41. Creating an Emotional Connection with Prospective Families on Your School’s Website with Rob DiMartino

In this episode, we are joined by Rob DiMartino, Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist at Finalsite. Working with over 2000+ Educational Institutions across the globe, Rob strives to align school websites to authentically reflect their mission to engage the perfect prospective families and create real emotional bonds that extend beyond the screen.

About Rob DiMartino:

Rob is Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist at Finalsite, and has presents globally on effective use of strategic web communications for independent schools. Rob brings 25 years of experience working with the internet in the education arena. His experiences have included working with over 2000+ Educational Institutions across the globe ranging from the smallest independent schools to the largest universities to help maximize the potential of the web for their institutions all while raising his four children with his wife and three dogs in Northwest Connecticut.

Find Rob DiMartino:

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Show Transcript

Aubrey: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Aubrey Bursch. 


Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Rob DeMartino. Rob is co-founder and chief evangelist at Finalsite and has presented globally on effective use of strategic web communications for independent schools. Rob brings 25 years of experience working with the internet in the education arena. His experiences have included working with over 2000 educational institutions across the globe, ranging from the smallest independent schools to the largest universities, to help maximize the potential of the web for their institutions all while raising his four children with his wife and his three dogs in Northwest Connecticut. Welcome Rob. Thanks for joining. 


Rob: Hi, Tara. Hi Aubrey. Thanks for having me. If some dogs bark in the background, you know it, so that’s, that’s my disclaimer, but really excited to reconnect with you guys and have an open dialogue today. 


Aubrey: Thank you so much for coming, Rob, I’m personally so excited to have you here and your dogs if they make an appearance but before we dive in, can you just tell us a little bit more about yourself and maybe your journey? 


Rob: Sure. As Tara said, me and my wife have four wonderful chaotic kids. So that’s a big part of it. But before that, you know, I, was in education. My father was a professor at, of English, my two sisters my older sisters were teachers. So there’s some educational DNA in my blood. I went to Yukon really at an interesting time where the internet was popping up and we can do some really cool things with it. So I really, got my hands dirty in coding, digital marketing, really engagement with the fan base of my Alma mater Yukon. So I was doing the Yukon athletics website when our women’s basketball team won the national championship, when our men’s team was doing well. They won the big east a couple years. They went to the elite eight and you just saw a lot of momentum of alums coming out of the woodwork all over the place from Australia, California, Canada and saying, Hey, we wanna reconnect and reengage with you. So that was an exciting time as an undergrad and a grad student there. And I graduated and then I moved over to the alumni relations office, built out their first online database, did all their digital marketing efforts did a lot of human relations with their chapters and clubs. But I think that’s when a light bulb went off to say this internet thing is really something for schools to grab onto and see how they can keep their communities connected, engaged and aligned because, again the life cycle of your constituent journey varies. So that was exciting. Learning in the weeds, so to speak at, as a digital practitioner, before it was even called that. And then, diving over to Finalsite, in, in 2000 we just started up a company that was doing websites. And then we built more of a platform. So I think, that evolution from website to platform as we know it now of content management, email marketing, data integration with your student information system or your donor management or enrollment management system. It’s really gone kind of light years from when we started. And it’s all exciting because it’s trying to, empower our school marketers to do their jobs much more operationally effective saving burnout, but staying humanly connected with their audiences, if that makes sense. And again, all along the line, some kids dropped in there. Some dogs dropped in there and we continue to grow and learn because we’re really at a wonderful age in the technology to really dive in and stay connected to the community. 


