4. Taking a Mindful Approach To Surveys & Marketing Data with Dana Nelson-Isaacs

Does your school know how to use data? In this impactful episode, Aubrey & Tara chat with Dana Nelson-Isaacs, Founder of DNI Consulting, about how data can impact your school’s marketing, the mindset behind receiving data, what to do with the data, and common survey mistakes.

About Dana Nelson-Isaacs:

Dana Nelson-Isaacs is the founder and president of DNI consulting and focuses on the enrollment and marketing work of independent schools. She helps schools stop throwing spaghetti against the wall and use data to create strategy and action. She also facilitates group masterminds and is an executive coach for leaders in all industries. 

Find Dana Nelson-Isaacs:

Show Notes


Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle

Between Two Kingdoms, Suleika Jaouad


Stitcher for podcasts

Show Transcript

Aubrey: ((00:01): Welcome to Mindful School Marketing, your go-to podcast for personal and professional growth.

Tara: (00:07): We’re school marketers, business owners, and moms passionate about connecting other school professionals with tools and strategies for success.

Aubrey: (00:15): We love solving problems, exploring new ideas and thinking outside the box. Let’s transform your school and life starting right now. Welcome to Mindful School Marketing I’m Aubrey

Aubrey: (Bursch.

Tara: (00:29): And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, we’re joined by Dana Nelson-Isaacs. Dana is the founder and president of DNI Consulting and focuses on the enrollment and marketing work of independent schools. She helps schools stop throwing spaghetti against the wall and use data to create strategy and action. She also facilitates group masterminds and is an executive coach for leaders in all industries. Hi Dana. We’re so glad you’re here. Thanks for joining us.

Dana: (00:56): Thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Aubrey: (00:58): And we’re so happy you are here. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you do with schools?

Dana: (01:05): Yeah. So I’ll start from when I was born. No, I’m just kidding. I worked in admission and marketing and tuition assistance for about 15 years in schools and then started my consulting business. I’m beginning my ninth year now. I kind of fell into both admission work as many people do right out of college, that’s its own story. And then I also sort of fell into consulting work as soon as I left my last role. Colleagues who I knew immediately started calling and asking if I could help them with this or that. And I suddenly thought, Oh, this is cool. Like, I wonder if I could be helpful in this new way. And what I ended up doing was a lot of things, but I’ve really found a niche with data and with helping schools understand how data can really inform their strategy. My belief really is that enrollment managers and anyone in schools for the most part are tasked with huge goals and they typically don’t have the resources they need to really deliver on those goals. Even if they have the financial resources or the team or whatever, it’s really hard to wrap their heads around the stuff once you get on the training of the year and so on. So I try to just support the schools and the people and the missions that I so respect and, give people connect the dots worksheets and try to get to action that really makes sense. So that’s a major bucket of what I do and then the other kind of major bucket of what I do is, uh, more in the coaching realm. So I run small group mastermind groups, and then I also work one-on-one with clients in a coaching capacity. And I really love that work. My background before, well, at the beginning of my admission career, and then later was as a therapist and I ended up not pursuing that, but I really loved working with groups and have found that translating those skills to coaching has been really wonderful and sort of seamless, and we’re all sort of therapists in the admission world. So, or the school world maybe, I don’t know.

Tara: (03:21): Yeah. I love hearing about how you use data, but also in your masterminds and in your coaching, is that separate from data? That’s not a data focused thing. That’s more of a, how to get through your work and how to, tell us a little bit more about the mastermind and the coaching aspect of it.

