Using your website to manage your district brand
|Leveraging websites to manage and enhance the district brand|
Every K-12 district is unique, with different needs and goals depending on the populations they serve. And every district has its strengths and weaknesses. But no matter how they differ, all districts need to effectively communicate what makes them special — they all need to tell their own story and project a positive image.
More than ever, marketing plays an important role in public education as districts face increased competition from private schools, online schools, charter schools and home schooling. A district’s most powerful and cost-effective engine for supporting its brand is a distinctive Web presence. District websites have become the hubs where current and prospective community members access information and form their opinions about a district and its schools.
In order to present a complete and positive image, the website should clearly communicate the district’s brand, showcase its successes, demonstrate consistency, and highlight the strengths and differences of its individual schools. By presenting an accurate and comprehensive portrait, a website can help drive enrollment, boost teacher recruitment and create a positive image among community members.
Communicate the district brand
Websites are often the first place the public visits to learn about a district. This provides administrators with a great opportunity to communicate and strengthen their brand.
“Our primary vehicle for communicating and supporting our brand is our Schoolwires® Centricity2™ website,” says Bernie Rhinerson, Chief of Staff and District Relations, San Diego Unified School District.
The website played an important role when the district faced a communications challenge about five years ago. San Diego Unified is the second largest district in California, serving more than 132,000 students in more than 225 educational facilities. Its vast community did not identify strongly with the district, and people referred to it differently in name. Some called it ‘San Diego City Schools”; others called it “SDUSD”.
To build a more impactful and uniform image, the district developed a new logo in 2010 and initiated marketing activities to build a stronger brand. In the new logo, the words ‘San Diego Unified’ are in bold to encourage the public to refer to it consistently by that name. A star graphic symbolizes how the district embraces its mission for student success and illustrates the many ways it is realizing this goal.
The district’s family of websites was key for introducing the new logo and they continue to help reinforce the brand today. “Because of deep budget cuts, we rarely print materials anymore,” says Rhinerson. “Other than business cards, our websites are the primary vehicle we use to display the logo.”
Like San Diego Unified, many of the students at Phoenix Union High School District associated themselves more closely with their individual schools. Promoting the district’s brand through the school websites helps strengthen the students’ connection to the larger system. It also increases the district’s visibility in the community. For example, in the past, a coach or other staff member might use the wrong logo when ordering uniforms or other school materials, diluting the power of the brand. Now, staff members use the website to download the proper logos and images of mascots.
“Making the logos available is important in presenting a consistent image to our students, parents, community members and employees,” says Renee Ryon, Community Relations Specialist, Phoenix Union High School District. “The successful application of our image creates a familiarity with our community and schools, and it conveys professionalism. We want our district and schools to be easily identified by the public.”
An effective website also lets districts tell their own story and share their achievements. San Diego Unified School District uses a wide variety of interactive content that is featured and updated frequently. For example, the home page prominently displays a series of rotating photographs that link to success stories from across the district and includes a featured video.
Photographs are the most effective medium for sharing news, says Rhinerson. “Photos draw people in and then they click through to the story. Our schools routinely send us photos and stories and we rotate through four or five a week. The photos and headlines visibly communicate our student successes. For example, we might post a photo of a student who was a winner at an academic contest, or an image of the graduating class of 2012. These images tell visitors to the website that the district is doing great things for students.”
“Photos are very important,” agrees Teri Wilson, Director of Public Engagement, Grand Prairie Independent School District. “We can talk about successes all day long, but nothing says it better than photos of kids in their graduation caps and gowns.”
Phoenix Union also posts its good news and awards, and offers interactive buttons to let the public contribute news. “We are constantly posting and updating positive news. Leveraging our website and social media lets us push our own news and tell our story the way we want it told,” says Ryon.
Many districts are also taking advantage of search engine optimization and social media like Twitter and Facebook. “Each week, we take all the positive news stories we have assembled for our website and push them out through RSS feeds and Facebook and Twitter,” says Rhinerson. “The last time I checked, we had 4,665 followers on Twitter and 2,289 likes on Facebook, and our district website gets more than 1.5 million hits a month! So we are taking one source of solid content and pushing it out through multiple channels. It’s very cost effective.”
