6 Pillars of an Online Presence for Schools
For independent schools, competition is stiff. Whether you’re an American school in a district with an abundance of public and charter options, a British school concerned about families’ willingness to invest in an expensive education, or an international school eager to attract the children of ambassadors, enrollment is a major focus. An online presence can help you confront these challenges. But how do you actually build one?
In our view, a school’s online presence is composed of six pillars: brand, visibility, website, reputation, social media, and paid advertising.
In this post, we’ll delve into the importance of each.
“Branding is strategic. Marketing is tactical.” This is brand strategist James Heaton’s understanding of the two terms: brand is your essence, underpinning all of your outward communication, while marketing is the means of spreading your brand in the world and encouraging people to buy in.
Your school’s brand should convey not only your values but the attributes which distinguish your institution from competitors. It signals to students what you’re all about and gives them a chance to determine if your message resonates with them.
How does one develop a brand? Research, research, and… more research. As an administrative team, you already have a mission statement and distinct view of your own institution. Now it’s time to gather the thoughts of your students, parents, faculty, and even families who applied or inquired but ultimately decided on a competitor. Find out which characteristics they use to define your school. Additionally, it’s essential to understand the environment in which you operate. How are other schools differentiating themselves? Can you use the feedback your community has given to determine your own distinguishing features and carve out a space in the local landscape?
It might take time, but with research and reflection you can develop a brand which reflects your ethos and responds directly to the needs of families in your area. Once you do, you’ll be ready to share it with the world through all your marketing channels.
Unfortunately, your efforts to create the perfect message will be for nought if families are unable to find you. Decades ago, you might have rented a billboard or bought space in the local paper. Print materials still have their usefulness, but nowadays the heavy lifting of visibility is done online: your website, social media and paid advertisements all play a role in getting your school’s message out there. We’ll discuss these in just a moment.
Before, however, we would be remiss not to mention the hidden hero of visibility (ironic, perhaps): Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
The main purpose of SEO is to ensure that your website ranks as highly as possible in the results of relevant Google searches. If someone types “private school” and “[your area],” your goal is naturally to be in the top results. There are a couple different factors that can help you achieve this, but a particularly important one is keywords. These can be included in your domain name, URL, title tags, meta description, etc, and they signal to the search engine that your site is relevant to the topic at hand. SEO can be tricky—that’s why we have professionals to help you—but it’s necessary if you want parents to easily find you online.
You’ve managed to optimize your keywords and funnel visitors to your site. Now the site needs to make a great impression.
Your brand should come through the moment a visitor arrives at your site, either through a snappy positioning statement or even a series of images that incorporate the elements you’ve chosen to emphasize.
In general, however, it’s important to remember that your site exists to help families find the information they need. Anticipating what they might be interested in (financial aid, advanced course options, sports, clubs and after-school activities) and ensuring that such information is easily accessible from your menu is essential.
After satisfying their curiosity, the next step is to convert! You’re looking for inquiries and applicants after all. Having an inquiry form is great. Alternatively, you can make data collection more interactive with a content offer. Accessed similarly via a short form, a downloadable pamphlet that outlines your teaching strategy, or even addresses a common question or concern about your school, gives visitors something of value in exchange for information you can use to improve your admissions pipeline.
We could go on about the many functions of a website, but hopefully those already listed give you a sense of the importance of a well-designed, accessible site that reflects your identity.
Reputation can sometimes feel so intangible as to lie beyond your control, but there are still things you can do to shape it. Since prospective families are unlikely to be enticed by self-boasts, look beyond your own offices to see what others are saying about your school. Awards and rankings are obvious metrics, but you can also turn to articles about your school or students, possibly linking these on your website and social media.
Another way to instill confidence in potential applicants is testimonials. Many schools choose to include these on their home page, or in videos on social media. Needless to say, seeing students thriving in your environment is reassuring for prospective applicants. Simultaneously, you must be prepared for negative feedback on more open platforms like Facebook, where students can rate your school and leave criticism. Responding constructively, without appearing irate or dismissive, sends a message that you value student opinion and seek to constantly improve your institution. And, of course, you can always encourage more of your existing students to submit reviews to get a wider range of (hopefully positive) feedback.
Ultimately, you can’t control discussions behind closed doors, but you can take steps to make sure your online presence reflects any praise you receive from students, associations, and news outlets.
From sharing updates with your students to holding a virtual recruitment Q&A, social media is your friend. It’s a way to (you’re already sick of hearing it) express your brand while offering fun, interactive content that engages your existing community and reassures prospective visitors that your environment is lively and welcoming.
Using social media creatively rather than filling your feed with vaguely promotional material can distinguish you from other schools. To get a better idea of how to engage your students on these platforms, you can read our blog post on the importance of using social media during Covid-19.
Carrying on from the previous section, social media can be a great avenue for advertising. Platforms which allow remarketing (e.g. Facebook) can show your ads for events or application inquiry to people who have already engaged with your site and are thus more likely to demonstrate interest. Taking advantage of this, as well as relevant features like audience parameters, keeps you from throwing your material at random folks, the virtual equivalent of posting a billboard along an abandoned road. To make the deal even sweeter, Facebook offers extensive performance data on your ads so you can monitor your progress and efficacy.
This is not your only option of course. Google Ads offer a new array of possibilities, especially when you capitalize on keywords. Regardless of what you opt for, the bottom line is that your strategy should be thoughtful and informed by data.
In light of the recent forced transition online, the importance of an online branding and marketing strategy for schools has only increased. This is why we’ve developed an industry package to help schools improve their online presence across the fronts discussed here.
Please feel free to get in touch with questions about the package or anything else. We’d love to chat with you.