Dana: (03:37): That’s not really data related at all, actually. The individual work is a little bit different than the groups. So the groups I started because when COVID hit, there was so much amazing content out there, but people were really overwhelmed with how to put it into practice. So, the feedback I kept getting was like, I just need people. This was literally their quote. Like I just need people to hash it out with, you know? And so that’s how it started and the way those groups work is that prior to every session, I send out a form where people put in like their hot topics and it can be anything from I don’t know how to run a virtual open house to I’m feeling really burned out to, I think I might quit my job, can we look at my resume to, I can’t find balance between my personal life and work. So it really runs the gamut and I have two groups running now and I would say that one of them has a little bit more of like a tactical vibe and the other one has a little bit more of a conceptual vibe and it’s really just driven by the participants. So we discuss their topics in the sessions, but then I also always bring like a piece of education or something to read, or, like yesterday I ran a group where we were talking about one of the admission directors in the group was having a reaction to what she perceived as sort of some unethical behavior by a colleague. And we didn’t really get into the details of that. What I brought to the conversation was how to have hard, hard, hard conversations. So that was really the topic as opposed to like the nitty gritty of like what had happened with this colleague. You know what I mean? So that’s more of the group and we get the benefit of the group. And then individually it’s sort of like the group on steroids because it’s, one-on-one, so I’m working with someone right now on starting a business. I have another client, who’s a head of school, and that’s has a slightly different flavor, you know, so the different people bring different things. And what I love about coaching, which is different than therapy, I’d be curious to hear from your listeners if they agree with me, but you know, the thing about therapy is that the perspective of therapy is that the therapist has some sort of plan for you that they’re going to help you to achieve a certain outcome based on their assessment of you. Right? So here comes this person who is suffering from depression, and here’s how I’m going to help move them toward less depression. The coaching perspective is that this is a healthy whole person and I’m going to take them from healthy and whole to optimized. And it’s just a very different lens that I really like. And I find suits me and seems to really work for clients too.

Tara: (06:37): Yeah. I love that. I’ve heard other coaches say that too, that therapy is more diagnosis, you know, health, insurance compliance, all that kind of stuff. So fascinating. I’m so excited that you are one of our first guests, because all the things that you’ve just described as sort of where Aubrey and I are coming from with this podcast, which is through our lens, talking about mindfulness and all of the things and how it applies to what we do in our marketing life. So not just the tactics of marketing, but what’s behind that. What’s that foundation.? What’s the burnout? What is all of that? So how would you define being mindful in school marketing and data analytics?

Dana: (07:14): Okay. Well this is a really hard question. I’ve never actually even thought of it in that way before. But I guess I would define it as bringing your full presence to your work regardless of what it is. So, I mean, we’re talking about data, but it really could be anything, and when I think about bringing full presence, partly what that looks like is getting really clear on why you’re looking at data, even if you’re like a data geek and you really love it. It’s not going to do anything for you if you don’t know why you’re doing it. So to pull back and to get out of the weeds, which I think is very much a mindful concept, you know, to pull back, to get clear on why am I doing what I’m doing? What lens am I looking through with this information, where are my biases and how might that impact what I’m doing and then to begin from a place of clarity, as opposed to a place of overwhelm or a to-do list, or, I mean, some of those things are just realities, but I think that there’s, there’s a mindset that one can bring to anything, to washing the dishes or to working with data, um, that, that can really impact the outcome and can also really impact how we feel about it. So, sorry, that’s not really a definition, but those are some thoughts.

Aubrey: (08:38): But I mean what good thoughts. So, and to basically say it’s the energy that you bring it with you, right. To the process and to how you’re even viewing the data. Right. And not coming in with like preconceived notions or what this means about you and like your school or like everything. So that’s fascinating. Yeah.

Dana: (08:57): I think that’s true. And, and there’s something, I always think there’s something funny about like the connection between math and music, I mean, not funny, but fascinating. And I sort of feel the same way about mindfulness and data, it’s like, they seem really different, but they’re actually not that different. I guess what I mean by that is that in order to really, in order to really work with, at least this is my experience in order to really work with data, I have to be fully present. I can’t be checking email or on a call, and I guess I think there’s something really graceful about that that gives space, that gives space for conclusions to show up as opposed to them being sort of manufactured by me or by whoever’s working with data. Does that make sense?

Aubrey: (09:55): Absolutely. I would say so. I think what you’re saying is that when you go into review this data, you’re going in with like this clean slate of like, okay, I’m going to let the data speak. Right. I’m not going to go in there with what I think is happening because the data will tell me the real truth. Right. Yeah.

Dana: (10:16): And data, you know, like any information has patterns and they emerge. So giving it space is actually really important. And sometimes when I work with clients, they get a little bit frustrated that I can’t deliver their report as fast as they want, but really part of what I’m doing is building in time to just let it simmer. Like I can’t just analyze the data and deliver the report. I need to let it evolve, let the patterns emerge, sleep on it, you know? And, and I think that seriously, and I think that that’s a really a mature way to approach it as opposed to like, okay, I’ve checked this box. I’m done. Here you go, client, you know?

