When is the last time you made an online decision or purchase, without first consulting a set of online reviews? Whether you’re booking a vacation, going out to dinner, or making an online purchase, you likely rely on online reviews to help you make the right choice. Consumer-driven sites like Amazon, Yelp, and TripAdvisor in particular have built a strong habit of counting on online reviews to make any sort of decision. And that means one thing: today’s consumer relies on online reviews to make to decide where to enroll their child in school, too.
The Importance of Online Reviews to Schools
As digital marketing has evolved, sometimes it feels as though traditional Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM) has been phased out. While, of course, you may get some of your most qualified leads from WOMM, individuals (Millennials and Gen Z in particular) rely on the Internet to do their research and draw their own conclusions.
Looking at the inbound marketing funnel, it is important to note that online reviews play a key role at numerous phases.
They first become important in the attract phase, as your prospects are doing a lot of research on what type of school their child should attend (public vs. private vs. charter, etc.). Prospects are searching for “best private schools near me,” or “best districts in CT.” And those searches come accompanied by online reviews.
Online reviews are now your school or district’s first impression, and if you don’t have a four-star or five-star review, you may never even earn a click-through to your website.
The second stage of the funnel where reviews become important is at the end: the enroll phase. While you’re focused on enrolling new students, families are focused on making the right choice — which means they are back to doing research. Rather than conducting branded searches like “best private schools near me,” they’re conducting branded searches for your school, and any other schools/districts they were considering.
Reviews will show up in the search results, linking to sites like GreatSchools.org, Niche.com, Glassdoor.com, and Facebook; as well as on the right in your Knowledge Panel.
You might still be wondering, So what? Do our prospective families trust these things? And the answer is yes.
- 90% of consumers read online reviews before visiting a business. This means that after word-of-mouth or paid ads have done their trick, their first step involves reading reviews about your school, not necessarily visiting your website.
- 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. So, for prospective families who maybe haven't received a personal WOMM recommendation, online reviews matter twice as much!
- 65% of people see online search as the most trusted source of information about people and companies. That's a higher level of trust than any other online or offline source.
- Businesses risk losing 22% of business when potential customers find one negative article on the first page of their search results; and a business with two negatives on the first page of search results risks losing 44% of its customers. So, bear in mind that a 5-star rating based on one review could become a 3-star average tomorrow with a single bad review. A slug of positives insulates you against the impact of the inevitable small number of negatives you will receive over time.
- 68% of individuals form an opinion after reading one to six online reviews — so yes, even one online review can attract or deter someone, but they’ll read a handful.
The Online Review Landscape for Schools
While your school won’t be getting thousands of reviews, like this coffee pot on Amazon, it will likely get anywhere from a few dozen to a couple hundred across a variety of review sites. For a high-level overview of the online review landscape for schools, watch the video below from Red Abbott, Manager of Consulting Services here at Finalsite.
Now, let’s dive a bit deeper into where and how online reviews can be found. As of right now, schools can be reviewed on:
The social media giant has changed “reviews” to “recommendations,” asking page viewers if they recommend the business. You can no longer give a business a star rating of 1-5, but rather say whether or not you recommend them. One of the biggest benefits of receiving recommendations on Facebook is their “social” nature. For example, if Tony has friends that also “like” the page, they will receive a notification that Tony has recommended Punahou, and will prompt them to recommend the school, too. Additionally, you can respond to positive and negative interactions. Plus, when individuals leave a review via their social media account, they are often perceived as more honest and genuine than those reviews that hide behind an avatar and username like “supermom621.”
Google reviews show up in your Knowledge panel with an average star rating, and the ability to view all reviews. If your school has any Google reviews, they will show up here.
Niche is one of the most popular online review sites, and is often on Page 1 of any Google search that is school-related. Because Niche is a well-trusted source of online reviews, many individuals use the site to get an authentic perspective of a school. Like Google reviews, Niche.com reviews are often pulled into the Knowledge panel in Google.
