I was asked some questions about marketing for churches and schools. I have done marketing as part of my website building all along, even though I am not a marketing consultant. A lot of what works with digital marketing is just having it out there and promoting it. I am certainly not a marketing genius, and my own business has not benefited nearly as much as others I have helped to promote.
This article is a perfect example of how digital marketing works: instead of me writing all of this in an email, I am publishing it to my website and indexing it with Google. Not only will it help more people, but it will also potentially help me find customers. It’s the same thing with schools. If several parents ask the same kinds of questions, the answers should be an article on the website (in addition to) a personal email.
The main headings are the points the folks asked me to address. I am going in-depth with what I know because I believe it can help other schools compete without necessarily taking money away from updating books or computers to pay for the marketing. Before you read any further, however, realize that those firms do serve a purpose for schools that are in need of a complete makeover. If you kind of know what it will take but don’t know where to start, then this article will help.
Website and Digital Marketing campaigns focused on building the Student body
When my wife taught in Kansas, the school was having some enrollment issues. Conversely, our school in Wisconsin was able to use vouchers in order to bolster its enrollment. Both used digital marketing, as does my current church and school.
That’s the go-to phrase, but it’s more than that with marketing. Digital marketing is not about one word or one category. Lutheran, private, religious, parochial--all are terms that should be in the text. Your Lutheran school is also an alternative to public school, homeschool, online school, and underperforming schools. People who search for these terms need to see your materials. Very few people suddenly decide to search for a Christ-centered Lutheran school near me. They’ll search for test scores or bullying or teacher photos, and they want to see your school represented in several ways.
Better or More
Our school in Kansas wanted to do both, which meant there was always something going on at school, and always some kind of testing or new mandate happening. The teachers were exhausted, but many of them felt like offering more activities AND a better education was the only way to survive.
Our school in Wisconsin was interested in offering more, mostly because it was surrounded by one of the best school districts in the state. So it focused on the moral and religious education, which was the right choice. In fact, I consulted with the former principal there and advised him to avoid a campaign that would have tried to smear the public schools for being violent and lacking in education, since I knew the statistics for the local school districts did not align with this conception.
Our school in Florida is by default better than most of the big-city schools available in the area. It does not flaunt that fact, focusing on offering more. We also don’t focus too much on being LCMS Lutheran because less than 20% of our students attend an LCMS church. It's apparent from our website that we probably offer more sports than other local schools.
Worth the Trip
Parents will have to be more involved in order to make the school function. They have to drive to and from the school because there’s no bus. They have to drive for field trips. They have to volunteer more than they would at the local public school. The focus needs to be on that family time, when the parents ARE involved in the kids’ lives. The school can target communities further away than might be imagined because parents might want this kind of destination for their families. We had one parent driving 40 minutes each way in Kansas because he felt it was the best school. If your school is near a large employment center, that can help. In fact, use that location specifically in an online article. For example, our school is six miles from a Navy base, and I live in a neighborhood (one mile from school) that has seemingly half of its residents who work there. However, there are also thousands of people who commute 10 or 20 miles to get to the base, most of whom go right past the school. That should be on the website.
When I heard my school in Kansas wanted to target Asian students, I wrote an article online about the school. But I didn’t stop there: I used Google to translate it to four or five languages, and published it in those languages, as well. Who’s to say the CEO of a company in China who is considering an American education for his kids can even speak English? The next year, that school had two new students from China. Did my article help? Maybe. Maybe not. But those students were enrolled.
When I got to my current school and was tasked with building the website, I was surprised that the most basic listing had been neglected. Google Maps is #1, and if you have a three-star rating (we did), that’s a problem. I won’t go into a restaurant with less than four stars. Make sure there’s a listing on Google and other maps, that it links to your website, and that several someones have given you good reviews. Facebook, too, though not as important.
Your school needs to be listed with every online index of schools. There are local business pages like Yelp, too. A lot of websites have already listed your school, but you might need to claim the profile, and make sure to link to your website, NOT the Facebook page. Don’t forget images and videos. Some people only want to see these. In fact, Youtube is possibly the best way to show off your school AND get tons of hits. Be sure to use long descriptions and lots of tags. Youtube is like using Amazon rather than a cart on a street to sell products.
Try to get in the news, too. Some people only want what they think is news, so they’re not searching for your website. However, if your fundraiser or volunteer activity is newsworthy (or even if it’s not), try to get the local news to cover it.
But the website itself has to be https (all my client sites are), it has to be mobile-friendly, and it has to be a destination. That all means that the website for your school should be a modern Content Management System of some sort so that when it's linked to from all other sites, there's a point to linking to it. With 60% or more of local searches being done on mobile and Chrome about to penalize non-https sites, it's time to make sure your website qualifies as worthy of directing people there. Here's my assessment of Florida church websites.
Have experience with Google Search word optimization
This is all about people NOT wanting to put in the basic work needed. Even those of us who DO put this work in can add tags and use the right search terms, but the most important factor here is to get the articles written. One single, solitary home page welcome message, no matter how well crafted and optimized, stands no chance against another school that has a weekly blog highlighting all that goes on at the school. Add some images and an occasional Youtube video, and the effort generally pays off.
