If you're a school marketer yourself, you know that independent schools offer prospective families a product with a huge price tag, and typically compete with free public schools and other independent schools in their region. Prospective families have choice. So we all wrestle with how to make our schools' distinct voices, culture, character, and offerings stand out.
Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart is a PS-12 day school for girls in Princeton, New Jersey. Its small size and tucked-away location in the woods of a residential neighborhood in a region known for its outstanding public and independent schools means Stuart is also often "tucked away" in the minds of area families, too. Many competing schools are bigger, older, and physically more visible. Stuart's leadership team knew the school was a hidden gem and were determined to make its voice heard.
Brainstorming about ideas to make a splash in the community, Stuart's Director of Communications Risa Engel and Head of School Dr. Patty Fagin borrowed the concept of a full-day conference from one they'd seen at Girls Preparatory School in Tennessee. Stuart's plan was designed to build awareness and strengthen the brand — not necessarily to immediately build the admissions pipeline.
But Engel envisioned marketing way beyond online ads or clever videos. She wanted to draw families with girls to campus and engage them in deep, authentic conversation around Stuart's core strengths and identity. Not conversation about Stuart itself, but around things that Stuart excels at — educating girls, engaging girls, and equipping girls to lead in the traditionally male-dominated areas of STEM and entrepreneurship. This plan was organic, because the school had already established the Stuart Center for Girls Leadership in 2015 and had received a grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation to support initiatives at the school for girls in STEM. Working with the school's leadership team, they built support and consensus for the strategy. The plan eventually became "#LEADLIKEAGIRL: A Conference for Risk-Takers and Changemakers" -- a free one-day conference for girls K-12, parents, educators, and community leader mentors. The conference was to be for girls and by girls, with girls creating and leading many of the sessions. Engel's vision for the content marketing strategy was that the #LEADLIKEAGIRL brand was to stand on its own. Now on to the marketing!
The marketing and communications strategy had three clear phases:
Months of preparation began. Engel knew that as a first-time conference, they needed to look legitimate. No cutting corners. They had to have a great name, eye-catching logo, beautiful web presence, and compelling speakers. The planning team drew on its network with its state and national associations (NJAIS, the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, and Network of Sacred Heart Schools), area schools, regional media outlets, parents, and alumnae.
Through focus groups, students in the school's Leadership Endorsement Program were involved in selecting the branding, and planning logistics (suggesting, for example, that sandwiches, chips, fruit and drinks should already be set at the tables for lunch, instead of having attendees go through long lines). The planning committee recruited awesome crowd-building speakers such as NASA's chief scientist and the CEO of the GoldieBlox, a toy company that makes engineering toys geared to girls, and pulled together a rock-star advisory committee of parents and alumnae. The #LEADLIKEAGIRL name for the conference had been used to launch the Center, and the committee decided it was perfectly aligned with the school's mission for the conference, while appealing to a young generation. In-house designer, Brandon Detherage, designed the eye-catching memorable, bold logo.
They built a microsite within the main school website. The #LEADLIKEAGIRL brand always took the lead (see what we did there?), but the Stuart logo remained subtly present throughout the website, the advertising, and the signage.
Engel's team used Finalsite's content management system, Composer, to create the conference microsite. Composer offers endless potential for page layouts with element types to mix-and-match on a page to allow Stuart's vision to come to life -- all DIY. They provided links to the microsite throughout the rest of the main website, allowing them to draw visitors from many paths, but only having to manage the content in one place.
It was time to open registration. Who would sign up? The school used Finalsite's Forms Manager to create the registration forms and eNotify to send email newsletters. Forms Manager allowed the team to add as many fields of whatever type they needed -- radio buttons, checkboxes, open text fields, required fields and the like in a custom layout that made sense. They were able to cap attendance and start a waiting list, then keep those registrants and waitlisted folks informed via eNotify.
