51. Small School Leaders Conference Review with Aubrey Bursch & Tara Claeys
We are switching it up this episode and today Tara is interviewing Aubrey about how it went hosting her first virtual Small School Leaders Conference. Aubrey set out to organize an innovative virtual three-day conference that focused on topics related to development, marketing, and enrollments. The idea came from Aubrey’s experience of working in both small and large schools, and realizing that the professional development budget for small schools was significantly smaller than larger schools. Tune in to hear how she was surprised by the overwhelming response, uncovered a hidden need in the independent school community and walked away with unexpected key takeaways.
About Tara Claeys & Aubrey Bursch:
Tara Claeys is the founder of Design TLC – a professional website agency for small schools. She’s passionate about helping organizations provide enriching experiences for children by creating a great first impression online. Aubrey Bursch is founder + CEO of Easy School Marketing. She’s also a mom, lover of green smoothies and Peloton, and podcast host. She is passionate about supporting small + independent schools to increase enrollment, retention, and revenue.
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I’m going to interview Aubrey. We’re going to talk about the small school leaders conference that she organized that went up fantastically well a couple of weeks ago. And I’m really excited to share with all of you sort of the background behind that and how it went and just get some takeaways from it. So I’m going to be in the interview seat, and Aubrey is going to be in the guest seat today. And let’s get it rolling.
So, aubrey, let’s start out by talking about where the idea for this conference came from and sort of what your thoughts were when you started putting it together, because I remember when you had the idea, and I was like, oh, that’s a good idea. That sounds like a lot of work. That’s hilarious. And first of all, tara, you did leave out that you were a part of the conference, too, and you were one of our amazing speakers and presenters this year. So thank you.
And yes, this was definitely one of those ideas where I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I’m like, wouldn’t this be awesome? I wish someone did this, right? And then I realized, I don’t think anyone’s doing this, so I guess I have to make it happen. And really, the background behind this is that I’ve worked in small and large schools, and I found it so interesting when I left my large school and went to a small school that my professional development budget shrank significantly.
And it was really kind of challenging to find affordable and relevant professional development for me and my role as a small school leader. And so I would go to these, like, professional development, these conferences, which were all wonderful and everything, and I would sit beside the assistant to the assistant director of marketing or something, and I’d be like, the half marketing person. And it was just like the strategies that those larger schools could kind of pull off and navigate and could hear in the conference event take away I could in my small school role. And so I felt like there was this gap in the in the market for small schools of this professional development. In addition, a lot of conferences are very they’re either focused on admissions or development or marketing, but they’re not usually a combination of all three.
And with what happens in small schools is that everyone’s wearing multiple hats, and there’s a lot of overlap in those positions. So you would might have to attend three different conferences with your role, your combined role of, like, director of marketing and development or something like that. And so I thought, you know what? There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be some way to create an affordable opportunity for these school leaders in development marketing and admissions roles and also heads of school who are often filling those same positions in addition to their role as ahead of school.
And so that’s where kind of the idea sprouted. In addition, I felt like it’s really difficult a lot of times for small school leaders to get away from the office because if they are wearing multiple hats and they don’t have a large team, there’s no one really helping with all that to do work that’s going on while they have to travel for a conference and stuff like that. So that’s where the idea sprouted from. I was like, there’s got to be a better way. And so I started thinking and brainstorming like, how can we make this really relevant and actionable for these school leaders?
And we came up with like, okay, what about a virtual option? What about a virtual three day option with multiple sessions that cover development, marketing, enrollment? And that’s what we ended up doing. It’s amazing. It’s quite an undertaking.
Three days of finding people to speak and different topics that you wanted to cover. I love the focus on the small schools, small budgets, and trying to solve problems for people who have a lot going on and need to be able to solve lots of challenges in a tight time frame, in a tight bandwidth, and in a tight budget. So I know that a lot of the people that you had really had that focus and what they talked about, which I’m sure that people who attended really appreciated because they could really relate to it. And I think it’s so valuable what you put together. How did you come up with a list of people to I know you’re connected in the independent school community.
