Enrollment on Lockdown

The following blog was contributed by Adam Olenn, CEO of Rustle & Spark, a full-service creative agency that helps schools connect with prospective families in powerful digital, print, and real-world experiences.

Teaching class is what schools do. It’s not easy, but it is a well-known quantity…until now. With almost all schools engaged in some kind of distance learning, faculty and administrators are focused–as they should be–on delivering quality education at a distance. Reading lists, video chats, online resources, polls, activities…kids may not be in class, but school is definitely in session.

In the middle of this flurry of activity, one team is hit particularly hard: admissions professionals. Carefully-orchestrated visit days? Forget it.  Host-family meet-ups? Nope. Tickets to the play, the game, the concert? No, no, and no–everything’s cancelled. How do you replicate a sales-funnel process that is entirely built on the magic of personal interaction?

First, accept that it’s going to be different, and that much of what you’ve programmed and refined in past years is going to have to be put aside. Once you’ve gotten over that (yes, it’s painful, and that deserves to be acknowledged), come back to the core principles that guided your process in the past.

Brand first

What makes you special? If two people were discussing school options at a barbecue, how would they categorize your school versus your closest two competitors? What one-liner might they use to sum up each of the schools? Whatever they’re most likely to say about you, that’s the core of your brand, and it has tremendous value.

In branding seminars, one of the most important things we teach clients is that they don’t define their brand. They get to propose a definition, but each and every customer and potential customer makes their own decision about whether that definition rings true. If they accept it, great. If not, you need to find out what they put in its place, how widespread that impression is, and how you can make use of it.

Whether your brand is something you’ve put forward or a widespread understanding you have chosen to accept, it will have strengths and liabilities, as we all do. The biggest mistake is in trying to be all things to all people. It’s not possible, and in the attempt, you undermine your credibility when talking about what you really do stand for. The key is to filter every topic through the strength of your brand.

For example, say your school has a reputation as an athletic powerhouse. Congratulations. However, after 20 years of American Idol and The Voice and so on, there’s a huge demand for arts in your area. Yes, you want to have a strong arts program and great facilities, but to suddenly claim you’re the arts school could confuse your market, or worse, create an opening that another school can use to assert themselves as the new king of the hill in athletics. What to do?

Come back to basics. What’s so good about athletics? Why is it part of school in the first place? For one thing, it teaches children to work together and trust each other’s leadership. It shows them how to use their bodies and minds in pursuit of a goal. It requires them to manage emotions–high and low–and care for one another.

All critical skills for a theater company.

Core values

In your live admissions events, you’ve undoubtedly spent many hours of meetings and years of practice creating experiences that leave students and their families feeling impressed, included and excited to be part of your school community.

What is it that impresses them? What excites them? What makes them feel included? Rather than thinking about how to migrate a live experience online, focus on the core feelings that influence decision-making, and apply your digital tools to the task of nurturing those emotional reactions.

Some of these adjustments may be straightforward. Instead of a host-family dinner party, you can orchestrate video-chat charades between current and prospective families. Some assets might require a more thorough re-imagining. You won’t be able to tour students through a day of class–but could you record several online class meetings and edit them into a sizzle reel of great discussion and camaraderie? Can you develop a library of students talking about their favorite parts of school, then send customized playlists to your applicants?           

Tend to your flagship

In normal times, over 70% of families have their first experience with a new school via the school’s website. This is where your book is definitely getting judged by its cover, and you need to convince more quickly than thoroughly.

Nobel prize-winning economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman pioneered the field of behavioral economics, which studies why and how we make decisions, and why that process often seems so irrational. In short, we make our decisions emotionally, and factor in data before and after to confirm that those decisions were good–or say,  ‘why did I do that?!’ Online, people’s brains are constantly making quick decisions, skimming rather than reading, reacting rather than pondering. In this cognitive territory, first impressions are paramount.

Most school websites–and indeed, most corporate websites–make the same mistake: using the org chart as a scaffold for the site’s structure. This is an understandable, ‘inside out’ way of approaching a site. In human terms, it’s like saying, “Here’s what I want you to know about me.”

Alas, they don’t care about you. They care about their child. And the question on their minds is: “What could next year be like for my kid?” In that case, you want your site’s architecture to provide an elegant and clear answer to that question as quickly as possible.

            For more on this, join a webinar about school websites on April 1, 2020 at 1 PM EDT. Live webinar and recording available online.


At times like this, it’s important not to sell too hard when people are dealing with issues of health and safety, but everyone also understands that business must go on. And as frustrating as this time is for admissions officers, the families you’re recruiting may be even more frustrated as they try to move their children’s educations forward. Stick to the principles that guided the development of your real-world sales process, and you’ll find a digital variant that’s headed in the right direction.