I fear this may be a typical scenario: It’s April, and the leadership of XYZ Christian School realizes that they haven't received enough applications to get next year's enrollment numbers high enough to meet budget goals. The admissions team is in panic mode. They plan a open house extravaganza, place ads in the local newspapers and purchase some spots on a Christian radio station. They pray that their school (aka “the best kept secret in town”) will survive another year.
If your marketing efforts are reactionary, you will never get the results you hoped for.
Let that statement simmer on the back burner as we dive into some suggestions to help you stretch your thinking about what it takes to grow school enrollment.
Many in the private school world are not accustomed to thinking like a strategic marketer. School heads may be experts at hiring qualified teachers, selecting curriculum, and ensuring the mission and vision of the school are carried out. Yet many of these same leaders are less experienced with the business side of maintaining a thriving school.
Here is a short list of best practices to help you get proactive and develop a strategic approach to sustaining a healthy student enrollment.
1. Develop a Documented Marketing Strategy
Complaint: “Our school enrollment seems like it’s stuck. We just can’t seem to get to the next level.”
Public school leaders don’t need to worry about having a marketing strategy to gain more students. As long as children are living in the local community, their doors will remain open.
On the other hand, private school leaders need to operate on two distinct levels:
- provide excellent education and transform students lives, and
- attract new students while retaining current ones.
It’s a curious mix of education and business.
Does your school have a documented strategy for how you will grow enrollment and move forward? If the plan only contains a mission statement and no marketing strategy, you are setting yourself up to stay in survival mode. You will always be trying to fill a leaking enrollment bucket. Unless you formulate a plan to market your school, chances are your enrollment will continue to hover around the same number, year after year.
Here are some important questions to ask to get your strategy discussion started:
- How many new students are needed to meet enrollment requirements?
- How much are we willing to spend to acquire a new student?
Pro Tip: Write down your marketing strategy. There is something about seeing it in print that sparks action and holds you accountable.
2. Consider Your Sales Calendar
Complaint: “I don’t know how it happened, but before we knew it, the calendar said 'April.' Somehow, admission season snuck up on us again!”
Although the buying cycle for private school education can be lengthy (some prospective parents start “shopping” when their child is in utero), the key months for admissions typically are January - May. Take a moment to mark it on your calendar right now.
Working backwards, formulate your plan. The months of September - December should be spent gearing up for admission season. During the months of June - August, you should analyze data from the previous year and evaluate what worked and what did not. Using that data, develop your marketing plan. Consider your enrollment goals, how many new students are needed, and how much you are willing to spend to meet your goals.
Here is a list of marketing activities that you can accomplish in the fall in order to set up a successful admissions season in the winter/spring:
- Research your competition - note closures and transfers of leadership
- Optimize your website, create needed pages
- Create and produce a video
- Organize a photo shoot
- Schedule admission events through end of the school year
- Gather testimonials from parents, alumni, and teachers
- Create a new brochure and admission materials
- Write email templates
- Complete an audit of your application, and update it as needed
- Record webinars
- Write ebooks
- Create an editorial calendar and write blogs
- Develop a social media strategy
3. Calculate the Risks
Complaint: “I don’t think I’m being a good steward of the money budgeted for school marketing.”
There may have been a time when you threw everything to the wall to see what would stick. It’s tempting to just try all the seemingly obvious answers - run advertisements in local magazines and newspapers, conduct a direct mail campaign, or produce some radio ads - especially when offered a “special deal”. Those tactics may seem like a good idea at the time. However, it’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of these traditional marketing efforts.
When money is tight, you’ll need to examine the ROI of each strategy and determine its worth. You should be able to point to specific metrics that represent email open rates, digital ad click through rates, and form submission rates. Only when you know exactly what you are measuring can you make adjustments to better hit your target audience.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Execute
Complaint: “We’re unsure about what to do with marketing our school so we don’t do anything.”
Have the confidence to know that there is no such thing as a perfect marketing plan - and a plan that worked two years ago may not be as effective next year. Understand that change is likely.
Once you get together a plan, pull the trigger. Watch for results and learn. If the results aren’t what you hoped, you’ve learned something that you can apply to future marketing efforts. It’s helpful to document what you did and what results you saw from your marketing plan.
If needed, ask for help from school board members, parents who have expertise in marketing, or school marketing consultants.
The most important aspect of thinking like a strategic marketer is to plan ahead. Look beyond where your school is right now and set smart goals that will take you into the future.
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