Can you guess the two key places where you need to publish your school’s remarkable qualities?

If you said 1) in the local newspaper and 2) in the yellow pages, that would be incorrect.  In fact, a meme I once saw suggested a new advertising slogan for the Yellow Pages: “Throw This Away.”

Although advertising has its place, what we’re dealing with is marketing, and advertising is only a part of marketing.

The correct answer is: 1) On your school’s Web site and 2) in your school’s marketing piece, which needs to have an easy to remember link or a QR code to your school’s Web site (actually, the page where you want them to land).

And yes, while the brochure is a print item, you still need some kind of well-produced print piece that’s also unique and different to reflect the distinctiveness of your school…and that might or might not be the beloved tri-fold brochure.  It might just be a postcard!

I’m sure there are still some of you who are reading this, lead a parish-based elementary school, and are thinking to yourself, “We have a Web page on our parish’s Web site, and that’s all our parish says we need,” or “We’re working on getting a Web site,” or “Web sites are expensive.”

If that’s where your school is right now, make getting a Web site – no, let me re-emphasize that – make getting a functional, attractive, compelling, and responsive (one that adjusts to the device it’s being viewed on) Web site your number one marketing priority!  In fact, you really need two sites.  It used to be that you needed a site for the computer, and one for mobile devices.  That’s not the case anymore.  Now, you need a site to market your school, and an app to serve your parent community.  It’s the essence of creating a great experience for your parent community…but more about that in a different article.

The third place, and, some would argue, the most important, where those remarkable qualities need to be, is in the minds of your raving fans of your school…which is a small segment of your current parent community, and one that needs to grow.

Parents of young children today don’t look to the newspaper to find out about schooling choices since news”papers” are going away and are posted online (and now, one must subscribe to have access).

However, they don’t even necessarily go to the Web first either. The first thing they do is talk to their neighbors and friends.  Positive “Word of Mouth” is still, and, even more so today, the best type of advertising there is when it comes to enrolling children in your school, and, most especially, for an elementary school.

Some surveys says that 82% of schools consider Word of Mouth to be the most important marketing channel they have.  Why?  Because today’s parents enrolling children in an elementary school environment are Millennials.  They are incredibly social.  After all, they were the early adopters of social media technologies like Facebook.

Members of Generation X, in large part, have children enrolled in 10th grade through college and post-graduate studies.  These are the folks that began complaining about the student loan crisis about 111 years ago or so.  That was when they (not their children) started to get notices that they were responsible for paying their student’s loans back because they co-signed for them.  The sad truth is that this is a characteristic of Generation X – agree to something, then want an exception because of an unforeseen situation, or refuse to take responsibility for what they agreed to.  That’s also another topic for another day (and it’s not a pretty conversation, either).

After today’s parents of young students hear about your school through positive word of mouth, the next place they look for more information and recommendation validation is the Web.  That’s why you MUST have a Web site for your school – a functional, attractive, compelling and responsive Web site – and not just a page.  If you are the leader of a Catholic school and have a Web page as a part of your parish’s site, consider it to be the first step toward closure.  The fact of the matter is that if your school’s Web presence looks “old,” your school is viewed as old and irrelevant – no matter what you say about it, nor think what’s relevant or not.

And it’s not that difficult to do, either, which is an indication of how fast technology has changed.  Sixteen years ago, I was in a position where I advised schools to engage a professional Web designer.  Many of the schools I was working with at the time had parents that dabbled in Web creation.  But even then, Web design – especially as the era of the mobile device began to emerge – was moving out of the “home-grown” look, and instead, into an era where the Web site reflected the professionalism, image, and “brand” of the school.

Today, there are an abundance of great Web designers out there, and sites are now designed with mobility in mind as a first priority!  Further, while there are many designers that can design for many types of businesses, there are only a handful that have the education vertical as their primary market.  If you have specific requirements and design elements in mind for your school, they’re the experts you need to seek out.

