Interview with Diana Toole, MBA by Kathy Cain

When the pandemic hit, The Ellis School took a risk. The all-girls independent school located in Pittsburgh, Pa., invested in marketing when many other schools concentrated all of their efforts on the day-to-day demands of managing uncertainty.

Diana Toole, MBA, whose background spans graphic design, endurance hiking and nutrition coaching, leads strategic marketing, communications and outreach at The Ellis School.

She shared with us her lessons learned from launching a social-driven admissions campaign that drove up social media clicks 238% and website sessions 133%, increased enrollment 25% in the first admissions cycle and won 5 Brilliance Awards.

Getting started

Kathy Cain: What did you have in place before you embarked on a new admissions campaign?

Diana Toole: I was very lucky to already have a strong marketing team in place. There were three of us at The Ellis School, and we were working together quite well.

Additionally, we had robust market research that we had accumulated as part of a strategic planning process. And because of our strategic planning process, we had a clear sense of our identity as a school. We had just launched a new mission and vision statement, and a set of strategic priorities that we would be pursuing over the next five years. So that laid a really great foundation for us.

In terms of what wasn’t working so great for us: we had a lot of language about who we were as a school, what we were trying to achieve and what we offered our students and our families. But we heard from both our internal and external constituents that our messages weren’t resonating with them.

I think that happens a lot of times with schools. You think, “Why don’t people understand what ‘integrated curriculum’ means? Everybody should know what that means, because we know what that means.” But that is a really good clue that messaging is missing the mark when you have these very solid differentiators and you’re still getting a lot of questions. Why did you decide that you needed to bring in an outside firm to help you with this?

We recognized that we needed some outside help in distilling our ideas down into more digestible soundbites and messages that clearly communicate all that we offer.

It’s always helpful to get an outside unbiased opinion in the matter because we were so close to the work. But we also recognized that we were going to need additional support, because we were trying to do this work when the country was shutting down at the beginning of the pandemic. We realized that the communication needs of the school throughout the pandemic were going to put a heavy burden on the marketing team.

Taking on something like this was pretty brave to do it in the middle of a pandemic, which was not what most schools were doing. We saw a huge downturn in really proactive marketing during Covid-19, rather than schools kicking it up a notch and making their marketing more meaningful, more authentic, more differentiated.

We recognized that it was going to be a risk. We looked at data from the 2008 recession concerning independent schools that continued to invest and grow their programs throughout that economic downturn. These schools saw greater results on the other side when the economy did rebound. So we applied that knowledge to the pandemic.

It felt risky to us, but now, being on the other side of things, we recognize that we made the right choice for our school at that moment.

Developing Campaign Creative

In order to develop new creative for the campaign, your team took on a campus video and photo shoot. Aside from all the social distancing protocols you needed to accommodate, how did you capture your students’ stories?

One of the things that we were trying to achieve with the interviews in particular was to give a genuine, authentic feel for our girls in our community.

That actually meant that we didn’t prepare them very much. Our videos were unscripted. We did have a set of questions that we asked them, but we also freestyled some of the questions as we went. And our girls were allowed to give their very authentic, genuine answers, which was what we were trying to solicit. We felt like there would be a lot of value in that.

However, it feels a little risky to interview a preschooler, and you don’t know what you’re going to get out of them. We were pleasantly surprised. We have great confidence in our girls. They’re all incredibly intelligent and well spoken. And we knew that they would do a great job. But I cannot tell you how blown away I was by their responses and their ability to really step up and feel comfortable and confident in front of the camera. It turned out great.

Leveraging creative in social

Once you had creative assets in hand, how did you leverage both paid and organic social media with this campaign?

I wanted us to be incredibly thoughtful about our social media launch, and make sure that we were leveraging it in all of the ways that were available to us.

It’s a no brainer to start running ads or to start putting posts out there. But we wanted to make sure that we also engaged and leveraged our internal community of families and students to help us promote the content organically. One of the ways that we did that was to engage with the 39 students we profiled and their families. They helped us get people excited about their profiles by sharing them with their personal networks.

As we launched each individual girl we emailed their parents directly. We made sure that we took the time to engage every family to let them know when the profile was launched and to give them a direct link to the profile, as well as the posts that we were putting out. We asked them to share the profile with their friends and families on their own social media networks.

We saw an increase in the number of shares and reshares the content received. The families felt pride in their daughters, and they took the action that we asked them to take. But you have to be very clear about what you expect of your families, and you have to directly ask them to take the action. You can’t just assume that they’re going to do it on their own.

I loved how you didn’t just put 39 profiles out in social all at once. You did a drip campaign, where you strategically chose a girl to feature and could track individual performance. What did you change most in social from what you usually do?

In addition to wanting to leverage word of mouth within our community and the organic sharing of posts, we also took some new risks. We wanted to be thoughtful about leveraging the content on Instagram Stories. That was really new at the time, as well as Instagram Reels. We started a TikTok account for our school in order to leverage this content.

These were all experiments for us. We hadn’t done a ton of this previously. But we knew that we were going to have this robust library of video content. And we know that video does well on these platforms. Even though we had longer interviews, we thought creatively about how we could slice and dice, and repurpose the content for these specific platforms and channels.

What was the value of social media in this whole campaign? Was it worth your school’s time and investment?

We’ve already seen that it is paying off for our school. We knew we needed to reach millennial-aged parents. Those are the families that are sending their daughters to pre-K and kindergarten. In our city, those younger families are very tech savvy, so we knew that we would be able to reach them on social media. That informed the way we went about the campaign.

Often, I think schools will consider a campaign in regard to print material and digital in terms of their website, but perhaps not always lead with social media at the forefront of their thinking. We knew from the very beginning that social media promotion would be a big part of this campaign, and that influenced many of the decisions that we made along the way.

Return on investment

How else did this campaign investment pay off for you?

We’ve been very thoughtful about what’s not working for us and what is a good use of our time: What can we let go of? Or how can we work smarter rather than harder?

People oftentimes feel like generating all of this content is going to take a ton of upkeep and time in order to keep it going. And we’ve found that by investing the time and energy upfront to build out a really robust content library, it’s saved us time over the past year and a half because we have all of these different assets that we can constantly reach for.

We’ve gotten a ton of runway out of this investment. I am always reminding both myself and my team that just because we’ve seen a photo or watched a video 20 times, and it feels stale to us, it does not mean that it is stale or outdated to an external audience. For them, it could be the first time they’re seeing the content, and it’s still highly engaging.

We’ve also seen the value in reaching right-fit students and families for our school.

One of the things that we started to notice in the application essays that our students submit as part of the admission process, they started to repeat back the messages that we were sharing in our marketing materials. The values that they had as a family were better aligned with our values as a school. And so that was a clear indicator to us that the messaging that we were using was really resonating with people and reaching best-fit students for our school.

Learn more

Read the case study and see creative from The Ellis School’s admissions campaign.