Tara: Thank you for sharing your background. I, as we mentioned before, we started recording, I also am from Connecticut and a lot of my friends from school went to UCON, although I didn’t, but I didn’t really follow too much of the sports until the women’s basketball, of course, then it became really exciting. I was proud Connecticut as my home, as my home state. Yeah. Proud of Connecticut. I know there’s a lot of great spirit around that school and it sounds like it was a good launching pad for you to start doing what you’re doing and to be doing it since 2000. 2000 it’s a long- is long time ago. We forget that even, smartphones and things, weren’t really that much of a thing at all back then. So you’ve grown and, and Finalsite certainly has a platform that offers so many resources for schools to have the expertise and the background and experience that you offer, as well as all the tools, as you said, to try to make it easier for school marketers to do their jobs. I wanna talk about since I do websites also, I wanna talk about some key elements of school websites and how they’ve changed over time since you’ve been doing this for so long. So in other words what should every school website include? 


Rob: Yeah. Oh, great question again, the evolution when we started, to now is eons and light years away. It almost went from that view book PDF, you know, a pretty picture on, on a homepage to where we are today. And I think today it really is about connecting with the consumer where they are, you know, as a consumer myself, somebody paying tuition your families are looking for mission fit, right fit schools that educate and grow their children for the next four years for the next 12 years into the best versions of themselves. So I think a critical piece of that is just real authentic storytelling to align with your mission and again, enroll those right fit families. And then you get into different areas of mobile first, we’ve been talking mobile first since 2012, 13, but still, if it’s a clunky experience, that’s your first impression and you’re getting probably 70% of your audience coming to you through a mobile or a tablet. So thinking about that mobile first, but then getting down into the real alignment of story. And you can do that in a lot of different ways with evergreen content on pages whether they’re landing or conversion pages to dynamic content news, blogging remarketing of your emails to your prospective audiences or continual engagement with your parents through weekly newsletters. And again, operationalizing that content strategy, so it’s not just, Hey, I’m putting this content there and it’s orphaned you can create once and publish everywhere. I think, some of those stories really do take three, four, I’m blaming of myself here five, six times to get through. To that intended audience member. So remarketing and drip or drum beat marketing throughout a passive engagement, whether it’s a website visit or a proactive engagement, whether it’s a push email out or a drip campaign, those solidify the value statement for your school. So I think you it is really an art in the science of great storytelling, but also user experience first and foremost in, you know, elegantly organizing your navigation and the way that you can actually get to a conversion point, get to an inquiry page or a tuition page or an application page. If it’s someone who’s never step foot on campus or never even heard of your school cuz they moved 2000 miles away from their hometown in COVID because they can work remote now. So I think there’s a lot of things that have evolved all for really great purposes to connect with the end user. And the more that our schools kinda lean into that persona or that perception of, a mom or dad who moved or that high school or that is being dragged along with their parents because of a move. You need to really emphasize that. And I think the web in 2022 is really positioned to do that in a pretty powerful way. 
 Aubrey: Thank you so much. I think what you were talking about is like connecting with who you’re trying to engage. And that’s so important when we’re doing anything, especially when you’re talking about the internet and websites and everything like that. I’m curious- if we could go back to websites in general. What- let’s say a school comes to you and they say, we want a new website. Why are they coming to you? Like when should a school consider a new website? What are like the top three pain points that they’re coming to you for that lead them to re redesigning a website? 
 Rob: Yeah, that’s a great question. And again I think sometimes it’s a little too late- okay, the house is on fire. We need to put it out. But I’ll go from the proactive angle is, now we’re seeing so many transitions in all of our staffing- a new head of school comes in and the former head of school didn’t kind of see marketing as a positive thing. That is an instant game changer where they can actually go in and effect change for engagement, not just numbers but engagement. So they’re doing something innovative and that connects with the current families. They’re seeing immediate change. They’re seeing better communication strategies or better resources available in again, every aspect, whether it’s the MacBook experience, the iPhone experience or the email kind of, connectivity experience, I think that’s really one layup is a new leader coming in and saying, we need to inject life into our web platform. And again, it really will help out on your enrollment funnel because that is again, 24/7 365- that is your best sales tool in your toolbox. But it also helps in the constituent journey wherever they are, is creating value at every click for mom and dad for alums, who haven’t stepped foot on campus in 20 years. We’re continually trying to not do best practices all the time because you might not have enough resources or manpower or money as the school down the street, but you wanna look at it and do better practices for