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How Private Schools "Compete with Free" with Spartanburg Day School
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 one and two) we spoke with Spartanburg Day School in Spartanburg, South Carolina to learn how they can be successful when public schools are a main competitor.  

Spartanburg Day School Profile

Enrollment: 450 in grades pre K-12

Tuition: Flexible; up to $13,817 for Kindergarten-$19,230 for 9-12 

Annual Fund: $500,000/ Endowment: $18.7 million

In the Finalsite Family since: 2016

Finalsite Design: Package 2

Spartanburg, South Carolina is bustling. It boasts seven colleges and several corporate headquarters, including Denny’s, Milliken and Company and a large BMW factory. Spartanburg is a part of the Upstate region, which includes Greenville and Anderson counties, and is home to more than 1.5 million people.

Another thing it has going for it? Spartanburg is known for its great public schools. 

“Many people who live in Spartanburg grew up here,” said Bethany Cobb, Spartanburg Day School’s Director of Marketing. “So, there’s a high affinity for the public schools. Our community members went to the public schools themselves, and think that they are ‘adequate.’ While we are competitively priced amongst independent schools in our region, our market does not necessarily understand or value a private or independent school education the same way they might in a larger city.”

Those factors are definitely a challenge, but Bethany and her team know that the school’s value proposition, or what they call “points of difference,” made them a strong competitor – namely with their small class sizes, quality faculty and options for affordability. Now in year three of a rebrand, here are the top ways SDS stays on message and stays competitive. 

How Does Spartanburg Day School “Compete with Free?” 

1. Their New Site Streamlines Their Message and Shows How They’re Different Than Public Schools

In 2016, SDS went through a comprehensive rebrand. Starting with updating their mission and values, creating a new wordmark and style guide and then culminating with new messaging, materials and a new website. Before, “There was a brand, but there weren’t specific guidelines in place and there wasn’t much structure. Our materials weren’t cohesive, and our message was all over the place.” 

SDS is a 2K-12th grade school, and they needed a message that resonated across the divisions, which, Bethany said “made it really cumbersome to communicate. We needed a more streamlined message that showed our value.”

“Compared to local public schools, SDS provides a superior education, a community of trust, and prepares students for a life well-lived. We ask students to ‘Be More,’ and that means excelling and being challenged in academics, being a part of a caring community, and then leading a life that has purpose.” 

Enter their new website in 2016. “With our new site, we were able to focus on our points of difference—those things that make us special—on every page. We coupled that with a focus on social media posts validating those messages, paid ads, billboards and direct mail. The website makes it easier to communicate our messaging to the outward facing community, and now as we move into year three of our marketing plan, we look inward to ensure that we are giving our faculty and staff the tools and training they need to live and breathe our mission and values every day...” 

An inviting site section on the point of difference ‘Be More’ shares videos of how SDS educates the whole student in and out of the classroom. 

They communicate this message with prospective families using video, attractive images, and infographics that bring site visitors on a journey through what it means to be a part of their community. And, their social media accounts bring in this point of difference, too: the hashtag #BeMore reinforces their message in posts to their 4000+ followers. 

Senior Client Success Manager Lorrie Jackson met with Bethany and Lee at Finalsite’s 2017 Finalsite University. “Not only was the redesigned website engaging and a stand-out in the local school market, but their team’s commitment to continually updating of the site and learning best practices ensured that SDS is staying ahead of the curve in online marketing and admissions.”

2. They Speak to Prospective Families the Right Way 

Millennial families are becoming a larger part of the SDS community, and Bethany and her team knew that they needed to speak to their unique concerns (namely, a focus on value), and adjust to how this demographic group prefers to interact with a school online. 

“Millennial families have done much of their research before they arrive on campus,” Bethany said, and that means that the website needs to answer common questions quickly, work well on mobile devices, and most importantly, why families should consider SDS over local, free options. 

And, millennial families are used to having tailored online experiences that are just for them, something that SDS made a priority.  “We know that prospective families also want to have a personalized experience with our school, so we added a ‘Chat Now’ pop up that lets site visitors talk with someone from our admissions staff. It has been amazing for admissions and has really upped inquiries. Our Director of Admissions and Admissions associate take turns answering live questions, so site visitors are talking to a real person and getting answers fast.”

They’ve also added the option for families to schedule their own tour using Calendly, rather than having to call the school. “At FinalsiteU, we heard about the customer experience and the changes in habits during the admissions process. Having families schedule their own tours has made a big difference on saving our admissions office time, and it makes families’ lives easier, too,” said Bethany. 

SDS’ LiveChat popup invites site visitors to ask questions and chat directly with a member of the Admissions staff.


Families can schedule their own school tours on the site with an easy-to-use calendar add-on. 

Using Finalsite’s email marketing platform, families are put into an email workflow after filling out an inquiry form that’s tailored to their grade level and interest. 

3. They’re Creative About Communicating Tuition 

Have you heard of flexible tuition? It’s a way to communicate the concept of financial aid differently, and helps families avoid sticker shock. SDS is up front about affordability, and dedicates several site pages to helping families understand how they may be able to pay a tuition rate that is comfortable for them. 

“We really find that it helps us start the conversation with families,” said Bethany. 

By showing ranges of tuition that families pay, and sharing the average award that each family receives—$8,200—it opens the SDS experience up to more families who felt that it might have been out of their reach. 

A video on the topic shares more about how families can access FACTS and financial aid services at the school. The result? A more than 100% increase in page views and growth inquiries from families of all income levels. 

SDS’s Affordability site sections are a wealth of information on financial aid and flexible tuition. 

And, remember those seven colleges that surround SDS? Families who work there can have their children attend SDS at a discounted rate. In return, these colleges offer facility space (a pool for the swim team, for example) and courses for SDS faculty. It’s a win-win for SDS and the institutions, and helps spread positive WOM about the school.

Key Takeaway

Combining their rebranding, new website and new best practices for engagement, has boosted website traffic to more than double what is was in 2016, admissions page views are up 123%, 2019-2020 applications are up by 52%, mid-year enrollees are up by 73%, and the future looks bright for SDS, no matter what the competition. 

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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