This blog has been updated since it's original publishing date in July, 2019.
You’re likely already familiar with the term “digital marketing.” But, using digital marketing strategies for your district may be unfamiliar (and sometimes even uncomfortable) territory. However, digital marketing is an important component of every district’s communications strategy — whether you’re competing locally for enrollment, looking to bolster your reputation, or simply do a better job telling your district’s story.
What is Digital Marketing?
Digital marketing is a broad term used to describe the marketing efforts that happen on the Internet. This includes many of the mediums you’re likely familiar with using for digital communications — such as your website, social media and email. However, with marketing, your goal switches from simply informing your target audiences to inspiring, engaging, and convincing them to enroll (or re-enroll) at your district, or purchase a home in your city/town. For districts not focused on enrollment, marketing empowers you to take control of your story and elevate your community’s vision and voice.
Why Does Digital Marketing Matter to Districts?
Many school districts are seeing increased competition — just take a look at this map of the top 100 public high schools in the country.
There are a lot more charter and magnet schools on this list than in previous years — and they make up 57% of the list for 2021. And for districts in states like New York, California, Texas, the marketplace is evidently crowded. This map highlights the most important reason that digital marketing matters: your prospective and current families have choice.
“In the past, most Public School Districts didn’t have to worry about marketing,” said Chelsea Janke, Director of Client & Schools Services at CEL Marketing PR Design, an agency that helps districts implement effective marketing, design and public relations strategies. “But, the popularity of school choice and emerging competition from charter and private schools makes it a must. From optimizing your website, ensuring you can be found in search, updating content on a regular basis and utilizing your website as the central hub of your marketing efforts, digital marketing is a necessity now and for the success of your district in the future.”
Along with increased competition, there’s also increased expectations.
“Coming off a year of physical distancing and remote work, if your digital marketing platforms are not strong, your school looks like it's fallen behind modern society,” said Janet Swiecichowski, APR, Vice President at CEL Marketing PR Design. “The world has gone digital: doctor appointments and telehealth visits, COVID tests, pharmacy reminders, food carry-out, even shopping at Target or Walmart with drive-through pick-up. If your enrollment marketing isn’t digital and convenient, what confidence will families have that you can prepare their children for the future?”
Increased competition coupled with increased expectations tells us this: digital marketing does matter to districts — no matter your size or location. If you want to build a long-term sustainability plan for your district, marketing has to be a piece of it.
What are the Key Components of Digital Marketing for Districts?
Digital marketing does encompass quite a bit — and for districts just getting started, it can be overwhelming! It’s important to focus on the areas that get the most attention from your audience, and can have the biggest impact on the success of your digital footprint. These areas include:
- Your Website
- Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
- Online Reviews
- Social Media
- Email Marketing
- Pay-Per-Click Ads (PPC)
Let’s dive into each of these in a bit more detail.
Your district’s website is the heartbeat of every digital marketing campaign — so this should be your top priority. Whether you’re posting on social media, optimizing for search, or sending emails, you’re likely leading families back to your website — and if your website experience doesn’t match their expectations, the data suggests they won’t come back. (Or maybe they’ll just leave an angry Facebook comment.)
“COVID-19 put school district websites under a magnifying glass, making them the primary means of school-to-home connections for over a year,” said Jon Moser, Finalsite’s founder and CEO in his keynote at School PR Day 2021. “School district websites need to evolve to keep up with increased community expectations. Modern, mobile-first website designs with built-in virtual engagement strategies and top-notch security will be the primary path to advancing your district’s communications in 2021 and beyond."
For more on district website design, check out these articles:
- Best Public School Websites Of 2020
- Does Your District's Website Play A Role In Your Brand?
- What Makes A Good School Website?
