Behind the Scenes: What Independent Schools Need to Know About Social Media Marketing

In 2016, The Chicago Academy for the Arts (IL) had little presence on Facebook and Instagram. Marketing and social media informally fell to admission and development staff members, and it often took a backseat to their regular responsibilities because of the lack of time and limited expertise. They knew the power of social media marketing at independent schools, and that year, the school hired me as the first full-time director of marketing and communications. My first task was to revitalize our presence on social media.
Every independent school needs to be invested in social media marketing and best practices to ensure growth and to attract qualified students. I know that families have many choices when it comes to school, and I know that one way to help them wade through their options is to give them a real feel for what a school is like—to give them a behind-the-scenes look at all the possibilities. And so I’ve worked to attract prospective families on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Vimeo with organic content and paid ads. 

Facebook Advertising Still Works

As marketers and admission professionals at independent schools, we benefit from a relatively enviable Facebook outlook. The largest social media platform, as an advertising tool, has great value in our industry and likely will for the foreseeable future. Other companies and organizations likely won’t be increasing the percentage of their ad budget devoted to the platform for very long. That’s because of Facebook’s demographic makeup: According to Pew Research Center, the number of teens on Facebook dropped from 71% in 2015 to 51% in 2018.
Our future parents—who we need to sell our schools to—however, are still Facebook users (79% of 18–29-year-olds are still on Facebook, too). At the Academy, we’re investing half of our advertising budget into Facebook. It’s the best network for reaching an older and soon-to-be older audience that still engages with ads. And a reasonable interpretation of this data shows that there’s some exaggeration over concerns that Facebook’s popularity is fading as newer and hipper platforms come on the scene—at least for the audiences who independent school marketing professionals are targeting.

Get to Know the Newer Platforms 

To measure how our social strategy is working, we use Google Analytics to scrupulously study the referral sources for our website traffic. We also consider our students’ and parents’ anecdotal experiences and how they say they interact with these platforms. The data aligns with our gut feeling—parents respond to our Facebook organic and sponsored content, while students are active on our Instagram account. But as new platforms crop up, we’re keeping on the pulse of industry trends.
For broader context, Pew data on demographic usership for Instagram, Snapchat, and other new social media platforms is still overwhelmingly in the 13–17 and 18–24 age ranges (72% and 67%). Nearly half of adults ages 30–49 use Instagram, and only 25% use Snapchat. For adults ages 50–64, this number dips to 23% for Instagram and 9% for Snapchat. While it’s important to market to prospective parents, students are also important to reach—in a different way. In general, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and now newer platforms like TikTok haven’t yet proven effective paid platforms in our industry, but they can be channels for organically showing off your school and students to other students.

Creating Content: Long is Good

We’ve found that there’s a time and place for shorter posts. For example, social media and search ads can be great at growing audiences. A young arts school like mine needs conversions on our admission page and for people to know that we exist. But parents aren’t enrolling their student in an independent school with “arts” in the name without reading up on the academic programs, facilities, and more. Education is an informed purchase; the decision can take years. This is where longer, organic content becomes most effective.
Commit to developing “true fans,” not casual engagers. You don’t need to everyone to want your school to be successful; you need those who do to really buy in—they should be more than casual members of your community. Most of our potential families want more information, not less—at least the families we want the most. Information legitimizes the school to prospective parents, and their engagement proves their interest in us. Prioritize the families who read more than three sentences in a post.
When I tried posting longform content, engagement went up and prospective parents became true fans—the inquiries to our admission office were stronger leads. Over the past four years, as we’ve established better data using Salesforce for our enrollment management, we’ve been able to confirm that the most mission-appropriate families—the ones that stick around and flourish—are those who engaged most with our content in the admission process. Here are some examples of our longform posts:
Educational Philosophy



For decades, The Academy has hosted visitors from all over the world hoping to learn how we do what we do, and we have...

Posted by Chicago Academy for the Arts on Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Faculty Interviews


"As the first quarter’s end nears and the daily grind of the school year sets in, I encourage all of us to remember the...

Posted by Chicago Academy for the Arts on Wednesday, October 16, 2019



Student Interviews


“What makes the school unique is the teachers. I came from a middle school where I didn’t really have a connection with...

