Benchmarking has several similar descriptions, and virtually all center around comparing your processes and practices to industry leaders to determine best practices and performance in crucial functions, with the goal of improving your own performance. It is now seen by many companies as part of a long-term strategy to continually improve methods and results.
So how does benchmarking fit into the marketing of independent schools, colleges, or universities? The short answer seems to be: not very closely. While a fine NAIS blog post from 2015 covered the importance of benchmarking other schools for key governance factors such as tuition, faculty salaries, and budgeting, I have found relatively little evidence of benchmarking in improving an institution’s enrollment, fundraising, or retention, the three factors most influenced by marketing. The objective of this article is to explain benchmarking and provide education marketers with insights that can help you and your institution increase your performance in critical areas while improving your competitive position.
Assessing the marketing channels of school or higher ed leaders can help you assess your own strengths and weaknesses, improve your competitive intelligence, and develop best practices. In an area that I consider under-recognized, I also believe benchmarking can generate new ideas and ways of thinking that are needed in today’s increasingly competitive education environment. I call this additional analysis “benchmarking +.”
HOW TO BENCHMARK
The major element of this “how to” starts with three key pieces: what are your strategy and goals in the benchmarking process, what institutions should you analyze, and what marketing elements will you cover? Traditional thinking as applied to education marketing would be fairly simple: select the top performers in your group of peers, say your school grouping or college
conference. And while this is necessary, it misses a crucial element: the ability to see a broader picture and gain new ideas from atypical sources. In this case, I favor stepping beyond the frequent limits of benchmarking “close to home” to suggest also assessing a broader range of educational institutions and even a leading business. Choose a few institutions that have been commended for their websites, ads, or social media, look at a couple that have been increasing enrollment or fundraising at a much faster rate than average, or scour a couple of small companies from a business “best of” list.
Why is this approach worth considering? Simply put, for new ideas. I view benchmarking+ in slightly different terms than the textbooks and business definitions: it is not just about your relative number of students or tuition costs, though these are very important; instead, it’s the opportunity to use new insights to change your strategic thinking and adopt novel ideas that may help transform your school, college, or university.
Benchmarking how-to’s also encompass your mindset in making comparisons. Much of the gain for education marketers comes from interpreting and applying lessons you glean from other schools’ websites, enrollment communications, or advertising. There are very few truly new ideas today, so most creative efforts go toward applying your brand, strategy, or design elements to different presentations. You’re not trying to steal ideas from other institutions but discover new ideas and thought processes that can fit within your communications approach and be effective for your audience of prospective and current families as well as alumni/ae.
WHAT TO BENCHMARK
For these purposes, you are not benchmarking every element of your targeted institutions’ operations, curriculum, technology, or teacher development, but focusing on the areas that most impact the success of the school: admissions, advancement, and retention.
Website and blog
* Peruse the navigation and home page, then drill in: admissions page; development page; forms e.g. fundraising and inquiry; resources page; directory; overall look and feel; features; use of video; testimonials; length of admissions and advancement forms; alumni/ae page.
- Do they have a hub page that integrates the social channel activity, blog, and other shared content?
- Do the directory pages have biographies of the faculty and staff?
- Do their important forms have relatively few questions, many, or both?
- Do the schools you study have extensive resources online, and if so, what articles, magazine, blog posts, guides, etc. do they show?
- How many alumni/ae stories do they present?
- How and where do they use videos?
- What are the blog topics, who is the author (eg is it always the head of the college or school or does it rotate among many administrators, marketers, etc.?). Depending on the web or blog structure, see how much engagement the posts receive and what topics drive the most interactions.
Social media: how many separate social channels do they have, and how do they organize them? Do you see significant activity from the constituents and not just the institution? What topics and stories generate engagement? Are they using images and video extensively? What topics and images drive the most likes, comments, and retweets?
Admissions material (send in a test inquiry form to get in their system): what do you receive at each stage of the process? Do they ask you for additional information about the “student’s” interest? Does the institution personalize the communications?
YouTube: does your benchmarked pool have a wide range of videos? Do they have playlists to organize their videos? Are there significant numbers of views of their videos?
