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VOL. 126 | NO. 30 | Monday, February 14, 2011

Private Schools Look to Social Media in Struggling Economy

JOHN LINTNER | Special to The Daily News

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As the economy struggles to bounce back from a menacing recession, schools in the private sector go to work with an eye on marketing strategies to boost enrollment.

There’s a tremendous need right now to understand and maximize the use of social media in marketing for private schools. After all, much of it is free, and being able to engage parents and their Facebook friends, for example, makes sense – considering the vast number of people and connections on Facebook, which has more than 500 million active users spending more than 700 billion minutes monthly on the site, according to Facebook.

Traditionally, a school admissions person might have stimulated enrollment by putting an ad in a newspaper and doing a radio spot to draw in prospective students and family. But recently, some school administrators have realized they can gain leverage by effectively using social media to create interest in their institutions. It works by simply giving prospects something to talk about in a place where people are talking – online.

“Our first steps were to look at possible use of free media and learning how to use e-mail better, more efficiently and creatively,” said Peter Baur, director of admissions at Westminster Academy. “We recently sent out an e-mail with an embedded video and had a good response. But then, moving to social media, we’ve used Facebook combined with search engine optimization (SEO) and Google AdWords to reach prospective parents. The point being, you’re in a financially difficult time, but everything in marketing says that is the time to make sure you are in front because when you come out of that difficult time, you’ll be ahead of the pack.”

Another way Westminster Academy is reaching out to parents of prospective students is by increasing its number of open house events. This is, in essence, free to the school and has a good return. One of the most effective ways to get the word out has been through the school’s Facebook page.

Misty Estes, director of admissions at Hutchison Academy, agrees with this new approach to recruitment.

“We have done a lot of strategic planning where social media is concerned, leading into the economic collapse,” Estes said. “Through the hard work and ideas of our faculty, administration and board of trustees, we were in a really strong position. We lost some students for financial reasons. However, our overall numbers remained about the same, and we are where we need to be with prospective students.”

Lausanne Collegiate School, which recently raised tuition but still saw an increase in enrollment, tends to stick with a more traditional approach. Despite the pitfalls of the economy, the school surpassed student body projections for 2011.

“Our main marketing strategy is word of mouth, and that strategy hasn’t changed,” said Laura Trott, director of marketing and communication at Lausanne. “The effort and strategy behind that word-of-mouth reputation is really paying off. In 2010, we became the only pre-K through 12 independent school to have an International Baccalaureate World School Programme. Our school board added a new library, indoor sports complex and coffee shop, which are all connected.”

Memphis University School attributes most of its success to its word-of-mouth reputation, as well. The school also acknowledged that social media and the Web play a significant role. Last fall, MUS launched a special admissions landing page for new parents and continues to look for effective ways to reach out to new students.

“We have separate Facebook pages for admissions, our library, the student council, alumni, college counseling, our Civic Service Organization and the school,” said Vicki Tyler, director of communications at MUS. “New seventh- and eighth-grade students, as well as prospective parents, can rely on the Lower School blog to keep them up to date. We (also) have a YouTube channel that is mostly student-run where we will be posting new school videos for prospective parents.”

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