As someone who has worked with schools for more than 15 years, I’ve seen communication offices undergo some significant changes.
From a single person office that may have been part of a development office, to a multi-person team with the director reporting to the head of school, there’s little doubt that marketing and communications have become a critical component of school life.
But what does the ideal office look like? How should it be organized? What types of job positions do we need to manage all of the different ways we need to communicate including print, web, social and more?
In episode 28 of Blackbaud K-12’s Get Connected Podcast, Stacy Jagodowski, Director of Strategic Marketing & Communications, Cheshire Academy, joins me to talk about the growth of the marketing and communications in private schools.
Stacy and her team have pushed the envelope of what’s possible, and I’m excited for you to hear her thinking around the “dream” communication team.
For a full breakdown of what we covered, make sure to check out the expanded episode notes/Q&A section below.
If you’re a fan of the podcast, please do us a favor and rate and review the show on iTunes. Your support is very much appreciated.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to Cheshire.
I’ve spent the majority of my career working at independent schools, which is something I’ve always been passionate about, especially since I’m a graduate of an independent school. I started my career in communications more than 10 years ago, back before Facebook and the rest of the social media outlets even existed. Despite loving what I did, I took a detour into the world of admission for about five years. Eventually, I returned to marketing & communications though, which is where I’ve been for the last seven years.
Prior to coming to Cheshire Academy, I was a one-person communications department at a junior school, and as anyone who is a one-man-show knows, that burns you out real fast. After a four-year solo career, I was ready for a change. Through someone I knew who already worked at Cheshire Academy, I learned of an unexpected opening to run their communications office.
What was the makeup of the marketing & communication offices at your earlier start?
When I took the job, it was called the Communications Office and had three people on the team:
- Director of Communications
- Social Media Manager
- Webmaster and Communications Associate
The office was classic outbound marketing model, and was more tactical and reactive in nature than strategic and targeted. It reminded me of the communications office that I had started 10 years earlier at another school, which meant that Cheshire Academy’s communications office wasn’t up with the times and not adequately meeting the needs of the school.
What did it look like at Cheshire when you first arrived?
The school was in its second year with Jerry Larson, an interim head of school, and the board was getting ready for a formal head of school search. The Academy was also wrapping up the development of a strategic plan, and we were beginning to work with a marketing consultant. We had some big goals for the admission office and the development office, as well as the communications office, and it was clear that we needed to take a different approach to marketing as we moved forward.
At what point did you realize that structure of the office needed to change? Was there a tipping point?
I knew before I even accepted the job that the office structure needed to change. The makeup of the office in its current state and the needs of the school didn’t align. Cheshire Academy had some marketplace challenges to overcome, and we needed to step more aggressively into the digital age of marketing. This was a major reason why I was excited to take on this position; to have the opportunity to revamp the marketing team and introduce a comprehensive inbound marketing strategy.
How did your model begin to take shape? Did you borrow from organizations outside of K-12 private schools?
Oh definitely. When I was a one-person department, I used to daydream about my ideal office structure. For years, I coveted the makeup of higher education marketing offices, and I had spent a lot of time looking at corporate marketing agencies and how they were organized.
Over my four years as a solo act, I must have developed nearly a dozen different job descriptions, ranging from the most basic intern duties to higher level associate head of school positions that would lead the admission, marketing, and development teams in a cohesive and strategic approach to promoting the school and improving our place in the community.
To me, the most successful teams were built with skill-based roles and not offices that were staffed with well-intentioned jack-of-all-trades types. Gone are the days of one person doing it all and doing it all well; it’s not realistic anymore. So my goal was to build a dream team made up of specialists who worked together, but focused on specific areas of expertise.
Fortunately, my vision for the existing communications office at Cheshire Academy aligned with the head’s vision for the school overall. I spent a lot of time setting goals for the office and revamping job descriptions to accomplish those goals. I also really started to evaluate the outsourcing we were doing, determining if that was the right model for the office.
