There is a unique challenge that exists among independent school marketing and admissions professionals if your school offers a boarding program. Not only is encouraging the idea of sending your child to a potentially far-away school an idea that requires extra care and sensitivity, but pinning down your audience for the sake of a marketing strategy may feel near-impossible. We’ve outlined a handful of questions your teams should be asking before kicking off a marketing strategy to attract boarding families.
The following questions are the best place to start if you’re interested in sharing the magic of your program with more families and maximizing the efficiency of your precious marketing dollars.
Who Are Your Target Audiences?
Understanding who you want to attract is a major first step. You may want to consider what’s important for a prospective family to instill in their children, ensuring the values you share within your community are the same ones that are shared around your families’ kitchen tables. After all, you are going to be their home away from home. Ensuring that the attitudes and morals they share mirror yours. These may be religious or faith-based values – dedication to social justice issues, prioritization of academics, or intensity of athletic or artistic rigor may be important to consider.
Understanding what qualities you’d like a prospective family to have may help you narrow in on areas to market geographically, affiliate your school social groups and organizations, or lean into recruiting efforts with athletic or equestrian clubs alike. It may also turn families away based on what they’re seeing—and that’s okay! As long as your messaging is clear and is appealing to your right-fit families, it’s okay to not attract families who may not be aligned with your attitudes and values, who may also cause disruptions down the line.
Lastly, collaborate with your admissions team to determine how big of a role students are having in a family’s decision-making process. Increasingly, students are helping to make – or lead – big decisions about their own educational journey, especially as they enter middle and upper school. Crafting content specifically for the eyes of your prospective students may bring a competitive edge to your boarding program marketing strategy.
Where Can You Find Your Target Families?
As marketers, we know that understanding where our prospective families live is important for a multitude of reasons. Beyond plugging zip codes into digital ad managers, understanding the environment your families are coming from is just as important. Knowing details, such as the diversity of the area (culturally and financially), popular groups and interests folks have, or identifying sensitivities that particular families may have will help to craft meaningful and impactful messages about your program to your target families.
For example, if you offer an international boarding program, families will not only want to ensure that you have measures in place for communication, safety, and overall well-being of their children – but they may want to know what other countries or cultures your students come from. Knowing that their children will have other students in their shoes may provide peace of mind and make a family more comfortable to explore your school further. Being forthcoming about this information – rather than burying it somewhere on your website – will help busy parents make better decisions for their students.
Tip: Use analytics tools in your CMS, social platforms, or GA4 Account to track where inquiries and applications are coming from and tailor your messaging accordingly. Not sure what tools you should be using? Check out our article on choosing the right marketing mix here.
Are You Focusing On The Future?
It may seem obvious to some, but understanding which grades may require some gaps to be filled – or who may have gaps in the coming years – may be helpful in determining where to invest your marketing dollars. Making a financial commitment like boarding school tuition takes time for many families before committing to the investment. Choosing to send your child to a different community, state, or even country is a decision not typically made on a whim.
Simply put, with boarding, you’re playing a long game – and you can align your marketing and enrollment goals accordingly. If your 10th-grade boarding program looks to be low for two or three years out, begin targeting families of current 7th or 8th graders who may have indicated similar interests to the families in your current prospective family pipelines. Give your families time to make thoughtful decisions about their child’s education.
This doesn’t mean you can’t react and run some targeting marketing when you have a low 12th-grade class next year – but focusing the bulk of our time, energy, and dollars on building a solid plan for the future will usually pay off in the long run.
Tip: When determining grades or age groups to focus on recruiting, think about how long these families will be paying ‘customers’ at your school. While accepting families to your 11th or 12th-grade program may be nice (and needed), your return on a marketing investment may be only one or two years' worth of tuition. However, recruiting new 8th or 9th-grade students may yield four or five years of boarding tuition – a much higher return on your marketing investment.
How Do Your Current Families Feel About Your Program?
Surveys, surveys, surveys. You’ll hear us talking about them all the time, but it's for good reason. While it's occasionally a bit difficult to hear constructive criticism, it is one of the best ways to identify gaps in your admissions process, learn what families love about your program (or not), and understand where you can improve your experience year over year.
New boarding families (who have JUST gone through your admissions process). Ask them about their expectations vs. reality of the program, areas to improve clarity over the value of the boarding program, or offer suggestions on things to place in stronger limelight.
