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How Private Schools "Compete with Free" with The Episcopal School of Dallas
Hadley Rosen

In talking to schools at our independent school focus group, we learned that many are concerned with how they can “compete with free,” as prospective families feel increasingly financially stretched and wonder how they can afford tuition or annual fund donations — especially when they have great public schools that are “free” nearby. Millennials, a growing group of prospective families, feel especially concerned with affordability, as they have more debt and lower incomes than previous generations

In this third installment of our blog series “Competing with Free,” (view parts onetwo and three) we spoke with The Episcopal School of Dallas in Texas to learn how they can be successful when public schools are a main competitor.  

The Episcopal School of Dallas Profile

Enrollment: 1,153 students in Beginner (age 3)-grade 12

Tuition: $22,400 for Beginner-$30,400 for grade 12

Annual Giving and Endowment for 2017-18: $2.36 M

Endowment, as of June 30, 2018: $25.3 M

In the Finalsite Family since: 2007

Finalsite Design: *New* Best-in-Class site launching in July 2019 

Good news for parents in the Dallas area: there are plenty of options for public and private education with more than 200 private schools and some of the nation’s top public schools—like the School for Talented and Gifted Students, which is often ranked as one of the top schools in the country by U.S. News and World Reports (source). 

And within a few miles of The Episcopal School of Dallas in the city’s Northwest neighborhood, the concentration of great schools is especially dense. “Within a stone’s throw of our school, there are several great public and private school options,” said Julie Clardy, ESD’s Director of Communications. “So it’s more about finding the right fit for the student. It requires us to lean in to who we are at ESD and share our values in every interaction with current and prospective families.”

Northwest Dallas and Highland Park are packed with great public and private schools, making competition especially intense (but friendly!).

Everyone at ESD, from the admissions office to the faculty all the way through alumni, is on board with sharing the mission and values of our school.”

 So, How Does The Episcopal School of Dallas “compete with free?” 

1. They’re Heavily Invested in Social Media—and are Super Organized!

ESD knows how important search and social are to the prospective family journey, and they’ve made a significant investment of time into targeting their content to the right audience, measuring what works, keeping it all organized, and driving traffic back to their website (which they affectionately call “The Mothership!”). 

With nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter, 2,000+ on Instagram and almost 3,000 on Facebook, “We know that social media is often a first step to driving families to our digital ‘front door,’ our website,” said Julie. “And we know from tracking data that if we can attract and engage families online, there’s a good shot of them taking the next step towards inquiring, visiting, and applying.”

In developing their social content and schedule, ESD spoke to constituents to learn more about what they want to hear about and when, helping the school to develop an enviable social media content calendar. They also work with admissions and advancement to ensure the right mix of messaging to current families, prospective families, or alumni. 

ESD’s color-coded social media posting schedule is so on-point that we use it at Finalsite as a teaching tool in our Social Media Workshops! 

“We are responsible to ensure that the quality of our social media content accurately reflects the quality of the ESD experience,” Julie said. “Through webinars, workshops, and blogs, Finalsite goes above and beyond to make sure folks like us are aware of and able to implement best practices. They provide terrific resources for in this ever-evolving space.”

ESD uses Finalsite’s social media Feeds to bring in posts to key site sections, like their Stay Connected page, below. 

ESD’s Stay Connected site sections pulls in Finalsite Feeds to share all the great things happening on YouTube, Twitter and more! 

ESDallas Stay connected site screenshot

2. They Use Their Website to Show What Makes Them Unique 

As a member of the Finalsite family since 2007, ESD has been through a few redesigns, but their latest, with a scheduled launch of July 2019, is going to be amazing. 

In anticipation of the launch, ESD invested significant time in discovery, meeting with key constituent groups and departments and studying best practices. Qualitative feedback, like this, and quantitative data, like Google Analytics and Crazy Egg (a heat mapping tool), have informed their decisions. The key questions: How might we deliver the best possible user experience on our site? How might we express the hallmarks of an ESD education throughout?: ESD’s hallmarks are:

  1. Academic rigor and excellence
  2. A strong sense of community
  3. Understanding of self
  4. Faith-informed foundation of values

“These four points are highlighted throughout our site,” Julie said. “Finalsite’s tools are so simple to use and allow us to share our story in ways that are meaningful.”

ESD’s homepage is rich with content that shares its key differentiators. 

ESD has some pretty unique on and off campus features, including an on-campus quarry that lends itself to some pretty cool science lessons, and the off-campus, 300-acre Wolf Run Ranch where students from all grades bond with one another as they participate in ropes courses, study the environment, attend an outdoor chapel or engage in cross-collaborative projects of English and History. 

Below, ESD students study samples from their on-campus quarry, and the Wolf Run Ranch, the school's 300-acre ranch. 

ESD’s Client Success Manager Sam Lipscomb shared, “The inclusion of a variety of videos that allow website visitors to share in the ‘Experiences of ESD’ lets younger audiences, who love video, to put themselves on campus and encourages stronger engagement and exploration. They don’t just tell you what makes ESD special; they show it!”

3. They’re Making Marketing to Millennial Families a Priority

The Dallas area’s millennial population is one of the fastest growing in the country (source), and the ESD team has seen this first-hand as these younger families now make up a larger part of their school community.

ESD’s new lower school will open in summer 2019, uniting all three divisions on one campus. 

“Many of our Lower School applicant families are millennials,” Julie said. “We want all of our families, current, alumni, and prospective, to have the best possible experience with us. It’s important to us that they know who we are, what we stand for, and the value of an ESD education.”

“For some families, affordability may be a concern,” Julie said. “Finalsite’s content management system makes it easy to relay information about tuition and our priority of attracting qualified students regardless of their means. Right now, the tuition portion of our site includes an embedded video and organizational tabs. It was easy to build!”

The school also makes the UX on the site seamless, knowing that millennial families expectations for their site are higher than ever. “We think of our families’ experience on the site as ‘family-first,’ and ‘what does the family need.’ We are always looking for ways  we can give site visitors what they need in the easiest possible way. Having a responsive, mobile-friendly site is critical.”

Clear calls-to-action on the website guide visitors to take the next step. 

Millennial families also care about online reviews, and ESD stands out on popular sites like Niche, and in Google’s knowledge graphs. 

“While parent recommendations are the number one way people learn about ESD outside of direct contact with the school, online reviews are increasingly important,” Julie said.

Key Takeaway

“There are many great public and private school options in Dallas, Julie said, “and our job is to share the amazing story of ESD with current and alumni families, faculty, staff, and prospective community members that align with our values. We are thankful for the tools and resources Finalsite provides to help us to deliver our message.”

With a new website built on Composer on the horizon and a thriving and engaged school community, ESD is sure to stay a strong competitor in Dallas’ crowded marketplace.

Interested in how your school can better compete against free? Lets see how we can help! 

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Hadley is Finalsite's Director of Communications and is a former independent school teacher, fundraiser and marketing director with a passion for cooking, travel, and spending time outdoors with her growing family. She founded the FinalsiteFM podcast network and enjoys meeting Finalsite clients from around the world.

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