Aubrey: (11:01): How often is it surprising? I mean, is it, is it a fight sometimes to believe the data because so much people believe what they think is happening? How often does that happen? That they don’t match up?

Dana: (11:14): Yeah. That’s a great question. I would say they match up most of the time. A lot of the time data confirms our hunch. Oftentimes that’s what people are paying me to do. You know, they’re saying, we think we know what’s going on, but we want the numbers to prove it, and it’s actually really validating when that happens when they’re like, thank you. That was amazing. This is what I’ve been saying for years, you know, that kind of thing. It is a surprise. It can be a surprise. I’m trying to think of a good example of a surprise, which I can’t do right now, but there, there are surprises, especially the details can be surprising. The broad strokes generally confirm hunches, but I try to not go in with a hunch. You know, I’m just responding to a client hunch. We think everyone’s leaving because of the competitor down the street. Okay. Let’s measure that, but I try not to bring that bias to the research.

Aubrey: (12:17): So, these schools receive your data, right. And you’ve given them the report, perhaps like your overall hunch, you know, their hunch is backed by data. Right. And then what have you seen them effectively do with that data? Like, what’s the next step? And then also, I would say, what’s the best mindset for them to receive the data?

Dana: (12:41): Yeah. So, well, let’s do the second question first. What’s the best mindset to receive the data? So I was thinking about this question because I actually had never thought about it before. And I asked my sixth grader, like if you were going to receive a lot of information, what, what sort of mindset would you want to have? And she told me, she said, I would want to be confident and calm and open. And I thought, oh, you’re really smart. Sixth grade.

Tara: (13:13): I love that you asked your sixth grader. That is so cool.

Dana: (13:16): I know it was really cool. And then she told me, well, I need to be ready to manage my time. Well, I need to have a plan. I was like, goodness, okay, love this perspective. She’s right, of course. I mean, in order to be prepared to receive, especially information that may feel unfamiliar, like if you’re not an Excel junkie, you know, that type of thing coming in open, ready to receive. I like to think of spaciousness. I use spaciousness a lot in my self and in my client, my coaching clients, how can we come to this work or to this day, or to this conversation feeling spacious as opposed to contracted. And we can actually feel that in our bodies, if you notice where your breath is, sometimes we breathe really shallowly and other times it’s more in our bellies or chest is open and so on. So anyway, I think that mindset of spaciousness and also being prepared to be wrong, even though you’re typically not, being ready to be wrong, I think is important. So that’s the mindset piece. What do people do with it? They’ve done all kinds of things. It kind of depends on what data we’re working with and what question we’re trying to answer. But from a recruitment standpoint, which is a lot of work that I do, has to do with the market and who’s out there and what do they care about? Schools have done all kinds of things. They’ve run direct mail campaigns, they’ve changed neighborhood strategy. They’ve created transportation routes, they’ve reinvented their admission process so that it more accurately meets the needs of the community that they’re trying to serve. So they’ve done all kinds of things. They’ve matched up prospective families with current families in a different way than they used to. Because now we know something about these people that we didn’t use to know in terms of current families or families like through the admission process, that’s more of like a survey data set, as opposed to like a demographic data set or a psychographic data set. So survey data set, I mean, those schools have done everything from extended interview times with prospective families to, change tour routes, to rewritten taglines, they’ve done all kinds of stuff. The schools that have been really focused on retention, they’ve used that information for budgeting because when you get marching orders from your current families, it’s important to take it seriously. And I actually, I speak about surveys a lot. And for any of your listeners, I’m happy to send you slide decks, or you can find, I mean, literally this year, I’ve spoken at ASAP, NAIS, EMA, all about surveys. So you can go find those presentations if you want them. Just yesterday I was doing a presentation about them. And we were talking about using surveys for retention, and really the key becomes, this is true of any surveys, but the key becomes thinking like a detective and bringing information together in meaningful ways and thinking about where bias might be impacting your interpretation and also being careful of not listening too much to the loud voices. And then of course always asking what voices are missing. So there are a lot of details to effectively interpreting survey data or any kind of qualitative data really. But putting on the detective hat becomes really important. I feel like I’ve completely like gone off the rails here. What are we talking about?

