28. The Power of Social Proof: Strengthening Your Independent School’s Reputation

In this episode, Angela Brown, the Senior Enrollment Insights Leader for K-12 at Niche, shares her wisdom from years of developing content and research to advance admissions and marketing roles to strategize, plan, and execute for success – she discusses social proof in action, 2021 parent survey results, how schools can stand out in the marketplace, and much more!

About Angela Brown:

Angela Brown is the senior enrollment insights leader for K-12 at Niche, a platform where 27 million students and families researched schools in 2021. In this role she is on a mission to help K-12 marketing, communications, and admissions leaders make their lives easier and elevate their roles in schools.

Find Angela Brown:

Angela’s LinkedIn  Angela’s Twitter  

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Show Transcript

Aubrey: And I’m Aubrey Bursch. Today we’re joined by Angela Brown. Angela Brown is the senior enrollment insights leader for K through 12 at Niche, a platform where 27 million students and families researched schools in 2021.

In this role, she is on a mission to help K through 12 marketing, communications, and admissions leaders make their lives easier and elevate their roles in schools. Welcome, Angela! 

Angela: Thank you so much. I’m a longtime listener and first time caller. So I’m happy to be here. 

Tara: Awesome. Yeah. I’m so happy to meet you too. We’ve been in touch on social media for a long time, so it’s great to have you here. Can you tell us more about yourself and your experience in marketing and enrollment as well as what you’re doing now at Niche? 

Angela: Yeah, it’s, it’s been quite a journey, so I’ll try to keep it short. But I actually started my career in B2B marketing before I transitioned to education in 2014. So I was hired as the director of marketing communications at a JK to 12 independent school here in the DC suburbs, which the three of us know very well. Um, and that was where I fell in love with education and was also exposed to independent school admissions. So I worked with two different directors of admission at my previous school, both of them had very different styles, but we worked together very closely and collaboratively. So I got to be really involved in the process and really felt like a strategic partner for both of them, which I really believe is how it should be ideally between admissions and marketing, right? Um, and so, you know, we just, we kept on rocking and rolling from there. We worked on our first ever formal enrollment marketing plan for the school, and it made a really big difference for us to actually partner on the plan together, to set our goals together and really put what should be a symbiotic relationship between marketing and admissions on paper. And then I made the move to Niche last year because I saw this really cool opportunity to be able to help people from a broader range of schools across the country and not just one. And that’s been really incredible. So in this role, I’m primarily tasked with developing content and research to help people in admissions and marketing roles to strategize, to plan, and to execute. But I also spend a lot of time talking to people about their needs and how we can serve them better on the platform. And so that also leads to a lot of collaboration with our sales and product teams. 

Aubrey: Wow. That’s quite a journey you’ve been on. I love that you bring different pieces. Like you have that prior to school marketing, and now you’ve had the relationship with, you know, marketing and enrollment and kind of making that a great relationship. And then also working for Niche, which, you know, speaking of Niche, like that whole thing about the power of social proof and all the benefits of kind of, you know, that platform and, and how you’ve seen it kind of evolve. So I kind of like to go down that rabbit hole, if you wouldn’t mind, you know, we see social proof used in the marketing world to fill that know, like, and trust factor between businesses and customers, but although schools are using kind of social proof more and more. Probably through Niche as well. It’s sometimes more of an afterthought and not an active strategy. So I’m wondering, could you talk a little bit more about, you know, what you define as social proof and how it can help schools stand out in our marketplace?

