By William Bullard

In part I, we eavesdropped on a conversation between Marty Luther and Abigail Rogers as they discussed the benefits of applying data to their school’s marketing programs. Now, the new Director of Advancement at a California boarding school and its Director of Communications are discussing what marketing channels to track and what data to zero in on.

Marty starts by noting that data is everywhere, including in places you may not think. Certain parent research, clicks on news items on the website, the number of registrations for Grandparents Day versus actual attendance – on and on. He asks, “How do we avoid drowning in it? A simple rule I favor is: ‘don’t ask questions if you’re not prepared to act on the answers.'”

Abigail is a bit confused: “You mentioned that different schools can use data differently. How did you mean that?” He responds that “some pieces just need to be published. Even if the introduction of a basic new class, standard headmaster announcement, or launch of a new parent committee aren’t barnburners for response, they are important news items. Also, some topics relating to a school’s brand, say, for us giving back to the community, are integral to our message even if they’re not attention-getting on email and social media. They are ‘must-haves’ for our campaigns. That said, we can manage them somewhat, e.g. by placing them lower in the order in email, ensuring they’re accompanied by a cool image for social media, or perhaps adding a video of kids visiting senior citizens. There is also the big factor of how quickly a school’s culture and resources allow it to adopt data-driven thinking. This, to me, is where the art of marketing comes back in; having our finger on the pulse of not just our external community but also our own Head of School, faculty, and students, and balancing all these factors.”

Marty senses this could be overwhelming for Abigail, so he quickly shifts to actionable topics. He asks Abigail’s help in deciding where marketing has a major effect on the school’s success. They agree the most significant contributions are in Admissions and Development, because gaining more high-quality students, especially full-pays, and increasing alumni engagement are financially significant, measurable, and marketing-sensitive. What about that other big variable, student retention? How important is communications and marketing to current families? They are already aware and presumably “sold” on the school, so marketing strategy is less relevant; Marty and Abigail tentatively conclude that effectively communicating the joy, achievements, and hidden gems of their school is a piece of the complex puzzle affecting family decisions to stay or go. Together, they compile this list, with Marty leading:

  • Website: For the broader site, we want to track the number of total and unique page views monthly (which show pages viewed per visit) and see trends, e.g. comparisons to a year ago, so we know if we are reaching more people. Let’s also look at the top pages for page views, time on page, and percentage of exits. The pages that people visit provide important insights on what’s most important to them, and we need to ensure those pages are especially current and well-written. Marty continued with “I was stunned to learn that our faculty biographies were the fourth most viewed set of pages at my old school, and few schools have more than the teacher’s contact info and educational background. We need a complete bio on each of our people.”
    • Bonus Tip: Use web data in concert with email and social media: email topics that gain a lot of clicks may suggest bolstering web content in that area, and high-ranking web pages or news items may offer ideas for social and email.
    • Search Engine Optimization: While SEO is enormously important, this project will take some time as we start to focus on our search rankings for the most popular search terms, which competitors are above us, and what makes their pages better for SEO. “I will discuss this with you later, as we’ll need to talk about keyword tracking, benchmarking, and SEO itself.”
  • Email: The colleagues discuss the myriad of options for email at their school, and the fact that while the email metrics are identical, the different aims for each audience make the analytics different. Marty notes the importance of testing many variables, including days and times, subject line length, images, and tone, then adapting the email templates according to the results. As a note of panic crosses Abigail’s face, he quickly adds that they can work test results in once matters are more settled. Summary:
    • Admissions/prospective parents: open rates on prospecting emails, the same on follow-up emails to admitted students, and clicks to Open House registration forms, requests for additional information, and more.
    • Current parents: open and click-through rates, key topics clicked, fundraising results, and clicks to drivers such as Parents Weekend and Auction registration forms.
    • Alumni: open and click-through rates, key topics, fundraising results, and registration for alumni weekend and events.
  • Digital advertising: How many clicks are there on our Facebook ads and display ads? What keywords in our Google AdWords campaign have been most successful? That data for the critical function of leads from prospective families, along with our costs, gives a cost-per-click that enables comparison of each of the digital programs. We can also judge them against the results of the print campaigns. At this stage, we can’t get closer to the real measure of success, how good the leads are and whether they end in tangible goals such as completed applications or visits to the Open House, but this allows a basic, fair, ROI-based comparison.
  • Print advertising and direct mail: Marty tells Abigail that print ads are typically more difficult to track, because they lack the built-in metrics of digital and are more often used for branding and awareness that is notoriously challenging for attribution. However, he directs her to a recent blog post on multi-channel measurement for tips on making print more trackable. Direct mail can more easily be crafted to show key data, including specific response cards (e.g. for fundraising), codes to be added to electronic forms, and customized landing pages.
  • Social media: We need to move beyond the number of Likes to look at engagement, such as comments, retweets, and posts created by our constituents, because that activity is the best indicator of their interests. Marty added, “We will need to assess the best tool to minimize our data collection time.”
  • Blog: Marty said the Head is on board to support a new blog and will give the team ideas to create periodic posts. This new feature will appear on the website and be referenced in email and social media. The important data here is what type of traffic the posts will draw, what topics are of the most interest, and what channels drive readers to the blog.
  • Video: The traffic to videos on our own site, our YouTube channel, social media, and from our emails tells us two important lessons: how do our constituents like video as a storytelling medium compared with print, and where do they prefer to view it.
  • Basic Surveys: Asking past parents at the start of school to rate and comment on their feelings about our emails, newsletters/magazines, and Viewbook will give us valuable insights that can help us understand the perception of our communications. In each section, let’s ask for preferred improvements and other topics they would like to see covered. These ratings become a baseline for an annual survey, and their suggestions may offer valuable ideas.
  • Research: There are other forms of research, often from outside experts, that go beyond basic surveys and provide extremely valuable data. Image audits and analyses of why our admitted students matriculate elsewhere are especially compelling because they also provide testimonials, engagement ideas, and constituent perceptions that can help shape our message and storytelling (tip of the hat to Mike Connor Associates for these insights).

Abigail gazes intently at her boss. “Looks like we have some work to do – we better get started!”

William Bullard is a strategic marketer who spent most of his career in the business world before moving into education. He has been the director of communications at two independent schools in greater Boston as well as a social media consultant for a leading literacy training company. He is especially interested in applying lessons from his early-stage work in direct marketing, the Internet, and digital marketing to schools. As the VP of Internet Marketing for the Boston chapter of the American Marketing Association, he is a frequent blogger. William is a strategic partner for Kalix Communications, focusing on digital and data-driven marketing.