Digital and print ads, where accessible – these can be difficult to find quickly, especially digital ads, as it’s not easy to discover in search as it is with other marketing channels. If you can find some of these ads in your research pool, what is the purpose and call-to-action? Branding, open house attendance, new programs? Do you see any noteworthy images or interesting creative?
Review sites: Take a quick look at Niche, Great Schools, Private School Review, or one of the other leaders. How many reviews have been written and what are the ratings? What do the comments tell you? Do you see many comments bunched around a certain date? If so, that could mean the institution has conducted a campaign to increase reviews – but done so in a clumsy manner.
With benchmarking+, you will not only see where you stand relative to your peers and a few leaders, but also pick up some new ideas, such as a marketing channel you under-employ or a technique to drive more applications.
BENCHMARKING +: THE HUNT FOR NEW IDEAS
The “+” in “Benchmarking+” refers to a striving for innovation, breakthroughs you have not yet accomplished, or ideas you never thought of. While this is not part of traditional benchmarking, it could end up have more impact on your institution than simply comparing your stats and trends with your peers. Here are some potential concepts:
* Influencer marketing: do you have a strategy, especially on social media, to harness people who love your institution and can also appeal to a wide range of your current, future, and even past constituents?
* Review sites: how does your presence compare with the schools or higher ed institutions you’ve benchmarked? If you’re short on reviews or dogged by a few negative comments, it is very reasonable to request support from the community. Do NOT tell them what to write, but DO mention which review sites you are targeting and use your communications process to spread out the publication dates, i.e. preclude two dozen reviews being published the same week.
* Video: How and where is your benchmarked group using video? Do they host videos on their website, in social media, and on YouTube as well?
* Social media engagement: in your benchmarking, what educational institutions do the best job of generating external engagement? Many schools, colleges, and universities originate virtually all new posts or tweets and get relatively limited interaction from their constituents. When you find education leaders whose parents and alum are participating, what topics or causes get them excited?
* Parent support for enrollment efforts: do you have a parent group to host open houses, speak with parents of top prospects after acceptances have been sent, and submit positive content on your review sites and social media channels?
* Faculty and staff bio’s: I was stunned to learn at one school where I worked that the directory page had the fourth-most page views on the website. Then I thought about our own kids’ independent school experiences and how eager we were to know each teacher’s background. Give parents – and prospective parents – what they’re looking for with complete and fun bio’s on each member of your faculty and staff.
* Unique philanthropy techniques: What did you learn from the development/ advancement web pages you assessed? How well do those institutions explain their value and need for donations? Do they use video or alum testimonials? In this exercise, it’s challenging to gain further insights on how those groups use direct mail or phone calls, and how well they personalize their communications, as those are also important benchmarking indicators.
* Form lengths on admissions and development pages: What did you learn about the length of forms? Any patterns evident? It is worth asking your admission and development teams whether they think shorter forms could bring more prospects into your admissions funnel, where you could potentially capture additional details through follow-up emails. At minimum, you want to test this possibility.
HOW CAN YOU GET THIS BENCHMARKING DONE?
As you can see, doing benchmarking+, even for a fairly small set of analyses, can take thought, time, and effort. It may be hard to perform a valuable benchmarking exercise by wedging it into your already-busy days. One natural alternative is a summer project conducted by your marcom director or team, perhaps supported by admissions people. Another approach is using interns or staff who could tackle the project during slower times, such as over the holidays. Ideally the research will be done by people who are knowledgeable in marketing and./or enrollment, but if not, they can be trained in the key goals and techniques
TAKEAWAYS FOR YOU
* Choose a list of a few “peer” schools, one or two institutional leaders, and perhaps a business that is well-regarded for a function that is important to you, such as your website or social media.
* Determine your goals for the benchmarking+ project, who will do the research, and when.
* Once you have completed the assessment of your targeted schools, colleges, or universities, create a “benchmarking summary” that includes how you stack up against these other institutions and what best practices you have identified in the market.
* In addition, note any new ideas you gained in your analyses of these various websites, social media, print and digital pieces, etc.
* Finally, and most important, collaborate with your Head of School, Director of Admissions/Enrollment, and Director of Advancement to create a specific plan on how to leverage your findings to improve your strategic marketing and communications. You may need to step out of your comfort zone, and think creatively on how to apply what you’ve learned to improve the marketing at your institution.