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Inbound Marketing for Schools

If you work in school marketing or admissions, the term "inbound marketing" likely sounds familiar. After all, it's not new. The term was first coined in 2005, and then finally started picking up steam in 2012 in corporate businesses. But it was just the past two to three years that inbound marketing has been the buzz at schools around the world. 


Inbound Marketing 101 for Schools

Inbound marketing (for schools, specifically) is the process by which you use numerous digital mediums — including SEO, PPC, social media, email, and your website — to attract, recruit, and retain families at your school.

Inbound Marketing Philosophy

The philosophy behind inbound marketing is that by publishing and sharing the right content in the right place at the right time, your school's marketing becomes relevant and helpful, rather than disruptive. 

It goes against the grain of traditional marketing and advertising. Instead of casting a wide net across print ads, billboards, radio ads and television hoping something sticks, you're focusing on specific audiences — their needs and wants, what their hurdles are and where they spend their time. The focus becomes quality, not quantity. 

Inbound Marketing and Personas

Personas will help you shape all your marketing content: emails, tweets, social ads — and most importantly, the content on your website.

A persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal applicant based on research and data about your current enrolled students and alumni.

It's important to note that you will have many different applicant personas — no school is looking to just attract one kind of student. To get started, consider the top four to five different applicants you would like to enroll. Personas can be shaped around backgrounds, demographics, personality, goals, challenges, common objections, budgets, interests, age, academics, etc. — or a combination of them all.

Your goal is to craft all of your marketing messaging to appeal to their goals and interests, while alleviating their common objections or challenges. For more information on crafting personas, read this blog post.

The Inbound Marketing Funnel & Flywheel

Inbound marketing is often exemplified by the "funnel" or "flywheel". While the two diagrams essentially explain the same process, the funnel identifies inbound marketing as a one-way strategy, where the flywheel defines it as cyclical.

Inbound Marketing Funnel

The inbound marketing funnel likely looks similar to your standard admissions funnel. The key difference in strategy will likely be the tools you use and the content you create to execute it. For example, traditional admissions may rely a lot on print ads for open houses and follow-up calls. These outbound efforts can be costly. Inbound marketing focuses on attracting the right families to engage with your content online so you spend less money on traditional methods, and less time following up with the wrong people.

Admissions Funnel AIDAE Framework

Inbound Marketing Flywheel

What the inbound marketing flywheel takes into account more than the funnel is the impact that happy enrolled families can make on awareness and filling your funnel. Traditionally, schools have relied on Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM) to drive brand awareness and enrollment, and the flywheel is a great representation of this.

admissions flywheel for schools

Stages of the Inbound Marketing Funnel & Flywheel: Defined

Let's start at the beginning: all prospective families and students fall into one of three buckets along the buyer's journey — or in a school's case, the applicant's journey: awareness, consideration, and decision.

Awareness: At this stage, your prospect is aware of their current situation — whether it be a problem, need or desire For example a family in an awareness stage could be motivated by the fllowing: I live in a town with average public schools and I want my child going to private school. OR I need to go to a school with a great art program.

At this stage, their primary focus is research — and the majority of that research starts in Google. Unbranded for terms like "best private schools near me" help prospective families become aware of the options in their area. If they've heard about your school through a friend or an advertisement, they may also search directly for your school's name (known as a branded search.)

Interest: At this point, the family has likely begun to make their "long list" of schools. They are revisiting some select websites that piqued their interest, and maybe filling out a top of the funnel form — such as downloading a viewbook or a simple inquiry. They may also check out a 360-degree virtual tour, read blogs, and engage with other informational content on your website.

Desire: Once a family reaches this stage of the funnel, they've likely identified a "short list" of a select few schools of which they'll invest more time. This is when they may attend a small in-person event, register for a longer-length virtual event, or submit a formal inquiry form.

Action: This is the moment you've been waiting for: the application! But, just because they've expressed direct interest in attending your school, it doesn't mean your job is over. You'll have to keep them engaged with a great digital experience.

Experience: From the moment a prospect initiates direct interest in your school by applying, it's essential that you provide consistent and quality communications about "what happens next." This experience helps with both yield and retention rates.

You are going to get applicants that enter the funnel at all points. There will be the first-generation private school student whose district doesn't offer the opportunities necessary to foster their talents. Then of course, there are plenty of prospects who know their child will be attending a private school — the topic at hand is which one? And lastly, there will be prospects who go directly to your school's website and apply because it's a family tradition, or you have the best STEM program, or they were recruited for hockey. Regardless, it's your job to have a plan in place for anyone who enters your pipeline at any given time.

Now, let's take a look at each of these a bit closer.

Inbound Marketing Tactics to Fuel Your Funnel

At each stage of the funnel, you're going to need a different set of tactics to nurture and nudge your prospective family along from one stage of the next. Below we've created a diagram that outlines the strategies required inbound marketing funnel.

full-funnel admissions strategies

It is clear that numerous strategies transcend different stages of the funnel — and that's because no inbound strategy operates in a silo. Content in particular plays a key role at every stage of the funnel, slightly adapting as the interests and needs of families evolve. Similarly, your website and social media will play a key role at almost every stage of the funnel as they are essential tools for informing and engaging your key audiences.

