Case study education marketing

Project Highlight: Viewbook

What can you say about a school in 16 pages plus cover? Here, I’ll take you through the three-step process that led to an award-winning view book for a private school in Virginia. Best of all, it was produced on a shoestring budget.

These days, when everything seems to be on the screen instead of on your coffee table, it’s hard to convince a client to invest in the permanence and increased cost of a printed piece. Such was the case with the Pre-k through grade 12 school with whom I worked in Southwest Virginia. As most small private schools, the institution was cash strapped in the marketing department. However, the need became apparent that there were students to woo, and convincing a family to part with a significant portion of their income as an investment for their child’s future when the alternative was “free,” needed more than a slick website. It needed a tactile, emotive connection with families. Enter the view book.

Fifteen years ago, all private schools worth their salt (and their tuition) had a view book. Then websites got fancy and easy to navigate. Families who were going to send their child to a private school did their research online before even picking up the phone to schedule a tour. The view book seemed to lose its place in the marketing lineup. This sidelining was a mistake for those institutions who were aiming to convince families who weren’t sold on paying for school. How can you make a meaningful connection with a family who isn’t even looking for you? Advertising? Sure. But that will only peak an interest and has limited space and audience attention.

And, what if you wanted to woo families across the globe, as this school did? Reaching those families via digital marketing is challenging at the very least. The school realized it needed to go on the road, or on the plane, as it were, but they needed something to hand people that would connect with them and stick. Three steps happened to make sure they had what they needed.

1 Harness the voice, but don’t babble.

At the time, I was lucky enough to be the marketing director at the school, but I also had substantial experience in designing and producing long-form brochures for schools—though, to be honest, I had never written one. The budget did not allow for a copywriter, so it was up to yours truly to figure out what a family wanted to hear and how they would want to hear it in order to believe this school was the option for their child. I took inspiration from our social media channels. I had created a voice that was serious in purpose, but playful in execution, reminding families that this school is a place that not only sparks imagination and learning, but happiness as well.

Using the “Wild Mind” quote mentioned in a graduation speech by the head of school set up the spread on arts, but also helped relay the personality of the school and its values.

So now, I had my voice. But, people hate to read these days, so I needed to keep the copy short and sweet. And, what about those people in far-off places whose first language is something other than English? I had to figure out a way to entice them as well. Enter step 2.

2 Take advantage of technology, even in print.

Not only did I make sure to employ big, beautiful photography of our students learning, creating, socializing and succeeding, but I used technology to fill in the gaps between picture and text. QR codes are becoming more widely used (especially during the pandemic when no one wants to touch a menu), and so I employed that tool to point to videos of our students doing what we say they do.

QR codes that point to online assets such as Facebook posts, YouTube videos or the school’s website, help illustrate in a way words and static images can not.

One in particular, took scanners to a Facebook post of a high school student performing a rap to a popular song using lyrics of her own creation to explore a historical figure’s biography. This quick link showed prospective parents and students that the classes were innovative, fun, and engaging. Now, how do you get parents and families to get the complete picture in a small brochure? Read on.

3 The dance is in the details.

So, I’ve already explained that people hate to read, but they do like to browse (thank you, Internet). The design brought in many elements from student quotes, to traditions (made appetizing through the use of a footer called “on the calendar”). The headers changed with each spread, some were filled with pictures, some were handwritten, but all had the same style for consistency. Some facts and figures were even generated from data collected by a student working in an independent study on marketing—again, showing that the students learn through real-world work not just concepts.

To get the texture behind the hand-traced “From me,” I crinkled a piece of notebook paper and scanned it. Instant texture that broke up what could have been a predictable design language.

When all was said and done, the book, produced through digital printing in a small run, achieved what it set out to do: Give the school a sense of legitimacy of message. Offer families something emotive and tactile that reminded them of its unique qualities without opening a browser window. Finally, it positioned them as a preparatory school who had a lot to say but kept in mind what mattered to families and focused its messaging there, no search engine required.

education marketing

Hold on. Hold on to me.

You got the students. Now how do you keep them?
A three-pronged prescription for private school retention post-pandemic

[ I write this hoping that the words “post-pandemic” will actually be a thing someday. I always like to focus on the positive, so we’ll go with it for now. ]

According to a recent article in EdWeek, generally speaking, private schools saw an increase in student populations in the fall of 2020. After many failed online learning experiments, disgruntled and exhausted parents frantically looked for a way to keep their children on a path to educational success.