Angela: Absolutely. So this is actually very timely because we’re getting ready to launch a playbook on this very topic. So folks listening to the podcast episode, keep an eye out for that. That’ll drop shortly before this episode does, so it’ll be available once folks are listening, but when we talk about social proof or proof points, as we say at Niche, we’re talking about both qualitative and quantitative data points that reinforce the messages that you’re putting out about your school. So those points can confirm for prospective families and current ones to a certain degree that you are who you say you are, which is hopefully true. And so those points might show up in the form of a review or testimonial. That’s where, um, a site like Niche might come into play or even like the added glance or fast fax numbers that you might have on your homepage. That’s another common example of a proof point and these types of, of points can help schools stand out because to your point, schools are not quite leading into this tactic consistently enough. So even just having a strategy around gathering and using those proof points can be a differentiator for you. But it’s important because it also really aligns with the way that consumers are making purchase decisions right now. And for schools that charge tuition, that is a purchase decision, you’re a luxury brand. And so in our parent survey last fall, we actually found that school rankings were the third, most important factor for choosing a school for elementary and high school families only behind class sizes in, in teacher quality. So very, very high on the list. And then in middle school, it came in fourth, but just behind social emotional development. And that’s not a surprise because as we all know middle school, can be rough, especially in a pandemic. So no surprises there. Um, all of that is to say that it’s, it’s very important, but what that data also tells us is that there are some themes that schools can focus on as they’re gathering their proof points for admissions. And so the rankings are one piece of it, but there’s also this longer list of criteria that you can emphasize or reinforce with your proof points, provided that it’s authentic to your community. And that’s, that’s a really important point. So to use social emotional development, as an example, we know it’s important to the parents of middle schoolers, but if your school isn’t strong in that area, that’s not something you should try to emphasize with your messaging. So you have to balance what parents wanna hear about with what’s actually true for your community. 

Tara: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m glad you shared that example. And I think middle school being sort of an outlier, that makes sense. I, I wanna ask you about, like get into the nitty gritty of social proof a little bit. I think everybody knows what it is like as a concept, but can you give some, you, you mentioned, you know, at a glance on a website, can you give some other examples of social proof in action and, and how it’s used in admissions process? 

Angela: Sure. So I think a good way to frame it is by looking at how social proof might be used at different points in the school search and admissions process. So starting with when a parent first decides to start researching schools, one of the first thing we know we’re gonna do is hit the oval shape box on Google, right? And so if they search for something that’s more generic, like, best private schools near me. They’ll see a few different things. They’ll likely see an ad or two from schools that are running Google ads. That’s one place to start. I’ve seen several schools actually incorporating things like school rankings from us, us, or other sources into their ad headlines. Um, and then that generic search will also show other schools based on location. That’s where you’ll. See the Google reviews associated with those schools. And of course, Niche will come up. We have very strong SEO. So that’s something that parents will definitely see. You’ll also see rankings or lists from local publications and other platforms that do that kind of work. And then if a parent searches for a specific school, they’ll see the Google profile of that school, which will typically include reviews from Google and other platforms. And then when a parent visits the school website, they’ll see those fast facts again, you know, that’s typically, um, that’s very common now, as we all know on the homepage, or they might be taken to a, a landing page from an ad that has a bulleted list of proof points in the copy. One thing that I’ve actually seen work well is to incorporate proof points into a landing page. So let’s say you have a landing page for an admission event, or you’ve got a call to action on your website, register for this event, you might have the form on one side and then use the other side to share some bullet points about a ranking or some other statistics that further emphasize your mission or brand and get them to fill out that form and click that button. Um, one thing that works really nicely to you is you might wanna include a quote from a student if that’s age appropriate or from a parent. Um, and also when I was at my previous school, actually, we incorporated proof points into our tuition page because that’s a page that is often a missed opportunity for schools. It’s one of the most highly trafficked pages, but it also tends to be an afterthought. You send out your tuition, notice to families every year, you update the page, you check the box and that you, then you move on. But it’s actually another opportunity to reinforce the value of the experience that you’re providing to students and families. And it’s actually really important to do that on that page because they’re associating that dollar amount, whatever it is with value and with a sacrifice that they’re likely going to have to make. So it’s important to think about ways to make it about more than just the raw numbers. Um, I’ve also seen proof points incorporated into automated communication sequences with email. So there are lots and lots of opportunities to use them beyond, you know, just having them on a platform like Niche or GreatSchools. 