Stuart went big on every front. They even bought billboard space on the busy US Route 1 highway outside of town, secured coverage in local newspapers, and plotted a social media campaign to reach the target audience of girls and young women.
#LEADLIKEAGIRL — don't ever forget that hashtag! — is clearly built for the social media era. Girls, educators and entrepreneurs whose session proposals were selected by the planning committee were provided with "I am presenting at #LEADLIKEAGIRL" images to post on their social media feeds.
Registrants were also encouraged to share that they had signed up. One particular Facebook post caught on and built momentum. On an unexpected snow day, Engel spent $75 to boost a post announcing #LEADLIKEAGIRL registration was open.
Registrations started pouring in. Dozens became hundreds, and within two days of that post, the conference was full. The conference content ballooned to 53 sessions with 85 speakers (30 of them young women in high school). Talk about leadership opportunities!
As the conference date grew near, the planning committee beefed up its weekly email communications with planners, presenters, and attendees. They used social media, including quotes from keynote speakers, to build anticipatory excitement. Because the school had invited local entrepreneurs to be a part of the conference, these women shared their excitement with each other on social media as well! And all constituents were encouraged to download the #LEADLIKEAGIRL conference mobile app.
With all the pieces in place, conference day finally arrived! Dozens of faculty/staff and student and parent volunteers ensured first-time visitors to Stuart were warmly welcomed. Attendees donned their colorful conference t-shirts. Yes, there were a few chaotic moments thanks to 900 -- that's right, NINE HUNDRED -- visitors on a campus that typically accommodates about 460 students. Attendance was waaaayyy beyond the 200-300 the Stuart team anticipated. The energy was palpable.
So then what?
I connected with Engel to get her perspective on #LEADLIKEAGIRL after the fact:
Kate: This was clearly a gargantuan school-wide effort. Tell us a bit about how you built consensus for the idea in the first place.
Risa: At Stuart, we're always trying to think out of the box for ways to bring new families to campus. We know that once a family has been on campus, they meet our faculty and our girls, the odds are good that they will come back. With the support of our Head of School, Dr. Patty Fagin, the leadership team jumped on board. No one anticipated just how many outside people and organizations would want to be a part of our initiative to inspire girls in leadership in STEM and entrepreneurship. Once this was apparent, it was easy to get consensus all the way around.
Kate: You charged no fee for conference attendees, but had plenty of expenses. How did the school come to believe this investment would be worth the effort and expense? How did it fit into your existing marketing efforts? And how did you capture sponsors for a first-time, unknown event?
Risa: I think Stuart's brand of raising confident young women leaders who go out and change the world actually epitomizes the school and the Stuart community. We want our girls to be risk-takers (in a good way), and that's what our #LEADLIKEAGIRL effort was all about. We took a huge risk to go big. It was an investment, not only in dollars which had full support from the Board of Trustees, but a huge investment of staff time and energy. It was all done in addition to our existing marketing and event plans. No new staff was hired. Especially after momentum started building, we all believed in what we were doing, so we were willing to put in the extra effort required. We managed to cover over 50% of the expenses with sponsorships. We approached local businesses that we often had no relationship with. We asked parents to lobby for our efforts at their places of work. We found many businesses have women in leadership, or women in STEM initiatives that fell in line with our mission. The visual branding and our speaker lineup were key in showing sponsors that the conference would be a legitimate and important effort with which they would want be associated. The interest in becoming involved as grown – sponsorship is up significantly, and though last year we did not have a sponsor at the $10,000 level–this year we already have multiple, including BlackRock, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Sciecure Pharma, which are all based in the Princeton area.
Kate: This campaign was so huge that I hope you got to take some existing marketing efforts off your plates in order to make it possible. Tell us about that and how you made decisions about what to focus on and not focus on in 2016-17?
