In just a few months, private schools have already felt the direct impact of the coronavirus, and NAIS is predicting a ten to twenty percent decline in private school enrollment nationwide due to economic hardship. It’s a grim statistic that has private schools of all sizes finding creative ways to boost brand awareness, inquiries, enrollment, and retention.
And if you were hoping things would return to normal soon, it doesn’t appear that way. As the country’s case numbers reach record highs, and schools in Asia that once opened are now again closed, it’s clear that fall is still going to look different for private schools — and we need to be prepared for that.
While there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for fall admissions, there are numerous best practices and strategies you can have in place to get your Digital Campus up and running smoothly for the new season.
A Full-Funnel Approach to Virtual Admissions and Your Digital Campus
It’s essential that you think about your virtual admissions checklist in the flow of the inbound marketing funnel.
- Attract: How are you going to get them to your Digital Campus?
- Engage: Once they’re on your website/Digital Campus, how will you inspire them to stay?
- Convert: What conversion opportunities are there? And is there a conversion opportunity for every stage?
- Nurture: Once they’ve converted (be it an inquiry or virtual event) how do you plan on keeping them engaged until they apply? And then, what are your plans to keep them engaged until they enroll?
- And for every stage of the funnel: What content do you need to move them along at each stage of their journey?
Attract: Getting Families to Your Website
If your school previously didn’t focus on SEO, PPC, retargeting, or social media ads, they will now become essential. Seeing as on-campus traffic is no longer an option (or it is limited, at best), your school needs to get in front of families where they’re spending much of their time.
SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
Taking a look at Google Trends, it’s clear that there has been a sizable uptick in searches related to virtual learning since the COVID-19 outbreak.
Plus, “independent schools near me” receive an average of 480 searches per month in the United States.
This presents a great opportunity for your school as you build your Digital Campus and Virtual Admissions hub. As more families are searching for independent and private schools at home, promoting your virtual capabilities is a must.
Consider taking that virtual open house idea and placing it at the forefront of your admissions landing page content. And for bonus points, add a quick video to that landing page with a video tour of your school. This will appeal to those at the top of the funnel, help get your school on their radars, and increase the likelihood of getting them to fill out a form.
Next, be sure to consider your school’s online reviews. As families search, they will no-doubt look for reviews on your school. In fact, 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation! So, be sure you garner and respond to reviews on channels like Google My Business, Facebook, and third-party rating sites like Niche.com to further aid in the searching journey.
PPC (Pay-Per Click Advertising)
Optimizing your landing page for search is essential, but it can only get you so far. While there’s never a guarantee of having a presence on the first page of search results, you can supplement your efforts with a PPC campaign.
Let’s think back to that popular “independent schools near me” search query. A family searching this term is early in their research phase, and they’re simply looking at their options.
That’s where PPC can make a major difference. Online ads have shown to increase brand awareness by 80% — So, while your school’s homepage may show up further down on the search engine results page (SERP), your more targeted ad for your virtual admissions landing page may show up at the top of the page. This increases the chances of that top-of-the-funnel family clicking through to learn more, and you can guarantee that your landing page will relate to what they’re looking for, based on the keywords you use.
Social Media Advertising
The majority of social media users access Facebook upwards of eight times per day. This makes it — and other social media channels — essential to your school’s overall admissions strategy.
While your organic presence is as important as ever, social media advertising will help play a large role in getting unfamiliar families to visit your website and get to know your school.
There are countless ways to utilize social media ads, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Boosting - If you have a recent blog post on a general subject, like “choosing the right private school for your child” or “10 virtual field trip ideas,” consider putting a small budget behind it to boost. Content like this is great for reaching top-of-the-funnel families.
- Lead ads - If you have a content download, like an e-book or online brochure, promoting it through a lead ad will allow users to fill out their information directly on the social media platform to download the content. This will give you their information so you can begin the nurturing process.
- Standard photo/video ads - With your virtual admissions landing page, make use of social media ads to get specific with your targeting and reach potential families in your area. Make sure you use a compelling call to action (like, “Sign up for our virtual open house!”).
- Retargeting - What if the combination of your SEO, PPC, and social media advertising strategies get clicks, but no conversions? This is normal! When it comes to big decisions, most users will not virtually “raise their hand” upon first meeting you. With retargeting, you can specifically isolate those users who visited your admissions landing page but did not fill out a form. You can get more creative with this messaging to resonate better with an audience that already developed a first impression with you. Staying top-of-mind is essential to getting families to convert.