How did you sort of put together the agenda and the topics that you wanted to cover? Well, yes. Well, first I will say that the independent school community is amazing and it’s a close knit, supportive group. And I will say that I guess it wasn’t a surprise, but it was more like confirmation of this. When I asked people to speak, they all said yes, and they were like, how can I support this?
I’m like, you are amazing. I’m so lucky to be a part of this amazing independent school network. And so when we were looking at what speakers to have, we wanted people who represented different topics or different aspects of marketing, development and admissions. And so we put together, we said, okay, well, who are the people in those spaces? What topics could they speak on that would really kind of help support small schools and help them reach their goals this year?
And so we put together our dream list and everyone said yes. So that’s how we ended up with those amazing speakers. And also we did ask around in the space with small schools and ask them if you wanted to hear from someone, who would it be and they gave great feedback and we pursued all the people that they suggested as well.
That’s fabulous. That’s great that you had. Well, of course, everybody wants to share what they know and be helpful. I know that feeling. So it was nice to have the opportunity to be included in your list of experts.
Absolutely. I wouldn’t dream of having a conference without you in it. I always have key takeaways and I will say selfishly, I always learn from all my colleagues. So I was taking notes during every single session and I think that’s the beauty of we all tell our students and our colleagues were always like, oh, you have to have that beginner’s mindset. You always have to be learning.
It was truly wonderful to learn from all these experts. So it was also selfishly that I got to enjoy all these topics and sessions. Yeah, that’s great. I know it’s a lot when you’re sitting in front of Zoom all day long to pay attention and for the people who are presenting to present to basically you don’t know who or what people are doing. So I think being able to absorb all that information and then have some key takeaways and providing the recordings and all of that is really valuable to you.
Let’s talk a little bit about any challenges or obstacles that you faced other than the monumental task of putting together the logistics. And you did a fabulous job of organizing both from an attendee standpoint and from the presenter standpoint, of giving us what the tools that we needed to be successful as presenters. So talk a little bit about how you knew how to do that and what challenges that you didn’t expect. Yes, thank you. So I will say whenever I’m working with people, I always encourage them to try new things.
And this was something new. And so anytime we try new things, there’s always going to be a learning curve and we always have to understand that things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. And then we take notes and say, what can we improve for next time? I think the biggest challenges for this particular event was that it’s never been done before, to my knowledge, and not in this format. And so it was trying to figure out the scheduling of like, when the speakers are available and then trying to figure out the time of year that might work best for small schools, which, by the way, small schools are busy year round, so you’re never going to find that perfect time frame.
And so that was really kind of challenging and we ended up by accidentally putting it during Catholic schools week, which lessons learned. We had a lot of Catholic school leaders who were like, we want to come to everything, but we’re so busy this week and it’s during a key admission season. February is really a tough time for admissions officers, but we also heard from them. There really is a time of year that is perfect for this. So scheduling always a challenge, finding dates that worked and then just trying something new, like setting up the systems.
It’s like every school, when you’re implementing anything new, you have to set up the systems. And the first time is usually always the hardest. Right. And so that was a learning curve for us. But I will say that the speakers and my team were amazing and supporting and helping get the word out.
And the people who attended gave great feedback, and we’re so grateful for what we provided. So it was totally worth everything, and it was so much fun. That’s great. Yeah, you had a nice team that was helping to keep the chat moving along and questions answered and that type of thing. You assembled a good team, a support team there.
Was there anything that surprised you that you weren’t expecting that happened during, before, or after the conference? Yeah, I was really surprised with the positive feedback, and it came, I would say, the sign ups. I was like, Will anyone want to come to this? Like, you put something out in the world. I’m sure at schools you feel that you’re like, Will our community want to come?
And obviously, we had done some market research to see if this was something that people actually wanted to attend. But you put something out and you see what happens. And so we were surprised by the tremendous response from the small school community. They really wanted to attend and support. They spread the word about it, and during the conference, they emailed me directly, and we’re like, we’re having such a good time.
