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How to Build an Effective School Marketing Plan this Year
Hadley Rosen

A marketing plan is a crucial piece of your school’s overall business plan. It outlines your goals, how you’ll get there, and the budget and resources you need to make it happen. And while most traditional businesses have a marketing plan, we’ve found that many schools do not — a big weakness as independent schools need to market themselves more than ever before (source).

marketing plan text with arrows

The Marketing Doom Loop. It looks hopeless, but don’t worry: a good marketing plan can help you find your way out. (Source.)

It’s not just that a marketing plan will help outline and then keep you on track to reach your goals, it will avoid sinking you into what our friends at InspirED call the “Marketing Doom Loop.” This ominous sounded term goes like this: as you invest less focused attention on marketing, enrollment goes down, then the school has less money to spend on quality programs, and the school’s perceived value goes down… and the cycle starts all over again.

Tracy Tigchelaar, who leads our Finalsite Advantage strategic marketing consultants shared, "Working with multiple schools has really emphasized for me the importance of strong strategic planning - both from an overall school perspective and a marketing one. A good marketing plan should derive its direction from the overall aims and strategy of the school itself. That sounds simple, but it is a basic approach that can easily be overlooked when the busyness of day to day marketing tasks gets in the way."

If you’re thinking this all sounds great, but you don’t have the time, creating a plan may be more attainable than you think. With a few steps and a committee of colleagues, you can make a marketing plan that you can use this year to grow enrollment, better communicate with your community—including the new millennial parents that are driving big marketing changes, increase donations, and stay organized and on budget.


Form a Committee and Start with Your Goals

“One more committee?” I can hear you complain. Yes, but this one’s important!

brace yourself meme guy in coat with text

Marketing teams can often be islands at schools, raving about “value props” and “personas.” But, you and your peers in advancement and admissions are on the same team after all, so get together and talk about how marketing does more than just design logos and make the viewbook; your work together on a marketing plan can help with the things they think are important, like growing enrollment, retaining current families, and boosting alumni participation in the annual fund.

Now that your all-star committee’s in place, it’s time to put together the pieces of your plan.

Evaluate Local and National Trends, as well as Your Competition

Just like a traditional business making their marketing plans, there are external economic forces impacting your school. These trends — including economic downturns, improving public schools in many states, and the growing cost of college —weigh on prospective families’ minds as they think about spending tens of thousands of dollars on an independent school education.

Take a look at the trends you think are impacting you and get specific: is it the high cost of living in your area that’s deterring families from considering your private elementary school? The fact that prospective millennial parents carry higher student loan debt than previous generations, or that your school isn’t sharing enough about on-trend academic programs in science or technology?

When you understand these trends, you’ll be better positioned to improve your admissions page and share facts about negotiable tuition or the percent of families receiving financial aid, highlight your STEAM club or feature graduates with successful careers in technology on your website.

After reviewing the trends you think are making an impact, it’s time to take a look at your competition, both private and public schools within a set radius (this is more challenging for boarding schools, but make a short list of likely competitors) and ask:

  • What are you doing better than they are?
  • What do they do better?
  • What makes you unique in comparison?
  • How much is their tuition? How do they sell the cost?

This will help as you take the next step:

Create or Refine Your Value Proposition

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. If you’ve already created a value proposition, good for you! But, it’s probably time for a for a refresh after doing all that research into trends and your competition. Are you sharing your value proposition well on your site?

If you’ve never created a value proposition, now’s the time, and it can be done in three steps:

  • Identify your ideal prospect(s)
  • Understand how you bring them value
  • Know what you offer uniquely well, or at least better than most

These three points will allow you to better shape your marketing plan with messaging that speaks to your prospective families and donors and share how your school in particular brings them value and does so better than your competition.

Try our free value proposition worksheet and template to get started!

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Develop Buyer Personas

You probably already know who your likely “buyers” are: prospective parents, prospective students, current parents and students, and alumni, but how well do you know them?  Developing buyer personas is a great exercise to get to know your school community better so that you can target the right information to them at the right time, the core of inbound marketing.

Where to start? Block off a half day for a persona retreat with your committee, and use our free guide and template to get started with applicant personas.

You’ll delve into your buyers’ demographics, challenges, information sources and more, and ultimately, will make your inbound marketing efforts more successful.

For more resources on creating personas, check out this post.

Set Three (Realistic) Goals for Growth

Your marketing plan is meant to cover just this year, so focus your attention on three goals that you think are attainable. Admissions wants more students, advancement wants more donations, and you probably want a whole host of engagement metrics for your site and social media. But, you’ll want your goals to be S.M.A.R.T:  specific, measurable, attainable and relevant and time-bound.

For example, here’s an “old” goal from the Head of School: “We need more students! Enrollment is down!”

New goal from your marketing plan: Raise enrollment by 5% year by April 1, while retaining 5% more families than last year. 

When your goals are specific, backed up by data from previous years’ enrollment, fundraising or engagement metrics, and bolstered by a plan to get it all done, you’re on the road to reaching those three realistic goals!

Plan Your Budget

Whether you’re on a shoestring or have a marketing windfall coming your way this fiscal year, staying on budget is crucial. Divide your budget into the areas where you’ll likely spend this year: A website redesign or refresh, online, social and print ads, publications, content creators, including AV, campus tours and photography, and marketing consultants like Advantage to help you stretch your team’s effectiveness.

And, if you’ve always done things the same way—say, budgeted for expensive postage fees for an annual report that’s now available online —your marketing plan can add the support you need to shift funds to online efforts.

Create an Execution Plan

You have some great goals, but how are you going to get it all done? An Execution Plan that divides up the work, determines who’s responsible, and when it will be completed is essential.

For example, let’s say your three goals for the year are:

  • Boost enrollment by 5% (25 new students)
  • Increase engagement with prospective parents with 15% more inquiry forms completed
  • Grow Annual Fund by $25,000 with a 10% increase in alumni donors

Your execution plan will describe who is responsible, when you want to reach this goal, and all the steps and actions to get there. Here’s an example:

text in spreadsheet

Not enough time to execute on all these great ideas you’ve come up with or want another opinion from someone who’s been in your shoes? Consider Finalsite Advantage. Says Advantage consultant Tracy, “I work to help marketing staff take a step back, look at the longer term and really try and understand what it is that they're trying to achieve.  No one can do everything they want all at once, so having someone helping you prioritize and make sure you put strategy first is very valuable."

Finally, Evaluate Your Plan Frequently

You’ll need to check on your plan frequently, so schedule quarterly meetings with your committee to review the plan to see if you’re on track, evaluate and take note of measurements of effectiveness, and make adjustments as needed.

See, that wasn’t so hard! Have a successful marketing plan at your school? Let us know and you might be featured in an upcoming post!

Digital marketing and consulting services for schools. Click here to request a consultation!


Hadley is Finalsite's Director of Communications and is a former independent school teacher, fundraiser and marketing director with a passion for cooking, travel, and spending time outdoors with her growing family. She founded the FinalsiteFM podcast network and enjoys meeting Finalsite clients from around the world.

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