10 Challenges Private Schools Face with Marketing and Enrollment

In the past ten weeks, I have conducted 10 site visits at 10 different schools. I’ve traveled across the country, from Florida to Connecticut to Washington, with stops in Illinois, Virginia, New York, and Texas. I’ve also traveled to three schools in my home state of Florida. As I am writing this blog post, my travel continues nonstop. I am currently in California and I will be flying to Pennsylvania next (you can follow my travels on Facebook).

I have been in schools that are Independent, Catholic, Christian, Lutheran, and Methodist, as well as schools that are traditional, classical, college prep, single-gender, Montessori and focused on learning differences.

What I am finding is that school leaders need help in their enrollment and marketing efforts. And, I am noticing that there are some common themes with their challenges. These include:

  1.  Limited Staffing – It is always surprising to me that there are schools that haven’t invested in hiring an admissions director and a marketing director. While this position can often be combined in small schools, it is critical for resources to be focused on staffing first. Depending on the school size, the admissions and marketing functions should be devoted to a full-time effort. Only then can you expect full-time results.
  2.  Insufficient Budgets – In nearly every school I have visited, the budget allocated for marketing strategies is typically less than 1% of the operational budget. While I am never an advocate to spending money on strategies that don’t yield results, it is important to have an adequate budget to make a difference. A school’s marketing budget should be between 1-3% of its total operational budget.
  3. Needing Strategy Direction – Many leaders simply do not know what they need to do to grow their enrollment and market their schools. The plan is missing. This is where I come in, to help them sort through what needs to be done.
  4. Still Relying on Outbound Strategies – I have seen it all in the past few weeks: Direct mail campaigns, print ads, billboards, and more. These strategies are typically the focus of their marketing effort, with little attention given to word-of-mouth or inbound marketing strategies. While they may help to increase brand awareness, school leaders should focus elsewhere for marketing results.
  5. Unimpressive Websites – During every school visit, I review their current website. While some have invested in new websites, many have a long way to go to provide an outstanding first impression of their school. A school’s website should be the most important marketing priority. This is where your marketing dollars should be invested to make a difference in your enrollment. Poorly designed websites, outdated aesthetics, or content that is lacking and static will deter parents from taking the next step.
  6. Lacking in Storytelling – Every school has an interesting and compelling story to tell. However, most schools are ineffective in telling their story. Schools aren’t sharing stories about their programs and people — parents, faculty, students and alumni. This should be at the core of content creation.
  7. Using Online Ads Sparingly – Many schools are still just dabbling in paid search ads and Facebook ads. The occasional Facebook ad for an open house may provide some exposure; however, most schools still haven’t invested in these strategies to truly generate leads. Paid search ads can provide a powerful return when the appropriate budgets, planning, and strategy are in place that include landing pages, downloadable content and more.
  8. Weak Ambassador Programs – The common use of parents as ambassadors is for campus tours, open houses, or mentoring programs. Rarely has a school used parents to effectively reach the community. An ambassador program should be integral to your marketing effort to spread word of mouth in the community.
  9. Ineffective Lead Nurturing – Most follow-up takes place in the form of personal phone calls and emails. Text messaging hasn’t been used as an additional way to reach prospective parents. In addition, lead nurturing sequences and systematic contacts are not in place.
  10. Leadership’s Drive to Improve – While there is certainly more that I could share, one of the key ingredients to success is the leadership’s drive to change. This is what I look for and find in the schools that hire me. It has been a common trend that I have observed in all of these schools. School leaders who are willing to invest are those that will typically succeed.

Can you relate to any of my observations? Where do you need to improve in your school’s enrollment and marketing effort?