Back-to-School Word-of-Mouth Marketing Strategies

Is your school’s word of mouth – your most important marketing tool – working for you or against you? Every parent, student, teacher, alumni and board member is talking about your school and telling others what they think about it. And others are listening.

We see the impact of great word of mouth again and again. Every Kalix Marketing Group market research study we’ve done before, during and since the pandemic lists “word of mouth” and website as the top most important/trusted ways people hear about any particular school. Your own admission inquiry data verifies this with most of your prospects answering “Reputation” or “Referral/Recommendation” for how they heard of your school. People trust people more than they trust a brand. 

Word of mouth marketing (your reputation in the marketplace) is priceless. Imagine you plan on dining out tonight. You search for new restaurants on your phone, but what’s the first thing you go to? Most likely the recommendations. And, if a friend recommends a new place, that holds a lot more weight. For businesses, word of mouth accounts for five times more sales than paid media (MarTech Alliance).

LXAHUB, a provider of tech-events, resources, digital courses and more, states that “Word-of-mouth is even more effective than paid ads, resulting in five times more sales. 64% of marketers agree that word-of-mouth is the most effective form of marketing.”

The Three Components of Word of Mouth

Word of mouth is deeply personal and always comes back to an individual student’s experience. No, you can’t control the narrative, but there are things you can do in the summer that can stoke great word of mouth, online and offline.

Creating good word of mouth needs a message that is:

  1. Portable: How easy is it to talk about your school quickly?
  2. Repeatable: Is it a message that anyone can repeat quickly and easily?
  3. Emotional? Does the story resonate and hit the heartstrings?

Your school communities need reasons to talk about your school, easily, frequently and in a positive light. Happy students and happy parents talk about how happy they are at your school to anyone who will listen. And unhappy people are just as chatty about what they don’t like about your school as happy families are.

Back-to-school time is a great time to show your families that they and their students are known, loved and celebrated (the three things every parent wants from your school). These strategies may seem small, but they are high touch with a big impact – and make the kind of personal connection that can deepen a person’s connection with your school.

Think of back-to-school as “feel-good” season. And when your families feel good, they share it.

Simple, Effective Offline Word-of-Mouth Strategies

Digital is a huge part of your school’s marketing strategy and should be. But there are many offline opportunities to get personal with your current families, connect on an emotional level and stoke good word of mouth.

School Magazine: If you have a magazine hitting mailboxes in August, get some notecards, a pen and several copies in front of your Head of School to write short, personal notes to the families whose students appear in your fall issue.

It doesn’t need to be an opus. A short “So proud of what you’re accomplishing!” signed by your Head of School and paperclipped to the magazine profile of your school’s nationally ranked scholar or top athlete (or award-winning artist, etc.) and mailed separately from the general magazine mailing is a very good use of your Head’s time. Proud families want the extra copy, and it is a very tangible way to show that your school leader knows and values the student. (This is also a great strategy with alumni featured in your issue.)

Need some ideas for a great school magazine? Check out our e-book on school magazines.

New/updated Admission Materials: If your admissions office has spent the summer updating the printed admissions collateral, have your enrollment team do the same with printed copies of the viewbook, etc.

Print copies of any professional photos of students that are in the admissions materials and send a copy (with a personal note, of course) to the family. In the age of looking at photos on our phone, a printed, professionally shot photograph is a treasured thing.

Summer Mailing to Parents: Every school sends a thick envelope of forms and information that can’t be emailed. Typically a mid-August mailing, consider what might go in there that is a value-add for families and not just one more form to fill out.

  • Create a key events calendar for parents to put on the fridge (yes, the calendar is online, but they will appreciate a hard copy).
  • Include a car sticker or magnet with the school’s visual branding and url. Explain that they can pick up more at Back to School nights, etc. Ask them to take a photo of them and their car sticker/magnet on their car and post it and tag your school.
  • If your budget allows, buy a school store gift card ($5) for all new students and include it with a printed card about how excited you are to see their [NAME OF SCHOOL] spirit this year. Or send it to rising seniors or parent volunteers.
  • If you tell them, they will tag. Include a sheet of paper with all the school’s social media accounts and encourage parents to tag the school (give the tags you use) in their posts. Provide a list of hashtags, too. Here are some handy tips on best-practice use of hash tagging. 

