In Enrollment Marketing, Your Outlook Impacts Your Results

Picture of Andy Lynch
Andy Lynch
Picture of Erin Ryan Connolly
Erin Ryan Connolly

We see it every day in education. A student believes he’s bad at math, so he gives up, checks out, and falls further behind. Another kid believes she isn’t good at foul shots, so, after missing three in a row from the free-throw line, she goes back to practicing layups. Another thinks, No one wants to be my friend. I must not be the type of person people want to be around, so they play alone at recess. 

What do these examples from everyday school world have to do with enrollment marketing at private schools?

Much. Because how we think impacts what we do, and what we do impacts the results we get.

school marketing budgets: cost vs investment

The Cost vs. Investment Mindset Toward Enrollment Marketing

Many school leaders think of enrollment marketing as a cost to be managed rather than an investment to be leveraged. Through this lens, line items in the budget like “website improvements” are evaluated in the same way a CFO might view commodities such as “coffee filters.” And, to some degree, that’s understandable. School leaders are trying to be good stewards. A penny saved is a penny earned, so don’t spend where you don’t have to. If you do need to spend, don’t overspend. 

While this cost-based mentality may be prudent when purchasing floor wax, it can be stifling to a school’s enrollment marketing efforts. Yes, it costs money to build an impressive, helpful website. It takes a consistent budget to fund effective digital ad campaigns. But these initiatives are investments, not expenses. Enrollment marketing is about the intentional pursuit of the version of the future you want for your school. You’re committing resources today to attract and retain right-fit families who will be at your school a year, two years, or even 10 years from now. That’s the nature of an investment; you’re sowing seeds now so you can reap a harvest later.

Three Indicators of a Cost-Based Mindset

In many cases, teams with a cost-based mindset don’t see themselves as having a cost-based mindset. They can’t read their label because they’re inside the bottle, therefore they have trouble breaking out and achieving the results they want. With that in mind, here are three indicators of a cost-based mindset toward enrollment marketing.

Overreliance on Word of Mouth

The thinking goes, We’ve been around for a long time, and we’ve got a positive reputation. We can rely on word of mouth from satisfied families to spread the word about our school. That’s way cheaper than advertising!

Of course, positive word of mouth is critical for driving interest from prospective right-fit families. But you can’t predict when, where, and how fast the news will spread, nor can you control the accuracy of the message. To be effective, you need to increase the velocity of positive word of mouth while maintaining control of your school’s message. This means making sure you show up consistently and positively where prospective families hang out most — online. 

Digital marketing requires ongoing investment. Google Ads, social media advertising, search engine optimization — these proven tactics require consistent funding. If done well, they actually amplify word of mouth. But if all you see is an expense, you’ll likely default to hoping that organic conversations will be enough to get you through the next enrollment cycle.

Fear of Failure

Some school leaders hesitate to invest in contemporary enrollment marketing and advertising strategies because they want to minimize risk and play it safe. What if we spend the money and things don’t go as planned? Will I look bad because I lobbied for an initiative that didn’t work?

Let’s just get this out of the way now: Some of your marketing efforts will be ineffective. The results will fall short of expectations. But that reality shouldn’t deter you from making the effort. If you’re not proactively seeding the market with positive, consistent messages, it’s unlikely that right-fit families will line up outside your admissions office. That’s not to say you won’t have interest, but it may not be from the types of families you want at your school. You want both quantity and quality.

By the way, it might sound counterintuitive, but failure is vital to successful enrollment marketing. Knowing what isn’t working helps you understand how to optimize your strategy to invest more in what is working. That’s where partnering with a proven industry professional comes in. The right outside expert should have the knowledge and experience to reduce the risk by implementing tested solutions.

Low Cost = Best Choice

One of the most detrimental tendencies of a cost-based mindset toward enrollment marketing is a bias toward choosing low-cost options. The focus is on saving money rather than the total net tuition revenue generated over time. This website vendor is quite a bit cheaper than this one. A website is a website, right? Let’s save a few bucks.

If low cost is often the primary factor in selecting marketing partners or deploying advertising strategies, we encourage you to think about the long-term results you want to see. Short-term savings might feel good now, but marketing is about future results. It’s often better to invest in proven expertise with a higher price tag than to go with a generalist competing on lower price. It can be quite expensive to have a generalist learning on the job with your school footing the bill.

Three Indicators of an Investment Mindset

From the top down — your Board, your Leadership Team, your faculty and staff — everyone needs to see marketing as a long-term investment, not a short-term sugar rush of activity. After all, marketing and admissions are typically the only functions focused exclusively on driving net tuition revenue, the primary source of income for independent or faith-based schools. 

If you want to move your team from a cost-based mentality, here are the three characteristics of teams with an investment mindset:

A contagious spirit of optimistic curiosity

An investment mindset brings energy and optimism to your team. You’re having lively discussions about what’s possible, rethinking outdated approaches, and exploring what other schools are doing. It’s fun seeing ideas take shape and take off. You’re systematically testing and evaluating new strategies. And you begin to see there’s value in the process, not just the results.

Sustained focus on results, not just activity

But you do expect results. It’s one thing to be busy; it’s another thing entirely to be effective. Your team is getting better and better at tracking metrics that matter. You’re using data to improve your digital marketing strategies. And the net result of your campaigns and promotional activities is a quantifiable return on investment, thereby increasing your school’s belief in the value of enrollment marketing.

An irrepressible desire to tell your school’s story

As your team adopts an investment mindset, you come to appreciate the role that marketing plays in advancing your school’s mission. You’re not content to be the “best-kept secret.” You believe you offer tremendous value for right-fit families, and you’re compelled to share the remarkable education your school provides. You’re telling your school’s story through your website, social media, digital ads, perhaps some traditional advertising, and, yes, through a proactive, structured word-of-mouth strategy.

An investment mindset focuses on the version of the future you want for your school. You’re looking beyond the outlay of resources today to the results you want to see three months, six months, 12 months, and even years from now. 

What is your school’s mindset toward enrollment marketing? How might you advance this conversation among your school leaders, the marketing and admissions team, and the broader faculty and staff? 

You can change your results by changing your thinking. If your school needs to embrace an investment mindset toward enrollment marketing, be the first to believe in what’s possible.

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