I don’t have time to deal with Google Analytics, but Webmaster Tools is good. It shows what people are searching for on the website. Bing has a similar tool that can also help with deciding which keywords to use. The main point is to use a lot of words, and the important ones more often. SEO consultants will give you a template to follow, and that might be useful if you’re not a writer at all. Get your website indexed with Webmaster tools and write a lot of relevant articles. That’s the best way to use Google: don’t try to fool it with tricks. But you also MUST have a CMS that keeps older articles on the website in a blog, news, or updates-type of section. If not, it’s like starting over every day.
Even if you don’t use SEO or Webmaster tools, writing can help. Even if it’s on Facebook or Twitter. Or on forums. Any kind of writing that promotes your school is beneficial. Links and likes, too. Try to get people to come to your website from other websites (including social media), and then from your website to the school. Calendar events disappear as soon as they happen, but articles that talk about events and activities can last forever online. One paragraph is enough. Write the article in a way that allows it to stay on the website forever. If I was writing an article reminding people about spring break dates, I might return to the article afterwards and tell the students what I did, or even mention what a couple of teachers or other students did over the break. Or just some ideas about what they could do. The point is that it can then make sense to leave it on the website, and it will continue to get traffic.
Maps and More
Even if you don’t have it in you to write once a week, make sure your school is listed on Google and other maps. Also, add photos right to Google maps if you’re not going to do it on your website. Update the information that’s there. Claim the business to see if you can write a short description.
Have done targeted print campaigns
When my wife worked for our church in Wisconsin, she was tasked with using demographics available through the district in order to find areas where the church would send some targeted mailings. A friend and client also used the coupon mailers at one point, but the one-time mailing nearly bankrupt his business. I myself sent out about 200 personlized letters to churches that really needed new websites. I believe I received one job from all those mailings. It's pretty much the same if I attempt to email someone. Because of spammers and scammers, we have to figure out ways to drive people to us without being too overt.
Larger metro areas may have school fairs, especially if there is a lot of choice. If this is an option, someone from your school should have a booth. I assume these fairs don’t exist in most parts of the country, however. In reverse, my own church in Wisconsin used to have its own fair, called the Family Fun Fest (and later an Easter egg hunt), and the school would set up a booth. Our last Easter hunt (our small group put it on) had nearly 200 kids and probably 50 or more from outside the church/school. Some churches in this area (Lutheran included) have pumpkins at Halloween. One in Wisconsin ran a live-action Nativity, making me fill out a information card before proceeding for free through the displays with my kids.
In my old neighborhood in Milwaukee, a Lutheran church would canvass the whole area with invites to an ice cream social. It was a church that was slowly dying, and the ice cream was not enough to bring in new families. Lutherans are not huge fans of going door-to-door, however.
Might have metrics on click to student conversion ratio? 3% 5% etc.
I Could Say Anything
Marketers can manipulate stats to promise the world. The main point is that without the content to click, it’s always 0%. If you make 10 videos, write 50 articles, and elicit 100 reviews on various websites, maybe you’ll only get one new student this year. However, if you do nothing, than there’s not even that one student. And the content you create, when you create it, will be there five years from now, still being seen.
I can tell you from writing articles trying to sell my services and items for others online that the conversion is going to seem small compared to the effort. When I assessed every church website in my own LCMS district in Wisconcin, posted the results, and emailed each church about the results, I really thought I had a winning idea. I have articles on some websites with over 20,000 actual clicks. I ask people to click on ads or email me, but I barely get any clicks on ads, and even my top articles might see one or two people ever email me. One click probably will never be enough to enroll a student. When I was researching our new school, I went on every teacher page several times, downloaded every newsletter, checked the calendar, and read every article. I also looked at every photo and every review. Probably 20-30 clicks before I felt confident enough that the school was one I would contact.
Can offer us advice on what they learned and the results.
What I have learned from the schools with which I’ve been involved is that marketing can certainly be done in-house. I’ve seen several campaigns put on by high-priced marketing firms for our churches and schools that have cost more than the benefit, and my wife, as a church employee, still had to put together a lot of the items needed (photos, descriptions, etc.) These companies generally provide templates for the articles, handouts, and maybe produce a video. They’ll SEO the heck out of the website with keywords and testimonials. As a last-ditch effort, this might be what a school needs, since it’s fast and easy compared to doing the real, lasting work that I mentioned in this article, and there’s more guidance.
I’ve written several articles about the past schools and churches my family has attended, and most of those articles are top 10 in searches, mainly because no one else is writing. If every church and school member was asked to find a place to publish a review or article about the school, that would have more effect than anything a marketing firm or a website developer (like me) could ever provide. I get small businesses all the time that say they don’t need a website because word of mouth gets them enough business--that’s probably true, but the word of mouth is really online today. You NEED a good website for when people want to find out more, and you need those articles so they can find out more from you, but you also need all the parents and church members to write reviews, hand out cards, tweet, or just wear a school t-shirt around town.