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Marketing and IT: Making School Data Work for Everyone
Sam Spain

Sometimes it seems like the differences between school marketing and IT offices could be a conversation about the theory of being right-brained or left-brained.

The theory goes that the two sides of the brain control different types of thinking. The right side of the brain relates to creative, artistic, and expressive abilities such as reading emotions or using your imagination. Meanwhile, the left brain is better at numbers, language, and logic — abilities like critical thinking and reasoning.

But this theory is a myth!

Even though certain brain functions do occur in one side of the brain or the other, it has been debunked that people have a stronger side of their brain. In fact, our abilities in subjects such as math or language are strongest when the two halves of the brain work together.

Likewise, marketing and communication, and information technology departments at schools and districts may as well be left and right sides of the brain.

Marketing and communication professionals are creative, coming up with marketing strategies and artistic ways to share the story and brand of their school. They use what they know about the emotional triggers of their target audiences to affect decision-making and convince users to continue down a path of conversion.

IT directors are logical, crunching the data formats to create reliable reporting methods and making sure every decision is a trusted one. They know numbers don’t lie and love streamlining processes — from internal networks to the latest educational technology — to make their schools or districts more efficient and connected.

Sound familiar?

Like our brains, the strongest school websites have a team of marketing and technology professionals behind them, working together to create a space that meets both the technical requirements and emotional needs of their audiences.

As our school’s marketing teams dive deeper into analytics and data to make better decisions, IT professionals need to be increasingly creative about the tools they adopt and share within their school communities.

So let’s figure out the best ways for the dream team to work together on the web!

A great website balances style with substance, and fashion with function. A website is never just a beautiful standalone marketing piece, like an admissions viewbook, nor is it just an electronic venue for sharing information, like an email.

Truly powerful school website designs make it easy for a user to find exactly what they are looking for as quickly as possible. This means the design should be intuitive and attractive, content should be scannable and appropriate (not filler!), and a search function should be prominent and straightforward. Bonus points when content is personalized for the user, based on where they are searching from, what they are searching for, and even how they fit into the school community.

Here are a few potential areas of collaboration for your dream team:

Search Optimization

People love instant gratification, and they have answers right at their fingertips almost every minute of the day. Google is making those answers faster than ever to find: it will answer your question on the search results screen or, in some cases, right in the search bar itself. You can ask how old someone is, like Madonna, and it will tell you before you’ve even hit enter!

screenshot of madonna age

Google will also tell you a school’s tuition if it’s been posted elsewhere. I’ll pick on my undergrad: notice how Boston College’s tuition is outdated? This information is not included in the Boston College Wikipedia sidebar and so a 2019-20 record is the one that Google has determined is the best answer.

screenshot of google's results for Boston College tuition

With this in mind, a project that can include both marketing and technology teams is checking to make sure Google has recent answers for the most searched-for questions. Google depends on reputable sources, like your own website or Google business listing, to find these answers and cite where it found them; this means you should check the source and make sure the information is up-to-date. It is important to assure you are providing factual information that may be proven when editing your school's Wikipedia page.

Best practices for search shouldn’t be limited to search engines. Your website has a search bar, and people will use it to jump to exactly what they are looking for. Typical search items include calendar, lunch menu, parent portal, student portal ... many of the things schools include in their quicklinks menu, right? Users are searching for them anyway! Check your search reports for your most-searched terms, and make sure a search bar is easy to use and not find old pages that need to be hidden.

I especially love great search experiences that prove the school knows what its users are looking for and has made it easy for them to find. Lake Washington School District’s search function says it all: it’s labeled “Find it Fast” and in addition to the typical search bar, they have lists of frequently asked questions, popular searches, and pages that have recently been added or updated!

lake washington school district

Finalsite can assist on both sides of the search bar! A search engine optimization project can help make sure every engine from Google to Bing is indexing your site correctly and your updated content is making it to page 1 of the search results. And our Advanced Search options help you direct your own user's search path with relevant suggestions and provide search analytics to see what your users are searching for the most. Contact the Client Success Team any time if you’d like more information about these!