Tara: (17:03): I know there are so many questions I want to ask you about all these questions. Cool.

Dana: (17:08): Okay. So I’ll stop there. So they do all kinds of stuff. Okay. There you go.

Tara: (17:13): What kind of participation do you have in surveys or do schools have it makes me wonder when you talk about representation within the surveys, oftentimes, we see in reviews and things that people who are not happy are the ones who might speak the loudest or might not speak at all. So I imagine that’s something that you must have to deal with a lot with surveys and having these effective as possible. Can you talk about that a bit?

Dana: (17:36): Yeah. So, there are sort of a standard out there in the research world that response rates to surveys can, can be really, really low. They can be something around 10% is considered normal in a lot of populations in schools, we see a higher participation rate more like in the 40% mark for your internal communities, meaning current parents, students, that type of thing. When I do surveys, we often see numbers higher than that. And so do so to schools that I work with, I don’t mean to say working with me, but when I do them and when schools do them, we often see numbers that are higher because families are invested, you know, so they want to give feedback, but you’re absolutely right that the loud voices have things to say. And that’s okay. I mean, that’s just a lens that we have to take into account, you know, so we know that we’re more likely to be hearing from people who either are thrilled. It tends to be barbell so thrilled or really unhappy. The people who were fine tend to just be fine. One way we get around that at least on web-based surveys is by using a Likert scale. That’s not around numbers because we don’t want to have a bunch of fives on a scale of one to 10. That’s not helpful. Right. So I actually like to use one to four. It makes people choose, which is an even number, but you get my point. We get, we don’t want people to choose one to five and she’s three. Yeah. That’s not helpful. The other like big way that we get around response rate issues is by keeping the survey almost all closed questions. So checking boxes. And then we give people options to answer open ended, but open-ended questions, I mean, you know, just from living surveys, like, unless you really have something to say, you’re not going to answer it. And that’s how we get around some of those like vanilla people who aren’t really gonna have anything to say, if it’s all open-ended, they’re not going to answer.

Aubrey: (19:43): I just realized that I am your person who checked all the middle things on a survey recently, it was one to five and I was like, ah, three, three, three. Yeah. I don’t feel passionately about any of this.

Dana: (19:58): And some of it, it is sort of personality driven. Like you also get the people who are always going to give a five, you know, like I never give a five, like I’m always going to, anyway. Yeah. It just depends.

Tara: (20:10): Yeah. Different personality types to unpack that. And I think also, you know, in terms of going back a little bit to the mindfulness or sort of the mindset of the school, I recall when I was working in a school and also as a parent in a school, I proposed a survey and the pushback from the teachers was so they were so against it, I think because they were afraid. So I think that says a lot about a school that would engage with you to do a survey that they’re willing to be open-minded. So that must come a little bit with that. It’s the schools, it’s the people that aren’t, that don’t really want to know, and it might not be bad, but it’s just scary to ask for feedback.

Dana: (20:51): It is scary to ask for feedback. It’s so interesting that you brought that up. If this got brought up in the session, I led yesterday too, and no one had ever brought it up with me before, but what this person yesterday said to your point was, what do you do when you have a head who doesn’t want to hear, who doesn’t want to do a survey because they’re afraid of bad news. And my answer is you probably shouldn’t do it. I mean, if you’re not ready to hear it, then you probably shouldn’t do it. I mean there’s a longer answer to that.

Speaker 4 (21:20): I think that’s so important, right? Because if you’re going to do a survey, what I tell a lot of clients, is if you’re going to do a survey, you need to actually act on that data. Like, there’s nothing worse than filling out a survey. Like you put your time, your effort and like your blood, sweat, and tears. And then like no one acknowledges that the survey was ever completed and there have been no change or no response to any of the things. It’s the worst thing ever. I love that. You said that that’s so important.

Dana: (21:48): That’s exactly what I said yesterday too the loop has got to be closed. So if you have a head or a leadership team, who’s like, we’re scared. We don’t want to know. And there’s a risk of a lack of transparency. On the other side, you just shouldn’t do it. I mean, there are nuances to the transparency thing, but anyway, as a broad stroke, yeah, you get the idea. I just want to say one other quick thing about response rates. Which is that, statistically in schools it’s really difficult to have a statistically significant response rate. And the reason for that is that our sample sizes are so small. Yeah. So again, if anyone finds this really like sexy and exciting, I’m happy to walk you through the math to show this to you. Otherwise just take my word for it. You guys want to hear the math? I’ll show it to you offline.