yourself. So how can you be better tomorrow? And that’s where usually that leadership change is a great opportunity. Others are just, again, like I said, is we haven’t redesigned the website in 10 years. The website is siloed over here and then we have the email marketing platform. Then we have the enrollment platform. Then we have the donor platform and then we have the student information system. So a lot of other schools are saying, all right, we wanna now bring a partner on that will take care of five of those check boxes and build more effectiveness in kind of the operationalization of marketing communications. Cuz again, through COVID our marcom people. Here’s another hat. Here’s another hat. Here’s another demand. Here’s a, oh, you can’t hire that halftime person. You can’t do this. You can’t. So really thinking about how to scale yourself as an office of one marcom professional, you need to lean into platforms. And then some of our top tier schools are just saying, hey, we have a couple people in here, but we’re wasting a lot of time. Quality control of data is not there. And the ability to personalize content is not being utilized because our data is kind of garbage in, garbage out. So looking at again, an audit of your systems and the interconnectivity of those systems really get you into a marketing communications platform outreach of 2022. So I, I think I touched on a couple of those. We could probably go down a couple more rabbit holes, but a one proactive, one kind of reactive or recalibration we’ll kind of put that. 
 Tara: Yeah, thank you. That, I I think that holistic approach is really important because it’s not just a standalone thing, a website. I wanna talk a little bit in detail about a website for a school. Maybe thinking about the homepage, we talked about different things like mobile responsiveness and that type of thing, but I think that there is a formula that probably changes over time based on trends right now, if you go to most schools on their homepage, they’re gonna have some statistics. They’re gonna have some kind of social proof testimonial type of thing. They’re gonna have a listing of some of their programs. So there are some things that are almost like a standard thing that, that most schools wanna have because they wanna be like their peers. What kind of trends do you see coming up in addition to those? Have you started to see something new happening on school websites that’s becoming more common, more of one of these sort of formulaic type of things? And I don’t, I’m not putting down the term formulaic. I think it’s, yeah, those things are important because we know from data that people want to see statistics and at a glance, knowing what your student to teacher ratio, as those types of things are important to show so people can get the meta glance have, are, do you have any any quick tips on other things that, that we should be looking at down there? 
 Rob: Yeah. Maybe not earth shattering, but again I think you really need to lean in on, you know, parents are usually researching you and other schools. So if too bleeding edge, innovative. You might lose them because they’re looking for admissions or about us or directory. So there’s pros and cons with going off the deep end and that’s risk reward. I do lean into again, it’s gotta be a day in the life showing the experience. A lot of our schools steal our information overload on websites. And if you’re looking at me 2022 and beyond, the homepage is your selling vehicle. It’s your storytelling vehicle. So the more you can build trust in that digital interaction and get a smart call to action or path to that human conversion, the better. In 20 plus years working with schools, I don’t think anybody’s been a full pay family just by visiting the final site websites or, any school website for that matter. It is a conversion point to, yes, I want to actually come shadow. I want to come to open house. I want to talk to admissions. So I think, getting back to basics there is knowing what this tool is for on the homepage. It’s, a screwdriver, it’s not a hammer to hammer in a screw. No, we’re trying to build trust. We’re trying to drive engagement awareness, and we’re trying to convert out people that are not mission fit, right fit families. So we’re wasting our admissions team’s time to then getting, the right fit mission, fit families to have those deeper consultative admissions discussions with our team. And again, we’re just talking independent and private schools here, cuz this is a luxury item. It is a high cost item. It’s probably one of the most. Important decisions that a family is going to make here. So I think that whole kind of thumb friendly story tell is really key on the scroll to conversion point. And then again, other trends are getting ADA compliant, so we’re talking DEIJ, ADA compliance is really big in the public school market. But for independent and private schools, that’s inclusion, that’s, getting there on a digital platform for equality on that user experience is really key. So I would say that’s that’s one of the things that our schools aren’t looking, our private schools, aren’t looking into enough. 
 Tara: Yeah, thank you for bringing that up. And I also really appreciate the idea about going back to basics, because I think that there’s a temptation to try to be fancy and to try to do lots of moving parts on a website and as a web designer I understand where that’s coming from. You wanna make it look like you’ve spent a lot of money or that you’re, fancy and showy. From an accessibility standpoint, People can have seizures when there’s too much going on a website, seriously, you have to really pay attention to sometimes oftentimes on a website, simple and straightforward and familiar is way better than fancy, unless you’re like an art gallery or somebody who’s trying to, to communicate that message. So I appreciate you bringing that up and I’m sure you have those conversations with the schools that you work with.

