I can remember when many schools raised their collective eyebrows at social media a few years ago. You could almost hearing them saying under their breath "Over my dead body!" That was probably because few people back then understood social media and what to do with it.
The way we used to market schools
Decades ago your beautiful school brochures and catalogs were the way you got the word out about your school and its mission. Those printed materials were expensive and time-consuming to produce. But that's all we had. Then along came the Internet. Schools built Web sites. Pretty basic ones at first. But as the technology advanced and professional graphic designers got their hands on those school Web sites, the result was a product just as elegant and compelling as any of those brochures and catalogs we used to have lithographed. While most schools still produce brochures and catalogs, most of these are done in house.
It seemed that you had barely got your Web site tweaked to dazzling perfection, replete with online applications, inquiries, video tours and all the bells and whistles 21st century Web designers could cram into them, when along came Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest. Social media was suddenly socially acceptable. Not only was it acceptable but it was absolutely essential to include it as part of your marketing strategy.
Let's look at social media and see how best to use it to promote your school and its mission. As I usually do, I am focusing on small to medium-sized schools with my advice. These schools tend to have limited marketing budgets and staff. I will show you how to make the most of social media within those constraints.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Essentially you need to post pictures to grab your readers' interest. Facebook followers scan posts. A great photo draws them in to read your copy and hopefully 'like' it and share it. Remember: absorbing information from the Internet is like drinking from a fire hydrant these days. There's just so much of it. We scan. We only read in depth when something catches our eye. So put a great picture in your Facebook posts. Then link to the in depth content preferably elsewhere on your Web site.
I curate Private School Review and Boarding School Review's Facebook sites. I have learned that posting regularly and at the same time every day is another effective way to build readership. I also follow, or 'like' in Facebook terms, hundreds of private schools. Sharing their posts enhances the relationship. But more than that, it allows me to see what the schools are posting and how they promote themselves. Honestly I get the impression that most school postings are random, hit or miss affairs. That approach to Facebook posts is not as effective as targeted posts scheduled to appear in an organized manner.
A member of the school's marketing or public affairs staff should be in charge of Facebook posts to ensure that they are on message, properly written and effective. A systematic approach to Facebook posts doesn't mean that you can't post an exciting, newsy item spontaneously. Far from it. Post those newsy items in real time. They will stand out like the true headlines they are. A systematic approach to your Facebook posts means that you stay on message and project the image of your school in the best possible light.
Don't forget to include hashtags in your Facebook posts. Facebook has allowed us to use hashtags since June 2013. What's a hashtag? It is a link consisting of a short phrase or keywords preceding by the # or hash sign. Here's an example for our fictitious St. Swithin's Country Day School. #StSwithins Add this hashtag to your Facebook post. Place it at the end of your post. One more thing to remember about hashtags: keep your hashtags short. 10-15 characters are effective. Use letters. Don't use spaces. Don't use more than three hashtags in a row. For example with our St. Swithin's hashtag, it would be smart to include the school's location, like this: #StSwithins #Philadelphia For a more detailed explanation of hashtags and how to use them, see Hashtags.org
This video gives you some tips on how to use hashtags in your Facebook posts.
Establish a channel on YouTube for your school. Folks will subscribe to it. From all over the world. Assign the job of curating your YouTube channel to one of your marketing professionals. Create content which is a mix of professional and semi-professional video clips produced in house. Your admissions materials such as tours of the school and student testimonials need to be professionally produced. Why? Because that's how you attract potential applicants. Put your best foot forward and showcase everything that is wonderful about your school. Clips of sporting events, musicals and school events will benefit from a less formal production. These clips will create a more newsy, spontaneous, real-time viewer experience.
Break up potentially long videos into smaller clips. 5 x 5 minute clips are better than one long 25 minute video which will lose your audience after 5 minutes anyway. Cater to short attention spans.
Within your channel develop secondary channels devoted to the activities which occur every day. For example, develop channels for sports, arts, academics and clubs. The possibilities are endless. Just make sure a professional establishes a structure so that your content is easy to find and view.
YouTube has supported hashtags since November 2013. This short video explains how to use hashtags in YouTube.
My rule of thumb is to use Twitter for real-time, newsy bursts of text. Facebook is ideal for an in depth exploration of your school and its community. YouTube offers a window into all the exciting activities your school offers. Pinterest allows you to create a photo album about your school. Once again make sure that a professional organizes your content on Pinterest. You can create collections of beautiful photographs and group them in any way you choose. Pinterest offers a very sophisticated way of showcasing your school and community.
Pinterest supports hashtags. This video explains how to use hashtags on Pinterest.
So there it is. Social media is a very effective tool in your small to medium-sized school's marketing strategy. It will not break the bank either. Not sure where should you begin? Start with Facebook. Get comfortable with posting there and seeing what works for your school. Then add YouTube and finally Pinterest.