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National Advertising Expands Schools' Reach

Wednesday, September 21, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Word of mouth advertising has proven to be the most successful route for schools to promote themselves. Through the praises of alumni, current parents, and even former parents, many schools find themselves flooded with inquiries from prospective applicants. Paid advertisements, through print publications or digital media, also play a role in the marketing mix for school relations. Some schools opt to place ads in national magazines, gaining more exposure than they do through local channels. 

When Christ School in Asheville, NC, was looking for more publicity to add enrollees to both its day school and its boarding program, Director of Admission Garrison Conner investigated advertising opportunities with Garden & Gun magazine. The bimonthly publication covers food, travel, music, hunting, and culture related to life in the South. Christ School, which draws students from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, and elsewhere, contracted for four full-page ad placements over a one-year period.

“We’ve seen a lot of positives from the campaign – more awareness, a big response from alumni, and a direct increase in inquiries with people mentioning the ad by name,” Conner said. “Current and past parents and alumni are the number one source of referrals, but the ad is a trigger to send people our way.”

Conner also places ads in several print publications in eastern North Carolina and in newspapers in the hometowns of current students, as well as in the alumni magazines of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and Duke University. The school opened a new residence hall and increased enrollment by 22 students this year.

“We have about three seconds to make a positive and interesting impression. Print media does that very well," said Paul Krieger, head of Christ School.

In the past, Asheville School purchased ads in both Garden & Gun and Southern Living but now sticks with local, state, and regional print ads, and digital campaigns via Google Adwords, social media, and local newspapers. Serving both day students and boarders, the school experiences a healthy retention rate as well as the ability to attract top faculty, according to Director of Communications Bob Williams.

“We are somewhat phasing out print ads as it’s easier to track digital ads,” Williams said. “Word of mouth is by far the most effective tool we have in terms of marketing but ads are good to remind people of who we are.”

Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC, has achieved success with an advertising plan that includes print, digital, and radio. The school advertised in The Local Palate, a Charleston, SC-based culinary and travel magazine with regional and national appeal, as well as other regional magazines in Atlanta, Virginia, West Virginia, and throughout North Carolina. The school promoted admission events on National Public Radio, and conducted digital campaigns in North Carolina, Virginia, and Atlanta.

“With the admission office we identify enrollment goals and the markets we want to target with our advertising,” said Laura Novia, Saint Mary’s director of marketing and communications. “By using a variety of media in those markets, we have been able to reach more families and successfully increase both our boarding and day enrollment.”

Over the last five years, Saint Mary's has seen a 13% increase in overall enrollment and a 27% increase in boarding enrollment. This year, the student population is comprised of 53% boarding students and 47% day students. 

The cost of a print ad in a national magazine can be prohibitive to some schools. A single ad may cost as much as a boarder’s annual tuition, not including the cost to design the ad if a school outsources that creative work. In addition, national ads may make sense only for boarding schools that are trying to recruit students from outside their cities. However, schools can potentially enjoy the prestige of being in a national magazine without the big price tag by purchasing ads in the magazine’s issues in a single city, state, or group of states. Selecting the limited run instead of the entire magazine’s distribution allows schools to target their desired audiences at a lower rate. For example, a school could purchase only the Virginia copies (both subscriber and newsstand) of a national magazine for $5,000 instead of every copy for $45,000. That option may not be available with every publication but some magazines do offer that type of ad contract.

Every year, schools must make budgetary decisions regarding their advertising and other promotions. If a school is able to garner new enrollees based on selected advertising, whether local, regional, or national, the cost is a worthwhile investment. Ads serve not only as notifications about open house dates but also as points of pride that all constituents – from current parents to alumni – appreciate. 


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