Tara: (22:42): I love a good spreadsheet, right?

Dana: (22:44): Yeah. It just kind of fun, but just trust me, like it’s really difficult. So when I got this complaint a lot—my board is going to tell me this isn’t statistically significant. And my response is, well, the goal isn’t to get to statistically significant, the goal is to get an educated view into the audience, as opposed to a guess, basically.

Aubrey: (23:05): That’s really important because that does change. I mean, I think, you know, unless you have this humongous school that has like thousands and thousands and thousands of people, uh, I’m assuming that it, your data pool is just so it’s, it’s only this amount. Right? And now when you’re giving the recommendations to heads of school, and to others, is it typically a task force assigned to it to be able to then move forward with the recommendations that you’ve given? Is that what you typically see for schools?

Dana: (23:44): Yeah. I typically see like a small committee, you know, so it’s, it might be the head and the admission director and the, well, it really depends on what we’re surveying, but yeah, there’s typically a small committee that is tasked with moving forward. They do great work for the most part. They’re, they’re ready, they want actionable information, so they’re excited to move forward with it.

Tara: (24:13): We’re almost out of time. Not quite, we have enough time to ask you some questions that we ask all of our guests. So we want to ask you, what are the most important things that you do to grow professionally and personally keeping mindfulness in mind of course?

Dana: (24:28): Yeah. The most impactful thing that I have done over the last three years, I would say is my own coaching. I have worked with a business coach and a life coach. I think life coaches get kind of a bad rap, but what I have to say is that if you have a good one, I mean, she’s changed my life. My life is totally has totally changed. So my business coach has also, I mean, the impact has been humongous. So I just think, I can’t say enough about great coaching has really changed everything for me. I also read a lot. And so I would say reading and professional development types of events, connecting with colleagues has been incredibly impactful. And then I’m a pretty self-reflective person. I do a lot of journaling and that type of thing. And I think that those practices helped me to, to be the best version of myself, which is really all I want to do with the people that I work with has helped them be the best versions of themselves so that they can do their best work.

Tara: (25:35): I love that. How do you find your coaches?

Dana: (25:39): Referral, personal referrals.

Aubrey: (25:42): They are so important, right? Because they challenge you. They get you out of our preconceived things of this is how it should be, or maybe, and they ask this question and you’re like, oh yeah, I never thought of that before.

Dana: (25:59): My life coach said something to me, like maybe a month ago that literally the entire way that I see myself got flipped on its head. And she, like casually said it. She just said like, well, what if blah, blah, blah. And I was like, Whoa, what? I mean, it was amazing. And it’s interesting to our point about being mindful or our mindset, of course, I had to be in the space to hear it right. I mean, perhaps other people have said the exact same thing to me a hundred times over my life, I don’t know, because I wasn’t ready to hear it. So, that’s the other thing about coaching is that it’s very much a co-created experience. And if you’re not ready for it, it’s kind of like the head of school who doesn’t want survey results. Like don’t bother, if you’re not ready to really be challenged and pushed and see things in a new way and do the work so to speak, I wouldn’t hire a coach, but if you’re ready for it, it can be really life-changing, at least it has been for me.

Aubrey: (27:02): Now you’ve talked about some things that we could probably think of adding into our own practices. Right. But do you have any other recommendations as we consider? Like what would be another important thing to bring more mindfulness into our life?

Dana: (27:17): I often like to think about mindfulness as intention. And so aside from breathing, which is really important, I think we can spend like a whole day forgetting to watch our breath. I mean we’re obviously breathing, but to just like notice, oh, that was a shallow breath. Here comes a deep breath for a moment. Right. I also think like other concrete things we can do is just feel your feet on the floor. You know, I like the five senses activity, like five things. You can see four things, you can hear three things you can smell, two things you can taste, one thing you can touch. I might’ve messed that up.

Tara: (28:00): I don’t know that, that sounds cool.

