tag their stories. I use a Google Sheet and ask everyone in our company to add to this shared document. By doing this, the next time you need a story to make a point, write a blog, change an attitude, or add support to your message, you’ll have a resource at your fingertips. 
  • Make it a habit. Use stories every chance you get. Need to make a presentation? Add a story. Teaching a class? What story will make this lesson memorable for your students? Talking to your own children about something important? What story supports your message? The best speakers, the best TED talks, the best communicators know how to use storytelling to influence, engage, and convert. Learning to use stories in your communications will take your school marketing from “meh” to “magnificent.”
  • Want more information? I learned so much from Shawn Callahan’s book, Putting Stories to Work. He takes you step-by-step through what a story actually is. Everyone these days is talking about the importance of storytelling, but Shawn’s book shows you how to use this powerful communications tool.

Customer Service

You might not think that customer service belongs in an article about school marketing, but from talking to parents, you will quickly see what a huge impact it has on the choices they make for their child’s education. Many years ago, my son and I (our business development director) took a road trip through several states to visit schools. We learned so much from the experience, but when it was all said and done, our most shocking takeaway was the radical differences in the customer service levels between schools. At some, they greeted us with smiles and a welcoming attitude. At others, we were an unwelcome interruption (even though they had no idea why we had walked in their front doors). From the front office staff to the signage and curb appeal, the differences were significant. Moreover, those differences weighed in favor of the private and independent schools. 

Private schools seemed to put more importance on that first impression, and their office staff was apparently trained to be welcoming and friendly. Why should a public school be any less so? Where would your school rank?  

If you aren’t sure where you would rank, you need to find out from an objective, unbiased third-party. Try the secret shopper approach and have them report their impressions. Then, take steps to provide customer service training to your staff if necessary. Take a look at your curb appeal, the wording on your signage, the parking you provide for visitors and parents. Then look at your internal customer service. How does your staff treat one another? How does it treat students? What is on the walls of your hallways? All of this reflects what your school values. Does it appreciate civility, kindness, and engagement? Are your parents raving fans or more like raging foes?

Here are a few more ideas to help you improve your school’s customer service:

For more marketing ideas, purchase our Marketing Your School toolkit for 50 weeks of marketing ideas. Use the coupon code "success" and take $100 off the purchase price!

Benefits of getting started

There is much information here, and you can’t apply all of this immediately, but you can pick one area and get started. Whether you are a private school, an independent school, a charter school, or a public school, you MUST care about marketing. While word-of-mouth is the most crucial factor for your school’s growth, with declining birth rates, school choice, online schools, and homeschooling options, you need to get the word out. If you don’t share what makes your school special, all of the great things you are doing every day will remain unknown to those outside of your classrooms.

If you need some help knowing how and where to begin, we hope you’ll contact School Webmasters at (888) 750.4556 or e-mail Jim. We’re here to make your job easier and your school communication more effective!

How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook