Q&A with North Star Marketing about Online Marketing for Schools

NSM-StaffPhoto-AndyLynch-2Online marketing (Inbound) is one of the most important strategies for school enrollment and marketing leaders to implement. Parents typically first learn about a school through word of mouth from a friend or online through a website, social media and review sites.

Recently, I had an opportunity to ask Andy Lynch, Principal at North Star Marketing in NC, about his work with schools in helping to implement online marketing strategies. I have known Andy for about nine years and have referred many schools to his company (his company designed my website and e-Book). His insights are invaluable to school leaders considering how to best implement online strategies as part of their marketing effort.

Can you describe the shift that is taking place to online/inbound marketing in schools? Why is this shift important to consider, especially for those schools that have not made the jump?

“The shift to online marketing is essentially tracking with trends in consumer behavior. It’s not unusual for parents of school-aged children to do extensive, self-directed research online before they buy a home, a car, a jogging stroller, a pair of running shoes, etc. They bring this same mentality ‘shopping schools.’ They often don’t want to engage someone on the phone or through email until they’ve done their homework. This research is done in large part online: they Google nearby schools, review each school’s website, check out the online reviews and social media outlets. Of course, they talk to families in their circles, but they validate what they hear by looking online. Schools that have not acknowledged the reality of this new consumer-driven school selection model are likely wasting their marketing and advertising dollars on traditional channels that are largely neglected and difficult to measure.”

What are some of the core online marketing strategies that you recommend?

“At North Star Marketing, we braid together three foundational online marketing strategies: search engine optimization (SEO), paid search and content strategy.

SEO is all about high-credibility, organic search results; it’s about doing the right things with the content and the code to earn better search results.

Paid search, also called pay-per-click, allows a school to move to a front-and-center position on a search engine results page or display network. We can determine which keywords and phrases make sense for a school and set a monthly budget for click-throughs. This budget can be restricted to show only within a specific radius to avoid paying for clicks outside of a school’s served market. These visitors are often pushed through to landing pages where we capture lead information. We’ve found that a ‘landing page strategy’ often yields better results than simply dumping visitors on the homepage of the school’s website.

Lastly, a content strategy can contribute credibility and build school brands through a variety of ways. With valuable, consistently updated content on their site, schools can establish themselves as experts in their community. A strong content strategy should be executed across a range of media: blog posts, social media, videos, infographics, ebooks and more. By aligning a content strategy with a greater marketing goal, such as key enrollment seasons, schools are able to zoom in on particular demographics to provide valuable information to the right people at the right time.

All of these efforts can be held accountable and measured with a clear understanding of ROI (return on investment).”

How important is the school’s website to these strategies?

“A school’s website is frequently the landing pad for a prospective parent who has either been referred by word of mouth or conducted an online search. At North Star Marketing, we think a school’s website should match the quality of the education they deliver. A website that is outdated, amatuer and clunky does not communicate that the school really cares about a prospective parent’s research experience.

On the other hand, a school that has dedicated time and money to creating an exceptional website experience for interested families is sending a simple, clear message: ‘We’re glad you’re here! How can we help? Let’s start the conversation.’ School websites should be simple to use and aligned with their brand. Additionally, they should be mobile-friendly and feature content focused on the interests of specific target audience rather than an ‘urban sprawl’ of links.”

As a marketing and design firm, you have chosen to design websites on WordPress. Can you describe the benefits of using WordPress?

“There are numerous options for getting a school website built, however, we love WordPress because:

  • Design and Technical Flexibility. The sky’s the limit for design and programming customization with WordPress. There are many ready-to-go WordPress modules we can plug into the site quickly to add new functions, which speeds up the development time while keeping build costs down. And once the site is built, it’s easy for non-technical users to manage – no programming experience required.
  • Low cost of ownership. Unfortunately, many schools spend $12,000 to $20,000 or more per year through their school management software providers for websites with features and modules they never use. WordPress is not a proprietary system, therefore it does not have a monthly or annual subscription fee. In some cases schools can cut their annual website spend by 90% by simply moving content management platforms.
  • Support: WordPress is the most widely used content management system on the web: http://trends.builtwith.com/cms. It’s a safe technology bet for schools.”

How would you suggest that a school leader measure the return on their investment in online/inbound marketing?

“Look at the numbers. A credible online marketing partner should be able to show you far more than just Google Analytics. At a glance, a school should be able to see:

  • What they spent on online marketing
  • Where it was spent
  • How many leads they got as a result
  • The cost of acquisition
  • The return on investment

Additionally, we recommend schools measure their online reputation. This can be an early indicator of issues that can negatively impact word-of-mouth referrals.”

How do you budget for online marketing?

“Our software can forecast how much online traffic is available in a school’s served market, from which we can deduce realistic monthly costs for organic SEO, paid search and content strategy. This approach to marketing uses real data, not just conjecture. That’s the beauty of online marketing. A school doesn’t just hope they’re spending in the right place. They can know.”

How do I find the budget for online marketing?

“This is an easy one. Schools can start by holding their traditional advertising spend accountable. Any advertising spend they can’t measure should be largely repurposed for online marketing. So, how effective are newspaper ads? Hard to tell. Try channeling that spend to online. Radio spots? Billboards? Those are hard to measure. Convert most of that spend to online marketing.”

Does traditional advertising still have a place in school promotion?

“Certainly. As a marketing firm, we believe a school’s marketing mix should include measurable advertising that shows up where prospective parents live, work and play. This means there is room for some print, broadcast and outdoor advertising. However, online marketing should be the first priority in the budget. It is simply the most efficient, measurable and responsible option available for schools to leverage to drive enrollment.”

Andy, thank you for your thoughts and perspectives on online marketing for schools. It is important for school leaders to continue shifting their marketing dollars to online strategies. If you are interested in reaching out to Andy directly at North Star Marketing, you can email him at andy.lynch@northstarmarketing.com.

Have you made the shift to online marketing?

What are your thoughts about Andy’s responses?