Rob: Yeah, and I, I think it, another kind of thing to go on top of that is it really needs to breathe your brand. It’s got to exude that brand experience throughout. And if you’re on campus experience does not align with your digital campus experience, then there’s gonna be underwhelming experiences, and it’s gotta be consistent through that journey. 
 Tara: Yeah. Yep. We’ve talked to some people on this podcast about branding recently, and that’s very true and important. Yeah. It’s more than your logo. 
 Aubrey: Yeah, I really appreciate you bringing up a few things. The emotional connection to the website is huge. I know I’m a mom of two independent school children, as well as I’ve been in this space for a while. And like when you’re seeking out that school and like you’re in stealth mode because let’s face it, parents go into stealth mode, right? They’re all like checking out the social proof and checking out your website and everything like that. Like you wanna emotionally connect and like with the stories told and everything like that. So I appreciate you bringing it up because I remember visiting my son’s school. They did not have a great website so it was really hard for me to connect. But I finally, I was like I’m just gonna go on the tour and thank goodness I did, because if I’d just gone on the website alone, goodness. You know, That was (inaudible). 
 Rob: It happens. Yeah, absolutely. 
 Aubrey: Yeah. So I do appreciate that you brought that up and that you mentioned that it really is your website is like just getting them to the next step. The next conversion. It’s not the- the selling of the end product, which is usually happening on the tour, the open house or whatever engagement comes further. I also appreciate the whole brand conversation is really important, right? I see so many schools that want to be like the powerhouse athletics, but when you, when we’re doing market research for their school, the parents are like, we really like the art program and like the, this and that. And so their external perception, like the experience is so different. And so aligning that and making sure that experiences match are really important. So thank you for bringing that up. I’d like us to really, if you’re okay. I’d like to dive into a mindfulness question. Are you ready? 
 Rob: All right, let’s do it. 
 Aubrey: All right. So through the lens of our podcast, we talk about mindfulness and how it applies to independent school marketers. What does mindfulness mean to you and how do you use it in your role as a school marketer? 
 Rob: Yeah. Another great question and just really thinking about mindfulness and wellness and you know, balance is really critical as we’re going through year three of COVID. Before the pod started, I told you guys my wife’s a school nurse. Being mindful of good days and bad days, or just being supportive and everybody’s hurting right now. Getting back to kind of full contact schooling, hopefully by next fall, we’ll really get into that. But I think it’s just being aware of your surroundings and aware of your colleagues or your faculty or your students and parents and, taking appropriate action where you can. I think for Finalsite, you know, we, we had this kind of saying as lead with empathy, you know? As our client success team was reaching out to our schools, it was like, how can we help? How can we help? How can and, and through COVID a lot of our schools really did pivot very nicely to lean into the technology. And not saying, Finalsite was the savior at all, but you couldn’t make that bond with your families. You couldn’t make that connection. So we needed to be intentional about making those communities online and building trust. And I think being mindful, in a digital sense, if you know the person already, it’s easy to make that connection. But being mindful to you, Aubrey, for someone who’s went on the website and said, eh, this is kind of cruddy, but I’ll still go. The website is a piece of the puzzle where you can be mindful in inviting people to campus with open arms. And I think you need to do that without selling. You need to be helpful. You need to build trust. You need to earn that kind of capital before you can make that ask. And I think, you know, mindfulness for our school marketers too, is like just knowing when to ask for help. From your board from your head of school, from your partners, because we’ve seen so many people get burnt out and transition out of education, or a lot of people, if you see LinkedIn, a lot of former educators are moving to companies like Finalsite because they feel there’s a better balance or there’s more of an understanding instead of just a piling on. And I think over the 20 years, the school marketing professional has upgraded in pedigree because there’s more people that are coming in from corporate with the backgrounds instead of, a former teacher or a former coach going in to do admissions and marketing. And I’m not saying that ladder is, is worse than, you know, the former, but we’re getting more into a space of people are really kinda used to support. And when you’re not getting that support, that’s when people kinda look to, jump ship whether it’s from the school or the company that they’re working for. So I went full circle in there, but it, that, it’s a very important question as we’re kinda in the current state of the world as we are now. Tara: Yeah, thanks. That’s sort of the mission of this podcast is exactly what you’re summing up. We noticed that was happening. And so Aubrey and I really think a lot about mindfulness and self-improvement and all those things. And you and I have had conversations about that as well. So I’m gonna ask you a related question on that note of self improvement. And that is, we love to ask our guests what you do to grow professionally and personally, what are the most important things that you do? 
 Rob: Yeah I think you know, just staying connected with people who’ve been with me through my journey. Who’ve been authentic and said, Hey, this is a good opportunity. Or you can look into this. I think the inner circle is always nice. A lot of the other things I do is get out and present and network with our clients and I think I try to stay as close to our client base as I possibly can. And all of our clients are really kinda smart. So listening and learning. So whenever I’m out presenting, you know, hit a keynote here or hit one or two sessions that are part of, of my growth path and with NAIS or case NAIS or some of the regional conferences around there’s always a plethora of very smart people that are just doing some wonderful things. So I think that kind of covers my my growth path. The other one is LinkedIn. I’m always trying to grow and learn from my network, but I’m also trying to feed into my network in value, cuz I, I really do think your, the old adage is- your network is your net worth. If you’re always trying to learn and stay connected to people that are moving in the same direction as you, you know, good things will happen. But you also don’t wanna just kinda linger and extract the value. You wanna be valuable yourself and add and pay it forward where you can. 