Tara: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned the testimonials too, because, it’s not just reviews and, and quick facts, but those, you know, hearing it, hearing it from a voice of someone, um, really brings it very personally to people. So, yeah. And the tuition page is brilliant. I just did a search console webinar and we were looking at search terms that people use for schools and the tuition page is always on there, but it’s, it’s never got a meta description. It doesn’t have anything to induce people to click on it. So it is a great opportunity. Thanks for mentioning that. 

Aubrey: I, I really appreciate that because I think schools don’t think necessarily about that journey that you just took us on and how each piece is an opportunity to, as you mentioned, the proof points, showcase your proof points and thus your value. So thank you for bringing that up. I’m curious, we’ve talked about prospective families, but what about current families? So some of the things that I work with, you know, with schools is on internal marketing, like marketing for retention. So how do you see social proof, you know, working to retain families? 

Angela: That’s a great question. And I think it’s really important right now because a lot of schools have seen increases in new families during the past couple of years, but we’re also seeing that there’s less loyalty among parents to their current schools. And so retention is as important as ever, even in the boom times that we’re seeing with enrollment. I was actually listening to the retention episode that you just did. And the very important point was made that you can’t assume that once they’re enrolled, they’re going to stay. You can’t set it and forget it with enrollment. So you have to focus both on the acquisition piece and the retention piece. So parents are constantly looking for validation that they’ve made the right choices for their kids. It’s not uncommon for them to read reviews about the schools that they’re currently enrolled in. Even after they’ve enrolled to monitor reviews or word of mouth around other schools in the local area. And you have to recognize that even your happiest families are still comparing notes with friends of theirs who have kids in other schools, that’s always going to happen. And so all of this speaks to the importance of keeping some of the more visible examples of social proof, like reviews up to date. Engaging your current parents in that process and helping them to understand why it’s important and then incorporating them into the storytelling that you’re probably already doing with your social channels, your newsletters, your annual fund solicitations. Those are actually great places to use social proof. Um, and that might look like data point and stories around student outcomes, unique experiences that you offer at your school, things that really emphasize your mission and your brand positioning, all of that still matters to your current families. Um, and if there are opportunities to surprise and delight them with things that might be unexpected, you know, maybe there’s a really cool story that aligns with your mission that wasn’t on your website, you know, that’s something that, that happens in real time and is really authentic. Um, but still ties back to who you say you are as an institution. And one thing that I do wanna mention as an example is that we had a partner who shared in a webinar that we hosted on this topic actually last fall, that because the younger division of her school is really focused on service instead of having more standard items like student teacher ratios or the number of clubs and activities available to students on their fast fact section, they emphasize data points around things like the number of countries they served, or clothing items that they donated through service activities that were done by the school. So that’s the kind of information that can actually be attractive to the right prospective families, but also validating to current families who share in your school’s values. 

Tara: For sure. Yeah. It provides an immediate message, right? And it, it sets you apart and shows what’s important at your school. So, yeah. Gosh, really valuable information that you just shared. I would love to have a pencil that I could just be writing it all down, but I, then I wouldn’t be paying attention enough. So , I’ll have to, I’ll have to watch the replay of this one and, uh, notes about that, cuz they’re really, really, really great ideas. I’d like to ask you a little bit about traffic about website traffic specifically. So as you mentioned, Niche is at the top of search results all the times, and I know that information is monitored. And so I’m just wondering if you’ve seen any trends or any changes in terms of an increase or decrease in traffic from prospective families and some key search terms that they might be using that parent are using when they search for schools, that might be different. Then it was, you know, a few years ago. And especially with COVID, I’m sure there are some search terms that we never would’ve imagined. Would’ve been showing up like mask related searches, things like that. What are you seeing? 