In fact, if you’d like to take a look at what a Web site that’s “Mobile-first” looks like on a computer, check out the site you go to connect with ChatGPT –   Look at the whole home page, and how big everything is!  That’s so when it squeezes down on to your phone, you’ll still be able to read the text and see the graphics.

But the Web is changing again.  It used to be text heavy, with rotating/fading photos to add a visual component.  Now, the text is large, there is an abundance of white space, and pictures are of a professional quality.  There is a de-emphasis on menu navigation, and new emphasis on scrolling.  It used to be that scrolling was frowned upon, and the number of “clicks” to get to a certain location was important.  With today’s focus on mobile devices, navigation menus are losing prominence, and scrolling is the new design standard (just think of how you scroll through your photos on your phone to find one you want to show to a friend).  And since technology is always changing, those design standards also change!

Indeed, there are many teenagers today that can do html coding and Web design better than many of their parents that “dabbled” in it over a decade ago.  But if you’re going the professional design route, there are three things that you need to discuss with your Web designer, since this is a tool which is essential, and not just something that’s “nice to have” to effectively marketing your school today.  Let’s call them the 3 A’s:

1) Architecture,

2) Appearance, and

3) Analytics

Architecture happens before the first piece of code is written, the first template is chosen or the first link is created.  This step is the pen and paper sketch of where you want to direct those who visit your site.  Do you want a special place for parents to log in, and keep that separate from where parents of prospective students can visit, or do you want just one top row of navigation choices with several drop down menu levels?  Where will key elements be placed?  The architecture is the framework that holds all the elements of the Web site’s structure.

Appearance deals with “real estate” on the computer screen, and now, on the mobile device.  What are the most important elements that should be on the front page, or on the top portion of the site?  If not part of the first thing a visitor sees, then where should they be placed?  Is there a lot of white space so that the site looks “uncluttered and clean?”  Is the font in a size that’s easy to read and professional-looking?  If your Web site uses Comic Sans for its main font, or has other “fun” fonts, change it now.  While your school can be a fun place to learn, a “fun font” doesn’t suggest that learning is “fun,” but rather that fun is more important than academic excellence.  Something “fun” is great for a summer playtime event, or a company whose main function is entertainment, but if it’s your desire for parents to seriously consider your school as the educational option for their children, then the appearance of the site needs to convey that attitude.

Analytics deals with all the stats about your site.  Where did visitors come from?  Where did they go after they left your site?  Are there certain times they visit during the day than others?  These and other metrics are important to evaluate the impact your site is having on parents of prospective students of your school.  You’re also going to want to have your site optimized to appear in searches (called Search Engine Optimization or SEO) that parents do when putting words like “faith-based school near me” in their search engine – like Google or Bing – or their browser – like Chrome, Safari, Edge or Firefox.

Remember that your school’s Web site is a virtual reflection of your school, and may be the first visual impression a parent has of it.  Therefore, if you have a Web site with flashing banners, rotating crosses (not kidding) and multiple-color pages with twinkling stars, chances are that prospective parents will look for something that they can actually read without having to wade through glitz to find what they’re looking for. If they like what they see, THEN they’ll call the school…perhaps to schedule a tour (SPOILER ALERT: They’ll probably just show up and expect you’ll drop everything to accommodate them), or ask what the tuition is (SPOILER ALERT: If you’re still posting your school’s tuition schedule on your site, chances are that you’re not getting those calls…and it’s a potential reason why enrollment in your school is declining.  Send an email to [email protected] with the words “Website Tuition” in the subject line for more details).  In our post-pandemic times, if your school is “open for business,” they expect it to be open to them…and it doesn’t matter how busy you think you are – they’re going to demand your attention.