Experienced boarding families who have seen longer-term benefits of sending their children to your school. Ask them about why they chose your boarding program – and how their expectations were met (and exceeded). And can also ask about what advice they’d give. These current family testimonials will really resonate with potential new families.
Alumni! Parents and students alike are interested in knowing the return on their investment. Understanding how alumni felt (or didn’t feel) their experience prepared them for life beyond your school is critical to understanding how to improve your program. Or, if alumni have great things to say, this could be a hot spot for great testimonial content about how their experience translated to their successes.
Families who went through the admissions process ultimately decided against enrolling at your school (or your boarding program). If they are willing to share, their responses will give you great insight into where you could lean harder into your differentiators or where you can improve your communications strategy for the next admissions cycle.
The information you can gather just by asking is GOLD – and a great, low-budget way to remove the guesswork from your efforts moving forward. Tools like Google Forms or Survey Monkey are great (free!) places to start. Check out our recent blog about maximizing surveys for impact here!
What is YOUR Difference?
What makes your boarding program special? Think about the aspects that prospective students and parents may be weighing between your school and other options. Keep in mind they could be considering you against local day programs in their area — pulling on differentiators that relate to your boarding program is key.
Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
Does your school offer a focus on social and emotional learning? How does this carry over into residential life?
What kind of access do student-athletes have to their coaches, trainers, or on-campus athletic facilities? Having access to these features may make the difference for our college-bound athletic hopefuls.
Is your school known for its academic prowess? Emphasizing how students have access to their teachers, tutors, and libraries or can collaborate with their peers during out-of-classroom hours may appeal to many families.
What does your ‘menu’ of weekend activities look like? For many out-of-state or international students they’re looking for a unique experience and would like opportunities to explore the area! Highlighting trips that allow students to travel or get acquainted with your local culture may be what moves the needle toward your school for many families.
How does your boarding program focus on building independence and life skills that will help students succeed in post-secondary and beyond?
Use these unique points to stand out from competitors, and pair these with your previously identified target audiences and their interests.
What Do We Do Next?
There are many ways you can get creative with the information you’ve cultivated at this point to market your boarding program. We’ve cultivated a list of unique and low-investment marketing tactics you can deploy today to let your boarding program shine in your next recruitment cycle.
Here are a few marketing tactics to try:
Initiate a student and/or parent ambassador program. After all, these are the families you've already won over with your marketing and admissions efforts. Families want to hear from folks in their shoes! Your current community or recent grads are the perfect people to tell stories of their experiences. Training students to lead families on tours, asking these parent ambassadors to attend prospective family events to field questions, or encouraging student-generated social content is a great place to start.
Consider offering special on-campus or virtual events just for potential boarding students. While getting to know the community as a whole is important, segmenting families into events specifically designed to answer their unique questions will underscore that you not only respect their time and concerns but will be a great opportunity for them to understand there are others going through the process.
Let students experience life at your school through trial visits or summer programs. While parents are often signing the checks, students need to be on board (no pun intended) with the program as well. Allowing the opportunity to “trial” the boarding night may help reduce some fears and insecurities and encourage them to be enthusiastic about completing their applications.
Make sure information is easy to find! Update your website regularly, include boarding content in your social media content mix, and consider a boarding-student-specific email workflow.
Create a project around collecting testimonial content – written or video. Consider creating a hashtag or offering an incentive to participate. Then showcase as much of this content as you can!
Recruit a current boarding student (or a few) to showcase a ‘day in the life’ through an Instagram takeover. Encourage them to show as much of their experience as possible, including in class and at the dorms. Get them to talk about why they chose your boarding program, the questions they had, and what they discovered when they got there – and then save this content in a Highlight for other potential students to find.
At the end of the day, your school’s boarding program has many things to offer – and the right families are eager to listen. The challenge is in identifying where to find those families and getting those benefits into the minds and into the hearts of your ideal families. If you’ve successfully answered the questions outlined above, you’re already one step ahead. Think you’re ready to elevate your boarding program marketing? Having data-driven and creative partners on board is a great place to begin. Enter: Metric.
At Metric Marketing, we develop measurable and practical strategies to help private and independent schools like yours make the most of your marketing efforts. We'd love to discuss your private school's marketing requirements with you. Contact us today to speak with our marketing professionals, or use the form below to sign up and receive more marketing tips in your inbox.