Angela: Yeah, so overall there’s definitely been a year over year increase in overall traffic and that’s something that many of our partners have, have seen as well. And I think that speaks to how dynamic parent search activity is around schools in this moment. Um, some of that is regional and lines up with some pandemic related migration patterns that we’re seeing with people leaving urban centers for suburbs, we’re making more significant relocations out of state. Um, so we’re definitely seeing some, some pickup in places like Texas and Florida, where lots of people are moving at the moment. Search activity hasn’t changed as much as you might think in terms of volume. So families are still using superlatives in their search terms. So they want the best, the most or the top. Um, but then you’re also seeing some search activity around things like masking policies. Um, You know, COVID protocols. It it’s been interesting to look at our parent survey data and see the shift between this hyper focus on safety in 2020, and then more of a focus on what’s happening in the classroom in 2021, after parents had their families at home or their kids at home. Their kids are back in school and they wanna know that their children are having the experience that they want them to have. And that’s more specific than it was one in two years ago, even. And then we’re seeing the search activities around more specific school types. So people looking specifically for charter schools, for example, lots and lots of traffic around that. Specific religious denominations. Um, so there, there are definitely some similarities and some differences, but overall traffic volume is, is definitely up.

Aubrey: I’m curious when you mentioned the parent survey were, was there, you know, a specific thing that you were surprised to see in that parent survey or a key theme that you saw throughout that maybe has changed over the past few years? 

Angela: Oh, yes. We, we had a few actually. So 2020 was actually the first year that we did the survey and then we did it again last year. We’ll be doing it again this year. So that will be coming out in the fall of 2022. And we look at patterns, both in K12 and higher ed and how families are searching for schools. Um, with higher ed, it’s a little bit more around how they’re supporting their students in that process. And so in K12, um, you know, one of the things that was not necessarily surprising, but interesting was that shift in concerns, you know, parents were much more interested in things that had to do with the integrity of the academic program this year than they were in things like, you know, are the COVID protocols where I want them to be, will my child be safe? Is there a virtual option? Um, so that, that was definitely a change. We saw a shift in priorities. One of the things that we added as a criterion for choosing a school was diversity. And that definitely bubbled up to the surface, especially for elementary and middle school, age families. Um, so our younger families, that’s definitely a priority for them. That’s something that they’re actively looking for, uh, um, which given, you know, some of the conversation that’s been happening in, in the industry might be a surprise to some folks, but we’re seeing that that is actually something that parents really care about. Um, we also saw that even though the vast majority of respondents this year had their children in school, in person, they had mixed feelings about what that experience was like. So, so, um, you know, there is this sort of push pull this tension point of having your children learning in person, but it doesn’t look and feel the way that you might want it to, um, or the way that you think it should be. And so, you know, there’s this desire for normalcy that we really saw play out in our survey results last year. Um, the other really big one is just the significant shift in interest in public schools. And so, you know, we’ve seen that narrative in the broader news media, but we also saw it bear out in our data. And so even though local schools are a huge factor in where families choose to live, it’s a big driver. I believe it was actually the top driver in all three age groups that we looked at. Once they get there, they’re not necessarily considering their local public schools and consideration for public schools actually dropped significantly. Um, so that, that lines up with what we’ve seen, but I think it will be interesting to see if there’s a shift. Um, you know, we saw the charter school explosion happen. We saw some increased interest in, um, in religious private schools. Um, And we actually saw less of, less price sensitivity than we were expecting. Um, so there were a few interesting takeaways that came out of that survey for sure. 

