I was recently contacted by at least half a dozen salespeople championing the merits of digital advertising. It’s very easy to get bamboozled by the jargon – PPC, MPUs, click-throughs, granular, wraps, banners, canvas – not to mention the impressive “impressions stats”.

Apparently you can reach 10,000 customers in a matter of hours through a home page newspaper banner ad, for a fraction of the price of a one-off half page in the print version. Sounds a no-brainer. But is it?

Who are these potential “customers”? Do they have a genuine interest in independent schools? Are they the target demographic? It’s all too easy to feel, particularly with advertising, that digital is simply where you “need to be” to keep up with your rivals, rather than an informed strategic budgetary decision. Education marketing has changed beyond all recognition since the millennium. When I started working in the industry in 2002 it wasn’t really taken seriously, but now you can even take a diploma in it.

In a similar vein, in the past schools relied heavily on word-of-mouth for their marketing, and parents tended to choose schools with which they had a family link or were within reach geographically. There was far less research done by parents and, therefore, in some ways pupil recruitment was a much simpler process. The arrival of the internet was a real game changer for schools marketers. Almost inconceivable now, but in the early 2000s virtually no schools had a website, and if they had been enlightened enough to develop one, it was very basic. Fast- forward 19 years and you would be hard pressed to find a school where digital did not feature heavily within the remit.

"Social media means parents are able to see instantly what’s happening at the school."

On the whole digital has been a real positive. Websites have enabled families to research a much broader range of education options for their children online, which in turn has allowed them to make more informed choices. It’s also been helpful to the increasing number of “first-time buyers” who may not be familiar with the way independent schools operate. You can give a much more up-to-date and interactive introduction to your school through the power of the web. Social media has taken this a stage further, with parents able to see instantly what’s happening at the school. It’s enabled schools to provide real-time updates, alongside increased insights through image and video and as a result has brought more engagement with prospective, current and former parents and pupils as well as those associated with your school in the wider community.

It’s easier to track marketing results too, through tools such as Google Analytics – always helpful when writing that effectiveness report for the governors. My concern is that it’s all too easy to think that digital is the panacea for all marketing departments, and will instantly lead to increased interest, admissions registrations and larger rolls.

While there’s no doubt it’s now a central strand of what we all do (there is noticeable angst in the marketing department if the app stops working or the website goes down), it’s important to take a step back now and then, think about your product and your customer, and which of the plethora of digital initiatives will enhance your marketing, and which will not. Choosing a school is one of, if not, the most important, personal and instinct- driven decisions a parent will make. It’s not taken at the touch of a button, and I am a champion of the personal touch. However engaging your website is, however many likes you get on your Facebook page, however many videos are viewed on your YouTube channel, these are the hooks, the background.

The quality of a visit, from the personal greeting on arrival, to the firm handshake of the head, to the pupils who look you in the eye as they talk excitedly about their school experiences – these are priceless contributors to marketing and admissions. Get them wrong, and your digital marketing initiatives suddenly seem rather insignificant in the overall picture.

"Print can create a lasting impression."

I also remain a believer that there is a place for print. There is something you can convey about a school in terms of the quality of the product which is just not the same online. The feel of the paper, the striking photography, the style of the font – they create a lasting impression. Not forgetting that they are something tangible to be taken away and perused long after the visit, and which sit on a coffee table in full view of friends.

The power of that reach to a target audience is something not to be underestimated when balancing off the cost between print material and digital spend. An iPad just doesn’t have quite the same impact. At Canford we’ve just launched a new printed prospectus – although it’s available online too – alongside other key pieces of information and independent reviews such as the Good Schools Guide.

We have already received a lot of very positive feedback. Until we feel the appetite is no longer there, we will continue to offer it. That said, design needs to remain dynamic, both online and in print. We’ve been quite innovative over the years in this respect in our marketing at Canford. We’ve pushed the boundaries a bit and really spent time thinking outside the box and looking to the corporate world for innovative ideas rather than simply within, what can sometimes be, a rather insular world of schools marketing.

"Be selective and make it work for you."

I think we’ve appreciated a shift in the market and produced literature which is clear and transparent, for a new generation of parents who want to see at-a-glance the value and demonstrable outcomes for their child in return for parting with large sums of money in fees. Similarly, our website menu is quite unusual among schools, with three distinct entry points, yet we believe much clearer and simpler for the visitor.

Our digital marketing work led to two nominations, one regional and one national, for the high quality of our communications. To be shortlisted alongside EE and Talk Talk was quite a heady moment for the Canford marketing team. There is no doubt that digital in all its forms has become a highly-effective tool in the schools marketer’s box, and it’s certainly here to stay. Be selective and make it work for you, so it improves the impression of your school, attracts the right target audience, and enhances your strategic marketing plan – but doesn’t control it.