Aubrey: That’s so good. I love the pay it forward because I think providing the value is- it’s whatever, we’re all trying to do that. And then we get some value back, but we continue to pay it forward. And that’s such an important thing. So thank you for mentioning that. We’re gonna head into rapid fire questions. These are some of my favorites, so I’m very excited to hear your answers. So let’s get started. If you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be? Rob: Great question. Great question. So wrap the, the, the seat’s getting hotter. Is it supposed to be like the hot seat here? No? There’s a couple. Can I do that or is that just a alright, so I love Simon Sinek, you know, and it starts with why I think that the gold circle is really key of finding your why. And then, my father used to say, do something that you love and you never work a day in your life. So I think that why finding your own personal why at the high school level is probably hard, cuz I’ve got two freshmen in sophomore in colleges and they’re trying to figure it out. But I think the more you know about yourself and what drives you the more enjoyable your life journey’s gonna be. And then the other one is either like a Dave Ramsey book of like financial awareness for kids. I don’t think that’s taught enough in schools and coming from a background with student debt and my wife’s student debt and just learning that way and growing. I really do think financial freedom is a goal for for high schoolers, whether they’re gonna go the entrepreneurial path, go the traditional path, or who knows what the path is gonna be to success for people as well, you know, with, With the boom back with, with the trades and that approach too so. 


