Enrollment Marketing: Awareness
Do your prospective families even know your schools exist?
Originally published as "The Customer Journey: Awareness" in the Winter 2024 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
For every one of your prospective enrollees, the customer journey begins in the Awareness phase. This is when families are hearing about your district for the first time, whether they just moved into your community, are first-time parents, or aren’t zoned for your district. As school leaders, the question you should be asking in this stage of the enrollment process is: Do your prospective families even know your schools exist?
Now, you might be thinking this phase of the customer journey isn’t applicable to your district. After all, if you’re the only district in town, everyone probably knows about your schools. But even if you’re the only district in your area, the Awareness phase is important to your enrollment marketing efforts.
Today, families have options. For better or worse, school choice legislation has changed the way families think about school enrollment. Even if everyone in your community knows you exist, it’s important to remind them about all the great things happening in your district. That way, when they sit down to decide where to send their kids, they’ll have your schools in mind.
The Awareness phase is all about educating your community—but we don’t just mean sharing information about your district. It’s also important to make sure your community knows that your district is an option for them. In other words, do families know they can choose to enroll their children in your schools even if they aren’t zoned for your district? If not, how are you sharing that information? What are you doing to make your prospective families aware of your district and your process for enrolling?
Here’s the thing: There are probably families in your area who are unaware of their options and maybe even completely unaware of you. If you want to connect with new parents and community members—and make sure that everyone has access to information about your enrollment process—you’re going to have to get creative.
SEO for Schools
Today, when new parents are choosing a district, there’s somewhere they go before even setting foot in a school. They go online. That’s why Erin Dunsey, communications manager for Peoria Unified School District in Arizona, took an interest in search engine optimization, or SEO. Peoria Unified had seen a recent drop in kindergarten enrollment, so the communications team made it their mission to improve enrollment numbers by leveraging the district’s marketing efforts.
“I’m a parent with two kids,” Dunsey says. “I thought about everything I might want to know about a school and what I’d do to try and find that information. So I went to Google and typed in ‘Kindergarten Peoria,’ just to see what would come up. We weren’t on page 1 or even page 2—we were somewhere around page 20.”
Dunsey knew that for the district to appear higher in Google’s search results, they’d have to make some changes. So that’s exactly what they did. While they could have reviewed Google Analytics data or researched optimization best practices, their approach was actually far simpler.
Peoria Unified conducted a survey asking preschool and kindergarten parents what factors they thought about when deciding where to send their kids to school. Dunsey compared these survey results to what she was seeing on competing schools’ homepages, specifically those that were appearing on the first few pages of Google’s search results.
“I found a lot of commonalities,” Dunsey says. “Some of those commonalities centered around high-quality teachers. I also saw that school safety and rigorous curriculum seemed to be important to families. And all those things were on our website, but they weren’t necessarily prominent.” So on the kindergarten page of Peoria Unified’s website, the communications team began highlighting the concerns that were both important to families and ranking highly on Google.
Later, Dunsey checked back to see whether her team’s work had impacted their website’s visibility. “And I saw that we’d gone from somewhere around page 20 to page 2,” she says.
If your website isn’t appearing in search results as readily as you might like, you don’t necessarily need to sign yourself up for an SEO training. Instead, why not try the research approach used by the communications team in Peoria Unified? Start by asking yourself what families are looking for. Do you have survey data? Do you have a focus group you could consult? Once you’ve identified your keywords and key topics, make some changes to your website’s homepage. Over time, you too could see your website’s visibility improve on Google.
Realtors and Enrollment Marketing
When new families move into your district, they’ll likely be all over the map when it comes to which grades their children are in and which channels they’re using to research surrounding districts. So how can you possibly hope to connect with them? To answer this question, Barnegat Township School District in New Jersey turned to a potentially underutilized group of stakeholders for help: local realtors.
Working with local firm Laura Bishop Communications, Barnegat Township saw an opportunity in their community’s growth. “There was an explosion of buying and selling houses,” says Phaedra Laird, an account manager for the firm. “And we wanted to capture some of that momentum.”
“We’ve seen different towns that have gotten hit financially because their enrollment has gone down,” adds Superintendent Dr. Brian Latwis. “So we really wanted to put our best foot forward with those new individuals as they were deciding whether they wanted to put down roots here.”
Thanks to research from the National Association of Realtors, Laird and Latwis knew that homebuyers prioritize the quality of the school district in their communities. “People are willing to compromise on price, condition, size, all those things,” says Laird. “But schools matter.” Because homebuyers care so much about local schools, this kind of partnership would be a win for the district and for the realtors themselves.