Thanks for making this happen. And that just really was so heartwarming. And it also confirmed that this is a need in the community. And also, the speakers were amazingly generous with the resources they shared, their time and energy. They went above and beyond for every single session.
So it was surprising, but in a good way. Yeah. I don’t want to bore our guests with our mutual adoration society here, but I’ll say you start that. So you set the tone by having that really kind of giving approach to this. And so I think everyone who participated sort of absorbed that karma that you had going.
And so it was, overall, I think, a super positive event in all the ways that you described, and I’m glad to hear I’m not surprised that that happened, and I would hope that you wouldn’t be surprised next time. Let’s talk about some key takeaways. So I attended a few sessions, and I really enjoyed the creative approach that some people took to their presentations. I know, like, Angela Brown had a cool little hook in her talk, and Trevor incorporated some cool friends references that people appreciated. So I know when you’re putting together a presentation, trying to make it interesting and fun is a challenge.
Sometimes. But I thought it was really great that people kind of approached this with a little bit of fun. But what were some key takeaways that you fill it yourself and heard from people who attended other than what you’ve already shared? Absolutely. So some key takeaways.
So Joe monzo presented on video strategy and outsourcing and in house video strategy. And I really liked what he said about choose your story over expensive gear. A lot of times schools are like, hey, let’s produce the video. Let’s buy the most expensive microphone and camera. And then they don’t really think about the strategy behind the storytelling and stuff like that.
And so their video might have great audio and video, but it doesn’t actually compel people to take action. And so I appreciated that reminder from Joe. It was Patricia Wise apple with her school communication talk was amazing. And I just actually sent this to a client the other day because it was so perfect and it was, don’t bury the lead. And I love this because the information basically she’s saying the information you really need parents to know and act upon is often squished in the middle of school communications.
And then you’re wondering, why didn’t all the parents come to the whatever whatever? And it’s because you squished it in the middle of the communications and they didn’t see it. So really needing to understand, like asking yourself every time you’re creating a communication, what’s the lead and making sure you’re leading with it. And then Tara gribble did an amazing job presenting on small school social media secrets. Social media secrets for small schools.
And I really appreciated what she said about two things. First, she says, think of your social media as like, do you want the free beer or the free puppy? And she said, the free puppy is cute. Yeah, and everyone wants it, right? But it’s a lot of work.
It keeps you up at night. Like you have to feed and water it all the time. It’s yappy, I love puppies, so I’m not doubting it. And then the free beer just arrives and you enjoy it. So she was saying, when you’re thinking about your social media, it should be enjoyable and not take for your entire life.
And so when you’re thinking about adding a platform to your social media, think about do you want the free beer or do you want the free puppy? Because oftentimes we think we need this next platform or something as a small school, but really we’d be just doing just as well, just fine with the ones we have. So I thought that was great. And then she also said, you don’t need to post live on social media. Like, almost everything can be scheduled in advance, except for if you have homecoming, you might want to do live updates and stuff like that.
So I thought that was really helpful. And then susie gill of Inquiry tracker presented about Admissions best practices. And one of the things I thought that was really helpful was her question. Like, she would go around when she worked in schools, and she would interview department heads and teachers and ask, like, what are the top three things you want future families to know about your department? And so that helped her plan out her admission strategy, like what she wanted prospective families to talk to those department heads about what may be events she wanted prospective families to attend that had to do with that department, and it really helped her admission strategy.
So I thought that was amazing. That was really smart. Yeah. And then there’s I think trevor’s reference to Friends was great. I mean, that is a creative presentation.
If you ever get to watch it, it’s a good one. But he also talked about the different principles that motivate parents to kind of take action. And the one he talked about, about the authority principle, where as we’re looking about how we’re positioning ourselves in the market, like, having an authority figure talk about, like, our school is one way that people you gain trust, that know, like and trust factor when you have someone with authority speaking about your school. And then I thought there was so Jesse meadows did a great presentation. Everyone did great presentations, and Andy Ward also did a great presentation.
