Enrollment Marketing: Interest
When it comes to enrollment marketing, there are several strategies to help you garner interest from prospective families.
Originally published as "The Customer Journey: Interest" in the Winter 2024 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
Once prospective families know your school district is an option for their kids, they need to know why they should choose your schools. This is called the Interest phase, and as the name implies, it’s the time to pique your potential enrollees’ interest in your schools. In the private sector, this is the phase when customers are considering whether or not to purchase a product or service, but in school terms, it’s when prospective families are considering whether or not to enroll their children in your district.
The best way to approach this integral second step in the customer journey is by answering one simple question: How can you make your schools stand out?
Honing your core message is the key here. It’s simply about telling your community who you are and how your schools can provide what they want—whether that’s rigorous academic offerings, a unique school culture, a strong CTE program, or state-of-the-art classrooms.
As you develop enrollment marketing strategies for gaining interest, you might find that they overlap with other phases. A community engagement event, for example, could appeal to families in any phase of the customer journey. But don’t worry—at its healthiest, the customer journey is a self-sustaining cycle that keeps each phase in play at all times. So some overlap should be expected.
That being said, in the Interest phase, one thing remains the same no matter your approach to enrollment marketing: You have a unique story to tell, and now is the time to tell it. For a better idea of how this phase could play out for your schools, let’s look at a few surefire strategies to help you stand out from the crowd.
Speak to specific audiences.
Since prospective families are comparing your schools to others, now is the time to focus your marketing efforts on exactly what your schools offer. It’s all about appealing to your audiences’ specific interests. If families are flocking to a nearby district for their new CTE program, then you already know what they’re interested in. So how can you make sure they know all about your own CTE program and what it’s already offering students in your area?
Post-pandemic, California’s Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) found itself wrestling with declining enrollment numbers, especially for early learners. To make up for school enrollment loss and compete with local private schools, they needed to cater their message to parents with children in transitional kindergarten (TK), pre-K, or kindergarten. By researching public perceptions, SCUSD’s communications team was able to pinpoint exactly how to appeal to this audience.
These families needed to know that the district offered the same quality education as private schools at no cost. “Since area private schools push enrollment early and ask for deposits that families can’t get back after the spring, we wanted to introduce ourselves as the preferred educational choice for those grade levels—one that is free, has highly qualified staff, and is a place their children are going to be happy and safe,” says Jennifer Dericco, APR, SCUSD’s director of communications and community engagement.
During the pandemic, many families stopped enrolling pre-K children, so a big piece of SCUSD’s strategy for building interest among first-time parents is informing them about the importance of early childhood education. They also want to make it clear that SCUSD offers free TK for 4-year-olds, something new parents may be unaware of. From social media posts and direct mail postcards to newsletters and large banners, the district speaks directly to their audience of new parents and points them toward more school enrollment information on their website.
SCUSD also promotes an early learning event each spring that showcases the district’s personality and approach to learning. Preschool and TK teachers from across the district, as well as support teams, are on hand to meet families and engage with prospective students.
“We have chalk and bubbles and hands-on activities,” Dericco says. “Families get to see their children being lovingly engaged in learning and having a good time. This allows us an informal way to humanize our staff and build initial relationships with our families.” SCUSD holds the event at their Family Resource Center because, according to Dericco, “having smaller, targeted events feels less intimidating to a lot of our families, especially those who are economically disadvantaged or whose children are English learners.”
Fun and student-focused, this event is a great way for SCUSD to market what it’s like to be a part of their schools and to give families more information on their early learning program.
Use video for enrollment marketing.
Sometimes getting prospective families interested in your schools is less about telling them who you are and more about showing them. By this point, you’re probably already using photos to highlight your schools and culture, but have you considered using videos in your marketing campaigns?
According to Forbes, viewers retain 95% of a message when they receive it through video—a huge jump from the 10% they retain when simply reading text. Moreover, 90% of customers say that videos help them make buying decisions. If your customers are prospective families, then growing their interest in your schools through video is a pretty safe bet. Video isn’t just a great way to showcase the culture and personality of your schools; it’s also an effective and efficient way to provide families with information.
