As attracting and retaining students (and alumni) becomes more complex, independent schools are increasingly establishing marketing and communications offices to steward, lead, and shape the school’s external and internal messaging and brand. Kim Kerscher, director of marketing & communications at Westridge School (CA), Scott Allenby, director of communications & marketing at Proctor Academy (NH), and Wendi Patella, director of publications and media relations at Peddie School (NJ), share their office’s role in marketing to and communicating with stakeholders.
Describe the form and function of your office.
KK: The marketing and communications department at Westridge School is structured as an in-house agency. While providing strategic and tactical support to all departments, its efforts are primarily focused on admission marketing and communications, parent communications, communications and graphic design support for the advancement team, and support for the head of school’s office. The team consists of three members: a director of marketing and communications, a communications associate, and a webmaster/online content manager. The director reports to the head of school. The department works collaboratively with the admission team on branding and messaging, collateral materials, advertising, and online marketing. The communications team leads marketing and communications planning and projects, working with the experts in admission to identify goals, understand current market data and trends, and formulate key messages. All plans and materials are approved by the director of admission.
SA: Proctor’s communications office is located in the same building as our development and admission teams, and reports directly to the head of school. We view development and admission as our two biggest customers, along with the internal school community. Our ultimate goal is to leverage our skills and expertise to facilitate communication from all areas of the school in a way that creates a consistent experience for each of our constituents regardless of their role. In addition to me, we have a talented graphic designer, a member of our team who works with admission on enrollment marketing, and a member who works with development on stewardship and cultivation. We also have a videographer who knows our school incredibly well and works extensively with us in all areas, and a part-time photographer who consistently feeds quality images to us from daily life at Proctor. We have organized our team in a way that empowers individuals with ownership of different parts of the communications process.
WP: Peddie School’s office of communications and marketing directs school-wide strategic communications to all external audiences. With direct reporting to the headmaster, the office produces the school’s alumni magazine, manages and monitors the school’s social media channels, and develops the school’s viewbook and other admission materials. The existing staff of three and a half full-time employees is also responsible for public and media relations, photography, videography, advertising, and overall branding and messaging. In collaboration, the department handles all communications and marketing efforts on behalf of the admission office.
What are your best strategies for creating faculty buy-in?
KK: Relationship building. Knowing faculty members personally and interacting with them regularly builds trust and understanding and also opens up terrific sources of information about what is happening at the school. We try to spend time in classes and support students and teachers by attending events, games, and productions. It is also important to understand and respect faculty members' feelings about marketing. For instance, while it is important for us to be able to show student work, our faculty members want to avoid highlighting only "successes" that easily rise to our attention through traditional awards, scores, and the like. Working together, we have developed a program focused on classroom projects that highlights a wonderful range of work and student voices. Finally, we let our faculty members know about projects that we have in the works, solicit their opinions through research and messaging focus groups, and prioritize them as the first audience to see marketing pieces before they are distributed to external audiences.
SA: Building faculty understanding of school marketing and communications is an incredibly challenging process, but is also the single most important piece of developing an effective plan. Before you can worry about faculty buy-in, however, you must make sure your school’s brand aligns with what is actually happening at your school: in the classroom, on the athletic fields, in the art studio, or in the dormitories. When faculty see you authentically telling their story, they become excited to be a part of the process. We are fortunate to have a long-standing faculty culture of content creation and sharing. We regularly have students and faculty write blog posts for our website and share their window into the Proctor experience on social media. This crowd-sourced content is some of the richest, most-viewed content we produce, but it does not happen unless your messaging is aligned with your faculty’s beliefs about how your school actually educates students. Aligning brand messaging with school culture is far and away the most important strategy.
WP: For many, the term marketing can be a dirty word, often associated with the slick business of getting people to buy things they do not need. The good news is that the teachers who fill our school believe deeply in the product we are promoting, or they would not be working in a job that often requires round-the-clock dedication. As professional communicators, we know that words matter. For that reason, we do not ask faculty members to help "market" the school. Instead, we ask them to help tell the story of the school. We find that teachers are some of the most effective storytellers, and they all have stories to tell.
Do you utilize “personas” when developing and executing your strategy?
KK: We have not developed formal personas per se, but did some very similar work in our most recent branding and messaging project. We spend a great deal of time speaking with our different constituencies on an ongoing basis—students, parents, alumni, and prospective families. We think through the needs and interests of these different groups and develop unique communications and programs around them. Significantly, our admission team is incredible at personalized communication. They get to know each family extremely well and spend a great deal of time talking to them about how Westridge and its programs align with their individual educational goals, philosophies, and priorities.
SA: Personas are central to everything we do. Whether we are working on a piece for our admission officers to take on the road, an email campaign for prospective families, a parent newsletter for current families, or an alumni update, we first press pause to think about who the audience for the content is going to be. This brainstorming process prior to content creation allows us to refine content, calls-to-action, and distribution media for each persona. We understand we are not necessarily competing with other schools with our marketing, but rather with the noise of social media. The content we create needs to be compelling, provide value to our constituents, and drive “next steps.” When we understand for whom the content is created, the more we can customize it and its distribution medium to their interests. People have finite time in their lives to digest content. It is our goal to put the content they care about most right in front of them, and this cannot occur without a solid understanding of personas within each constituent group.
WP: At Peddie, we often say that there is no typical Peddie student—but what they have in common are excitement, curiosity, and character. When telling stories about our students, our faculty, or our alumni, those qualities shine through.