And I was very interesting because they both talked about bounce rates. And I’m not a bounce rate quit. It’s not my expertise, right? I’m not saying but I always associated, like, bounce rate with something really negative. And the way Jesse approached it was like, it’s informing what’s going on with your funnel, right?
So you probably want to review your call to action if people aren’t making it to the next step. And where Andy was talking about bounce rate, she related it to G Four, which took away the bounce rate option and review in G Four. But she was saying that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes a bounce rate can be a good thing. Like, if you went to a website and the call to action was like, fill out something on an external database, you’re bouncing off the website, but you’re actually going to where you want. Your parents are actually going to where you want them to go.
So very two very interesting ways to think about a bounce rate. And I felt that was extremely interesting. And then tara my favorite one, and I always tell you about this. Well, first of all, you give such to say that you always give, like, such free good tools like Broken Link checker and all those other ones. But I thought this one was really important.
And I’ve seen so many schools not do it. And that’s scheduling ten minutes every month to just review your website. Because it’s amazing how many people don’t take down their open. House notifications or I just was reviewing a school site yesterday and it said they were no longer touring for the 2023 24 school year. And I said to the head, I was like, are you aware that this is on your website?
They’re like, no. I’m like, and you’re asking, where are all the people coming? Where are your applicants? And stuff like that. Well, you’re saying you’re not even touring, so that sort of website check could really help some schools.
Now, Tara, I’m curious, did you have anything to add or anything that stuck out for you? No, I loved the talks that I saw, and I only saw a couple of them because I had a lot of other stuff going on that week. But I thought also the communication and the way that you presented the schedule made it really easy to follow and to connect. Like, I didn’t have to go searching for a zoom link, so I thought it was really well put together and really well organized. And yes, some of the things that you mentioned, you had a takeaway, so you had not only did you have all these great presentations, but it was great that you wrapped it up on the last day with a couple of key sessions where people could kind of come in.
And if you did miss some like I did, I could come and hear what people liked about all the different talks. So I wasn’t able to attend. I just sneaked into Tara’s, but I was able to kind of gather some of the things that she talked about and really appreciated that tip about signing up for something because you feel like you have to, because, well, it’s there, and I should have Twitter because Twitter is there. But actually, if it’s not something that’s adding value and it’s not a place where your people are, don’t get that puppy. Right.
I do have a dog who I love very much, but I will say it’s a lot of work, right? It’s a lot of trouble when I want to go away. So I really appreciated that. Yeah, that was really great. I would like to ask you if you’re going to do it again.
We reveal to everybody if this is something that you’re going to do another time. Oh, my gosh. Done. Done.
100%. And I hope anyone listening to this episode will reach out to me and tell me, yes, yes, do it again. But yes, I am 100%. The feedback that we got afterwards and during was incredibly supportive from both the speakers and the people who attended. They got so much out of it, and that’s the environment we want to create.
That’s the community we want to create a space like that. And I feel like this is the start of a movement of creating accessible, interesting actionable and supportive professional development for small schools. So, absolutely, yes. Date tbd, because I’m trying not to let it conflict with anything, although it’s near impossible with the independent school world, but yes. Awesome.
That’s great. Well, I’m excited that we can look forward to another one, and I hope that you’ll do a lot of the same things that you did in terms of how you organized it, because it really was well done. So thanks for sharing all of this with us today. And for those who didn’t attend, how can they still get access to the sessions? Absolutely.
And thank you, tara, for presenting at the conference, too, and for saying yes when I asked you. Yes, of course people can still access the sessions. If they were conference attendees, they got the recordings as part of their ticket, and so let me know if you have trouble accessing, and if not, they can purchase the recordings online for a very low, affordable price. Very affordable. Yes.
Thank you so much. Thanks for all that you do for small schools, and thanks to everybody for listening and for those who attended, for supporting those of us who help small schools. It’s a nice feeling to know that people are paying attention to the help that we offer. So thanks for attending as well. All right, well, that’s going to wrap it up for today.
We look forward to our next episode where we’ll have a guest on, as we normally do. We’ll talk about books and mindfulness and all those things, but thanks so much for joining. Yes. See you then. Thanks.