SCHOOL MARKETING DAY | THURSDAY 29 OCTOBER

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  • General Best Practices
School Communications Planning: What to Do During Uncertain Times
Leah Mangold

We're nearing the end of May, and unfortunately, schools weren’t able to return to campus like they had hoped. While there have been silver linings (family dinners, long walks, watching spring unfold), many are feeling disconnected, disappointed, and most of us are suffering from quarantine fatigue. Graduations look different. They’re virtual, modified, cancelled, or postponed.

Since we don’t really know when things will get back to “normal,” — what should communications look like during a time of uncertainty? We’re all in this strange phase where we are no longer doing crisis communications...but we’re also still not sending out normal communications. 

So what type of content should your team be sharing during this time (and as we enter the summer months)? And where should you be sharing it for optimal viewership and engagement?

Let’s first dive into the different types of content you’re likely sharing: content intended to engage, and content intended to inform.

Communications intended to inform families have critical information they need to know, such as dates about school closures, changes to events, grading information, or important health updates. 

Communications meant to engage, on the other hand, are intended to provide your community with something interesting, helpful, educational, or entertaining. This may come in the form of a blog post, student or teacher feature story, a fun video, news feature story, or a game, for example. 

This venn diagram shows the types of content pieces that fall under each category:

Venn diagram listing content pieces that fall under the categories of "Engage" and "Inform"

Because content pieces serve different purposes, they can (and should!) be distributed differently.

For example, analytics show that parents check email more than any other platform, so emails are a great way to ensure families see information. Additionally, adding a mobile app to your school’s communication line-up guarantees your parents are in-the-know, instantly.

And, this venn diagram outlines the distribution strategies best suited for each goal: 

Venn diagram listing distribution strategies to use for "Engaging" "Informing" and "Both"

We also know that not everyone sees every single thing you post on your social media channels, and algorithms prevent multiple posts in a single day from being seen. For this reason, social media is great for sharing engaging content.

Of course, the lines can be blurred. There will be times when you need to post “informative” content on social media, and when you simply want to share a blog post via email. These aren’t set-in-stone rules, but simply guidelines that beg the question: “do you really need to post everything, everywhere?” And the answer is no.

Email Communications Strategy 

As many schools have seen over the past few months, it’s easy for email communications to get completely out of control. Between teachers, the communications team, and other departments, school-to-home communications have been at an all-time high.

However, this certainly hasn’t been a case where more is better. More has created confusion among parents who aren’t sure what to read, or who to reach out to, or what to search for in order to find the most up-to-date content.

Does this look familiar?

During uncertain times, it’s important to ensure families feel certain about one thing: your school’s ability to uphold its value proposition. And disjointed communications definitely aren’t a piece of that!

So, now is the time to take a step back and ask: how can we streamline and simplify email communications?

1. Set an email cadence that you can stick to and families can expect.

Part of the struggle with distance learning for many families is the change of (or lack of!) routine. As a school communications team, you can provide some structure by being consistent with what you send and how you send it. 

For example, during distance learning: 

  • Send an email every Monday to outline what students have to look forward to in the week to give them a checklist of expectations. 

  • Send a recap of the week every Friday. This is a great opportunity to note any major changes that happened during the week, and share any content families should see.
     
  • Choose one day a week for a “fun” email: social media challenges or contests, helpful content from a blog, videos, etc. Maret School’s “Friday Frog Video” series, for example, features clips from students interspersed with clips from the school’s mascot at home doing distance learning. The adorable videos add a sense of familiarity and structure to the week. Plus, the school can repurpose the content for longevity on its website and social media accounts. 
screenshot of a video from Maret School in Facebook

  • Encourage teachers to send their updates on the days that your school or district isn’t sending communications. The goal should be to ensure parents only receive one email a day.

On the flip side of too much communication comes too little communication. We’re hearing from schools that from March until now, there has been so much content to share. But what happens when students log off for the summer?

Having a cadence is still important. While your email cadence will likely include more emails during distance learning, having set days (and even times!) for email communications in the summer is the best way to stay relevant to families who, especially now, are seeking consistency and communities to rely on. 

