The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed nearly every aspect of life. For independent school leaders, the past month has clearly been one of incredible challenge, worry and abrupt change. When your school shifted to online learning, your entire admissions process was forced to take a hard pivot and move from in-person to online admissions events for both accepted students and families and prospective families.
Handling new challenges every day has left little or no time for short- and long-term strategic planning. Yet, now more than ever, every independent school needs to focus on strategic enrollment action items that could have an effect on your school’s financial stability.
Now is the time to create a well-thought-out, mission-driven response to these critical items below:
1. Summer Admissions Events. This needs to become a part of your new normal. Summer will likely be the first opportunity to welcome newly admitted students and prospective families to your campus. Each state and region of the country will have a different approach to opening up schools and businesses this summer, but your school should create a plan now for how you will market and implement campus visits and tours.
From traditional family vacations, to summer camp to trips abroad, the typical family will not have a “normal” summer experience. Neither should your school.
If your community is lucky enough to “open up” by early to mid-summer, you should consider hosting two types of summer events on campus. The first should focus on newly enrolled families. Consider a relaxing summer BBQ or fun family-themed event; they might actually relish the idea of “coming to school” this summer for a weekend or early evening event. Keep it fun and simple. And keep the numbers low to accommodate smaller gathering protocols as determined by the CDC and your state.
Your communication must be transparent and direct. At the event, talk about your responses this spring, share your students’ successes via remote learning and clearly articulate how your school will keep your community safe and healthy in regard to coronavirus protocol.
For those prospective families who are still in your admissions funnel and were considering a late spring campus visit, this is an ideal time to re-engage them with a summer-themed admissions event. This event should focus on community and the coming academic year. You will need to find a way to incorporate a high- level overview of what your school has to offer. Since vacation plans may be up in the air this summer for everyone, reach out to faculty members and current students to see if they are able to participate in a summer event. Their perspectives are often not available during summer tours/events but may very well be in summer 2020.
Again, you may need to host a few events to keep overall numbers low for best safety practices. And be sure to discuss your schools’ ongoing commitment and plans for community safety.
Get ideas for effective virtual admissions events and tours.
2. Planning for virtual summer programs. You have to consider the possibility that your community might still have a “shelter-in-place” order for part or all of the summer. How this impacts your summer camps and enrichment programs needs to be taken into immediate consideration. Many schools rely on summer programs to engage future families and to help contribute to your school’s overall budget. If your community still has a “shelter-in-place” order in effect this summer, you can be guaranteed that families will be looking for options to engage their children. This will likely require both a hard pivot and some creative thinking in terms of your summer offerings. Can any summer programs move online for a robust online camp experience? What is your refund policy for families who had already registered for your programs?
3. What if you have to start the 2020-2021 academic year online? I know this will give many of you instant heartburn, but forward-leaning schools with a plan in place to start the new academic year online will be much better equipped to deal with a possible second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. Plan on using your final year-end faculty meetings to review what worked with your current online teaching and what might need to be changed for a more effective online learning program this fall. What training and hardware/software upgrades can you put in place in May and June? Better to be prepared than not.
Make your decisions data driven. Send an online survey to your parents and students to get feedback on what worked well and didn’t work well. Involve faculty who were leaders in your remote-learning pivot to help analyze the results to create a fall program that addresses your community’s “pain points.” The intersection of your teachers’ collaborative thinking and community feedback will yield the best results. If you survey parents, be sure to ask when, in what format (email, text, website, social media) and how often they want to hear from you during a crisis and in remote learning scenarios. This is essential information for you to create a better, more strategic remote learning and communications plan.
4. A greater emphasis on digital marketing. Cleary, now more than ever, prospective families and students are spending a great deal of time online. If your school already has a strong digital marketing effort in place, you’re likely better positioned to continue your admissions marketing virtually uninterrupted. For those schools who rely heavily on more traditional marketing efforts (print ads, billboards, postcards/mailing and radio ads), these traditional marketing efforts could very well be compromised in your local market. Magazines and community newspapers might not be publishing, billboards won’t be seen, mail service might be experiencing interruptions and those drive-time radio ads simply might not be heard.
Digital marketing allows zip-code targeting by specific demographic and opportunities to micro-target prospective families on a local, regional and national level. You can test ads and pivot your message as needed, in real-time and tailor it to various social media platforms.
Change is never easy. The challenges of educating students and marketing to prospective families during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced all of us to radically change the way we do business. Moving forward, we will need to remain nimble and agile as we approach the coming months.
During this crisis, I am offering any independent school leader the opportunity for a complimentary, phone consultation call. It’s a no-strings-attached way to have a conversation, customized to your school’s strategic marketing and enrollment management. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to scheduled your appointment today and let me know what you would like to discuss.