Private schools use social media, word of mouth to tell their story

Officials from Delaware’s private schools say they’re using a mix of traditional media and social platforms to engage students and attract new families. But rather than seeing it as a competitive game, they’re playing to their individual strengths.
Officials from Delaware’s private schools say they’re using a mix of traditional media and social platforms to engage students and attract new families. But rather than seeing it as a competitive game, they’re playing to their individual strengths.

By Christi Milligan

Delaware’s private schools aren’t letting the ebb and flow of the state’s workforce chart their marketing efforts.  Instead, admissions personnel are highlighting the consistency of their brand through strategic marketing and social media efforts.

And they’re relying on satisfied students and families to market the old fashioned way — word of mouth.

“They’ve all needed to become more professionalized – the level of skill and experience is being raised,” said Barbara Kraus-Blackney, president of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools (ADVIS), the nonprofit association that supports 130-member independent schools in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

There are 17 independent schools in Delaware that are members of ADVIS, enrolling 6,832 students this year.

She said the traditional gatekeeping role of admissions has given way to an “advancement team” comprised of finance, marketing and enrollment heads who synchronize their efforts.

“When times were very good there were more school-aged kids and much less challenges from the economy, less competition, so many of our schools were in the position of working just in admissions,” said Kraus-Blackney. “Now it’s much more of a skilled professional piece to grid marketing prospects through data and enrollment management.”

For most independent private schools, the timeline begins with a fall open house followed by an entrance exam.  Winter recommendations and test results precede interviews and acceptance letters, and most commitments are made in March.

Allison Price, director of enrollment and financial aid at The Tatnall School, said the recession and the growth of the area’s charter schools have forced some former admissions directors to wear multiple hats — the “triple threat” of admissions, finance and marketing.

“I don’t think a lot of admission directors who started had advertising or graphic design in their background,” said Price, who works with a team in each department. Tatnall is a coeducational, college-preparatory school for kids ages 3 through 12 grade.

“You need to know what’s happening in all three of those realms and a team that works together seamlessly,” said Price. “It involves having an awareness of different modes of communication and finding the best way to tell your story.”

Like most private and public schools, Price said, Tatnall utilizes a mix of communication channels, including Facebook, Vimeo, Twitter and Instagram as part of a well-rounded social media platform.

The social media and video pieces offer a window into the feel and culture of the schools, and the front-row perspectives of everyone from the students to the principal.

“The most effective marketing involves having awareness of different modes of communication and finding new and creative ways to tell your story,” said Price. “We have to look at forward momentum.”

But Price cautions that Delaware’s private schools can’t be all things to all people.

“School culture is the most important thing about making a decision,” said Price. “When we talk about Tatnall we’re clear about our community values. Tatnall is not just a school; it’s a way of life.

“We talk about our motto “All Things in Love” and about being a family school,” said Price. “That’s who we are. You need to clearly market who you are and who you’re about.”

While strategy is an important marketing tool, so is tradition and availability.

Padua Academy utilizes a variety of social media platforms to stay relevant and enhance its message to its student body.

The school of 660 girls had more than 307 applications for 170 slots this year — a steady increase in enrollment that thrills Head of School Cindy Hayes Mann.

Mann says that each Delaware independent school has its unique set of values that set it apart. 

An enthusiastic cheerleader for Padua and its students, Mann even has a Twitter account linked to the school’s website where she offers updates, encouragement and congratulatory messages to her students.

As an all-girls’ Catholic college prep high school, Padua is also steeped in tradition, and Mann said they’re counting on their own identifiable values to attract future families.  That includes a commitment to service in the community rounded out by a menu of STEM-based classes that have strengthened the school’s academics.

Mann said much of that marketing is an organic expression of the school’s values, traditions and academic edge offered by way of its students and their families.

“Marketing for us is a very personal thing,” said Mann. “Our students are our marketers, our parents, word of mouth.”

While they use traditional means including print ads, Mann said the best channel continues to be one-on-one conversation.

“In the past seven years we have stepped up that personal marketing so that it’s not just specific channels or billboards,” said Mann. “It’s ‘Let me talk to you. Let me show you Padua.’

“It takes a lot more time, but, in the end, I think it cements a relationship,” said Mann.

Kicking up web presence and showcasing individual strengths are also working at Tower Hill School and Salesianum School, which both report an increase in admissions last year and this year.

At Tower Hill’s upper school, applications are up 13 percent for the 2016-2017 school year with a waiting list for kindergarten, according to admissions officials.

Salesianum reports a 6 percent increase in enrollment over the last two years.

Both schools use traditional marketing methods like print with active social media platforms, but are hoping to employ some strategic marketing to attract families over the line in Pennsylvania.

“We aim to align our marketing efforts with most promising demographics,” said Theresa Messmore, director of communications and marketing at Tower Hill.

The school has expanded its social media presence in last few years and introduced Instagram a year ago as a channel to engage current students, according to Messmore.

Traditional marketing efforts also mean highlighting Tower’s Hill financial assistance, more than $2 million each year for nearly 24 percent of the school’s 700 students.  The average financial aid package is about $12,000, according to Messmore.

“It if a student is a great fit for Tower Hill, we want to make it work,” she said.

Salesianum boasts a waiting list this year and is maintaining its general enrollment number of 1,000 thanks to its recent uptick, according to Mark Winchell, director of admissions.

Like the other schools, Winchell said Tower Hill has increased its video marketing and social media platforms — both to enhance its connection to existing families and to share its story to prospective ones.

Winchell said its biggest marketing push is scheduled around fall open house, when it pulls potential students looking to examine the all-male Catholic high school. He said the school has highlighted its academics and competitive tuition and used traditional print to share the message.

Those marketing efforts have also expanded north to Pennsylania, where Winchell said residents may not be as familiar with the school’s 100-year history.  Conversely, Winchell said Pennsylvania schools are marketing to Delaware families.

“It’s really about finding the right fit for your child,” said Kraus-Blackney. “It’s about good word of mouth and getting the parents onto the campus to really get to know the school on a firsthand level.”

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