- Independent Schools
In talking to schools at our summer 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 second piece of our blog series “Competing with Free,” (view part one here) we spoke with Fairfield Prep in Fairfield, Connecticut, to learn how they stay competitive and successful when public schools are a main competitor.
Fairfield Prep School Profile
Enrollment: 830 students
Annual Fund: $2.5 Million
In the Finalsite Family since: 2008
Take a stroll around downtown Fairfield, Connecticut and you might notice a certain item of clothing appearing on people of all ages: sweatshirts and pants with “Fairfield Prep” written on them. This popular clothing item (they sell hundreds of these a year!) is a part of the school’s focus on strong branding, and is an important piece of why they’ve been so successful despite being located in an affluent area with excellent public schools. (And, they’re among the top sellers of spirit wear out of Finalsite’s thousands of clients!)
Colleen Adams, the School’s longtime Director of Communications, has been in the Finalsite family for a decade, and knows how stiff the School’s competition is. “Our area has a huge number of private schools and great public schools,” she said. “So, I know how important it is for us to stand out from the crowd online on our new website and in all of our marketing efforts, from our famous spiritwear to highway billboards.”
Using a combination of their website, traditional marketing, and a focus on their value, here are the three top ways the school stands out in a competitive market.
3 Ways Fairfield Prep “Competes with Free”
- Their New Site Shares their Unique Selling Proposition
A unique selling proposition (USP) is essential when a school is perceived as being very similar to its competitors. Different from value proposition, a USP is often used to sway consumers to switch from one brand to another, and Colleen knew they needed to hone in on what makes Prep special to succeed.
“We are up against some very highly ranked public schools, and a majority of our students live in Fairfield,” Colleen shared. “And we know the public high schools in Fairfield and the surrounding towns do a good job. So we needed to do some research and testing to determine our USPs. Once we learned them, we were strategic about how we share that message on our site and in our marketing. Like us, public schools have excellent facilities and top coursework, but what we have is that something extra—a moral based environment and powerful brotherhood among the students.”
Prep’s Finalsite Client Success Manager, Anthony Tata, said, “Fairfield Prep is the only all-boys Jesuit Catholic high school in their market, but prospective students and parents did not accurately know what that means or understand what they could gain from it. Their new website now focuses on the unique benefits they receive, and is much more about addressing the wants, goals and desired outcomes of their prospective students and parents than being about the school itself.”
The site’s homepage features pieces of the USP and how students will benefit-from taking education beyond the classroom, to care for the mind, body and spirit.
The photos and videos the school chose are carefully used to create emotional connections that help make the school memorable, and Prep's key differentiators stand out on every page, while clear calls-to-action guide audiences deeper through the site. For example, the Life at Prep video brings the school’s culture to prospective families in videos that share real students’ perspectives.
Additionally, the Admissions section is welcoming and demystifies the process for prospective families, and provides clear paths to next steps with large calls-to-action.
And, while most of the public website pages were redesigned to focus on external audiences, communications with internal audiences were improved by creating a centralized area (Portals) for enrolled parents and students to find the information they need quickly.
“Our retention rates are fantastic,” said Colleen. And a big part of that is communicating the right information with our families and making sure they can get involved and stay on top of news and events. They need calendar items, forms, and news in one, easy-to-find place, and our site section does just that!”
Another part of retention? Branding. Accepted students receive a pack of Fairfield Prep socks, with the note to “Put Prep in Your Step,” along with a car sticker inviting families to “Ride With Prep Pride!”
2. They Communicate Affordability
The school realized that they had a challenge with affordability, Colleen said, and they decided to address it head-on with a variety of methods. “We’ve gotten very specific about how much financial aid we’re giving out, and how that breakdown relates to a family’s adjusted gross income.”
Using their website, they shared a clear infographic that breaks down the percentage of families at differing income levels receiving aid, going against the perception that only low-income families qualify for assistance.
They also tried something new: newspaper wraps, or spadeas, printed pieces that are folded around local newspapers, highlighting fast facts about the high percentage of aid that the school provides.
3. They’ve Doubled Down on Marketing… Everywhere
Having worked in the marketing field for many years, Colleen shared something that will be too familiar to fellow school marketers: “Since I started working at Prep more than a decade ago, we have constantly increased the types of marketing that we’re doing. We started with a school magazine, a website, and print ads, for example; now we’ve added digital ads and online remarketing, social media, TV spots, and much more!”
But, rather than focus on just one or two of their marketing channels, Prep makes an impact online and in everything from highway billboards to those famous sweatpants. “We’ve really increased our multimedia marketing mix, and have more presence in different areas. We’ve utilized Jumbotron stadium ads, traditional print ads, social media, radio, cable and magazines... The list goes on! We’re also using surveys to track applicant feedback. We’re never sure where prospective families are going to find out about us,” Colleen said, “So we make our best effort everywhere!”
“It’s early in our admissions season,” Colleen shared, “So we won’t know until springtime how everyone worked through our funnel. But we are very optimistic!”
We’re optimistic, too. “I remember when Fairfield Prep started their journey with Finalsite in 2008,” said Anthony. “Their web and digital presence has grown so much in that time. We are fortunate and thrilled to be their partner in web communications and marketing all these years.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.