• Independent Schools
Inbound Marketing for Independent Schools
Mia Major

I was driving down the highway the other day and saw two billboards for schools: one a public school district, and another a college (my alma mater, actually).

The inbound marketer in me cringed.

The average price of a four-week billboard presence ranges from $3,000 - $23,000 in major cities across the U.S. Sure, it maybe raises awareness. But think about it — if you're a local district, college or independent school, chances are that people driving down the highway already know you exist. And even if they visit your website after seeing that billboard, you have no way to track it if they heard about your school from a billboard.

Without trackable data, you can't determine ROI. So your marketing becomes kind of like a game of darts: I'm just going to do this, and hope it lands me a bull's-eye.

Radio ads, TV spots, and magazine ads give me the same, "come on, you could be spending your money so much more effectively," reaction.

The issue with any of these old, outbound marketing methodologies is that they completely disregard one key component of inbound marketing: place and time. Because really, is anyone thinking about what school district they're going to move to while sitting in Hartford traffic, nursing a half-empty Starbucks coffee? Probably not.

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

Trinity Prep Inbound Marketing

So how exactly do you go about doing that?

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: I live in a town with poor school systems and I don't want my child attending the high school. OR I need to go to a school with a great art program.

Then, the research comes in to begin finding a remedy to these obstacles.

Consideration: At this point, the prospect has clearly defined their exact obstacle, and begins to research solutions.

For example: This would lead a prospect to conduct some searches like best private schools near me or best art schools in the U.S.

Decision: At this stage in the applicant journey, they've decided on a few schools that would be their solution, but do additional research before making the final decision.

For example: This would be a prospect who has done their research and deemed your school as a top choice.

You are going to get applicants in your pipeline 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.

Free Checklist: Preparing Your Website for Inbound Marketing

Get My Copy

It all starts with personas.

In corporate marketing we call them buyer personas. For schools, let's call them applicant personas. Identifying these applicant personas will help you shape all your marketing content: emails, tweets, social ads — and most important, the content on your website.

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

Its important to note that you're going to 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.

Here are a few examples to get your creative gears turning:

  • Isabelle the International Student: Looking to excel academically to attend an Ivy League U.S. school.
  • John the Jock: Looking to play a sport all four seasons, and get picked up by a big sport university.
  • Susie the Scholar: She'll be the president of every club, take every AP class, and graduate with a 4.0 — but she's going to need a full scholarship in order to do so.

Your goal is to craft all of your marketing messaging to appeal to their goals and interests, while alleviating their common objections or challenges.

Each persona will take an applicant journey. Within the applicant's journey, there are typically four actions that take place:

  • You turn strangers into website visitors.
  • You turn website visitors into inquiries or applicants.
  • You turn inquiries/applicants into enrolled students.
  • You turn enrolled students into engaged alumni.

To be successful at each one of these stages, you need to equip yourself with the proper tools for success.

1. Turning strangers into website visitors.

Sure, a billboard or magazine ads might turn into a few website visitors. But today, there are so many amazing (and free or inexpensive!) tools at your fingertips — it's crazy not to be using them.

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. 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.

Further Reading: Basic SEO Tips for the Everyday Website Manager

Search for Top Private Schools

PPC: Want to be at the top of the page in every search that matters? Invest in a Pay-Per-Click advertising campaign that uses top keywords related to your school to generate new traffic.

Blogging: Before you scroll right over this section because you don't have time to blog, check out these stats:

  • The average company that blogs generates 55% more website visitors, 97% more inbound links, and 434% more indexed pages.
  • US internet users spend 3X more time on blogs and social networks than in email
  • Inbound marketing, of which blogging is a crucial part, costs 62% less per lead than outbound marketing.

So now that I have your attention, it goes without saying that blogs (which did I mention, are completely free?) provide your school with more website traffic, as well as an inside look to life at your school. It's a win-win for everyone.

Here are a few blog ideas:

  • An alumni blog to feature notable alumni and upcoming events
  • A Head of School blog
  • A travel blog (for schools with awesome travel programs!)
  • A student-run blog where multiple students contribute about student life

TASIS Switzerland Blog

Social Media: Social media is arguably essential at every stage in the applicant journey, but particularly this stage. 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).

Social Media Mash-Up

Your 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 — let me stress that again, NEED — to have a website that sets you apart. The web makes competition tougher, and expectations even higher. So sending prospective families to a non-responsive or out-of-date website won't do you any favors.

2. You turn website visitors into inquiries or applicants.

Okay, the hard part is over. You got them on your website — now what? It's time to convert! Here's what you will need.

Forms: Inquiry forms, applicant forms, request information forms, open house sign-ups...the list goes on and on. Make forms easy to find and fill out for an improved user experience. While some schools opt to use those long inquiry forms provided by their Student Information System, we suggest making inquiry forms much shorter to inspire more prospects to fill it out.

Purnell Inquiry Form

Calls to Action: Where should I go next? What should I do? Your users 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.

Further Reading: Crafting Calls to Action for Admissions

Ethel Walker School CTA Buttons

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.

Woodward Athletics Landing Page

3. You turn inquiries/applicants into enrolled students.

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: Email marketing is not dead. And using platforms like eNotify or FinalsiteApply allows you to segment, target and personalize emails communications for your applicant personas. Want to segment by everyone who is interested in football? Or maybe everyone who applied for financial aid? You should. And more importantly, you can.

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

4. You turn enrolled students into engaged alumni.

Your school community depends on alumni engagement, so it is essential to make them happy when they are on campus. Here's what you will need:

Social Media: Engage your community when they're on campus and after they have left. Listen to what they're saying, and appeal to their needs in your marketing.

Portals: Top-notch communications are key to maintaining a happy community. Password-protected portals are an effective way to always be communicating 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.

Gilman's Alumni Portal

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.

STAB Giving Form


The inbound marketing methodology — although is a lot to take in — is becoming increasingly popular among independent schools due to its affordability and effectiveness. Prospective families no longer want to be marketed to, but they want to become informed and enjoy their applicant journey.

Inbound Marketing Toolkit


Mia Major

As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, and Finalsite's popular eBook, The Website Redesign Playbook.

  • Inbound Marketing
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