Risa: Nothing really was dropped. Some of the day-to-day efforts to promote in-school activities with the greater community were refocused to #LEADLIKEAGIRL, and the schedule for our school magazine, which we design and write in-house, was pushed out a little. We seem to fit in one major marketing initiative or project every year. The prior year was our website redesign with Finalsite. This year we're doing #LEADLIKEAGIRL again, only a bit bigger (if you can imagine that)!
Kate: Awesome! Conference attendance exceeded your wildest dreams, but attendance itself wasn't the goal of this huge effort. So how do you plan to measure how much the awareness of Stuart has increased in your market? And how much time are you giving yourselves to see impact?
Risa: Not only did the sheer numbers take us by surprise, but so did the geographic scope. Attendees and speakers came from all over the country (we even had a group of STEM educators from Greece attend)! We know that awareness of #LEADLIKEAGIRL and Stuart has grown. Local and national businesses, educators, and families all want to be a part of our efforts. In the advancement office, we've been saying it seems, "everyone wants to play with us." Besides nearly doubling our sponsorships, registration for this year's conference filled in less than 24 hours, even though we used exactly the same marketing tactics. Where last year we accepted every speaker proposal that fit the conference, this year we were overwhelmed with submissions and had to be selective.
Kate: You now have this huge mailing list of girls, many of whom may fit your profile for prospective students. How is Stuart handling that? Is Admissions contacting those girls or not?
Risa: We have followed up with information about the school and invited these families back to campus for free and public events through trickle email campaigns–and many have attended. Should they express an interest in attending Stuart, then our Office of Admissions is in contact.
Kate: So you're keeping them connected to Stuart fairly gently. Sounds smart. I know the second #LEADLIKEAGIRL conference is already scheduled for April 14, 2018. Did it take about 10 seconds for the school leadership team to decide to do it again?! And what are you doing differently this time around? (Sorry folks, it's already sold out. Waitlist only!).
Risa: Yes! Though it was originally planned as a one-off event, we couldn't imagine not doing it again after the amazing day of girl empowerment. This time we are increasing the number of sessions and attendees by about 20 percent, having seen how we were able to manage the crowd numbers the first time. We've made minor adjustments to some of the logistics like signage, food service, and parking, but generally, we're sticking with the formula that worked!
Kate: Were there any unexpected outcomes? I noticed that the Stuart Center for Girls Leadership is now called the National Center for Girls Leadership at Stuart. Was that name change an outcome? And do I hear there are plans for #LEADLIKEAGIRL to branch out beyond Stuart?
Risa: Yes, the really wide interest in our mission ignited the expansion of our girls' leadership center to the National Center for Girls' Leadership at Stuart (NCGLS) and we're currently working to form a consortium of girls' schools around the country under the NCGLS umbrella to provide leadership training and coursework to girls throughout the country, regardless of where they live or attend school, who would not otherwise have these opportunities. Additionally, we have applied, and are amongst the finalists, to receive a $250,000 grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation to support our nationwide efforts to developing leadership in girls.
Our plan is to create a template for the conference so that after year three, it can "go on the road" to other schools across the country through the consortium of schools in the NCGLS.
Congratulations to Stuart and Engel's team on this awesome content marketing idea and execution. It hasn't gone unnoticed. Stuart hosted a Finalsite Web Strategy Workshop at which Engel basically blew the minds of fellow school marketers in attendance, so then was asked to speak at FinalsiteU in 2017, and won three 2017 InspirED Brilliance Awards, including gold in the "Biggest Risk" and "Inbound Marketing: Hashtag Campaign" categories, as well as bronze for the conference microsite. So how can you think big and go for the gold on behalf of your school? What awesome content and hidden gems can you bring out of hiding?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Before joining Finalsite in 2012, Kate was a client for almost a decade, as a content manager for the advancement sections of her school's website. She's worn almost every hat in Advancement over sixteen years — alumni director, database manager, annual fund director, budget and hiring manager, envelope stuffer, party planner, chauffeur, you name it..