Here we are, smack dab in the middle of admissions season. And if things aren’t going quite to plan, there are some changes you can make now to positively impact your 2022 numbers and beyond.
What Changes Can You Make When Inquiries are Down?
Why are Your School's Inquiries Down?
Let's face it — the best marketing in the world isn't always the solution. Independent schools who are seeing a downward trend of inquiries, applicants, and enrollment likely have a bigger mountain ahead of them than tweaking a social media campaign.
There's Not Only Less Right-Fit Families, But Fewer Families In General
Today, schools are dealing with a historically small applicant pool. While there are numerous contributing factors, much of the decline can be attributed to the fact that millennials are having fewer children, and often having them later in life. Couple that with increased debt from student loans and decreased salaries compared to their parents, private school is out of reach for many families. According to a report from Enrollment Management Association (EMA) the proportion of the population under the age of 18 is expected to drop from 23.5 percent to 21.2 percent between 2012 and 2060. That same report suggests that the number of independent school graduates is expected to decline by 26.5 percent between 2012 and 2032.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to give some schools' enrollment a boost, this trend could pose to be temporary, as many regions — including Pennsylvania — have actually seen a decrease in enrollment.
It’s essential that your school considers historical enrollment data and demographic information when creating enrollment goals. You can’t expect the fish to bite if...well, there aren't any fish.
Your Reputation Precedes You
There might be reasons specific to your school to explain decreased inquiry traffic: the opening or expansion of competitive schools, negative online reviews, issues around a program or faculty member, or even a scandal pops up when a family Googles your school. While some of these can be combated with aggressive marketing campaigns, it’s no less important to set realistic goals based on your school’s unique circumstances.
Specific cases aside, when schools aren’t reaching their inquiry goals, there are two root causes: awareness and conversions.
Awareness: There are literally just not enough families who know about you, or are researching you online. This can be due to a variety of reasons, such as poor performance in search or low brand recognition in the local community. Families may not know about your school, or current families aren't sharing recommendations through word of mouth. Whatever the cause, when families don't know about you, they can't inquire.
Conversions: Let's say you know that awareness isn't an issue. You have a beautiful campus centrally located on a main road, you have plenty of website traffic in Google Analytics, but for some reason, no one is actually requesting to learn more. This issue can be tied to a poor website design or online admissions experience. Anything that doesn't meet the lofty expectations of today's family can present a point of friction, and a reason for them to check out your competitors instead.
Because these problems exist in two different stages of the parent journey, these are two very different problems that require different strategies to fix.
Strategies for Increasing Awareness
1. Invest in Paid Ads
Let's consider this situation. You've never optimized your website for search, and you realize that when you conduct a local search for "best private schools near me" your school isn't on page one. Honestly, that's a marketer's worst nightmare. More than 90 percent of online experience begin with a search engine, and over 80 percent of online searches begin with an unbranded term — meaning the majority of families won't search for your school, but rather, a general term like "boarding schools in Colorado."
Paid ads can have immediate ROI for schools needing to increase website traffic. Strategic PPC ad campaigns can almost guarantee you a page one spot in Google for the searches that matter most to your school. And because the majority of clicks go to the top list of results on the first page, this is almost always a win when the goal is increasing awareness an website traffic.
What about SEO (Search Engine Optimization)?
If you work in school marketing, you’d probably been told you need to “do SEO” to help with website traffic. And while this is absolutely true, SEO is a long-term strategy. Changes you make to your website today may not make an impact on your website traffic until months from now.
Further suggested reading:
2. Invest in Social Media Ads
Your target audience spends a lot of time on social media, which means it is a fantastic platform for building awareness for your school and increasing website traffic.
Keep in mind that social media really isn’t the place to ask prospective families to inquire. It is merely a vehicle to get prospects to your website to learn about your school. Because of social media’s “social” nature, individuals scrolling through cute dog pictures, viral videos, news, and updates from friends, they’re likely not in the state of mind to make a commitment to do something just yet.
Further suggested reading:
3. Earn Positive Reviews
Google is the new word of mouth.
When is the last time you went to a restaurant without Googling it first? You search for "best tacos in Boston" and you immediately gravitate towards the ones with the highest ratings. Unfortunately, this kind of buyer behavior isn't exclusive to restaurants. Today's consumer depends on online reviews as a key part in their research and journey for choosing a school. Having positive reviews in search, on social media and on review sites like Niche.com, GreatSchools.org and BoardingSchoolReview.com, can help in acquiring more organic website traffic from prospective parents as they shop for schools.
If your school doesn't have positive reviews, or enough reviews at all, there are two negative consequences that can affect your school's awareness:
- Schools (and all businesses) with poor reviews or no reviews at all are not favored by Google's algorithm
- When a prospective family sees a less-than-desired star-rating next to your school's name, they may never even visit your website
Now isn't the time, however, to email every happy parent and alumni and ask for a review. Today's parent is smart — and when they see an influx of positive reviews, they're skeptical. Like SEO, positive reviews are a long-play. You'll need a well-crafted strategy to earn positive reviews throughout the year to give your brand a list.
Further suggested reading:
4. Redesign your School's Website
Okay, so maybe a website redesign can’t help with website traffic right now, but it can help in the long-run. First, having a new, fast, mobile-friendly website can give your organic performance a lift. Because Google “punishes” slow-loading and non-responsive sites in its search results, having an old, clunky site might be harming your organic reach.
