Independent schools (boarding and private schools) are bastions of wealth and privilege, packed to the ancient rafters with the sons and daughters of titans of industry, government and commerce, with long waiting lists of the 1 percent clamoring for entry. And the admission directors’ main job is to say, “no.” Well, not exactly. This is 2014, and even alumni (many of whom have moved away from the old school) no longer “always” send their kids back. It’s a new world, and independent schools need to wake up about marketing.
What’s happened now is a massive demographic shift, from north and east to south and west, mirroring the wider trends in societies. For example, the state of Ohio, home to four boarding schools and countless private day schools, lost 150,000 households with children under 18 between 2001 and 2010. Who were those people? Young families from the state’s main metro areas, Toledo, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Youngstown and Cincinnati.
In Massachusetts, nearly 31 percent of households had children under 18 in 2000. That figure dropped to 28 percent in 2010, and just 8.6 percent had children under 14… Connecticut: 20 percent of households had children under 14 in 2000. 17.7 percent in 2010. On the surface, these are changes of just a few percentage points, but given the continued trends, and the lower birth rates associated with modern American life, they’re sobering. SSATB’s recent survey noted a 33% decline in domestic boarding students since 2001, and a precipitous decline in inquiries.
How do independent schools need to respond to the shift?
1. Realize you are battling with your peers over a declining market. Differentiating your product is essential — the traditional New England boarding school experience can be had many places, and the cost to value calculation is being conducted more often than you think. Your brand must differentiate you.
2. People outside of the I-95 corridor don’t understand boarding schools. That’s why the highest proportion of boarding school attendees come from just six states, according to The Association of Boarding Schools. Creating new boarding school families is critical, but it’s an expensive proposition that independent schools haven’t budgeted for. By one calculus, a prospect needs to be exposed to messaging 30 times before the product or service has a shot at entering the consideration set, and that’s assuming your targeting is precise enough to find the most likely people to be prospects.
3. People have good choices other than independent schools. Many cities with challenging public schools not only have great private options, they have charter schools and parochial schools that compete with your school. Even in cities that are struggling, there are people who believe in public schools and want to support them, or who want a religious education, (or who just want to be five minutes closer to school), rather than send their kids to yours.
4. For boarding schools and private high schools, the kids are driving the decision process, and they aren’t reading your viewbooks and brochures, or your letters. They’re using Instagram and Facebook to find your current students and evaluate your school from that angle. They hit your website looking for multimedia content that’s real, open, honest and focused on them. They find your followers on Twitter and engage on Snapchat. They don’t care about your marketing messages; they care about discovering the real story of your school. They don’t read long articles. They are harsh judges.
5. Digital marketing is more targeted, more effective and more measurable than analog marketing. It can be efficient, too (ask me for details), but it still takes budget and expertise. It’s more than search engine optimization or buying Google Adwords (which can get spendy very quickly), it’s managing your digital strategy from objectives to creative in concert with your other communications. Public relations, social media, internal communication, parent communications and alumni communications all play crucial roles in the marketing mix. You need experience and talent to develop that strategy and manage all of the pieces.
It’s doable. But your school has to let go of the ego-centric conceit that it doesn’t NEED marketing because of its history, its venerable buildings, its location or its alumni base. The world is changing fast, and only the adaptable will survive.
Data retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml , 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry (SSATB)