SEO & Digital Advertising Fundamentals for Schools

System Integrations

Schools have a ton of options for holding and sharing data, even beyond their website: enrollment management systems, health and medical software, tuition management systems, photo repositories, and of course the student information system (SIS).

Parents won’t spend a ton of time in a database system like the SIS, mainly jumping in to update their contact information, keep an eye on attendance records and check progress reports. But there are a ton of events, meetings, and forms that could be planned daily by various school offices, and the harder it is to find this new information the more likely parents are to be mildly frustrated, or worse, completely disengaged. A parent that doesn’t feel a strong connection to their child’s school has no problem finding a better fit for their family and enrolling their student somewhere else.

We spend so much time focused on the experience of a prospective family that current families could feel lost when we don’t give them the same focus and attention. You need fewer resources to keep an enrolled family happy than to bring a new one in; retention is easier than recruitment! So it’s important to give your current parents and students the best experience possible whenever you can.

Integration of your school’s many systems, whichever they might be, goes a long way to keeping parents happy. Parents won’t want to update their information with three different offices or be emailed about one event five times. And they definitely don’t want to remember 10 passwords just to check if their tuition payments are up-to-date, see if new photos of their children have been posted, schedule a parent-teacher conference, or sign-up to volunteer in the classroom.

In my past life as a communications director, I didn’t know how lucky I was to be working with a school that already integrated two of its most-used systems: a Finalsite website and its student information system. Parents had one point of entry to their web hub, and I could include authenticated links into not only our SIS, but any other system we used, from FACTS to Naviance. Parents knew exactly where to go to find the latest schedules, recent email newsletters, important forms, and anything related to their child.

Finalsite Posts takes this to the next level, allowing updates to be targeted to parents that have children in specific grades or certain clubs and teams. This creates an experience that is unique for every family, automatically tied to information we know is already housed in the SIS. The integration runs and Finalsite’s dynamic content takes care of the rest, using what we already know to create rules that, when followed, give parents only the information useful to them ... and none of the noise.

And the results of an integration project are magical when members of both communications and database admins are involved: the content that the parents need can be organized and communicated effectively, while technology experts know there is one master source of the data and one direction for that data to flow. 

Personalization

If users can log in to your site, you can deliver content that is personalized to their needs because you know who they are. But we can still get personal, even if they don’t log in.

Marketing and IT teams can work together to use Google Analytics data to determine some information about your visitors, like what they search for or what language they might speak. Do you see homepage visits from a variety of other countries? Enabling translation software for your school can act on that information for a more targeted and personalized user experience.

screenshot of translated Northwest ISD homepage

Supporting more than 100 languages, Finalsite's preferred partner, Weglot, seamlessly integrates into your school's website and helps build a more accessible and multi-lingual experience. With just a click, Northwest Independent School District in Texas can translate its entire site into a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, Arabic, or Vietnamese.

Real-world Dream Teams

Over the years, ownership of the website has changed. Since they are on the Internet and updated with computers, in the past it made sense that websites were managed by IT directors. Nick Clements, Director of Technology at Epiphany School in Seattle, WA, said it best: “To some audiences, the website is seen as this sacred space that only acolytes of the technological order might venture.”

As schools determine that they need to hire communications and marketing professionals, the website has slowly changed oversight.

And no wonder: a website is the only marketing tool that a school has 100 percent control over.

He adds, “Because of the capability of these tools (Composer, Messages, Google Analytics, and others) we can evaluate the effectiveness of our approach and assumptions, revisiting them as we implement a continuous improvement cycle and not just sit satisfied that we made something and take for granted that we perfected it on our first go at it.” Iteration is always key!

Key Takeaway

Having IT and marketing directors that are comfortable with gathering and interpreting data, seeing new ideas through, and problem-solving is a huge win for both teams. In any scenario, it’s hard when one department has sole responsibility for a project — particularly a website — that affects everyone in the school community.

No matter how your marketing and IT professionals currently interact, we hope they can put their brains together and make the best connections for a strong website!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam

As a former independent school communications director, Sam knows the ins and outs of making marketing magic happen. As a Client Success Manager working with the western half of the United States, Mexico and South America, she excels at helping clients optimize and streamline marketing efforts for the biggest impact.


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