You don’t have to be a veteran of the independent school world to know that full enrollment is not the norm for most schools. Some private school leaders will go their entire career without telling a parent, “We’d love to have your family, but I’m sorry … we’re just out of room.”
So when there’s suddenly a waiting list in multiple grades—and precious few open seats in the others—marketing and admissions professionals can find themselves in unfamiliar territory. So, what does your school need from marketing and admissions when enrollment is full?
Together we’ll explore 11 opportunities to make the most of full enrollment and realize some impactful, long-term wins. Be advised, this is not a sugar rush of marketing ideas and tips. We’re covering strategic topics that have long-term implications for your school, so we want to give these ideas the space they need. We’ll cover the first four opportunities here on the ACSI blog, and you can download the entire “Full Enrollment?” e-book on the North Star Marketing website.
#1: Right-size Your Online Marketing
Are you really full? Before you pause your paid search and paid social campaigns, take a look at your remaining open seats grade-by-grade. If you have some openings you want to fill, optimize your website and digital strategies to reach qualified families in your updated target zones. Here’s what that could look like.
First, feature your openings on your website. Yes, I realize this might seem a bit unorthodox, but hang with me. There’s nothing like scarcity coupled with a deadline to make something more desirable (ever noticed how Amazon.com tells you how many items are “In stock” for an item you’ve checked out? Or how Hotels.com tells you “Only 3 rooms left at this rate”?) Post your openings for specific grade levels on the homepage of your site.
Let prospective families know exactly how many seats you have open in each grade level. You don’t need to leave this information up year-round — just during peak season. And if grades are full? Encourage families to inquire anyway. You never know when a spot may open up. If you don’t have space this year, put them into your CRM and check back with them during your next enrollment season. They’ll appreciate the follow up.
Second, dial in your digital strategies where you have openings. Modify your messaging and the demographic focus of your digital ads. These adjustments will keep you from getting slammed with inquiries for grades that are full. Boost posts on social media, pointing prospective families to your website to see current openings.
Whatever you do, don’t go dark with your online marketing! If you pull back completely on lead-generation ads, spin up a brand awareness campaign that features key tenants of your value proposition without pushing for a specific action. This will reinforce your value proposition for current families and raise awareness among prospective future families.
#2: Focus on Retention.
Unless their student is an incoming senior, most families don’t want to buy just one grade from you. They enroll with the intention to keep going, assuming the current grade goes well. But they’re still your customer, and they need to be sold on what’s next for their child — not just the next grade, but the next Age-and-Stage™.
An Age-and-Stage™ is a major division in your school: early years, preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high. These divisions represent likely on-ramps and off-ramps for families as their children grow, develop, and mature. Age-and-Stage™ strategies are important for both recruitment and retention.
As you optimize your external marketing efforts, take time to also develop a retention strategy:
- Develop messaging to promote each Age-and-Stage™ to the appropriate internal audiences. For example, your kindergarten families need to hear about the elementary school experience. Elementary school families need to learn about what’s in store in middle school, and middle school families need to learn about high school. Your messaging should be a compelling narrative that excites parents (and students) about the opportunities for growth and engagement that lie ahead at your school.
- Create the tools you need to effectively sell the next Age-and-Stage™ to internal audiences. These can include print collateral, infographics, videos, and presentation decks. Start with the tools you’ve created for your external audiences and reframe them to focus on your current families.
- Build a retention calendar that includes communications, promotions, and events. For each Age-and-Stage™, map out a timeline and assign specific tasks to Marketing and Admissions team members.
#3: Evaluate Your Marketing Platform
Your Marketing Platform is the foundational marketing infrastructure you need to support your sales efforts. It’s comprised of the following:
- Branding: your academic and athletic brands and your Brand Standards Guide
- Messaging: the narratives you use to sell your school by Age-and-Stage™
- Multimedia: the photos and videos you use showcase and export your culture
- Website: the always-open virtual front door for prospective families
- Print Collateral: the brochures, pocket folders, and info sheets you give to prospective families
- Presentation Collateral: the decks you use to present your school to various audiences
- MarTech (marketing technology): the software systems and platforms you use to run and track your marketing
As you promote your school in the marketplace, interested families will engage with your Marketing Platform. It can be challenging to find the time and money to invest in your Marketing Platform when you’re pushing hard to grow enrollment. But when enrollment is full, your team should be in a good place to take on some of the larger infrastructure projects — a rebrand, website build, refresh of your photo library, or a series of message workshops.
In your next Marketing and Admissions meeting, set aside 30 minutes to discuss which Marketing Platform components need to be refreshed or overhauled. It could be an excellent time to reinvest your returns from strong enrollment.
#4: Invest in SEO
If online advertising (e.g., Google Ads, Facebook and Instagram ads, etc.) is the microwave of lead generation, search engine optimization is the crockpot. It takes longer for SEO to warm up, but once your school achieves coveted top rankings for important keywords on Page 1 of Google, you’ll never want to go back to being invisible on Page 2. Here are a few advantages of committing to SEO when enrollment is full:
- Earned rankings can help you reduce your dependence on paid advertising.
- Organic search rankings are often viewed as more trustworthy than paid placement.
- You can optimize for more specific keywords that connect with long-tail search phrases, not just general terms.
- Done effectively, SEO does more than just boost your rankings. It also increases the value of your site for families, as the content you develop and optimize helps them navigate with more clarity.
While SEO can certainly get “techy,” you don’t need to be a website developer to improve your rankings. Start by benchmarking your current search results for keywords, then develop a content plan that focuses on those themes. Bear in mind that your rankings won’t improve immediately. It can take several days and even weeks for Google to re-index your site.
Download the “Full Enrollment?” E-book
We invite you to download the “Full Enrollment?” e-book from the North Star Marketing website. Here is the complete list of the strategies we cover:
- Right-size your online marketing.
- Focus on retention.
- Evaluate your Marketing Platform.
- Invest in SEO.
- Implement Continuous Enrollment.
- Dial-in your dashboards with metrics that matter.
- Bring structure to your meeting rhythms.
- Ramp up your Parent Ambassador program.
- Implement a process for gathering testimonials from happy families.
- Focus on storytelling through social media and your blog.
- Clean up, clean out, and organize your files and assets.
This resource can help you and your team evaluate your current situation and prioritize strategies for making the most of this unique season of opportunity.
Never Stop Marketing
Education is a river, not a pond. There is constantly a new stream of families who are moving into eligibility for enrollment at your school. They need to know who you are, what your value proposition is, and how to navigate the inquiry process. You can’t afford to stop telling your story to right-fit families, even when the seats are full—because strong enrollment today is no guarantee of strong enrollment next year or the year after.
About the Author
Andy Lynch Andy is the President & CEO of North Star Marketing, an enrollment marketing firm based in Greensboro, North Carolina. Andy is a regular speaker for national and state associations. He studied public relations, journalism, and English at Bob Jones University and started North Star Marketing shortly after graduating. He was an organizer for the world’s largest pillow fight, a record that stood for about a week. Andy is an avid soccer fan (and sometimes player) and supports Liverpool Football Club (YNWA!). He and his wife, Sheryl, live in Mebane, NC, have three (remarkable) children, and attend Church of the Vine.
First published January 4, 2022.