2. Assign different senders for different types of emails. 

The email sender should match the content that is being addressed. Critical school or district-wide information should come from a head of school or superintendent, but topical emails can come from other trusted people in your school community.  Athletics details can come from an athletics director, health updates from a school nurse, reading challenges from your librarian, and so on. This also keeps families engaging with your school or district on a human level, which helps build trust and transparency.

example of emails being sent from different senders to reflect the content

3. Use positive messaging in every email.  

Now more than ever is a time for your school communications to shine. Use heartwarming headings, photos of smiling faculty, and videos of distance learning. The last thing a parent wants to read in this stressful time is a robotic response to their questions or a newsletter that doesn’t acknowledge their situation. 

We love this newsletter example from TASIS The American School in Switzerland. It has the perfect balance of addressing uneasiness while emphasizing school spirit and gratitude:

tasis switzerland email example

The “Far Apart, Closer Than Ever” video linked in the email is just an added bonus — who doesn’t love to watch a video of familiar faces, especially after spending time apart? Students and teachers share their love for TASIS In a heartwarming video that will still resonate with viewers long after the pandemic ends. 

Social Media Communications Strategy 

Now is a great time to ignite engagement with a positive, personalized, and consistent social media presence. More families are at home than before — which means more families are scrolling through Facebook and Instagram during the workday than they used to. They are looking for content that makes them smile and escape the stresses of quarantine for a moment!   

However, parents are digital consumers like the rest of us, which means they are accustomed to getting their information from social media as well. Whether it is a news update or a tweet about the latest school closure, families want the facts— and they want it five minutes ago

So what is a school social media manager to do? Engage? Inform? It’s certainly a delicate balance, but you can do both.  

Step 1: Choose the right platform.

Social media is not just about the short-term — it also plays a role in organic reach, SEO, year-over-year re-enrollment, and positive reviews. Your Instagram and Facebook pages are a public window into your school, and your posts and comments will “live” on the platforms after this crisis is over. 

A public presence that is cluttered with complaints, serious discussions and announcements of technical difficulties will not help your school when it’s time for re-enrollment! 

Social Media Platforms Best-Suited for Engaging Your Community

Social Media Platforms Best-Suited for Informing Your Community

Step 2: Post content that will resonate with your community.

Engaging social media content should be uplifting, reassuring and familiar. Your goal is to create a sense of community for families that transcends the physical boundaries. Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Recreate familiar school activities—virtually. Normally have a daily prayer? Ask a student to recite the prayer and post a video of it. Give families that element of normalcy to remind them of what they love about your school culture.

  • Be mindful when posting throwback photos. Feel free to use photos from earlier in the year (or from previous years!) that you think will be engaging, but think twice before posting photos from events that this year’s students won’t get to do. Seniors don’t need a reminder that they are missing graduation!
     
  • Highlight student work and accomplishments. Online learning by its nature provides lots of opportunity for video content — ask teachers to record moments from Zoom lessons and post the best parts. Include student musical performances, backyard activities, and artwork, too!
  • Feature alumni success stories. If you have alumni in the healthcare field, give them a special shoutout for their services.

  • Create a branded hashtag. Now is a great time for user-generated content. Ask parents and teachers to use your hashtag and be sure to engage with the submissions! Just remember some may be feeling overwhelmed and overworked so use emotional intelligence in your requests. (Woods Academy EXAMPLE )

Step 3: Keep the serious, lengthy, and informative content in a controlled (preferably private) space.

A private Facebook Group for current families is a great solution. This way, members feel free to ask questions and share any frustrations without those comments being public to prospective families or future families. 

Additionally, posts in a group won’t impact Facebook’s engagement algorithm— so you can provide up-to-the-minute information in multiple posts without being punished for low engagement. 

Create Facebook groups to inform: 

  • Families with seniors. Provide virtual graduation updates, give students and parents a place to share ideas for honoring seniors, and address other senior events such as class night, scholarship night, etc. 
  • Families doing distance learning. Consider splitting by age group (lower school, middle school and upper school) or by persona (parents versus students).
  • Families with newly accepted students. Support families who have questions about virtual open houses, and are wondering about housing. This is also a great way for them to “meet” other families and stay excited about attending your school! 

Pro Tip: The same ideas can apply to your mobile app, parent portals and student portals. It all comes back to the idea of engaging versus informing: focus on informing your constituents in private whenever possible, so that you can engage them in public spaces.   

Use Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates. 

