Finalsite University Asia 2021 brought together delegates from top international schools from 17 countries throughout Asia and Australia to learn and share, while reflecting and celebrating the completion of a stressful and busy year like no other. Delegates appreciated learning first-hand strategies and tactics from guest speakers from Seoul Foreign School, Saigon South International School, the International School of Beijing, and Jakarta Intercultural School.
In addition to school professionals sharing their marketing, admissions and communication stories, Finalsite’s product team showcased best practices for Forms, Posts, Portals, and marketing automation with Inbound Marketing. One veteran client exclaimed: “I am no longer afraid to move to Finalsite’s new Forms module!” Another stated: “We're just starting to use Posts and this session was inspirational. Lots of ideas and suggestions in what appears to be a very accessible way. Thank you!”
The key takeaways from the two-day event include the latest marketing strategies for international schools:
- The digital family journey is the “new normal”
- Behind every great website is a high-quality design
- Marketing automation is essential for admissions and retention
- Powerful website software is critical for building an integrated communication strategy
- Password-protected community portals are no longer optional
The Digital Family Journey is the New Normal
Jon Moser, Finalsite’s CEO and founder, opened the conference by discussing how the pandemic has changed the role of the school website permanently. He shared analytics from Finalsite schools including how website usage has increased exponentially as many schools went virtual, hybrid or alternated between the two.
The digital family journey is the new normal and a school’s website is the cornerstone of that digital journey. With schools forced to find virtual equivalents for their physical counterparts in admissions, graduations, online learning, teacher recruitment, and fundraising, the school website -- and the communication departments that run them -- were put under the magnifying glass. For many, the gaps in this digital family journey became obvious.
What were some of these gaps? Website usability and flexibility, site speed and site security, and just roadblocks created by using and having outdated systems and manual processes. These weaknesses have led to issues with parent retention and admissions.
He also noted that with the increase in website traffic for schools, cyber attacks continue to be on the rise, targeting the education sector among others; in fact, in January 2021, over 60 percent of all reported enterprise malware encounters worldwide were in the education sector (previously, the education sector accounted for approximately 25 percent). Finalsite alone thwarts over 4 million suspicious requests and attacks every day on client websites.
But, as Jon reassured everyone: where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. He discussed how schools have the opportunity to better engage their communities digitally through:
- Better website design, architecture and speed;
- Mobile design and a school mobile app
- Utilizing tools like marketing automation to streamline processes and increase efficiencies.
Behind Every Great Website is a High Quality Design
Chief Innovation Officer Angelo Otterbein discussed the importance of an effective website for attracting prospective families, recruiting faculty and staff, strengthening communications within school life, and connecting and engaging with your wider community. What worked three years ago, most often no longer works.
“Behind every great website is a high quality design,” Angelo said, and added somewhat philosophically, “Bad design is obvious, but good design is often invisible.”
First impressions matter more than ever since school closures have limited the ability of prospective families and faculty to travel and visit schools. A school's online presence has been their only presence and it plays a central role in how your target audiences perceive and interact with your school. He walked delegates through key factors when designing a school website including the importance of:
- A goal-driven approach
- A compelling user experience
- The essential role of a mobile-first design.
Angelo then shared some examples from sites that demonstrated these key fundamentals:
Bavarian International School | Engaging and interactive with bold colors
UWC Southeast Asia | Comprehensive site architecture and navigation and stunning photography
Whitgift | Incredible storytelling and attention to design detail
Marketing Automation is Essential for Admissions and Retention
The team at Saigon South International School shared the secrets to their admissions and retention success using Finalsite’s marketing automation tool, Workflows, combined with an integration with OpenApply’s admission software. They built on their success from last year when they first implemented workflows in their admissions department, resulting in an increase in applicants and far better efficiencies.
The past processes were labor intensive, involved a lot of back and forth and unnecessary work. “With the inbound marketing process, we have gained a level of sophistication and professionalism through branded and beautiful emails, the efficiency of email workflows, and most of all, our ability to sell the value of our school by showing all the great things we offer,” said Katie Rigney-Zimmermann, director of admissions, marketing, and communications.