How did you get buy-in from your head of school for increased budget and staffing allocation?
Well, I was fortunate that Cheshire Academy was in a position of NEEDING to make a change when I came on board. The same old routine was not cutting it anymore. There were glaring holes in content production, the website was not adequately meeting the needs of current families or prospective families, and we needed to drastically improve our digital marketing efforts. My head of school and I were on the same page when it came to determining the marketing needs of the school, which is half the battle right there.
Before I even arrived, I started developing a five-year plan for the office, which included the growth of the team over time, so I didn’t have an immediate need for increased staffing and funding. However, I made sure to share my long-term strategy from the start, and be vocal about the need to expand the team over the next five years. I wanted to share my vision from day one, regardless of whether or not it was possible at that moment.
What was the first year like? What changes did you make immediately?
I started by making sure that I had the right roles within the team, and the right people in those roles. Developing new job descriptions was a large part of this effort, and it gave me the structure I needed to make sure that we were properly staffed in order to implement my vision of developing that team of specialists to ensure that the office would be successful in the long term.
The first job description that I turned upside down was that of the webmaster. The position that existed when I was hired was more of a database manager than a webmaster. We weren’t able to develop and implement digital marketing strategies because we were running lists and reports, and providing database support, which was holding us back.
So, I rewrote the webmaster job description to move away from database support, which could be adequately managed by existing office assistants and not our department. I kept content coordination and a smaller level of website support for other offices, with the goal that we would teach our users how to manage their information. But, I added new responsibilities to the webmaster’s role, including SEO strategy, analytics analysis, user experience research, and digital marketing. I also tacked onto the job description the ability for this individual to generate quality digital content, both written and visual.
At the same time, I started implementing the first phase of a content strategy. Simply put, that strategy was to produce more content, but I also wanted to make sure it was purposeful content that told the story of the school. Within the first few months, two of us took on writing assignments and soon we were producing a few stories a week for the website, as compared to a few stories a month the prior year.
The response was great, but we knew halfway through the year, this level of production wasn’t sustainable in our current office structure. Knowing that, I was having conversations with my head of school about how we could better accommodate these increased workloads.
In the spring of my first year, my head of school came to me with an opportunity to expand, and we added a fourth member to the team to assist with content production and editing. Soon, we were regularly posting a daily website news story, as well as producing and sharing more photo albums and video than ever. In that first year, we increased written content by more than 400%.
What was the next phase of your strategy? What was the second year like?
The second year was an interesting one. When I came on board, the school was heading into a head of school search, but there was the potential of the search taking two years. However, the committee and the board agreed that we found the right candidate within one year, and so I started my second year at the Academy with a new head of school.
Also during my second year, I had an opportunity to rebrand the office a bit. I had been evaluating our outsourced efforts, and if those funds would be better served in another way. I made the pitch to my head of school and CFO to eliminate outsourcing and instead reallocate that money towards bringing all photography and graphic design in house. The change not only made sense, but was fiscally possible since the bulk of the funding already existed elsewhere.
From there, I tackled the office as a whole and changed the title of our office from just Communications to Strategic Marketing and Communications, with the goal of changing the mindset of folks on campus. I wanted the community to move away from thinking about the way the old communications office used to be, and focus more on the new direction we were headed.
Then I focused again on job descriptions. I rewrote my job description to take on more high-level strategic initiatives to continue to advance the school’s marketing efforts, and I promoted my webmaster to an Assoc. Director of Digital Marketing, basically doing away with the traditional webmaster role. While some webmaster tasks still fall under her job description, we placed a higher priority on digital marketing efforts.
I altered the other two positions on the team slightly to eliminate some of the overlaps and again focus more on skillsets, allowing people to capitalize on their strengths and interests.
What does the office look like now staffing-wise? What’s the division of labor?