Let's take a deeper dive into each of these strategies and where their primary function in the funnel sits.

1. Awareness: Turning strangers into website visitors.

Sure, a billboard or magazine ads might turn into a few website visitors. But by now, we know those aren't the most effective investment. Inbound marketing strategies for the awareness stage of the funnel include:

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Search Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Ads 
  • Content Offers and Blogging
  • Social Media (Paid and Organic)
  • Mobile-First Website
  • Online Reviews

SEO: Besides word of mouth, the number one place prospective families go to begin their search for a private school is...well, search: Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. (Google owns more than 90% of the search market, so schools usually focus on optimizing for Google.) Optimizing your school's website for keywords that they're looking for — like "top private school in Boston" will help your search performance. Also consider other SEO factors — like responsive design, user experience, and load time, can impact organic search performance as well.

PPC: Invest in Pay-Per-Click advertising campaigns that use top keywords related to your school generate new traffic.

Content Offers and Blogging: Content offers and blogs provide your school with the opportunity to get families in your funnel even earlier on in their journey than when they make their "long list." Creating content that speaks to the top concerns, questions, and goals of prospective families can help you rank in non-school keyword related searches, while positioning your school as the expert.

Social Media (Paid and Organic): This is the platform on which you can share your blogs, news stories, upcoming events, photos, videos, and other content, that can attract completely new prospective families (and of course, engage current families and alumni).

Mobile-First Website: It's always important to put your best face forward. If you're optimizing your website for search, investing in PPC, writing a blog, and sharing everything on social, you need to have a website that sets you apart. The web makes competition tougher and expectations even higher (especially when so much is virtual). So sending prospective families to a family that loads slowly, doesn't work well on mobile, is confusing, or simply not visually appealing, can negatively impact your recruitment efforts.

Online Reviews: Whether a family is searching for "best schools near me" or your school's name directly, online reviews are going to play a key role as they automatically display in organic search results

2. Interest & Desire: Turning website visitors into leads. 

Getting families to your website is just the first hurdle — as you don't have the opportunity to connect and communicate with them until you have their information. Typically, schools aim to initiate that first contact via a long inquiry form — but in 2020 and beyond, that simply doesn't cut it. Prospective families need more than one opportunity to learn more about your school that goes beyond an inquiry form that requires a login or 20+ fields. To turn website visitors into leads that then take future actions, you'll need:

  • A Variety of Online Forms
  • Clear Calls-to-Action
  • Downloadable Content
  • Targeted Landing Pages

A Variety of Forms: Inquiry forms, applicant forms, request information forms, (virtual) open house sign-ups...the list goes on and on. Make forms easy to find on your website via clear calls to action — and keep them short when possible!

Clear Calls-to-Action: Where should I go next? What should I do? Your website visitors like to be told what to do, so be sure to always provide them with a quick and easy next step to guide them down the path to exactly where you want them to go.

Downloadable Content: For this funnel stage, having a content offer available to download, such as an eBook, guide, or viewbook can help get families in your funnel sooner. For more content offers, read this blog post.

Landing Pages: When a website visitor clicks a call to action, they should be brought to a landing page where the action the CTA promised can be fulfilled. Landing pages also play a key role in your paid advertising strategies for search and social.

Additionally, search and social media ads play a key role at this stage in the funnel to drive traffic to your landing pages, forms, and content.

3. Action: Turning leads into applicants.

Awesome — here comes the fun part! How do you turn all those inquiries or applicants into enrolled students? You're only going to need a couple of basic tools:

  • Email Workflows
  • Data

Email Workflows: Email workflows (also known as email drip campaigns) are key to nurturing families from one stage of the funnel to the next by staying top-of-mind in their inboxes. For more on the basics of email automation, read this blog post.

Data: Run reports and analyze Google Analytics to determine which strategies are best to recruit the most qualified applicants, and pursue those. 

In addition to email workflows and data, you'll also rely on your organic website, content, and social media channels to keep families engaged. If you're investing in search ads, a retargeting campaign can also aid in your efforts here.

4. Experience: Turning accepted students into enrolled students and engage alumni.

Your school community depends on alumni engagement, so it is essential to make them happy when they are on campus. In addition to a great website, email campaigns and social media, you'll also want to have:

Portals: Top-notch communications are key to maintaining a happy community. Password-protected portals are an effective way to always communicate with the right audience at the right time, with personalized content that's just for them. Create portals for parents, students, and alumni to ensure they only see what's necessary for them.

Online Forms and Surveys: Make it easy to stay connected with your community with online forms and surveys. Whether you're looking for volunteers for an upcoming event, or want feedback on last year's homecoming, making it easy to give money, time, or an opinion, will foster an engaged community.

Key Takeaway

Inbound marketing is an essential strategy schools should adopt to attract, convert, and retain more families. The Finalsite team has written a lot of content on inbound marketing strategies that we encourage you to read here. And if you're interested in implementing some inbound marketing strategies yourself, let's talk! Finalsite's marketing and communication platform is fully equipped with tools to make your inbound marketing efforts a breeze.

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