Unlike Google and Facebook, which allow you to respond to reviews, Niche.com does not have this feature. However, keep in mind that only glowing recommendations can look a little fishy, so having one or two honest reviews that aren’t great, likely won’t hurt you. You can also reach out to Niche.com's customer service line if there are false and/or vulgar reviews to have them taken down. Remember that Niche.com prides itself on honest and authentic reviews, so they won't take down a review just because it makes you look bad. You will need to have proof it is false.
Like the previous online review sites, if your school has reviews on Greatschools.org, your prospective families will see them in the Knowledge Panel in the search engine results page (SERP). While Greatschools.org can show up in your Knowledge Panel or on Page 1 of Google, it is also a very popular hub for searching for schools in general. Website visitors can enter their zip code, and view the schools with the best reviews near them, and compare public and private schools.
Boarding School Review
Similar to Niche.com, families can leave you reviews on this popular online review site, specific to boarding schools, that will show up in your Knowledge Panel.
Glassdoor reviews may impact faculty recruitment. While Glassdoor reviews often don’t show up in the Knowledge Panel (or even on page 1 in some cases) for a branded search, they are important for recruiting more qualified faculty.
What to Do Next
For schools who love to control every bit of their messaging online, online reviews are a wild card, as what people have to say about your school is out of your control. But, there are some steps you can take to ensure there are positive voices out there representing your school.
First, prioritize which review sites matter to your school.
Because star-ratings/reviews are determined on an “average” basis, you’ll want to create a plan of attack based on the number of reviews and total rating on each platform. For example, you may have only two reviews and five stars on Niche.com, but one bad review can take away your perfect score. On the flip side, on Google you may have 100 reviews and a 3.5 star rating, which means you’ll need to put in more effort here to bump up the score.
It is important to buffer your positive reviews to avoid them falling, sites with a rating below a 3.5, may require your immediate attention. Our recommendation is to start with the reviews that show up in your Knowledge Panel by default.
Second, engage your champions.
You likely have a group of parents (or even students or faculty) at your school that are your champions. They wear your swag, talk highly of the institution, and recommend it to friends. They might even come to you (or someone at your school directly) to share what has made the experience so incredible.
These champions are your first group to engage for positive reviews. Let’s say, for example, a parent approaches a member of your faculty and says, “My son has had the best experience at your school by far! He was worried about boarding at first, but you make him feel right at home, and his grades are better than ever!” You might then take the opportunity to say, “I’m so happy to hear that! Would you be interested in sharing your experience online?” If they say “yes,” you can provide additional details on where and how to do so.
If opportunities like that don’t arise often, you may need to reach out to your champions via phone or email. Be honest about your your desire to earn more reviews and ask them to help. Keep in mind you won’t want to ask your champions to leave you a review on every single website. But a little hand-holding, and sharing the links to one to two of your high priority websites will help.
It is important to note, however, that you should never, ever provide the language!
Third, have a plan to scale.
Most schools won’t have more than a couple dozen champions they know of (and often less), so you’ll want to create a plan that scales. A Net Promoter survey (or some kind of parent survey) to gauge parent satisfaction is an excellent way to find happy parents who weren’t as vocal about their satisfaction.
Once you’ve noted more happy parents, you can build a scalable plan. Keep in mind that 100% glowing reviews bring up the skeptic in any online shopper, and that multiple reviews on the same day do, too. Be sure to spread out online reviews by only asking a handful of your champions at a time.
Online reviews have become a key component of a school’s online presence, either aiding or deterring in website traffic, inquiries, and even enrollment. Because we don’t see online reviews fading into the shadows anytime soon, it is best you get a plan in place now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite's Content Marketing Manager, Mia shares innovative and helpful content that helps schools and districts create captivating online experiences that increase brand awareness, student and faculty retention, and school-to-home communications. With more than five years experience in the industry, Mia has written more than 200 articles, eBooks, and reports about best practices for schools on a variety of topics from social media to web design. As a former TV and news reporter, and wedding photographer, Mia specializes in sharing how to use storytelling to power your school's admissions funnel. When she isn't busy creating content or hosting her #LIKEABOSS Podcast for FinalsiteFM, you can find her hiking with her Boston terrier, running an army wives meeting at Fort Campbell, or enjoying a well-deserved savasana on her yoga mat.