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Boarding Schools at a Crossroads

At the annual conference of The Association for Boarding Schools (TABS), the case for boarding school was clear and uncompromising: It’s the best education a family can get for their children.  The quality of instruction, the class sizes and personal attention, the 24/7 embrace of a closed community dedicated to education. There’s nothing like it.

At least, that’s our takeaway. And that represents the biggest challenge for boarding schools in terms of how they communicate that value.

Chris Baldwin, Pam Long and Sean Williams attended the conference as exhibitors, participating in breakout sessions and staffing a booth in the trade show area. The reason? We’ve had some success working with independent schools in the past, and were eager to meet some people and see the prospects for further work in the sector.

The other reason was that TABS launched a major marketing initiative in 2016 geared to raising awareness about boarding school generally – ReadyforMore.com. The new program spent quite a lot of money in digital advertising, and saw some success at the output level. The consumption of the content – many different types of ad, including video, Snapchat “Snaps”, testimonials and textual content – ran in the hundreds of thousands of views.

The drive to generate interested families, however, was less successful in our eyes as marketers. The exact numbers are proprietary to TABS, but let’s just say that given the huge numbers of visits and views, the list of interested parties is somewhat less impressive.

This points out a truth that we’ve observed in our work with independent schools. Most of the searching is by school name, rather than more generic terms such as “best boarding school.”  The awareness building campaign – attempting to find families without past history of boarding – needs local support from the schools themselves.

This is the next phase of the initiative, and TABS has supplied members who’ve joined the campaign a toolkit of resources – videos, ads, imagery and messaging – that ostensibly a school can leverage more easily and quickly than if they were coming up with all of that stuff on their own.

True might have recommended the opposite approach: Provide the toolkit and get schools started on marketing themselves, then do the broader awareness-building campaign. In the target markets, this would have created a pincers effect – reaching prospective families both with specific and general messages, and fostering the idea that boarding schools seem to be rising in visibility.