Aubrey: I really appreciate that. So I’m going to be very selfish right now as a mom and ask you a follow up question. Cause you have older like children, right? 
 Rob: I do. 
 Aubrey: My kids are like seven and 10. So what, because the financial thing like scares me. I’m like, I need to prepare them. Like they need to learn these things. And like also the purpose, like around the why. So did you have them read those books or like, how did you navigate? I’m just very curious, because as a parent, this is on my mind. 
 Rob: Yeah, no I, they didn’t read those books, so I, I kind of eat my own dog food on that one. Maybe I’ll do it for the next two, but I’ve always preached it in the background. There’s a good friend of mine who actually used to work at a company called Whipple Hill. Kyle York. He went on to, to bigger and brighter fame at Dine and Oracle. And now he’s got his own investment firm, which is really cool. But he, he wrote an e-book called, becoming the CEO of your life. And I shared that with my kids, because again, I think that is very, familiar with basically. bucking up and owning your path and going where you want to go as the end goal. If you don’t have that end goal, it’s gonna be hard to navigate. And as you guys probably know is like the end goal could be here and it’s not the linear path. You’re gonna have peaks and valleys, and you’re gonna go through resilience moments or you’re gonna crumble, or, and we all go through that too. But I think the more as parents you can set up the guardrails. I think that’s, that’s helpful where your kids aren’t gonna fall flat on their face. Where I’ve done that a couple different times. 
 Tara: Thank you. Those are all great. I’m gonna look up that e-book as well. What is an app that you could not live without, Rob? 
 Rob: Well, again, we got busy, a busy household, so besides like apple music, which is, a cool stress relief for me, I think Cozy, which is our family organizer. So this is where all of our kids can get in. And you can it’s basically like a shared calendar app, but it’s very user friendly. So this goes with it- overlaps with my Finalsite calendar. I can see where kids need to get picked up who’s coaching, what who’s playing, where, it, it’s very valuable to us. 


Aubrey: Thank you. I’m definitely gonna check that out. 


Rob: Yeah. cozy.com. 


Aubrey: I’m wondering, what are you reading right now? 
 Rob: Right now I’m actually reading a book called, Founder Brand. So again I really think- I’m big into the storytelling and the journey. I think that’s how people buy. That’s how people earn trust. That’s how people kinda align with whether you, they like your story or not. And it really is great. I’ve tried to share a couple of those secrets with some head of schools. So I did a head of school session for New Jersey association of independent schools. And again, as a head of school, your personal brand can help elevate where the trajectory of your school’s going, whether it’s 300 years old, whether it’s, three years old I really do think the leader kind of vision Helps catapult your organizational brand too. And again, it’s hard to build trust with bricks and mortar, but it’s easy to build trust with kind of that leader, founder, visionary. If you’re of going in that same alignment. 


Tara: Great. Thank you. All right. Last question for you. What is one great piece of advice that you’d like to leave us with? You’ve already given us a lot, but do you have anything else? 


Rob: Yeah. Um, Enjoy the journey. You know, I, I think you gotta celebrate the little wins. You know? 


Aubrey: That is really good advice and somehow something that we often forget. so thank you for the reminder. 


Rob: I forget it all the time. So I’m (inaudible). No, but again, it really is kinda, you know, there there’s, there’s a lot that can go, right. there’s a lot that can go wrong. But if you have that end goal, you know, the journey it’s, it’s not about the milestones. It’s really about enjoying your clients, enjoying your experience and trying to be helpful. And a lot of that comes from active listening comes from trial and error. But it’s definitely been a journey for us, over the last couple decades. 


Tara: Thank you so much for joining us, Rob. Where can people find you online? Rob: I am on LinkedIn pretty heavily, as I said. Twitter, I’ve dropped off. I’m kind of a lurker kind of, just a sponge out there, soaking up the good stuff, Facebook and Instagram. That’s more personal. So if you wanna see pictures of my kids and stuff, which I don’t kinda share out there, but LinkedIn is the best, or if they want to email me rob@finalsite.com and I’d love to give a plug to all the Finalsite and school admin clients out there, we truly appreciate. And thank you for your trust in us. We’re not the perfect partner, but we really do set a high standard for high quality software, great services. And our support team is second to none out there. So we’re trying to be as helpful during these COVID times as possible. And really appreciate the the opportunity to talk to both of you today. 


Tara: Thanks so much. 


Aubrey: Thank you, Rob. Take care. 


Tara: Bye bye. 


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