If you’d like to get started with advertising but aren’t sure where to start, the Finalsite Advantage team would love to help!
Engage: Your Website as a Digital Campus
A school’s website has never been more important as they rely on their Digital Campus to facilitate experiences online that formerly took place on their physical campus. And while we often rely on our website homepage to engage them at first click, in 2020 your website strategy needs to go beyond a “pretty homepage.”
While there are many components to a great website that facilitates engagement — including compelling photography and videography — we’ve identified numerous areas, specific to admissions, that are essential for engaging families now and in the future:
1. The Admissions Hub
Schools often have a one-stop-shop for parents, teachers and students...so why not prospective families? There should be one centralized place within a compelling design for prospective families that tells your story, showcases distance learning and has well designed nuts and bolts info for applying. This example of a Digital Campus from Blair Academy in New Jersey covers all the bases a Digital Campus should — from registration for weekly Zoom calls to student testimonials.
2. Virtual Campus Tour
The "no brainer" of virtual admissions, virtual campus tours have an even greater responsibility to provide a comprehensive sense of the campus and what it has to offer, with a slideshow, campus map with hotspots, 360 degree tour, and virtual student guides. No budget? No problem. Grab your smartphone and snap some photos of campus on the next beautiful day (slightly overcast is perfect, actually!) Add those images to a photo slideshow on your website alongside testimonials from students about why they love that area of your campus when they’re in person.
3. Hybrid Learning Showcase
Now that parents are looking critical on how a school manages its distance learning, there should be an area of your website that highlights activities and success stories from your distance learning programs. This example from Langley School certainly builds confidence for prospective families looking to make the leap to private education. It feels like distance learning has been a part of their culture all along.
Plus, we love that they draw attention to the page directly in their website footer.
4. FAQ Pages
Take the standard Q&A page and enhance the top-of-mind questions families have, and priming them with questions that they may not have thought of that highlight your school. FAQ pages can also be media-rich with videos and photography, and include forms to ask follow up questions, or even live chat!
Frequently one of the most-trafficked pages on your website, this page is a huge opportunity to reiterate value and programmatic/philosophical distinctions, share successful hybrid and distance learning options, reinforce affordability through financial aid, and implement a tuition calculator.
6. "Why My School?"
While the homepage should directly answer this question, every website should include an interior landing page that really spells out the key distinctions, programmatic features and compelling areas that brings students, alumni, parents, and teachers in to share their authentic perspective as to why your school is worth the investment. While now is a good time to use older testimonials, it’s also time to harvest new testimonials that directly speak to school safety and distance learning initiatives.
Most every website has some kind of directory, but elevating this page to celebrate your most important asset is a great opportunity. Pictures and compelling bios in a fresh design can make all the difference.
8. Curriculum Guide
Like the faculty/staff directory, the curriculum guide is a hidden opportunity to share in-depth information about the excellent classes and programs your school offers with descriptions, multimedia and the like. Looking for inspiration? Check out this beautiful and comprehensive curriculum guide from Maret School, powered by Finalsite Posts.
Convert: Rethinking the Role of the Open House, Virtual Events, and Other Conversion Opportunities
Think Virtual First
For fall admissions, shift your mindset to be virtual first. When you begin thinking about your fall admissions strategy to be virtual, first, it’s clear that virtual isn’t actually a bad thing — it’s actually an essential part of the inbound marketing funnel (that maybe you never realized you needed!).
When you focus on virtual experiences first, you can actually reach more families with a smaller budget, and incorporate more authentic stories with the help from students, parents, teachers and alumni who wouldn’t be at a traditional open house event.
In a virtual or hybrid world, the virtual open house — or other virtual admissions experiences — provide a top-of-the-funnel conversion opportunity that can help you reach your goals. Let’s take a closer look!
Virtual Open Houses
Let’s think about the traditional role of the open house: get everyone to campus to see it and quasi-experience it for a single day. For most private schools, this has always been one of the most impactful admissions events for moving the needle. But, an open house is actually a very bottom-of-the-funnel event — meaning it’s great for engaging with families who are already very interested in your school. It’s also a big commitment for everyone — parents, students, and staff alike.