“In a survey released Aug. 3 by the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, 22 percent of respondents with K-12 students said they would change schools for the 2020-21 school year… of those who reported a school switch, 28 percent said the change is ‘somewhat’ or ‘very much’ influenced by experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Public Schools Catch Parents’ Eye as Public School Buildings Stay Shut” by Evie Blad, EdWeek, August 6, 2020

Suddenly, schools that had not enjoyed the comfort of a waiting list for years were suddenly bursting at the seams with new admissions while simultaneously working feverishly to create a hybrid learning environment for the coming school year that would put parents’ and teachers’ expectations at ease. These expectations included small class sizes (hard to accomplish when you have full classes), individualized learning plans (even harder for teachers who have one-third more students in their class and can only come within 4 feet of them), and options that would fulfill online and in-person learning outcomes with equal rigor and consideration.

For some families, this fall became the first time, outside of daycare, they paid “extra” for educating their children. The value of a stretched dollar now has even more importance tied to it, and families are eagerly awaiting to see if the product they’re paying for—that private schools have always insisted is better—is worth it. No pressure. Here are 3 tips to make their enrollments last.

1Remember: experience, does not always mean expertise.

It’s a precarious balancing act. How do you keep improving a relatively new style of hybrid education with thoughtful intention while also making sure parents know that you’re nailing it? (Or, at least doing better than your competitors.) During my three years as Marketing Director for an independent school, I realized the school’s greatest referral audience is its current families, and its greatest advertisers are its classrooms. Not the rooms, per se, but what happens inside of them.

With much of the employed nation still working from home, they are taking their due breaks from the onslaught of Zoom meetings. During this time, social media has amplified its role as a quick and easy brain break. Use that to your advantage and get your teachers to help. Though they are juggling additional students and an in-person as well as an online persona, much of the work their students will be doing will be independent. Remind teachers that when they can’t sit next to little Tamira, they can at least take a picture of her working. Make it easy. Create a Google Drive folder with the week as its name, and subfolders with grades or divisions, share it with your entire faculty/coach/student council community, and ask that they share at least one photo a week. If, in my experience, you only get 20 percent contributing, you’ll still have enough to work with and remind parents of the unique and innovative program their children are enjoying while in your school’s experienced hands. Bonus: Some prospective families, already fatigued by public school challenges, will be trolling your social media accounts to see what the alternatives are doing.

2 Saying “no” doesn’t mean the client will never approach you again.

Become a thought leader. Encourage your head of school and/or Board Chair to write editorials for the local newspapers. Get the Parents’ Association to partner with local child-development authorities to offer webinars to help families navigate their children’s futures and mental health during these times. Think social workers, pediatricians, learning development experts—all can offer useful knowledge to your families that will increase the value of what their student is already receiving in the classroom. Plus, the businesses get exposure to potential customers in return. Use your social media channels to spread useful advice from the experts. One parent told me an article I had posted from the New York Times when the pandemic hit that advised families on how to keep a routine for their children during online school was instrumental to their child’s success and their sanity.

3 Six of one, half a dozen of the other—give or take.

Indexed or discounted tuition is not a new concept for private schools who have struggled for years to maintain financial sustainability. Based on a family’s income, schools may have adopted a model that discounts the tuition in exchange for a bright, willing student to join the ranks and fill the seat. Consider a similar option for enrolled families: A tuition freeze, or a sustainable discount over the course of their enrollment can do wonders fro retainment.

Your families will have enjoyed a year of hands-on, individualized learning for their children. They’ll be proud of their children’s progress, and grateful to the teachers who made it possible. Seal the deal by making it financially palatable.

Now, this may not seem sustainable as cost of living increases keep happening and teachers still appreciate raises, but think about what a full school will do for your brand image in the long run. Suddenly, you are now the school to beat, with excellent academics and programming, and—more important—happy families who see you as the considerate partner in their family’s educational (and financial) wellbeing.

While there’s never a one-size-fits all solution to student retention, for the most part, reminding families that the investment they are making in their children will lay the groundwork for their child’s success in life is an emotionally compelling argument for private schools to make. With the future economy even more uncertain, having a good education will only help this next generation make the smart decisions required for personal and national success.