Should Private Schools Add Niche to Their Digital Marketing Strategy?

May 25, 2018 Cheryl Fleming

“You getting these too?”

That was a question emailed to me by Mark Anderson, our head of school at Sanford, in December of 2016. "These" were emails from a Niche representative.

I had no idea what Niche was and had never received any communication from them, so I conducted some research before responding. My fact-finding yielded several surprises. I discovered that Niche was an online platform featuring profiles of kindergarten through 12th-grade schools throughout the country. Those profiles—including one for Sanford School—provided a report card with a letter grade, a rank, reviews, demographic information, and more data.

How could there be a Sanford School profile I didn’t know about…on a site that I never knew existed? 

After settling down from the realization that I was not “in the know” about Niche, I wrote my response to Mark. Typically, I would have replied, “No.” Somehow, “no” didn’t seem like a sufficient response from the director of communications and marketing whose finger should be on the pulse of all things Sanford. I considered creating a lengthy response with qualifiers and explanations about my lack of Niche knowledge, but that’s not my style. My message back to Mark read: “I have not seen this particular initiative.”

Why did Niche reach out to our head of school?

As you might have guessed, Niche was making a pitch, which included:

  • A link to our profile;
  • Key statistics showing the number of profile views and Niche referrals to our website for the previous month;
  • The advantages of upgrading from a free, basic profile to a paid, premium profile;
  • An invitation to connect with the Niche representative to learn more.

Okay, Niche…you’ve got our attention. We’re ready to claim our profile.

Our first order of business was to ensure that Niche had accurate information about our school. We claimed our profile in January of 2017, which allowed us to:

  • Complete and submit their Private School Survey;
  • Submit future data updates when necessary;
  • Receive monthly reports regarding the traffic and engagement that our profile receives along with data for our top competitor schools on Niche.

Understanding that we couldn’t influence our ranking or report card by submitting data, we could control the facts that were being presented on our profile if we completed the survey.

About that profile...we could “Sanfordize” it.

When we claimed our “basic” profile, Niche shared that their premium profile would allow us to showcase what is unique about our school through photos, video, and a custom editorial. If we upgraded, we would also receive:

  • Four custom calls-to-action (e.g. Apply, Learn More, Schedule a Tour, Inquire Now) to motivate further engagement with our school;
  • Two Niche Facebook promotions to help drive the community to our Niche profile;
  • The integration of an Instagram feed that would highlight our three most recent posts.

There was one more thing they wanted us to note: premium profiles receive two to three times the engagement of basic profiles.  

Pulling the trigger.

After several months of research, internal discussions, and analyses, we decided to upgrade. We chose the upgrade path for several reasons:

  1. We like to control messages about our school on external websites and platforms whenever possible. The custom content and CTAs available through a premium profile would give us control of many of the featured messages and reduce the number of ads and non-Sanford content that appeared on our profile.
  2. We wanted to strengthen our online presence. As a school that launched a 21st-century website and jumped into social media relatively late in the game, we needed to increase traffic directed to our site and social media pages. To that end, increasing engagement with Niche users made sense.
  3. Internal research indicated that members of our community were Niche users. During a board-level Advancement Committee meeting, one parent shared that she was “all over Niche” when she and her husband were looking at schools for their children.
  4. We saw an opportunity for enhanced community involvement to tell our story. Reviews from the school community play a key role in determining a school’s ranking on Niche. Our annual research indicates that we have high parent satisfaction ratings. By encouraging families to share their reviews on Niche, we were not only supporting a strong presence on the platform but also strengthening our word-of-mouth marketing.
  5. Maintaining brand consistency is important to us. While we can’t have complete control of the content, design, and tone of a Niche page, a premium profile would allow us to integrate our brand into our profile.

Are we seeing a return on our investment?

From a budgeting perspective, our investment in a Niche premium profile for one year is about a quarter of our former annual print advertising costs. We believe that the ROI for the Niche initiative is stronger than the ROI for print advertising, primarily due to:

  • Our ability to develop and target content to audiences/users who are looking for schools;
  • The engagement created by connecting profile visitors to our website and social media pages;
  • Measurable data being available for analyses.

While comparing Niche to other online initiatives that drive traffic to our site is difficult because we’re not comparing apples to apples, we feel confident that the premium profile has been beneficial. The table below highlights data to support our position.

Niche Data for Sanford School from 2016 through 2018
2016 2017 2018
Total Page Views on Niche
2,190 5,585 2,296*
Engagement: Clicks to Sanford School’s Website & Social Media Pages
60** 684 362*
Engagement: Clicks to Sanford School’s Website & Social Media Pages
40** 286 228*

*Through April 30th.
**Niche began compiling data in August.

Based on the results of the data:

  • Our page views increased 155% from 2016 to 2017 (we launched our premium profile in May of 2017);
  • The monthly average for page views was 182 in 2016, 465 in 2017, and 574 for 2018;
  • The monthly average for engagement (based on clicks) was 5 in 2016, 57 in 2017, and 91 for 2018;
  • The monthly average for website referrals from Niche, based on Google Analytics, was 8 in 2016, 24 in 2017, and 57 in 2018.

In addition to the quantitative results, the qualitative benefits—some of which are listed below—make this initiative a good match for our school.

  • Most ads, which can be distracting and detract from our messages, are not included on our page;
  • Our community members, some of whom view our Niche page, are proud that Sanford looks and feels like “their school;"
  • We can drive users directly to the content we feel is important;
  • Our school’s story is being connected across social media platforms and our website.

The early returns indicate that we are seeing engagement levels increase significantly with the premium profile, which we attribute to our prospective admissions audience. We will continue to closely monitor these statistics, but at this juncture, we believe Niche has been a beneficial part of our overall digital marketing strategy.

Editorial note: Blackbaud doesn't have a partnership with Niche, and the opinions expressed in this article are not those of Blackbaud. We are providing this article to help school marketers who receive "you getting these" emails from their head of school.


About the Author

Cheryl Fleming

Cheryl Fleming is the director of communications, marketing, and technology at Sanford School, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade college prep school in Hockessin, Delaware. Cheryl joined the Sanford leadership team in 2005 following a 25-year career in broadcasting, corporate public relations, and freelance communications consulting. A recipient of local and national awards, Cheryl has been recognized by the International Association of Business Communicators, the Public Relations Society of America, the Delaware Press Association, and the National Federation of Press Women.

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