Tara: Sounds brilliant. I can’t wait to hear what you find out in the fall, because I’m sure that this year is bringing even different concerns and questions and emphasis. There’s a lot happening in, um, in local public schools and, uh, We were speaking with another, um, school administrator who talked about this sort of midyear shift that’s happening. So people who have gone back to school and it hasn’t met their expectations of what that means. Um, so I imagine that it’ll be very enlightening to see what you find out in the fall. And speaking of enlightening, I wanna ask you about mindfulness. So, um, we talk about mindfulness, Aubrey, and I love the topic and we love thinking about how to be better and think better. And, and so we like to talk to our guests about what mindfulness means to them and how it applies to your job, right? In working with schools and independent schools. And, and what value mindfulness in your mind offers to marketing enrollment efforts in independent schools. 

Angela: I love that you ask this question and my answer is actually very simple, I think. Um, for me it really comes down to ensuring that the work that you’re doing is grounded in a thoughtful strategy. And that comes from the fact that I am a big picture thinker by nature. It’s something that comes up. Every time I take any sort of personality test or assessment. It’s just the way that my brain works. And, and sometimes people love that and sometimes they don’t, um, I’m not gonna be the first person to take action, but I will always be the person who raises her hand and says, can we take a moment to make sure that this actually makes sense? I am that person I’m raising my hand and admitting it right now. Um, but I, I do like to make, make sure that any significant decision especially makes sense within the context of some higher purpose. And that’s where I think mindfulness comes into play with admissions. I think with K12 marketing and admissions, we can be very reactive at times, and we’re not always great at stopping to say, you know what? That doesn’t actually make sense for us as an institution. It doesn’t align with our mission. It’s not on brand, and everything that you do should really ladder up to your school’s identity and your strategic goals. And so that’s where I really think mindfulness comes into play.

Aubrey: That’s so good. Thank you. I’m just thinking I’m like, yes, yes, we are so reactive. Sometimes you’re in the weeds. You’re like swimming along. You’re like, oh, let’s do this strategy. Let’s do this. But not really backing up to say, let’s think about this, everyone. So mindfulness in that moment and I’m so grateful for that, that little bit of wisdom. Thank you. We are transitioning to our always questions, which I’m really excited to hear your answers on these. So I’ll kick it off with this one. What are the most important things you do to grow personally and professionally? 

Angela: Yes. I love the rapid fire time. I’m excited about this too. So historically I have been a big reader and I’m a big podcast fan. I love to go to conferences. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to do that, hopefully in person soon. Um, but one of the things that I actually really like about my role at Niche is that I- it’s formalized opportunities for me to talk to people all the time. And that’s where a lot of my learning comes from now. And I actually had a podcast episode, um, at Niche where we spoke with Andrew Weller, who’s the Dean of enrollment in strategic marketing at St. Stephen St. Agnes school in the DC area. And he talked about how he likes to maintain connections with a group of people at comparative schools. So schools that are similar to his. But are not direct competitors, so he can pick their brains and engage with them when he has a problem that he wants to solve. And I think there’s a lot of power in that. Um, there’s a place for more formal P E D, but I think that there’s a lot that we can learn from each other. So that’s actually something I’ve really been leaning into in the last year.

Tara: Yeah, I was just listening to that episode and I was just at that part and I thought, how smart and how like potentially vulnerable you can be when you do reach out. And I I’m the same way. I like to get input from other people, even if they might be considered a competitor of mine in my business. There are plenty of students for schools right there. And especially if they’re not near market. It’s really helpful to develop those relationships. And I think it can really help you grow and you can help other people too, right? You have things to share and add as well. So it kind of goes both ways. So I think that’s really smart. Thanks for sharing that. Let’s go into these rapid fire questions. So the first one is if you could put one book as mandatory reading a high school curriculum, what would it be? 