Create consistent websites
While the district website is the front door to the school community, most visitors also access individual school sites. For this reason, it is important to communicate the brand throughout all Web pages.
“On all our school pages, we communicate the message that no matter where students might attend school, there are consistent standards, leadership and support throughout our district. The same commitment to student achievement is everywhere,” says Rhinerson.
To support consistency in messaging, San Diego Unified feeds stories to its 150 school websites from its district page. For example, when the graduation rate goes up, the news is posted on all school websites. Not only does this reinforce the district’s commitment to student success, it reinforces the message that it is a unified district. The functionality within Centricity2 lets staff do this easily.
Having consistency across all sites is also important to Grand Prairie, not only to support its brand but to address its key communication challenges.“About 70 percent of our population falls within a low socio-economic demographic, and our students might attend two or three campuses within a school year as the family moves around,” explains Wilson. “So it is important to us that our websites are consistent from campus to campus and from campus to district.”
The district customized its Schoolwires’ template so that elementary, middle and high schools all have similar content and placement of information. “The consistent placement of information is important because our parents navigate multiple websites. We want to make it easy for them to find information. We give our schools as much local control as we can, but we also need to accommodate our high mobility rate and support parents who need to easily access content,” says Wilson.
Showcase strengths of individual schools
Although consistency is the goal across all websites, individual schools need to showcase their strengths and uniqueness. Within San Diego Unified, some schools have different themes, such as a Mandarin language school and a performing arts school.
“Individual schools need to be able to market their programs so parents can understand the choices available to them. Also, an elementary school website should look different from a middle school or high school site,” says Rhinerson.
Grand Prairie Independent School District in Texas also offers many educational choices. The options are clearly laid out on the district website which directs parents to individual pages for more information on the schools. Visitors to the page for Garner Fine Arts Academy are greeted with colorful images of art and performances while those who click through to the Young Women’s Leadership Academy at Arnold Middle School see a photo of young women in professional attire.
“We want to help families make informed choices about where they educate their kids, and about the activities they want them involved in, before and after school, and in the summer,” says Wilson of Grand Prairie Independent School District.
Many families will form their first impression of a district through its website, making the site an important tool for recruitment. That’s especially true in Arizona, where an open enrollment structure means that students can choose from any one of the area’s public high schools as well as charter and private schools, creating a very competitive environment.
“Our district website is essential to recruiting students to our 16 high schools,” explains Ryon of Phoenix Union. “Centricity2 gives us the tools to easily display the wide range of options we offer not only for education, but also for fun and participation.”
Because of the district’s large size - 26,311 students – it can offer many educational options, like magnet and career schools, that smaller competitors cannot. And though its schools are urban, many campuses within Phoenix Union have a suburban look. “When people visit our websites, they see how nice our campuses are. Those images are really important to helping with recruitment,” says Ryon.
Boost teacher recruitment
Displaying district successes and communicating its brand also helps with the recruitment of teachers.
“We spend a fair amount of time attending job fairs and working closely with certification programs and universities, but our website is the biggest avenue for people to learn about the district,” says Jeff Burke, Director of Human Resources at Alvin Independent School District in Texas. Alvin ISD has been the fastest growing district in the Houston area percentage wise for the last five years. Each year, the district hires 170-180 staff members, of which 50 to 60 are for growth positions. To boost recruitment efforts, the district went live with its Schoolwires’ website in July 2012.
“Our new site demonstrates that we are on the cutting edge. It says that we are current with technology and that is a draw for young teachers coming out of college. We were blown away with the design we could create using Centricity2. Just looking at it tells visitors that we are ahead of the competition,” says Burke.
Build confidence in the district
The ubiquitous and instant nature of electronic communications has forever changed the way that districts manage their brand. Websites give districts the capability to tell their own stories and share their successes.
“The number of visitors and the community feedback we receive tell us that our websites are highly valued and highly influential,” says Rhinerson. “Conversely, a poorly designed website can give the community a negative impression of a district. It is critical that administrators pay attention to the content and look of their websites, and their impact on the district’s brand.”
To learn more about how a quality website can help build confidence in the value of your district, visit schoolwires.com/centricity
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