For families more at the top-of-the-funnel (which is where most of them are!), a traditional open house isn’t a way to engage them. But, a virtual open house is. So, don’t think about the open house as the less-fun alternative to your in-person open house — those are irreplaceable. Rather, think about how to get your virtual open house experience in front of more families as they begin their journey, rather than as they conclude it.
Virtual Shadow Days
In addition to virtual open houses, virtual shadow days — where students can join in on your distance learning program for a day — are a great way to showcase curriculum. These new virtual events are a great way to reach families at all stages in their journey, and it gives them a taste of what distance learning is like at your school. (Because let’s be honest, distance learning is likely here to stay in some way, shape, or form.)
Modified In-Person Visits
While new virtual experiences sit closer to the top of your funnel, in-person visits remain closer to the bottom of your funnel. But, they’ll be modified. Whether your school chooses to host small, socially-distanced all-outdoors open houses, or one-on-one virtual tours, you can use the virtual event as a springboard for future conversion opportunities.
Other Conversion Opportunities
Of course, today’s admissions strategy requires more opportunities to convert that just standard in-person or modified virtual events. For example, The Woods Academy has created a guide called “Choosing the Right Preschool” to engage families at all stages in their journey. Your school’s viewbook is another great conversion opportunity.
Optimizing for Conversions
Among these updates to how prospective families experience your school, a fresh update and reimagining of the landing page is often in order. This page needs to assist with the logistics of visiting, but also provide ultra-convenient ways to get to know the school, such as with a chat or a Zoom session with an Admissions guide.
Nurturing Families Through the Funnel
While everything from your blog to your retargeting ads play a role in the nurturing process, one avenue we haven’t discussed yet is email drip campaigns.
Automated emails are a powerhouse for storytelling. When set up in a strategic way, email workflows can take the initial introduction that you provided through other outlets and nurture families through the whole process to enrollment. But how can you accomplish this? Let’s talk through some full-funnel examples using what you’ve learned so far.
Scenario 1: Begin with a blog post
You boost a post on Facebook with a recent blog about distance learning. On this blog, you promote your virtual open house landing page. Potential families get to this page, love your content, and fill out a form to sign up and learn more.
The first step in your email workflow is to trigger a thank-you email to these families, detailing what they can expect at the virtual open house. This is your chance to reintroduce your school and provide more useful content for them to explore.
Over the course of your workflow, you send one email per week with useful blog posts, program highlights, etc. and ultimately include a call to action to inquire or apply.
Scenario 2: Begin with a PPC campaign
You launch a PPC campaign to promote your school and your virtual admissions options. You find that users are getting to your landing page, but not converting. To stay top-of-mind, you set up a retargeting campaign on Facebook and Instagram for these visitors with more top-of-the-funnel content, like an e-book. You capture new contacts from this campaign.
For your email workflow, you first trigger an email acknowledging that the contact downloaded your e-book, and you make your initial introduction to your school and its values.
Over the course of the next few weeks, you send one email per week with blog posts, virtual open house opportunities, etc. and ultimately include a call to action to inquire or apply.
There are countless scenarios, but the most important tip is to not let your potential families forget about you. Email nurture campaigns are perfect for keeping that introduction fresh and positioning your school as a trusted resource.
Keep your workflows simple and relatively short. Here at Finalsite, we recommend sending 4-6 emails (one per week) to keep you from entering into the realm of information overload. And if you notice that some users are consistently engaging with your emails, you can test out speeding up your cadence!
Let’s recap! Your virtual admissions checklist for your inbound marketing strategy is below.
With an unknown fall on the horizon, approaching admissions with a virtual first mindset will provide new opportunities to get families in your funnel sooner, get them more engaged, and even impact enrollment.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
As Finalsite's director of demand generation, Mia plans and executes a variety of inbound marketing and digital content strategies. As a former TV and news reporter, freelance cinematographer and certified inbound marketer, Mia specializes in helping schools find new ways to share their stories online through web design, social media, copywriting, photography and videography. She is the author of numerous blogs, eBooks, and reports, including Finalsite's Inbound Marketing Benchmark Report.
In her position as Inbound Marketing Manager, Kristen provides the strategy and creation of content across email, website and social media communications at Finalsite. With over five years of experience in content strategy and digital marketing, Kristen has worked with clients around the country to develop their branding, SEM, SEO, social media, and inbound efforts. She holds and maintains a number of certifications from Google, Hubspot, and Hootsuite.