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Three Benefits of Using Storytelling to Boost Community Engagement
Hadley Rosen

With thanks to Circa Interactive, a Finalsite agency partner, for co-hosting a webinar on this topic and sharing their expertise.

We're all programmed to like a good story. In research, MRI scans show that people's brains light up in the same region when they read words like "coffee" or "perfume" as if they were actually experiencing taste or smell, and the archetypal "Hero's Journey" underlies the plot of more than half of every Hollywood movie and almost all of those addictive Netflix series you've been bingeing on.

Storytelling for Engagement

If you're having flashbacks to English 101, you can recall this twelve-step journey is based on Joseph Campbell's classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces' central tenet of the monomyth:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

In short, there's really just one story, and it takes the form of a journey into the unknown that leaves the protagonist challenged throughout and changed at the end. And while your students might not exactly be venturing into the supernatural and mysterious, your community has countless stories to share that include overcoming challenges, having revelations, and experiencing transformation that will inspire and engage right-fit families to join your community.

So why not use this time-tested tactic to truly engage with prospective families, show them you understand what they value, and strengthen your brand at the same time?

Here are the top benefits of using storytelling now to boost your school's enrollment next year.

Storytelling Shares What Makes You Different

You're special. And while we know that at Finalsite, and you know that, we also know that prospective parents Googling "private schools in Chicago" can't easily tell the differences from ten schools that all boast outstanding academics, enrichiching arts and amazing college acceptances. Storytelling takes these hallmarks and transforms them into relatable, readable stories.

So how do you find what stories you should be telling? Start with by getting to know what's important to your community. If you're not sure what your community cares about, Partner agency Circa Interactive suggests interviewing four or five internal stakeholders to explore how your existing school narrative impacts your story — you might even find out that others have a different idea of what your school narrative is — to add depth to what makes your school unique.

Sidwell Friends School in the Washington, DC area tells their story by inviting site visitors to explore their classrooms, with nine stories that illustrate the school's Quaker values and mission. From their unique "Minimester," a four-day experience that took middle schoolers outside the classroom to explore the Guatemalan refugee plight in Texas, to the upper school music program's relationship with the Apollo Orchestra that explored the concepts of war and peace in a collaborative performance, the values of service, learning, and pacifism are shown through short stories told from the eyes of the students and faculty at the heart of each story.

sidwell friends school storytelling example

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Storytelling Highlights the "Hero's Journey" for Your School: The Student's Journey

When we read a story, whether we know it or not, we're imagining ourselves in the place of the protagonist. Our emotions and their associated brain chemicals —cortisol, the stress hormone, and oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" connected to empathy—rise and fall as we follow even a simple plot line.

This is crucial as prospective families visit your site and wonder: Can I see my child here?

Joseph Lapin, the Creative Director at Circa Interactive, shares, "There's a lot of the 'unknown' when it comes to heading to boarding school or college. A student is embarking on this journey, sometimes leaving home for the first time, and what's more emotional than that step? Building the right story that connects to that journey builds emotion around your school and puts the student at the center of the story."

The right story can show who students are now, of course, but also who they can become. The transformative power of education can't be underestimated, and that's what families are looking for when they embark on a search for an independent school or college.

On Misericordia University's admissions landing page, they focus on telling the hero's journey. The page begins with the powerful statement of "It Starts at the Arch." What is, it, exactly? Success — student success in particular. Scroll down on the page and you'll reveal student stories that inspire prospective students to see what it would be like for them to attend, and highlights the growth each experienced thanks to the school's program and mission.

Misericordia University Students

As a boarding school, Taft needs to connect to potential families around the world who may never visit campus before enrolling. Their "Virtual Visits" show that storytelling isn't just text-based. Using an upbeat video told from the student perspective, viewers experience a day at Taft through students' eyes, from waking up in the morning through dorm life, morning meeting, classes, sports and activities, sit-down dinner and lights out.

Taft Virtual Visits

Storytelling Ups Engagement and Lowers Your Cost to Recruit and Retain Students

You are probably convinced by now that storytelling engages with prospective families better than traditional methods, but there's another benefit: it's far less expensive than traditional marketing methods. Circa was curious too, about how their work with a school on building their branding and storytelling impacted costs and conversion rates.

Their results —and those that we know from research by Hubspot and others—shows that strong branding and storytelling tied to value proposition has a higher conversion rate and a lower cost per student.

Storytelling savings

*Image from Circa Interactive

When your school's story is the same as your competitors', you fall into a "sea of sameness" that decreases the quality of leads and increases the cost of conversion. But, when you differentiate yourself, connect with what's important to your community, and engage emotions with storytelling, you more effectively recruit, and ultimately retain, the right students.

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Hadley Rosen

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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