Although charter schools can be an excellent choice for many students, it's also often a choice that parents don't even know they have for their children. The lack of awareness, combined with competition from local schools districts and private schools, can lead to charter schools missing their enrollment goals. Any decrease in enrollment also means a decrease in school funding and overall budget, making it even harder to hit enrollment goals in the future.
This can be a vicious cycle and we want to help you break it! Let’s dive into how.
Here are five proven ways to build awareness about your charter school using your website and digital marketing tools, and ultimately, recruit and enroll more students.
1. Know Your Audience
When formulating a marketing message, it is vital to know who you are trying to speak to, well beyond the basic “families in the towns we serve.” Consider the following:
- Who is your target audience?
- What type of students or families are applying to your school?
- What type of students do you want at your school?
- What are your students’ priorities, challenges, and goals?
- What is the age, income and ethnicity of your parent population?
- What are your students and parents interested in?
- How do they access the internet?
This process, known as “developing personas,” is critical in determining the right way to position your charter school in the market and differentiate yourself from the competition. Additionally, the way you develop your messaging, design your website, the keywords you go after in search engine marketing (SEM), and how you utilize other marketing platforms such as social media, email, and even print all rely on accurate target personas to be effective.
In other words, without personas, you’ll have a hard time developing an effective strategy to build brand awareness. Download our “Crafting Personas” worksheet to get started!
2. Identify Your Differentiators
What makes your school different? Why would a parent choose your charter school over the local district, other charter schools, private schools or magnet schools in the area?
It is essential that your charter knows how to articulate the answers to the following questions throughout your marketing and storytelling:
- What makes your school unique?
- What do your current parents and students love about your school?
- What does your school do that cannot be easily replicated by the competition?
- What programs, teachers, or philosophies do you have that are unique and compelling?
The process of identifying your charter’s differentiators is commonly known as defining your value proposition. A value proposition is not a slogan, a positioning statement, or a list of offerings and features. A value proposition is a statement that describes the benefits students and families can expect from attending your school, and why your school is a better choice than the alternatives.
Need help crafting your differentiators? Download our free Value Proposition Worksheet!
Consider Legacy Early College located in Greenville, SC. This fantastic charter focuses on serving a population formerly known as “the Legacy Zone,” an under-served part of Greenville County with historically high dropout rates from school, low college acceptance and persistent underemployment. The Legacy Early College “Driving Force” on their homepage “drives home” the school’s core values that populate off of the PRIDE of who they are and where they come from. Each letter has a core value that empowers the community to embrace their ‘Legacy.’
Wesley International Academy in Atlanta, GA, also knows its differentiators. Using infographics, combined with a strong “At-a-Glance” statement, the charter school focuses on exactly what sets them apart from the other area schools.
Be sure to highlight those differentiators on your website, too. By adding a dynamic element that populates as the user scrolls over it, you can draw website visitors attention to this essential information. Check out the “Graduation Rate” and “College Acceptance” areas on University Prep’s website for some great examples.
3. Focus on Mobile
We all know what happens when a website doesn’t work well on your phone. You leave. Mobile devices account for nearly 50 percent of all web traffic worldwide, and in some cases, it is the only means of internet access for low-income households.
Even today, low-income families often don’t have access to desktop computers, and do much of their Internet browsing (and research) from mobile. That means when they learn of your charter and first come to your website, they may be trying to fill out forms to apply online, learn more, and attend open houses, all from a mobile device. A great mobile experience can be the difference between new applicants and lost prospective students.
A great mobile experience means:
- A simplified navigation structure
- Optimized buttons and typography
- Fast page load times
- Limited text (no long-form writing!)
- Content organized in an easy-to-read manner.
A wonderful example is American Leadership Academy in Arizona. This school has its top two action items right at the top of the page, “Schedule Tour” & “Apply Today” making it easy for any visitor to fill out the form and submit information while it is top of mind. Next they use call-to-action image buttons to showcase their differentiators in a clean and engaging way, encouraging visitors to stay on their website and learn more.
For more mobile-first design strategies, read this blog: 5 Tips for Great Responsive School Websites.
4. Master Search Engine Marketing
Ninety percent of all online experiences begin in a search engine. Since a big hurdle for many charter schools is brand awareness, developing and maintaining a strong presence in search matters now more than ever before. The majority of searches (83 percent!) that happen are unbranded — meaning searchers are using generic “long tail” keywords like “best schools in Tampa, FL” and “public school alternatives in Los Angeles.”
Search engine marketing has three main components:
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Pay-Per-Click Ads (PPC)
- Online Reviews
SEO and PPC have the same end-goal: drive traffic to your website. However, depending on your timeline, one might have a greater impact than the other. Traditionally, SEO is seen as the “long game.” Changes that you make to your website to optimize for particular keywords may take weeks (or even months!) to impact your ranking. On the other hand, PPC almost guarantees you a page-one presence for the keywords you want to rank for.
In either case, having positive online reviews is also essential. Even if you’re on page one, if your charter school doesn’t have positive reviews, you may not earn the click you worked so hard for. Also, don't overlook the power of written reviews and testimonials! Reach out and encourage some of your more engaged parents, students, and alumni to leave positive written reviews for prospective families to see.
Want to learn more about search engine marketing? Further suggested reading:
- Rethinking the Inbound Marketing Funnel
- PPC Marketing For Schools: 3 Tips To Make The Most Of Your Budget
- On Page SEO: 10 Best Practices you Should Know
5. Have a Savvy Social Presence
Social media has grown to be a mainstay in our everyday lives, and that includes your prospective and current families — from Generation Z to Baby Boomers. A strong presence on social media can significantly boost your brand awareness.
With social media, there are two kinds of posts: organic and paid. Unfortunately the organic engagement rate has declined over the years, so while it is necessary to maintain an organic presence, if you really want to get in front of new families, investing in social media ads would be a fantastic place to start.
Over the years, we’ve seen the popularity of Twitter drop, and popularity of Instagram rise and across the board, Facebook has remained a foundational social media network for charter, public, and private schools alike. Finding the right channel for your charter is important, but you certainly don’t need to feel like you need to cover them all.
As for your charter school social media strategy, focus on posting once per day on Instagram and one-to-two times per day on Facebook. For tips on what to post, check out the following blogs:
- 100+ Summer Social Media Ideas & Best Practices
- The 3 Types Of School Social Media Posts That Always Get Engagement
- What Makes a Good Social Media Ad?
Prioritizing Your Marketing Strategy
Working with schools for 20+ years, we understand that an ideal world with all the budget dollars to pay for every medium to build brand awareness does not really exist. So, if we can give you one final word of advice, invest in your website first. It is your number one marketing tool, and the first place prospective and existing families go to learn about your program. The importance has only grown after a year where we were all forced inside a bit more than we would have expected.
Building a successful awareness campaign requires you to look closely at who you are as a charter and the right fit students and families you serve. Developing key personas and a strong value proposition are essential to effective marketing, and your marketing strategies should be built specifically around them.
This blog has been updated since its original publish date of March 19, 2021.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phil directs the charter school market at Finalsite and spends every day consulting with some of the most forward-thinking and successful charter school leaders in the country about effective awareness, engagement and communications strategies. Being lucky enough to marry an assistant director of marketing and communications at a local choice school, Phil also gets to talk school marketing strategy during morning walks with the dogs, kayak rides on the local lake, and while fast-forwarding through commercial breaks of his favorite recorded shows.