So, now in my third year at the Academy, we have a rebranded, 5-person, skill-based Strategic Marketing & Communications team, which is affectionately coming to be known as SMAC.
Since we are in fact skill-based in nature, the division of labor is pretty clear:
- one team member is focused on magazine writing and press opportunities, and helps with event coverage
- another one is our junior graphic designer and photographer – design and photography, obviously
- Another team member manages all our social media marketing, and also produces content for those outlets … he writes the majority of the homepage news content, blogs, and does video work
- And then the associate director manages the marketing portions of the website, coordinates email marketing, SEO strategies, and analytics; and when she can, she even helps with writing. She also serves as project manager for special initiatives, like our newly launched online school store and a drone-based video series that we weren’t able to do ourselves.
Talk about what you’ve accomplished since moving to your current day setup? What approaches or campaigns are you most proud of? Could you have reached these heights without revamping your office?
We have accomplished so much, and honestly, none of this would have been possible without revamping our office. It’s pretty amazing what we’ve done in less than three years; in fact, I often forget that it has only been three years.
Our inbound marketing is by far one of the most amazing changes we’ve made in a short period of time. One of the aspects of this strategy has been the transformation of our blogs.
First, we enlisted a team of student bloggers to write about their experiences from a student perspective.
Then, we turned our attention to the existing school blog, which was initially focused on Cheshire Academy and how wonderful it is … while yes, that’s great, that’s a limited audience, and it wasn’t doing much for us.
So we worked to transition it to a public service, offering advice to students and families interested in learning about boarding school. We titled it, The Boarding School Blog, implemented a strong SEO strategy and chose the angle of providing admission advice. We started posting weekly, and are now posting twice a week. My five years in admission offices have really come in handy since we launched!
We went on to start two more blogs:
- A social media blog that ranges from advice for parents on understanding teens’ social media usage to provide information for schools on how to leverage social media for marketing, and understanding trends and changes in how social media outlets operate.
- And a summer camp blog to support the promotion of a new summer camp program that we’re offering this year. If you combine the student blog with the three blogs that we produce within our office, we’re publishing daily; which is in addition to the Cheshire Academy-centric content that is published on our home page.
What we’ve done with our blogs has gotten a lot of attention, and we’re working on the next phases of expanding and improving our blogging efforts in the coming year. It’s pretty exciting to see the blog’s growth and progress over time.
I’m also really proud of the work we did last year with our development office. It was the perfect collaboration of the two offices to support the annual fund through a strategic approach that combined email marketing, print marketing, and social media marketing, to complement the Development Office’s personal outreach and events.
We developed a branded theme for the Annual Fund, and provided talking points for the development office, as well as graphics and videos to go along with the print and email pieces. We truly adopted the theme into our everyday work, and the combined efforts of both offices resulted in the annual fund not only meeting its goal for the first time in a long time, but exceeding it, both regarding dollars and participation. It was amazing. We even won a CASE District 1 Silver Award in Annual Fund Programs for our work, coming in second to Boston University. I’ll take that any day!
Are there still gaps in the makeup?
Definitely gaps. I firmly believe that there will always be gaps, no matter how big you get because the more manpower and brainpower you have, the more ambitions, goals, and ideas you’ll have. The field of marketing is always changing and staying up on trends means constantly adding new outreach efforts or adjusting existing ones. Unfortunately, those constant changes and advances mean that we must add new initiatives to our plates regularly to stay relevant, but we can’t always take initiatives off our plates. Ideally, our teams need to grow to accommodate the ever increasing workloads.
What does the perfect marketing office look like to you?
OK, keep in mind that you asked what my perfect marketing office would look like …
The first thing I’d want to do is to have the school be structured in such a way that a high-level Associate Head of School would oversee admission, marketing, and development to maintain a focus on strategic initiatives and developing long-term goals. It’s too easy for offices to get bogged down in the immediate goals, and this position would keep everyone looking at the big picture.