So with Laird’s help, Barnegat Township put together a breakfast and information session for local realtors. “Our goal was to present a lot of the really cool opportunities that we have here for students,” Latwis explains. In addition to presentations about academic growth and special programs, they also took the realtors on a tour of the high school to the district’s brand-new computer lab and award-winning arts program.
“So we let them get a feel for our schools, and then we equipped them with information that they could take back,” Laird explains. “That way, when someone asks them how our schools are, they already know our points of pride. They can provide that information to people who are considering moving into the township.”
It’s important to remember that realtors can legally only provide information about local schools if they’re asked explicitly. That means you can’t expect your local realtors to initiate a conversation with prospective community members about why they should enroll their children in your schools. But that’s okay. The goal is simply to build awareness of your district. In other words, when homebuyers do ask local realtors about nearby schools, will they know what to say? If all realtors can do is pass along information, it’s important to make sure they have as much information as possible.
At the end of the breakfast, Barnegat Township even provided the realtors with district-branded swag. “We wanted to give them that reminder,” Latwis explains, “so that even after the realtors leave here, they have those pens and shirts and notepads sitting on their desks. Those things are all little visual reminders of the day they spent in our district. It’s our way of reminding them that we’re here and that we have great things to offer.”
School Enrollment Ad Campaigns
Like we said earlier, if you’re the only school district in town, it would be easy to assume that your entire community is already aware that you exist. But what if something changes? What if a new school choice policy allows parents zoned for a neighboring district to enroll in your schools instead? What if your district opens a new school—a magnet school, let’s say—and your community participates in a lottery-based enrollment system for the first time ever? What then?
This is the exact situation Colorado’s 27J School District found themselves in when they opened their Discovery Magnet School. The K-8 school offers a STEM-focused curriculum and is the district’s first-ever magnet school. “Our community needed to understand first what a magnet school is,” says Kevin Denke, a communications manager for the district. “They needed to understand how magnet schools are unique, and then also understand the lottery-based enrollment process—because, again, that’s different from the traditional neighborhood school.”
Of course, because the community had never had a magnet school before, the district had to contend with some misconceptions. For example, a number of community members thought Discovery would be an exclusive opportunity requiring an application process. “So that was something we had to address in our communications,” says Denke. “This is an opportunity for all families.”
One of the most important priorities for district leadership was that Discovery Magnet School’s student enrollment would accurately represent the entire 27J community. They wanted to encourage students to enroll even if Discovery wasn’t the closest school to their neighborhoods. To build awareness of the school beyond its immediate vicinity, the communications team held in-person information sessions throughout the entire district. They also worked with their translations department to send out a print mailer in Spanish and provide an on-site translator at all their in-person events.
The 27J team also did some digital advertising using Facebook, Instagram, and Google Ads, setting the boundaries for their campaign wider than the district’s boundaries in order to reach more families. “We especially leaned over into a pocket of a neighboring district that doesn’t offer anything like Discovery Magnet,” says Mikel Philippi, another of the district’s communications managers. “Colorado parents are used to having open choice of schools, so we knew there was a good chance we would be able to recruit not just from within our district boundaries, but in other areas as well.”
As part of their enrollment marketing ad campaign, the communications team used A/B testing on Facebook and Instagram to determine what kinds of posts performed the best. “We were constantly tracking performance data,” Philippi says, “and one thing we saw perform well consistently was copy that explicitly connected a science-based curriculum to STEM careers.” Parents liked hearing that Discovery Magnet School would put their children on track for well-paying jobs, so Denke and Philippi used that language to gain traction online, build engagement, and expand the reach of their posts—all of which helped build awareness throughout the community.
Building awareness of your schools means connecting with people who don’t know you yet. And if they’re not aware of you yet, you may not be aware of them, either. So whether you’re trying to connect with first-time parents and new community members, or just sharing new information with your stakeholders, it’s important to cast your net wide.
When it comes to school enrollment marketing, improving your website’s searchability, connecting with realtors, and leveraging online ad campaigns are all great ideas. But no matter what approach you take, when you ask yourself whether prospective families know about your district, you should be able to confidently say, “Yes.” With that as your answer, you’re ready to move your prospective enrollees into the next phase of the customer journey. Now that they know you exist, it’s time to build their interest in everything your schools have to offer.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!