Dana: (28:02): It’s a great tool for kids to like, when kids, when you see kids getting anxious, what are five things you can see? And they tell you what are four things you can hear that, you know? So that’s a really great tool. I had one other thing that I can’t remember. Oh, I also really love little rituals. So for me, that can be like always having a glass of water before I start my work day. Or, before I lead my group sessions, I always light a candle. So I have like a little collection of candles and it’s not about the candle. It’s really just about marking time. I’ve seen people do this with all kinds of creative things around working from home, too, like the workday ends because I close my laptop. Right. So even if I reopen it, because I’m going to watch a movie with my kid or something, I’ve closed it for the day. So I just think those intentional movements can be really helpful, and people sometimes are like, you’re nuts. That’s stupid, but I have found them to be really helpful. And they’re, you know, they don’t cost anything and they’re just easy. So you might as well give them a try.

Tara: (29:12): Yeah. Those are great. Thank you for sharing those. Okay. We’re down to our last couple of minutes here. So we’re going to ask you some rapid fire questions. I’ll do the first one. Aubrey, you can go next. Alright. If you can put one book as mandatory reading some, a book that’s had an impact on you or that you really value in a school curriculum, what would that book be? High school.

Dana: (29:32): High school. Okay. I’m going to go with Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I could choose a lot of fiction books because they also had a huge impact and I think everyone should read them, but I’ll go with Eckhart Tolle, and also it’s just great in line with your theme. Be in the now.

Aubrey: (29:59): That’s one of the books I tackled last year, so I’m so excited. A great recommendation. So moving on, what is one app you couldn’t live without?

Dana: (30:12): Well, aside from my Google apps, I think I’m going to go with, I’m going to go with Stitcher, uh, as a podcast app because I love podcasts and Stitcher is my app of choice for podcasts.

Tara: (30:27): Okay. Next rapid fire question. What are you reading right now?

Dana: (30:32): I am currently reading Between Two Kingdoms, which is a memoir, and I cannot recommend it enough. It is a heavy topic, but it’s an amazing, beautiful book, highly recommended it. Between Two Kingdoms.

Aubrey: (30:48): Well, I know a lot of people in the educational space do like reading, so I’m sure they’ll enjoy your reading recommendation now, as we’re wrapping up, what is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with?

Dana: (31:02): I think my piece of advice, I would say to use what you observe in others as information about yourself, that when we have a strong reaction to someone else, it’s usually because we see something in them that reminds us of ourselves or something that we’re rejecting about ourselves or something we need to work on. To just note, when we notice our own reactions to other people, it gives us so much information about who we are, where we’re at, what we might want to work on. Yeah, I think that’s my piece of advice.

Tara: (31:50): That’s really interesting. Great advice. Thank you for sharing that. And thank you so much for joining us today. We’re so excited, just to chat about all the things that we chatted about, and we probably could have chatted a lot more about a lot more things, because I know we chatted even before we started recording and we could go on and on. So, we loved having you, where can people find you online?

Dana: (32:08): Well, my website’s the easiest place. So I guess we’ll put all this stuff in the show notes so I don’t need to say where they are. So, my website, I’m also on LinkedIn and then I just joined Clubhouse. Are you on clubhouse?

Tara: (32:22): I joined it too.

Aubrey: ((32:24): Yeah, I joined. We’ll find you there.

Aubrey: (32:26): I haven’t gotten deep into it yet.

Dana: (32:28): I haven’t gone deep into it either, but I think it’s really cool. I’m not totally sure yet, but I think it’s really cool. So, um, yeah. Try find me on let’s chat on Clubhouse.

Aubrey: (32:40): Cool. Yeah, I’m definitely, that’s right after we get off, that’s what I’m doing.

Dana: (32:46): Do you have a schedule, like, are you all set? I’m just going to hop right on.

Aubrey: (32:52): There’s so much on there the titles of the things a turnoff, a lot, trying to get over the emojis in the title. Right. Great.

Aubrey: (33:03): All right, well thanks!

Dana: (33:05): Thank you. Bye.

Tara: (33:10): Thanks for joining us on the mindful school marketing podcast. We’d love it if you pop into iTunes and leave a review, five star preferred, let us know how you liked the show. It helps us improve what we’re doing. It helps others find us too.

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