If you’ve been working in schools for a while, chances are you’re familiar with the many online review sites for K-12 schools. And these sites are important — in 2021, 77% of consumers “always” or “regularly” read online reviews while they were browsing for local businesses — a 17% increase from 2020.
Understanding how to make the most of online reviews is critical for recruiting new staff and families, and Niche is a platform that plays a major role in the process. But what does that look like for school districts? Let’s take a look.
Does Niche Matter to Districts?
Yes! Niche is a leading platform for the school search process. Last year, the platform was trusted by 75 million students and families, and 364 million minutes were spent on the site. While there are many sites that publish K-12 reviews and rankings online, the biggest differentiators are Niche’s audience size and traffic. Niche also provides schools and districts with the ability to take more ownership of their presence on the platform, with robust profiles that offer families a window into what it’s really like to be part of a community, which we’ll get to later in this post.
How Families Use the Platform
So, how exactly do families use the platform? In many cases, it starts with an online search. Families that are researching public schools typically fall into one of three scenarios:
- They have a child at a natural transition point (e.g., a rising kindergartener or a child moving from middle to high school) and want to confirm that they should continue with their local district. Another scenario might be a family researching magnet school options, language immersion, or schools that offer academic acceleration programs for gifted students if they live in a state or district that provides those options.
- They have already decided they want to make a change and are actively comparing multiple schools/school types.
- They are relocating and are evaluating where to live based on school quality and a location’s “fit” with their needs and lifestyle.
In all of these cases, parents and caregivers will typically take to Google to start the school research process. And the kinds of generic searches that parents do early in that process (e.g., “public schools near me” or “best public schools in Texas”) are most likely to show online reviews with a sprinkling of paid ads before they see links to websites for specific districts or schools. This is a great reason to make sure that your district’s digital footprint doesn’t end with your website and social channels.
What the Data Tells Us About School Search
Digging a bit deeper, Niche has collected a lot of data regarding how prospective families engage with the platform and what they’re actually looking for as they’re comparing schools. In Niche’s 2021 Parent Survey, 87% of preschool parents, 84% of K-8 parents, and 73% of high school parents said that local schools were an important factor in their decisions about where to live, which connects to the relocation scenario described above.
During the school search process, 42% of parents were interested in researching different types of schools (traditional public, private, charter, etc.) and added 3-4 schools to their list on the Niche platform on average. But … when Niche looked at data regarding public school consideration, we saw that traditional public schools are losing traction among the types of schools that families are considering in the search process. Public school consideration declined 3% for preschool families, 16% for K-8 families, and 9% for high school families last year.
We also asked families whether they considered traditional public schools exclusively in their school search process and the K-8 age group is where we saw the biggest change — only 5% of families considered them exclusively in 2021, compared to 12% in 2020. All of this is to say that Niche's data reinforces recent reporting on declining enrollment for traditional public schools in many areas and increased interest in private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling.
Telling Your District’s Story on Niche
Because your district’s Niche profile has the ability to serve as an extension of its broader digital footprint, when parents inevitably find you on the platform, you want to make sure you’re putting forth your best effort.
Rankings and Grades
Rankings and grades can be a mystery to school communicators, but they don’t have to be. One thing to understand is that while rankings are important in the school search process, they are among several other factors that a family considers. In the Niche 2021 Parent Survey, 42% of preschool families, 57% of K-16 families, 46% of seventh and eighth-grade families, and 46% of high school families said that school rankings were an important factor in their decision-making process. But they’re still a (very visible) factor, so let’s take a look at how they’re calculated.
School rankings on Niche come down to four key things:
- academic and student life data from the U.S. Department of Education and Niche users
- test scores
- college data
- ratings and surveys from Niche users
A district’s ranking or grade is not impacted by whether or not that district has a paid relationship with Niche. It’s also important to know that schools and districts with fewer than five reviews are not eligible to be graded, which underscores the importance of having reviews from members of your community.
How can you get those reviews? Here are a few tips:
- Start at the beginning of the year. Your families are happy, fresh from a (hopefully relaxing) summer off, and filled with optimism about the new school year.
- Focus on your “friendlies.” Parent and student volunteers, PTO members, etc. are not only more likely to be responsive, but they are also more likely to leave positive, genuinely helpful reviews.
- Build relationships with different offices, teachers, advisors, and student groups so you have those connections when you need them.
- Explain the “why” and be prescriptive. The “why” isn’t just about making your district look good on a website. It’s about sharing their family’s story with others to help them make an important life decision. When you ask for reviews, be specific about which sites to go to, review length (2-3 sentences is fine), and themes for topics to write about.
- Incentivize them with swag or Niche’s $1,000 School Survey Sweepstakes.
Your District’s Profile
Whenever a school or district has questions about engaging with Niche I tell them to do two things to gauge how prospective families are already using the platform: claim your profile so you can access performance data for it and check your referral sources in your website analytics. Districts can claim their profiles for free to get access to a dashboard for keeping their information up to date and the Niche Audience Insights Report, which provides information about how users interact with your profile and data for how other schools in your area are performing on the platform. Did a new school open in your district? You can use the same profile claiming process to have it added to the site.
While the basic profile is fairly simple, it does allow you to provide prospective families with a baseline level of information in addition to reviews from your community.
If you decide to take things a step further, the Premium Profile provides ample opportunities for brand reinforcement and storytelling. Premium Profile features include the ability to upload up to 25 images in a hero image gallery at the top of your profile; custom calls to action; integrations with Instagram, Vimeo, and YouTube; a more robust Audience Insights Report; and the ability to highlight signature programs; employee recruiting messaging; and upcoming district events.
Pro tips for optimizing a Premium Profile include using bright photography that provides a sense of place, using calls to action to reinforce why prospective families (and employees) should choose your district, and using the Program Spotlight feature to highlight the unique opportunities that exist for students in your district. While you’re working on your profile though, don’t forget to regularly review your Audience Insights Report to evaluate your profile’s performance and where there may be opportunities to make adjustments. Using UTM codes can also help you make connections between engagement with your Niche Profile and engagement and conversions on your district’s website.
Parent and caregiver behavior is changing when it comes to researching and choosing schools, so districts have to adapt their outreach strategies to keep pace with the other educational options that parents are exploring. Niche is a trusted platform for the school research and selection process, and getting your district up and running on the platform is easier than you think. Claim your free profile, start gathering some data, and make sure you get a plan in place to gather reviews from your community in the fall! You never know what you might learn in the process.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angela Brown joined Niche in 2021. Before joining Niche, she was director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School in Virginia. In her role at Niche, Angela creates content, research, and insights to help PK-12 marketing, communications, and admissions professionals refine their strategies, hone their craft, and elevate their roles in schools. In addition to creating content for Enrollment Insights, Angela is a regular presenter, writer, and podcast guest. She is a member of the National School Public Relations Association, American Marketing Association, and The Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP), and serves on the Advisory Board for the Marcom Society, an exclusive online community for independent school marketing and communication professionals. Since November 2020, she has served as a judge for the Brilliance Awards, which honors marketing and communications work from PK-12 private schools around the world.