If you must go public with your information, use Twitter. Intended for trending news, you don’t have to worry as much about cultivating a picture-perfect brand presence like you do for Facebook or Instagram. Plus, you can post several times a day without hurting your engagement. Feel free to use Twitter for sharing quick updates, pressing details, and important announcements.

Step 4: Engage and respond to comments — even negative ones. 

Make an effort to respond to comments on your posts. It provides a sense of community (especially important when in-person interaction is lacking!) and shows that the people working at your school or district are listening to your community’s needs. After all, social media is intended to be social! 

If a comment on your post or an @mention is negative, always respond, but offer to take it offline. This shows publicly that you made an effort, but enables you to discuss the matter privately. For example: 

"Hi [First Name], we're sorry to hear that you had a negative experience with [area of concern.] Please message us privately or give us a call at xxx.xxx.xxxx so that our school can [way to resolve the issue]."

Download the complete summer social media calendar for Schools and Districts

Website Communications Strategy 

Your website is the core of your school’s Digital Campus. Like your brick and mortar schools, your digital campus facilitates person-to-person relationships, learning experiences, community-building activities, celebrations and more.

For this reason, you need to treat your website experience with the same attention as your in-person experience. Is it organized? Is two-way-communication possible? Can parents find what they need easily? 

If you haven't already, develop a centralized website hub that you will always keep up-to-date and then use all other communications to direct traffic to that one place. 

Choose one place that you will always keep up-to-date with information (such as an online hub). Then, direct all emails to that one place:

  • “Out of office” emails. If your school’s faculty and staff are using autoresponder emails, encourage them to provide links to your school’s distance learning hub — which may have the answers parents are looking for, anyway!

  • Faculty and Staff email signatures. Create an email signature example with your own address, and send it to all faculty members to copy and paste into theirs. Something short and sweet like, “For recent school updates, visit our COVID-19 hub.”

  • School newsletters and letters from leadership. Even during COVID-19, it’s important to follow best practices about newsletter length and readability. Don’t include every detail in every email — rather, address the key points and include a button or link for families to “read more” or “view photos” on your website. 

How to communicate the “unknown.”

“This fall is the great unknown.”

Those were the words of a superintendent on a call with our CRO, Jason Barnes, last week.

It’s a truth we’re all a little reluctant to admit, as we are eager to return to “normal.” But, it is the truth, nonetheless.

Parents, like the rest of us, are trying to envision what the next few months will look like for their families and even though they can’t really plan with certainty, they still want to know their options. 

If your school typically holds summer programs, your school administration may still be waiting to decide: should they go virtual? Cancel summer camps altogether? Perhaps the plans are only hypothetical right now. Even so, you need to communicate something to parents.

Add a page-pop to your summer school microsite or page.  

It all comes back to making sure parents know where to go for the information they need. A page pop is a great way to inform parents of any updates or to communicate where they should check back when they want to know more. 

page pop example from Derby Academy's summer program

If possible, give families financial peace of mind.

Hun School of Princeton addresses the uncertainty by letting parents know that their deposits are refundable. This encourages parents to register without worrying!

page pop example from Hun School

 

The strategies that these schools used to communicate summer program uncertainties can serve as a model for communicating about the fall semester, too. 

As we’ve seen these past few months, plans often turn on a dime. With the ease of the Finalsite platform, schools and districts can convey these updates quickly and effectively. Our C.O.P.E. (Create Once, Publish Everywhere) software gives school communicators the assurance that they can post an update and change it later — without needing to rewrite it in several places! 

Key Takeaway

We know it's a challenging time for your team right now — you’re likely trying to remain a positive voice for your community without saying “when things get back to normal.” Because for the foreseeable future, this is the new normal. Whether engaging your community or informing it, the communications strategies that you implement now will impact how your community perceives your school for years to come.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah-Mangold-Headshot

As Finalsite's content specialist, Leah promotes new school site launches and great content marketing examples from schools around the world. She’s also writer and editor for numerous blog articles, eBooks and presentations on best practices for digital marketing, social media, and web design. A graduate of Arcadia University, Leah is passionate about global communications, handwritten notes, and sole travel. When she’s not exploring new countries, she’s either blogging, doodling, or dreaming about it.

  • Digital Campus
  • Marketing/Communications
  • Social Media
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