Posted by Chicago Academy for the Arts on Tuesday, May 28, 2019


Jacob Flores graduated from the Theatre Department and will head to the California Institute of the Arts this fall to...

Posted by Chicago Academy for the Arts on Friday, May 24, 2019


How to Stand Out on Social

We have to compete for attention like in any other industry. Potential students should be able to picture themselves in your building and your classrooms. They should see themselves in the students who are the subjects of your posts. But remember: If social media marketing and other communications to prospective families feel too much like advertising-speak, then parents and students will do what we all do: ignore it. Here are a few tips for creating effective social posts:
Invest in good photography and content creation. I developed a strong relationship with a photographer who is a parent of an alumnus and made sure that everything we posted represented “elite arts school.” Below are examples of what we used to post and what we typically post now. The subjects of the first two posts are newsworthy (NBC coverage and graduation rehearsal), which make for a great and timely post, but the quality of the posts (picture resolution, description, and general tone) don’t project “elite arts high school.”



📺 TOMORROW @ 5:00 tune in to #nbc5chicago to catch Academy Music students being interviewed about their awesome master class with @vijayiyer, brought to us by the @harristheaterchicago #AcademyMusic #Jazz #Masterclass #ChicagoAcademyfortheArts

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Some quick Graduation prep this afternoon, #almostthere 🎓👍💫

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Thank you to our alums for such a terrific Alumni Party last week! We will see you next year! #CAArts #CAAGrads Photos by Kristine Sherred

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Dear Friends, Saturday evening’s Showcase was one of the most memorable events in The Academy’s history, and we were thrilled to share it with more than 850 attendees — one of our largest audiences ever. We were, of course, thrilled to present Margy Stover with the Faculty Legacy Award, and her speech absolutely delighted the crowd. Since Saturday, I’ve heard from numerous guests raving about the show, often remarking that it was the best Showcase they’ve seen, and we are deeply grateful for everyone’s support and goodwill. Some Showcase photos from @thomasmohrphotography are attached! Our performance and exhibit schedule continues next month and beyond with the Visual Arts Spring Exhibition, the Theatre Department’s production of "Peter and the Starcatcher", the Media Arts Spring Festival, the Music Department’s jazz concert at Jazz Showcase, the Musical Theatre Department’s production of "Pippin", and the Dance Department’s Icons of Choreography concert, presented by Barbara Levy Kipper. Tickets and more information are available on our website. Finally, please plan to join us for our annual Gala on April 25 at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel. We’ll be honoring our dear friend Sarah Solotaroff Mirkin, former Vice-President for Programs at the Chicago Community Trust and founding member of the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Thank you again to our students, parents, faculty and staff, trustees, donors and supporters, alumni, and friends who made the 2020 Academy Showcase such a special night! Jason Patera Head of School #SmartArtistsSmartArt #ArtMatters #CAArts

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Document as much as you can. Record the science student practicing guitar in his free period or the theater students practicing lines in the hallway between periods. Capturing these kinds of moments can help you present a more authentic version of your school. And with Instagram, I have found that I can post without limit and not lose engagement.
Be creative. If your goal is to promote a school event, make sure to conceal the ask or the sell—otherwise it seems too promotional. For example, at the Academy, all newly admitted families receive welcome videos created by current students—not school administrators—to enthusiastically and genuinely encourage them to enroll.
Keep the school the focus. You don’t need to put a trusted student in charge of your Snapchat, and you don’t need to try to act like a student in the copy or design of your posts (they’ll know). Simply strive to present the best version of your school and know that authenticity will drive a positive outcome.  
And, above all, make sure that your marketing and admission team is on the same page––and can keep perspective.  Have a sense of what quality looks like for your school and be assertive about keeping that standard. You also need to be efficient with your time and budgets. It’s tempting to focus on the prevailing narrative of the transitory nature of social network popularity. Sure, your students aren’t responding to Facebook ads in a meaningful way, and yes, your school should at least have some presence on Snapchat. But that doesn’t mean your advertising dollars need to be. At least not yet.
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Tim Butler

Tim Butler is director of communications at The Chicago Academy for the Arts in Chicago, Illinois.