Meet the Prep School With a Killer Pinterest Strategy

Celebrities? Definitely. Companies? Absolutely. Universities? Sure. But a private PK-12 school is not the sort of brand you’d expect to see running a largely successful content marketing and social media strategy that spans Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and an active blog.

And yet, that’s the case with Sewickley Academy, Pittsburgh’s oldest co-educational, college preparatory and independent day school, whose team has taken to social media over the past few years as a way of both connecting with its students and recruiting new ones. Part of a more holistic strategy of inbound marketing, Sewickley uses digital tools to promote its members, events, and values—and they’ve gotten the whole school involved while building a significant following and driving business results.

We talked to the man behind the initiative, Brendan Schneider, Director of Admission & Financial Aid at Sewickley Academy, to learn more. Schneider blogs regularly about social media, inbound marketing, and schools, and he is the author of an ebook, “The SchneiderB Social Media System for Schools.”

Image via Advis

Why did Sewickley Academy start using social media, and what were your goals?

It started back in the ’08-‘09 school year when the stock market crashed. Our interest indicators—our inquiries, our apps, and our visits—trailed the stock market dip by about a month. We sat around with a team at the time and we were like, “What are we going to do?” We tried billboards, placards in the Pittsburgh International Airport—and those are a ton of money. But it’s hard to measure the return on investment, and we really didn’t see the dial turn on those indicators.

Our next jump, Facebook and Twitter, were definitely around but in their infancy in terms of a marketing platform. We launched our Facebook page and Twitter account thinking, if we did that, hundreds of mission-appropriate, full-pay families would walk through our door. That didn’t happen.

So, we turned to inbound marketing. I read the Inbound Marketing book by the founders of HubSpot, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, and as I was reading that, it was a light bulb going off: That makes a ton of sense. We jumped into inbound marketing and focused on development of persona and SEO and keywords, the whole nine yards. We started to see not only an increase [in our indicators], but social media became a supporting piece to the inbound marketing strategy.

In the last year or two, I read the book Youtility by Jay Baer—so the whole idea of being helpful. We try not to make it simply about us. Depending on the platform, we’ve tried to be more helpful and talk about things. With Pinterest, we talk about schools, parents, activities, food, things like that.

Was the school looking at maintaining relationships with current students as well as prospective students? When it comes to Pinterest in particular, who was the audience?

The Pinterest thing is funny. We started Pinterest primarily because, when it launched, it was the first social network that’s dominated by women. From internal research, we know that women, a.k.a. moms, make the decision in terms of schooling for their kids. If that’s where the moms are, that’s where we should be.

It started as an experiment in that way. When we first started, we were definitely pinning stuff—to use it effectively, you have to not only think about your Pinterest but also your web strategy. All our news stories have to have a great, big image, so when it pins it will show up nicely on the screen.

An example of this is our one board we have about college choices—that was designed with Pinterest in mind. Somebody on my staff came up with the idea of a slideshow; these seniors and families spend money on these great photos, and where do they see them? We reached out to our families and said, “We want to create this slideshow, so include your name and the school you’re attending.” We didn’t get everyone participating, but most people did, and those pins drove people back to the website. It was pretty cool when we saw universities respond on Pinterest. I can’t remember the school that did it, but they found one of our kids was going to their school and commented something like, “Hey, congrats! Can’t wait to see you on campus!”

The other thing with Pinterest that we found, and I kind of figured it out quickly, is that if it’s just about us, nobody’s going to care. Back to the idea of utility and being helpful, that’s when we created the boards “Fun Stuff for Kids” or “Great Ideas for Families,”and we’re playing around with fitness, though it’s not getting a ton of love. “Thoughts” and quotes are super popular.

One of the things I’ve grown to love is the life of the Pin. Twitter is a couple of hours in the stream, and Facebook could be 12-24 hours depending on the algorithm … The [long] life of a Pin is hugely attractive to someone thinking about marketing.

You do a lot of cross-posting blog pieces on various pieces of social media—how does the school’s blog play into the social media and marketing strategy?

Really what we do is think of inbound marketing first. Social media helps with that. The blog is a huge part of that inbound marketing. If we think of the steps—identify personas, keywords, SEOs, create content, and social media—that content piece is mostly our blog. We’ve created ebooks, we’re playing around with other stuff, but our thought is we’ll spend a lot of time on the blog.

It’s a pain in the butt; it’s a lot of work. But we’ve seen positive results so we’ve continued to do it. We’re 710 kids—300 in our senior school. We run pretty lean administratively. We don’t have a ton of staff—we have the appropriate level of staffing—so I’m a proponent of having one blog, one Facebook account, one Twitter account, because I want everything combined, and I want the different constituencies—so for us, prospective families, alumni, current parents, past parents—to see the other people’s stuff.

There’s three of us on the team that runs the blog, and we do write for it, but we try to not be the primaries. We’re trying to have faculty write, we have some alums write, we’re trying all different type of things. And right now we’re doing a podcast, I’m loosely calling it. We had seniors that had to do for a final project, a “This I Believe” essay, so they took that essay, and we uploaded their voices to SoundCloud, embedded them on the blog, and we started to share those. They’ve been pretty well received and are pretty cool.

Has the academy seen any tangible, quantifiable results from these new marketing efforts?

Here’s what becomes tricky for schools, in my opinion. There are so many factors that go into a family’s decision to enroll. So for college, there’s getting interest, then potentially getting financial aid, majors, transportation—there are so many things outside the marketing. If you buy that premise and go back to those inquiries, applications, and visits, since we’ve started inbound marketing, four out of five years we’ve increased our inquiries, applications, and visits over the previous year. We feel like that in and of itself is big. We had one year, the ‘12-‘13 school year, it blew everything out of the water. I think the stars aligned.

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