- 2021 School Web Design Trends To Watch
Search Engine Optimization
Consider how often you conduct an online search to do research — whether it’s looking up the best local restaurants or finding a new pair of shoes. Search engines play an essential role in most of our lives — and the data is there to back it up:
- 93% of all online experiences begin in search engines
- More than half of a school’s website traffic comes from Google search
When parents are researching school options in their area — or an area they plan to move to — they will likely start with an online search. If they're in the earlier stages of their search, they may try terms like "schools near me" or "what is the best school in [city name]?" If they want to know about your school district specifically, they may conduct a specific — sometimes called a branded — search. This search would include your school district’s name — for example, “football at saddleback valley school district.”
If you want to put your best foot forward online, it’s important to optimize your rankings in Google so any relevant search terms will give attention to your district. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a critical aspect of any digital marketing campaign.
Let's look at a few key elements of your SEO you'll want to focus on:
Google My Business: Google My Business is a free service which can help people find accurate information when they search for your school online. Be sure to claim your listing so you can then make sure the information listed, such as address and phone number, is all correct. You can even use Google My Business to respond to reviews and post about upcoming events.
Title tags and meta descriptions: When you conduct a Google search, the results you see include title tags and meta descriptions that give you a brief explanation of what that web page covers.
Title tags can help improve the ranking of your district website — so you’ll want to use terms your district would like to rank for, such as a “top high school district”. While meta descriptions don’t actually play a role in ranking, they do help give a succinct explanation of your site.
For districts using Finalsite’s CMS, Composer, you can easily edit your title tags and meta descriptions for each page of your site in the page settings.
Mobile-friendliness: More Google searches are conducted from mobile devices than from desktop computers — and this is especially true for rural districts, or districts with a high percentage of low-income families. So, ensuring you have a good mobile experience is key. Additionally, mobile-friendliness plays an role in your site’s organic ranking — meaning a website that is poorly optimized for mobile will rank lower
Content creation: Content is another great avenue to get your website ranking on page one. In the competitive school market, providing valuable content like parenting advice, study tips, child development insight and more is an excellent way to stand out. In addition to blog content, news content, feature stories, and video content can help your district’s ranking in search.
Online reviews: Depending on the search query, your district’s online reviews may show up directly on a SERP. Reviews are estimated to constitute about 10% of Google's algorithm for ranking local searches — so keeping an eye on your district’s reviews is essential. More on this, next!
For more on SEO for districts, read this blog: Why SEO Matters To Your District Brand: Put Your Best Foot Forward.
When was the last time you visited a business (in-person or online) without first checking the reviews? And when was the last time you judged a business based on those reviews? Five stars, you’ve earned my business. Two stars? Let me see if there are other options.
Online reviews play a direct impact on your district’s website traffic from search, and are slowly (but surely!) becoming the new word-of-mouth. Online reviews are incredibly important to many people who conduct searches online, including searches for schools — so if you haven't thought much about your district's online reviews, now is the time to focus on this critical aspect of your web presence.
Google includes ratings and reviews in your Google My Business listing, so your school district's rating will be a prominent part of your first impression for many searchers. Google will also pull in data from popular review platforms for schools, including Niche, GreatSchools, and Facebook. (Beyond Google, Zillow home search also pulls in these reviews to influence buying decisions.)
While none of these reviews can be removed, are your online reviews giving an accurate, positive impression of your school? There are two main ways you can help boost your online presence through reviews:
- Recruit brand ambassadors: One way to increase your online presence with positive reviews is to reach out to families who love being a part of your school community. These people make excellent brand ambassadors. They're likely already telling their friends and family about your school in person. Ask them if they can take that enthusiasm online and write reviews that focus on their positive experience with your district. Make sure you give them the freedom to use their own words so the review sounds genuine.
- Respond to reviews: There's no need to feel powerless when it comes to reviews. Your district can insert its own voice into online reviews by responding. This is considered a best practice for schools since it shows you care about what people have to say. For both positive and negative reviews, thank the person for their review. For negative reviews, resist the urge to be defensive. Instead, provide the reviewer with the appropriate contact information for someone who can address the person's concerns.