While a website can have a positive impact on your ability to appear in search, it also is a key player in your school's brand and perception. In 2022 (and honestly, long before this year), a poor website design equates to a poor brand in a consumer's mind. So if your website doesn't meet their expectations — which, by the way, have grown exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic — it can have a significant impact on your ability to attract and recruit new families.
A website redesign is also essential when your website isn’t seeing as many conversions (form submissions) as needed to fill your funnel. If your website has a confusing user experience, poor design, wordy content, lack of visuals, etc., the traffic you’re driving with SEO, PPC, and social media campaigns likely aren’t seeing a big ROI — which brings up our next area of discussion: increasing website conversions.
Further Suggested Reading
Strategies for Increasing Conversions
Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) is the process by which you attempt to earn more conversions (form submissions, and in this case, inquiries) without increasing website traffic. So, using the same example from before — if you normally get one inquiry for every 100 page visits, and you only get 100 website visits a week, a CRO strategy would beg the question: how can we get five inquiries from those same 100 visitors?
In short, the answer is: simplify the process. You’re probably making it too hard to take the next step, and that’s preventing families from doing so. Here are some tips for simplifying the process for prospective families:
1. Shorten your Inquiry Form
In general, today’s prospect doesn’t have the time, patience, or desire to fill out a lengthy form — especially when it is simply for an inquiry. Inquiries suggest “I’d like to learn more, but I’m not totally ready for a commitment just yet.” These wavering individuals are in the middle of your admissions funnel and can't be bothered with 1. creating a login; and 2. sharing every detail of their personal history with you.
While you might not get every little piece of data you want on that initial inquiry form, it’s important to remember that marketing and admissions isn’t really about you — it’s about creating an experience that invites and engages your prospective families.
While we usually recommend keeping your inquiry form to seven form fields or less, many admissions programs do require a bit more information. However, choosing a platform that has dynamic form capability can be a key differentiator here. Let's say your inquiry form needs to be 12 fields, but you don't want to show 12 fields on your website. You can use dynamic form fields to show 3-5 fields first, and as the form is completed, new fields appear.
Suggested Further Reading
2. Make Sure Your Admissions Forms are Responsive
Unfortunately, some forms generated by admissions software and student information systems still aren’t responsive. Yikes.
With schools seeing more than 50% of their traffic from mobile devices, ensuring your inquiry form can easily be filled out on mobile is essential is a must! This means big form fields, text, and thumb-friendly buttons.
Take a minute and test out the inquiry experience on your own mobile device. Is a lot of scrolling, pinching, and zooming required? If so, it may be time to consider a different option — especially if Google Analytics data suggests that much of your website traffic to that page is from a mobile device.
3. Optimize Your Landing Pages
So what happens when you’re already investing time and resources into SEO, PPC and social...and still not getting the results you want? It might be time to re-evaluate the inquiry form landing page. Start by reviewing the page’s data in Google Analytics. A page that receives decent website traffic, but has a high bounce rate or exit rate, likely means the content and form should be optimized.
Be sure your inquiry form is actually embedded on an engaging landing page, and not just an external link to a form like this:
While many schools still rely on the basic (and certainly not the most visually appealing!) form generated by their Student Information System, this clunky user experience can deter prospects. Rather, it should be able to easily embed into a landing page on your school’s website for a streamlined, branded, user experience.
The Harvey School uses Finalsite's Admissions and Enrollment software (formerly SchoolAdmin), which makes it easy to embed their responsive, dynamic forms on their Finalsite website. This creates a better, more engaging, user experience since website visitors don't have to leave the beautiful, responsive website.
Your inquiry form landing page should include:
A value proposition that speaks to your target personas
Photos or videos that highlight what makes your school unique
Student testimonials that speak to the value of your education
Content that answers the question “why inquire?”
Suggested Further Reading
4. Offer Something of Value First
Not everyone who visits your website will be ready to inquire, and if you want a chance to reach them earlier on in their search, it is absolutely essential that you offer something else — a content offer. A content offer is a valuable piece of content that helps families in their journey for finding the right school. It can be as simple as your school’s viewbook, or as creative as a guide for choosing the right private school.
The goal of this content offer is to get prospective families in your funnel earlier on. Content offers are always downloadable via a short form — no more than five fields — and is more likely to be filled out than your inquiry form. The higher volume of submissions on a content offer gives you more prospects to nurture from within your funnel, thus resulting in more inquiries.
In an article featured on the NAIS blog, Kathleen Visconti, Director of Enrollment Management at The Elisabeth Morrow School, shares her positive experience with branching out beyond inquiry forms:
“We have written several e-books that families can download after they sign up by email. We collect those addresses and add them to our database of prospective families. Our most successful content was ‘How to Find the Best School for Your Child.’ We have offered this e-book for three years and have had hundreds of downloads.”
There can be many reasons why your school’s inquiries are declining, from a poor website to some bad publicity that’s out of your control. It’s important to evaluate your school’s goals, conversion rates, and website data to determine what needs to be fixed, and create a game plan for improvement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Director of Demand Generation, 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, eBooks, and reports, including Finalsite's Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report.