Within the marketing office, I’d, of course, have the strategic marketing director, who oversees the entire SMAC team. I’d love to have a project manager, who basically supports the director in making sure the entire team is on task, on deadline, and identifies the potential obstacles that arise that could hold up project production by liaising with other departments.
I’d definitely keep my Digital Marketing and Social Media Marketing specialist roles, as those are two crucial positions within the team.
I’d love to add a Magazine Editor. Our community loves the magazine so much that I wish we could publish more frequently, but that requires another level of content production and magazine coordination, which means an editor position would have to be added.
As such, if I had an editor, I’d also need to expand my writing capacity within the team. Ideally, I’d have three full-time writers/editors so we can cover day to day work, write feature articles for magazines, write digital and print marketing content, blog regularly, and tackle public relations efforts.
I’d have at least one full-time graphic designer, if not two. And at least, one full-time photographer and videographer.
I’d also like to add an Event Planner to the team, who would work closely with the digital marketing specialist. This role would oversee event registrations, manage the school calendar, and work with the marketing team to promote and cover events throughout the year.
Something that many schools have but rarely falls under marketing is a Sports Information Director. In my opinion, too often this role is viewed solely as a function of athletics, when it should really be closely tied to marketing, either falling under the marketing umbrella or co-reporting to both offices.
For a communications director looking to lobby for more budget and staff, what recommendations would you offer?
- You have to have leadership that understands the value of marketing. If you don’t have that, then it’s your job to educate your head. Encourage your head to attend a marketing conference or two, so they can hear first-hand what challenges we face, or get them talking with a head of school who does get it. Often, hearing it from someone else helps hammer home the needs we have in our departments.
- You need to know what your strategic goals are for the school. If you’re a school that closes your admission application as of February 10, chances are, your needs are going to be drastically different from those of a school that is recruiting right through the summer. Develop a strategic marketing plan that meets YOUR school’s needs, and then use that to develop your ideal team with explanations why each position is necessary.
- Ask your head what schools he or she thinks are out there the most/best marketing, and then research their marketing office structures for comparison. Chances are, your head will mention schools who have larger teams or more strategically staffed teams that you do, and you can have a discussion on what changes are needed to get to that level. These comparisons can be helpful for both you and your head as you examine the direction of your office.
- Evaluate how your existing resources are being used. Are you outsourcing a lot of work? This can be an expensive line item, and if you’re like me, you might find that you’ll get more out of bringing that work in-house.
- Something I know folks don’t want to hear, but I’m going to say it … Push yourself and your team to do a little more and show the value of the work you want to do, not just what you already do. Dipping your toes in the water with a new initiative can prove that you need to make some changes. BUT … keep your head in the loop with this trial effort, and be clear that your goal is to illustrate the value in investing more. Meet regularly to review progress and, assuming that you see success, remind your head regularly that while yes, you’ve managed to accomplish all this great work, that it’s not a realistic structure to maintain long term.
- Track everything. Track every project, every request. It takes a little more time on your part, but will pay off when it comes time to negotiate for more help. We keep a running list of initiatives we have inherited over time, including both strategic and intended initiatives, and those that just fell to us because no one knew who should handle a project and it just fell to SMAC. This is another tool that’s helpful in illustrating just what goes into your production schedule.
- Be patient when necessary and push when necessary. You’re an expert in your field, and at times, you need to push folks to get on board with initiatives. But, make sure you know if your peers are ready for the same changes that you are. If you’re not careful, you might discover that you’re not even in the same book, nevermind on the same page. It takes time.
- Finally, I’d say to make sure that you’re truly realistic in your requests, but that you’re also vocal about your long-term vision. If I came in from day one and told my head of school that I wanted to add two new positions to my team in two years, he would have laughed me out of the office. But my head knows my goals, and how I plan to get there, and we strategize together on how to make things happen. That way, when either one of us sees an opportunity to capitalize on change, we’re not beginning conversations; we’re finalizing arrangements.
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