George Marshall, digital marketing officer, shared detailed analytics highlighting how the new process is much less labor intensive, has improved word-of-mouth marketing, increased conversions leading to a 95% retention rate and was all completed in half the time as before.
Powerful Website Software is Critical for Building an Integrated Communication Strategy
Some schools make it look so easy — they have great looking websites with great content, attention to detail, and all the bells and whistles. How do they do it? Since we get that question often, we invited clients to share how the right software combined using the expertise around them (Finalsite consultants and colleagues alike) are critical for building an integrated communication strategy:
Joanna Cole, communications and marketing director at the International School of Beijing (ISB) discussed their strategic communications plan. They started with identifying their audience, what they want to share, and how families want to receive communications. She discussed how they solicited feedback from various stakeholders and how they translated those needs into deliverables. On the surface this may seem basic, but when working in a school with over 1,700 students from around the world, things get a bit more complicated.
Using Finalsite’s Content Management System, Composer, they were able to create an information-rich hub with calendars, news, email messages and other content. The thoroughness of their planning and efforts is visible in their curriculum guide that showcases in great detail all of their offerings to prospective families and at the same time, by no longer printing, helps ISB meet their goals of moving to more sustainability.
After a website launch just a day prior, Elizabeth Allen, director of communications and marketing at Seoul Foreign School, shared her expertise having launched six websites during her career and her third working with Finalsite. She discussed the five stages she uses in successfully deploying a new website:
- Planning and Research
- Getting Buy-In
- Building the Site
- Preparing for Launch
She highlighted key elements of communication strategy at international schools including marketing, branding, value proposition, social media, print and advertising and how they fit into the mix of a school’s digital presence. She discussed how Composer is a critical component and one less worry knowing that Finalsite tools are proven and reliable.
Getting buy-in from senior leadership, parents and faculty and staff is not to be underestimated either, and she had some clever ideas that other delegates were quick to applaud and “borrow”. One favorite piece of advice she shared was compiling a spreadsheet with top level navigation comparing her school with other leading schools and competitor schools.
Password-Protected Community Portals are No Longer Optional
Retaining current families is equally important as recruiting new ones. The journey is not over once families enroll: you have to constantly engage and re-affirm why families choose -- and remain -- at your school.
Nick Biblis, advancement and communications advisor at Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS), discussed their portal makeover, which in many ways is more comprehensive than their public facing website. Their portals had become a dumping ground that were hard to navigate and full of outdated information.
He shared in great detail how JIS went about assessing, planning and implementing portals. To streamline messaging and also promote the links and pages that were most used by each constituent group, they created four portals: Faculty/Staff, Parent, Student and Alumni. He shared strategies for increasing usage of the portal including the parent newsletter using Finalsite Messages.
Through both feedback and analytics, including significant reductions in bounce and exit rates, JIS’s portal rollout has been a huge success and their portals continue to engage their community.
In addition to learning from schools directly, the product and client success teams at Finalsite shared new features, best practices and examples from schools around the world. If you would like access to all the resources from this event, you can purchase an All Access Pass.
Kyle Aldous, communications director at Singapore American School, closed out the conference with a thought-provoking session on the daily challenges of a busy school marketer. How do you deal with an angry parent? How do you pivot when your photo shoot is rained out? He made delegates pause, reflect, question and reevaluate how they approach and respond when faced with a problem. What is most important - knowing, feeling or doing? He also discussed the importance of Plutchik Wheel of Emotion and how looking at problems through various lenses will enable you to approach challenges in potentially better ways.
So whether school marketers are redesigning their websites, evaluating parent engagement, or looking to improve their admissions processes - taking time to assess and communicate with others while using fresh ideas and the latest technology will get you closer to your goals faster. Until the next Finalsite University Asia in 2022, the team at Finalsite is always here to help schools implement solutions for the digital family journey.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past 10 years while living in both Asia and Europe. She helps schools understand how they can maximize their web presence while partnering with Finalsite. As a parent of three children who graduated from IB World Schools, she has keen insights into the marketing and communication needs of international schools.</