Top Takeaways from EMA AC 2021
Emily Howeth

EMA’s Annual Conference wrapped up on September 25, and we’re still unpacking all the great content that was offered (and a few of us are still unpacking our suitcases, too). For some, was their first in-person event since the beginning of the pandemic, and it was so great to meet up with old friends and forge new connections to help more schools across the country. 

We learned a lot both on-site and with the virtual sessions that were offered and we’re going to break down the top five takeaways from AC 2021. 

1. Virtual events are here to stay.

Do you remember your first virtual event from 2020? They look a lot different now that you’ve developed your Zoom skills, gotten used to new technology and experimented with different ways to engage with your community. Virtual and hybrid events have made their way into our playbooks as a cost-effective and safe way to interact with new families.

While a virtual open house once seemed like a huge undertaking, schools have found ways to make them special, which created many new opportunities to reach prospective families and students. As it turns out, many families actually prefer a virtual session over an on-site event for its convenience. And while getting them to campus in-person is still invaluable, the ease of virtual events helps you reach more families with less effort — filling those funnels and providing your admissions team with more families to speak with than ever before. 

Stephanie Hill and Sarah Kline from Santa Catalina School presented on this topic and delivered it in person at the conference. In “Here Comes the Bride! Marriage of the In-person and Virtual Open House,” they discussed which events were the most successful, how they were created, and how they plan to incorporate winning elements into their in-person events. 

Virtual Events webpage screenshot for Santa Catalina

Virtual events aren’t just here to stay for schools, either. Virtual and hybrid events are now likely a permanent staple for every industry. For EMA, this was their first hybrid event — and they did a masterful job of scheduling in-person sessions and simultaneously offering virtual presentations. This is still new territory for us all — and EMA did a great job figuring out a virtual event experience without having ever done this before. 

2. Admissions have a direct tie to the financial health of the school.

According to NBOA data, tuition accounts for 70-80% of a school’s revenue. That fact, combined with an increased need for financial aid means that admissions professionals need to partner even closer with the business office than ever before. Two sessions dove into that partnership and the impact that admissions and enrollment have on a school’s bottom line. 

First, Jennifer Hillen and James Palmieri from NBOA showed us how to ensure you have a financially healthy school in their session, “The Finance and Enrollment Partnership: Advancing Business Excellence in Independent Schools.” We walked away with the perspective that budgets and finances have to be more fluid than ever before. Financial stability isn’t always as concrete as it has been for some schools, so Jennifer and James explored ways to “pull the revenue and expense levers” as needed. Schools need to balance short- and long- term goals and expenses and be more flexible if something more pressing arises.

Finalsite’s Kate Auger-Campbell spoke with two admissions leaders on how they started and grew a relationship with the business office at their schools. Lisa Pelrine and Kristen Mariotti both talked about the importance of being at the table when it comes to long-term projects. They’re both on committees at their school and help guide how the admissions team can be involved in the future.  In the session, Kristen spoke about the need for training sessions with business officers. She stressed the importance of your school’s CFO learning about the entire enrollment cycle, especially when they’re new to the independent school environment. She suggested talking through things like how much time it takes with each family and how some families who have the ability to pay full tuition may not be mission fits. She also suggested working together to look at demographic data when deciding to raise tuition or make changes.

3. Growing partnerships across the school is the key to long-term success.

There are many aspects of your school that function better when teams forge a united front, instead of working in silos. Marketing, enrollment and admissions teams in particular can benefit from breaking down their silos, getting in the same room and working together towards one common goal: grow enrollment and revenue.

If the relationship between two offices is currently non-existent or hard to navigate at your school, it’s imperative to start to build that bridge. Finalsite’s Chief Marketing Officer, Risa Engel, and Kila McCann, Dean of Admission & Financial Aid, at Bolles School spoke on the importance of the partnership between marketing and admissions. 

In Kila’s experience, you can pick a small project or initiative to start working on together. The easiest place to start? Regular standing meetings with each team. Kila and her admissions team sat with Marcomm at Bolles and used giant post-it notes to map out the family journey. They found some unnecessary overlap in communications, so they created a shared calendar for the year that has kept both sides well-organized. They were able to find time to assist each other throughout busy periods and easily divide up responsibilities for bigger projects.

St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts also presented on uniting departments. In their EMA presentation, they dove into the partnership between their admissions office and their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) office. Their session reflected on the ways to evolve your thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in admissions, and what it looks like from a student’s perspective. They shared new ways admissions and enrollment offices can help students feel like they belong and your school from day one. 

If you’re not already meeting with other teams on a regular basis, start now! Get to know other people in your organization and familiarize yourself with their strengths. And remember: these partnerships aren’t built overnight. Taking time to build relationships is a marathon, not a sprint. In the end, it will only help the growth and sustainability of your school.  

The importance of this teamwork is one of the reasons why SchoolAdmin and Finalsite joined together! When teams like marketing and admissions can work closer together, with shared data, and easy-to-use tools, their schools become stronger.

4. Stay on top of the ever-changing admissions environment.

It’s no secret that we’ve seen huge changes in how we’ve done our jobs in the past year. New technologies, changing algorithms and new priorities from families means that you can’t always rely on what worked last year. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you do need to iterate on it! 

Cristy McNay and Francis Donald, Associate Director of Admissions at Bishop’s School, broke down why we need to rethink enrollment constantly. It comes down to the fact that you need to get the right message in front of the right people at the right time. That doesn’t happen by accident, so you need to think strategically about your market, who you’re talking to, and how the message is getting to them. And this also changes all the time!

When you think about it, COVID made trying new things a little less scary. You were forced to adopt new communication strategies which emboldened you to take chances once things got a little easier. Take a look at your social media for example. How has your voice changed? Are you more active on Instagram now or even made a TikTok account? People are looking to have fun on these apps and schools are taking advantage of ways to show off their personality in targeted ways. 

5. Professional development never stops.

As school professionals, you value new learning opportunities and growing in your role as leaders. Luckily, with hybrid and virtual events, this is easier and more accessible than before. For most schools, only a few people were able to attend EMA in person, but now so many more members of our community can attend thanks to the virtual access.  

In Rob Dimartino’s session, “The Digital Campus 2021 and Beyond,” he discussed the importance of digging into digital marketing strategies like SEO and PPC. With 75% of search clicks going to one of the top 3 results, knowing how your school shows up in a search is crucial if you’re looking to reach new families. The families you serve are constantly evolving and expecting the best online experiences from any site they visit, so knowing how your school looks online is key to the admissions and enrollment process.

If you need help, Finalsite's search engine optimization services aim to land your school's website a page one presence in the searches that matter most to you. 

These are new to a lot of us in the admission and enrollment world, but are nevertheless valuable skills in our schools and beyond. The same goes when we think of design and the visual aspect of our websites and content. Some of us have an eye for design and others struggle with it -- that’s okay! That’s what being a part of a team is all about. Even if you’re an office of one, there’s someone in your school who may be able to help you. Share the knowledge you learned from EMA and invite them to join you for other webinars or virtual events! 

Key Takeaway

EMA’s Annual Conference is always full of old wisdom blended with new ideas, and we loved being back in-person for it. Whether you joined virtually or in person, we hope you took home something new or logged off with the confidence that you’re going in the right direction. See you there next year!

Access presentations from Finalsite's EMA Annual Conference
Emily Howeth

Emily joined the SchoolAdmin team in February 2020, and dove head-first into virtual events, webinars, and the ins and outs of Zoom. She's spent the past 9 years working on trade shows and corporate events and has experience in social media strategy and content creation. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, daughter, and two 60-pound lap dogs. .

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