Angela: Such a loaded question right now, but I, so I thought I thought about it a lot and I’m gonna go with an answer that I think is a crowd pleaser, but a little nerdy. And that’s the seven habits of highly effective teens by Sean Covey, who Steven Covey’s son. And it actually provides a really in framework for habits that will serve high school students as they become adults. And that’s important. Um, and it it’s something that you’re not necessarily learning in a traditional school environment. So that’s a book that I would definitely recommend. And then I don’t have a specific pick for this, but anything related to financial literacy, I, I would say is hugely, hugely important and should be absolutely mandatory in high school. We’ve had some other guests mention that. And I’m gonna mention here a plug that we have a Goodreads list on Goodreads, where we put all of the book recommendations from all of our guests into a Goodreads list. And so if we go there, if you go there, you’ll see. Um, I can’t remember. I think Aubrey, maybe even had one that she mentioned, um, a, a book on finance for teens. So yeah, that’s a great concept. 

Aubrey: Yes. I’m all for both those books sound amazing. And I’m all for the financial literacy. I think that’s come up so often cuz it’s a missing component, so yeah, definitely agreed. So I’m curious about this, your answer to this question. What is one app you could not live without? 

Angela: This will probably surprise you because it’s not work related at all, but it’s an app called Sweat. And it’s an app that I use for all of my workouts and workouts keep me from annoying my family in ways that they probably would not enjoy even more so than usual, but it’s, it’s great because you can choose from a crazy number of different programs. And every week they give me exercises with visuals and audio prompts. So I don’t have to think about anything. I just have to click on it and do it. Um, and it’s been life changing for me. So, shoutout to Sweat app. 

Tara: I thought I knew all the workout apps. I’m not, I’m not familiar with that one. Cool. I’ll look it up. Next rapid fire question. What are you reading right now? 

Angela: So I like to alternate between work related books and fun fiction. So right now I’m in the fiction category and I’m reading a book called Harlem shuffle by Colson Whitehead. He is my favorite probably fiction writer. Um, because he can write really well and not everyone can do that. Even people who write amazing best sellers can’t necessarily write well. And so it’s, it’s always a relief to find someone who’s really got that talent. And it’s about, it’s basically a love letter to Harlem in the 1960s, but it’s got a cool story. It’s gets through three different years and it’s about this man who owns a furniture store. And he is trying to be a straight family man, but he has this sort of life of crime hiding under the surface that’s very interesting. 

Aubrey: That’s like, you know, your, that’s a good teaser. Like everyone’s gonna want to go grab that now, right? Um, so I’m curious, what is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with?

Angela: So we didn’t touch on this specifically, but I, it’s a, a message that I think is helpful for people to hear, which is why I’m, I’m addressing it here. And that is that when you think about the way that you are engaging with prospective families, make sure that you’re asking the right questions. And what I mean by that is that I think we’ve all seen, you know, the conversations that come up in groups we belong to in forums- has anyone used fill in the blank? Has it worked for you? Right? And even though it’s helpful to have a read on what your peer schools are doing and how, I don’t know that that’s always the right question. So I think your, your school’s identity, your data and your strategy to go back to what we talked about earlier, those should be the primary drivers of what you choose to do in any given school year when you’re trying to engage your prospective families. So it’s good to have your fingers on the pulse, but, really, really being strategic about what is going to work for your unique market situation, your enrollment situation, your budget, and always lean into the data. I’m a big believer in data. I believe it reveals a lot and can tell a really rich story. If you know where to look. 

Tara: And if you’re mindful about it, which is really what you’re talking about. So I’ll wrap it up there. How about that? 

Aubrey: Ooh, that was good. 

Tara: Angela, it’s been a joy to have you on today. Thank you so much. Where can people find you online? 

Angela: I am very active on LinkedIn and love connecting with people there. So you can definitely find me there. Um, I’ve also been tweeting more lately, so if you’re on Twitter, you can find me there @angelambrown. And then of course the enrollment insights blog, that’s where you’ll find all of our webinars, our research, our blog posts. Um, you can also sign up for our newsletter, which will also allow you to participate in our research and to be the first to receive it when it’s published. So definitely check that out so that you can stay up to date. 

Aubrey: Thank you so much for today. We really appreciate you sharing your time and your wisdom.

Tara: Thanks Angela. Bye. 

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