With that in mind, your Web site should have a page that allows the parent to submit their demographics as a request for more information – and an “Inquiry” portion of an Application module is a great solution!  If you want families to call the school, be sure your office is set up so that they can speak to a representative immediately and set up a time to talk – NOT the recorded auto-attendant.  Frankly, NOBODY cares if your menu has changed.  You shouldn’t have a menu.  If you want more information as to why that’s important, click or tap here to send an email, and put the words “Talk to a Person” in the subject line.

Your first page (or top, as it pertains to today’s era of Web design) of your Web site should exemplify (and not just list) your school’s 3 to 5 remarkable or distinctive qualities.  These attributes can be emphasized by the using the photo slider or video reel, and the “featured image” can be linked to an article about the that remarkable quality, student, alumnus, event or teacher at your school.  These are the first things visitor will see, and each needs to be a “hook” that will capture a parent of a prospective student’s attention. If their attention is captured by other parts of your Web site, they’ll miss your “remarkability” completely.

The second place these remarkable qualities need to be published is in your school’s marketing vehicle.  I’ve visited schools that have some great and remarkable things happening there, and they are nowhere to be found in a brochure, on a postcard, or in some other type of tangible collateral.  For some faith-based schools, their brochure does specify, however, that they have excellent academics infused with Gospel values.  While those items are important, they’re not remarkable; they’re expectations…and expectations don’t “sell.”

Three things about this collateral piece:

1) Make sure they are done on high quality paper.  It’s easy to throw low quality paper away…and besides, if you don’t care enough about your school to put it on the best paper out there, what does that say about your school? You may think that it demonstrates that you’re frugal, and shows good stewardship of your resources. However, parents of prospective students equate a low-quality publications with a low-quality school.

The reasoning is the same as the Web site rationale. When it comes to making an educational choice, parents want value.  If you give them low-quality materials, and then show them a tuition that exceeds what they think is a “reasonable” cost, you won’t even get the chance to tell them that financial aid is available.

2) Don’t put a picture of your school with an empty parking lot on it, or no children around the school. Your brochure paints a picture for the parents, personifying the vision that you are creating for your school.  Important: If you put a picture of your school with an empty parking lot on the brochure, and no children around the school, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

3) Make sure brochures are correct in grammar, spelling and message.  One Catholic school I know had a brochure that said something to the effect of, “Our school follows the example of Jesus, our first teacher.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, as well as the example of Jesus, that information is completely incorrect. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that parents are the first teachers of their children. Further, Scripture shows us that Jesus taught the adults; he blessed the children. Even when He was a child, he taught the adults. It is the responsibility of the adult (read, the parent) to teach their children, and, at least for Catholic schools, they support the role of the parent. Teachers should be well-trained, and if they are, they’re going to expect to be compensated for their expertise.

Now, where should those brochures be placed?  If you said in the back of the church (if your school is associated with a church), that is one place where they should be, but it’s not the place where they’ll have the most impact. Brochures for schools should be placed where mothers of young children “wait” – since members of both Generation X and Millennials HATE to wait for anything. If they have to wait, they need something to look at, read, do, etc.  More than likely, they’ll pull out their mobile devices, which is why you need to have an excellent presence there, as well as consider investing in Google or Facebook Ads to capture their attention and draw them to your Web site.  The mindset of silence for prayer and meditation while waiting is unknown to these generations. So, while you need to teach them to do that, it is most helpful if they’re a part of your school community first.

Where do mothers of young children wait, or, “hang out?” Doctors offices…nail and hair salons…checkout lines at the supermarket (although that’s changing with self-serve checkout and grocery pickup services)…and gyms. Take a supply to all your Realtors in the area as well. If parents with children are moving in to your neighborhood, some marketing collateral from the realtor will reinforce the positive word of mouth advertising…at which point they’ll go to the Web sooner to check out your school.

As our society continues to evolve in a post-pandemic world, you’ll be needing a new approach to marketing your school.  Maybe all you’d need is a billboard with a QR code that directs them to your school’s Web site.

What if parents aren’t moving into your neighborhood? We’ll touch on that next week, which can also add to the “remarkability” of your school.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2023