In early 2023, the School District of Oakfield in Wisconsin decided to use video to show how they could compete with larger urban districts. Their video highlights benefits like 4-year-old pre-K and affordable onsite childcare. “You don’t know what you don’t see,” Superintendent Tracey Conners tells SchoolCEO. “We wanted our community to know that we offer a vast array of opportunities while also having that small-town atmosphere where everyone knows you.”
To produce and help share the video, Oakfield partnered with CESA 6, a co-op serving school districts in Wisconsin and beyond. The result is a high-quality video, which runs just over two minutes long and provides a touching, entertaining, and informative glimpse into their schools and culture. The goal is to drive interest by sharing the core message that Oakfield is a place where kids thrive and feel a sense of belonging. The video’s script, written by CESA 6 communications director Lisa Sink, is voiced by several students from different grades—a clever way of inviting viewers to imagine their own kids as part of the Oakfield family.
“We call ourselves the Mighty Oaks,” says the first student narrator, as we see kids of all ages walking into school, gathering at lockers, holding backpacks. What follows is a montage of scenes showing highly engaged students and teachers, learning spaces, bustling hallways, and even the district’s service dog Oakley. Viewers get an up-close look at the district as its own students describe the many opportunities and services it provides. Then the video closes with the district’s motto and an invitation: Our roots run deep. Our branches stretch far. We are the Mighty Oaks. Come join us.
To make sure their video reached the right audiences, Oakfield shared it on social media, created several digital ads focusing on specific programs and messaging, and linked the video on their homepage. After initially sharing the video in February 2023, Conners started receiving calls praising the project. “It just brought tears to my eyes,” she tells us. And though it’s impossible to measure the video’s ongoing impact, enrollment in the district’s 4-year-old pre-K program increased after it was shared.
Through video, Oakfield has been able to drive interest in a way that feels inviting and personal while also being informative. And this enrollment marketing strategy could work the same for your district—even if you’re on a tight budget. “It doesn’t have to be expensive,” says Sink. “These days you can film a movie on your iPhone, and you don’t even need a videographer. Video is a great tool. Just try it.”
Market school enrollment in a relatable way.
No matter who you’re competing with, your district needs to find creative, memorable ways to stand out while also inviting new families in. Spring Branch ISD in Texas did just that with their I AM SBISD marketing campaign. Faced with declining student numbers and heavy competition from Houston’s many private and charter schools, the district needed a new approach to garnering enrollment interest. “We wanted to showcase what SBISD is all about,” says Chris Elliott, the district’s marketing coordinator.
Through community surveys and focus groups, Elliott and his team learned they needed to market their schools in a more relatable way. “The community wanted authenticity,” he tells us. “The district had been using a lot of stock photos and graphics, but our constituents said they wanted to see people who looked like them.”
So Elliott and his team created a multifaceted new marketing campaign that focused on showcasing images of a diverse array of students and staff, paired with a personal, relatable tagline: I AM SBISD. “We are more than our district goals, academic achievement, and core values,” Elliott says. “While those things are components of a great district, the people are what make Spring Branch ISD special.”
In all their marketing materials, the district shared their simple yet powerful message with images of thriving students and staff. To further drive interest in their programming, SBISD made alternate versions of their tagline that highlighted their specific offerings and opportunities. From I AM SBISD Academics to I AM SBISD Fine Arts, this approach allowed the district to showcase all kinds of students and invite prospective families to imagine their own kids in SBISD.
In the end, the campaign was a success for the district. With engagement and impressions at far greater numbers than before, SBISD garnered enough fresh interest in their schools to see an enrollment increase. “We just wanted to show off how awesome our students and employees are, and show what we have to offer,” Elliott says. “I think by focusing on people, we were able to do that.”
Invite them in.
There are countless ways to tell your district’s story. But to gain the kind of interest you need to guide families to the next, most important phase of the customer journey, you’ve got to leave them wanting to be a part of your school community.
If a young family on a budget doesn’t know you offer free pre-K, you’ve got to tell them. If families don’t know your close-knit, small-town schools also provide innovative learning environments, you’ve got to show them. And if they can’t see their kids in your schools, you’ve got to help them imagine it.
Ultimately, the Interest phase of the customer journey is all about marketing how your schools can meet prospective families’ needs. It’s about focusing on the many things you have to offer—whether they are unique or not—and driving home the idea that your school culture is one where any student can thrive.
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