For more on online reviews, read this blog: Online Reviews For Schools: Why They Matter And What To Do.
It's no secret that social media sites are hugely popular with your audience — so having a strong presence is key to engagement. Facebook remains the most popular social media site overall, with over 168 million monthly users. After Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are also hugely popular social platforms.
So, how can you take advantage of the popularity of social media to market your school district? There are two main ways:
- Organic posts: Post at least once per day on all the social media channels where you’re active — and encourage faculty and members of the community to share your posts so you can expand your exposure. For districts, we recommend only having one social media account for the entire district, rather than one for each school within your district, to maintain better control over your message.
- Paid ads: Paid social media ads are another option if you want to reach people on sites like Facebook. These ads will cost you some money, but you can carefully target your audience and use text, photos, and videos to capture their attention. Paid ads are important for districts who are facing enrollment challenges and need to compete.
For more best practices on social media, download our Complete Social Media Guide for Schools.
While most of the marketing strategies we've discussed are free, paid digital ads are another valuable option to consider. The cost is well worth it if you can reach prospective families online.
Pay-per-click (PPC) ads are online ads that you can purchase through Google Ads or Microsoft Advertising. Ads on Google show up at the top of the page and look very similar to normal search results. This means they consist of text. You can also run ads with images that appear on other websites. PPC ads are clickable, and you only pay if someone clicks through on the ad. When someone clicks on the ad, it will take them to the website page of your choice.
You can identify keywords that indicate someone may be interested in learning about your school district. You can also determine how much you're willing to pay for the keywords. The two most common types of school district campaigns include:
- Branded terms: A branded search means that a person's search terms are specifically focused on your school district. While your school district's website should rank well for these searches, purchasing ads can help you further control your branded messaging.
- General school terms: Families searching more general terms may focus on schooling options more broadly or on local schools in their area. By purchasing ads for these general terms, you can get in front of these families.
Digital ad campaigns can be an intimidating undertaking, but they don't have to be. Finalsite offers digital advertising services for schools that make it easy for you to reach your target audience.
Your district likely already heavily relies on email communications to keep families engaged with weekly or monthly newsletters. However, these newsletters shouldn’t just be a catch-all for everything you need to share with your community. They should be well-crafted, visually appealing, mobile-friendly, and most importantly...short!
For districts putting a focus on marketing, some content to include in your newsletter includes:
- Teacher, student, and alumni highlights
- Recent news stories about accomplishments
- Fun photos and videos
- Other bits of “good news” and “stories” that make your district community feel happy, proud, and engaged
For schools and districts looking to up their email game, Finalsite Messages is an email newsletter tool designed especially for schools and districts. The platform includes a drag-and-drop email building interface, branded templates, admin controls, C.O.P.E. functionality and so much more.
For more best practices on email newsletters for districts, read: 10 Proven Strategies For Amazing District Email Newsletters.
Digital marketing is an excellent way to reach new families and to keep current families engaged. And the good news — even if you’re just dipping your toes in the digital marketing waters, an effective campaign doesn't have to be costly or overly complicated. Finalsite’s consulting team is helping more and more district’s take control of their digital footprint, and we’d love to help yours, too! You can get started by requesting a free website report card to discuss your district’s website, or request a meeting with a member of our team.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mia is a creative and passionate school marketing thought-leader. Since joining the Finalsite team in 2013, Mia has produced hundreds of pieces of content with one goal in mind: helping private, public, and international schools improve their online presence. In her current role as director of demand generation, Mia focuses on full-funnel inbound marketing strategies. She's also a co-host on The School Marketing Show, a frequent blogger, e-book author, Expert Course consultant and webinar host. She loves putting storytelling at the heart of all communications — and before joining the Finalsite team, Mia was a TV and radio broadcaster, wedding cinematographer, and author for various online magazines. She is an army wife, mom, and rookie photographer currently living in southern Georgia.