Opening-of-School Events: The late August/early September calendar is full of great ways to focus on family engagement to boost word of mouth.

Examine all the events for the opening of school. What opportunities are there to show some love to your families, students and staff?

If families are coming to school before classes start, man a welcome table available with:

  • Hard copies of the Major Events Calendar
  • Spirit Swag (car magnets, stickers, etc.)
  • Laptop available to check contact info
  • Important information, depending on the division. For an Upper School, perhaps you ask a member of the College Counseling Office to be on hand with some hand-outs about important fall dates and deadlines for college admissions.

If there are key school traditions (decorating lockers, seniors decorating car windows, Head of School at opening day carpool), make sure you get photos and post about them. Make the photos available to all parents via a password-protected SmugMug account and share the link in weekly e-newsletters.

For Back-to-School Nights, have a PPT going before and after the event with photos of children, ways to stay in touch, save the dates, etc. You have a captive audience—share important information and feel-good photos.

First-Day-of-School photos are all over nearly every social media platform in early September. Make it easy (and easy-to-brand) for your parents. Create and print (on cardstock) a simple placard for parents to write in their child’s name, which their child holds in their first day of school photo that’s published on social media. Here’s a sample card:

Side 1

Side 2

Be sure to use your school’s colors. Mail it to all your parents with instructions encouraging them to post on social media, tag the school and use your listed hashtags. You could email it, but most parents won’t remember to print it. Include it in the mid-August mailing and make it available at pre-Opening Day events at school.

Using Digital Strategies to Boost Word of Mouth

Now is the time to take a look at your weekly e-newsletters. Make it easy for families to find what they need and to learn about all the school programs. Creating the “social proof” that is word of mouth requires that families be in the know about all your school has to offer.

  • What needs to be updated?
  • Is there a section that automatically links that division’s news items?
  • Is there a link to your school’s blog that shows the most recent blog post?
  • Is there a link to a weekly calendar of events AND a link to the major events calendar for the year?
  • If you create a Smug Mug site, share the link each week and let families know what new photos are in there by event.

And, if you have multiple divisions, make sure each division’s newsletter uses the same format. It can be frustrating for parents to navigate different formats to try to find the same information.

Before school starts, use Canva templates to create custom school spirit Instagram Highlight Covers for students to showcase their school Instagram stories. Located at the bottom of your Instagram profile, Instagram Highlight Covers will be a viewer’s first impression of your school. If you have a 12th grade, create special ones for the senior class to use. You can even create a custom Cover for parents to showcase Stories of their student’s involvement in your school activities. Email them to the students and parents.  

Is one of your summer to-dos archiving photos from last year into a folder or onto a hard drive? Get the list of families new to your school last year and email them photos of their child in their first year at your school. Keep it short but let them know you are looking forward to seeing them in the new school year.

Ask to speak at the department or faculty opening meeting and new faculty orientation. Explain how you share news and what constitutes news. Sow the seeds for great collaboration and make it easy for them to share news, photos and videos with your office:

  • Create an email address with so teachers can easily send you photos for you to post and curate. All they need to do is send a quick note in the subject line about what is happening in the shot and email it to you.
  • For those faculty who tweet, post, etc. already, ask them to use the hashtags you create for your school. Print them on a piece of paper and hand them out. There’s a lot of information to take in at the opening of school and they will appreciate the reminder.

Steward your faculty “news stringers,” too. Send thank you notes to faculty who share information and photos. Give shout-outs online when you post the photos. If your budget allows it, send a gift card for coffee to your heavy-hitters.

The Power of Positive Word of Mouth

Word of mouth can build trust, credibility and a close-knit community for your school. Genuine recommendations from happy parents, students and staff can boost your school’s reputation and enrollment. There’s no better time to add these practical tips to your marketing and communications strategy then back-to-school time.

Do you have a Word of Mouth (WOM) strategy for your school? Drop a comment and let us know the tips and actions you use to harness the power of this vital marketing tool!

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

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