It’s that time of year again as October dawns – a veritable merry-go round of open days for parents to choose from.

I think parents' eyes must boggle at the sheer number trying to impress, but how do you impress whilst at the time appearing authentic? We all know they are a show, really. It is hard to replace the bespoke, individual weekday visit where parents can tour the school in action with a "performance" on a Saturday (unless you operate a Saturday school).

In 2020, it is even harder because of the “virtual” lives we are living at the moment. Open days are a mix of online for a day, a week, pre-recorded and live. However, it’s not the same as it used to be. Marketing departments up and down the country are worried on one side, but thinking that there is a silver lining to this too. How? Although parents cannot come on site en masse, this term is a fantastic opportunity for schools to get ahead of the virtual and online/digital game once and for all and also open up to an international audience.

"Done right, digital can be very cost effective."

So now schools have to be authentic digitally, but I am afraid to say our sector is a little behind on the digital performance. Independent Schools need to embrace this 21st century vehicle. Why? Not only are parents generally business men and women (and usually first time buyers who are not so stuck in the old school feel of the past), but they are time poor and online a lot with social media, banking, diaries etc. Done right your online open day can absolutely be win-win: win for the parents and win for the school – get yourselves advanced digitally and save money at the same time.

It is generally known that done right, digital can be very cost effective. Facebook Ads compare favourably to traditional print media: they can be flexible in terms of a school being agile in this market place. There are some schools that have been doing this well for longer and are ahead of the game with regard to social media and online marketing. Generally there is a lot of catching up to do, and never has there been a better time to get good at it.

So how to be authentic virtually? You could run sessions that include a mix of staff telling the audience about their subject or fun debates between key departments about their subjects. A Q&A of specific and relevant questions whether pre-recorded or live could also work well. Make sure to include pupils telling their story, have videos that show warmth, human-ness as well as aspects that support your story and ethos. Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t see yourself as the Nike marketing department. Stories do well – how much do we all anticipate the first viewing of the John Lewis Christmas Ad?

Don’t forget to offer your audience downloads of literature during the session. Ensure parents and pupils can ask questions throughout and have the admissions team there to answer them promptly and with the right information, using links to the website to get audience members continuing to engage.

"Now the world is literally one click away and we can reach larger and more diverse audiences."

Finally, when it is over, offer slots for parents to have one-to-one sessions online (parents value your time and the opportunity to ask specific questions they may not have wanted to ask during the event). Offer parents the chance to come in for a personal visit if your school is doing them and finally don’t forget to follow up.

This is the chance to engage with all those who registered and enjoyed the event. You can send the recording of the event along with the next event or new additions to the documentation, links to scholarship downloads and bespoke links for Sixth Form literature or your GCSE brochure.

As a sector, we have not embraced the digital world and I feel that the past six months have made us do this. Not only will it save money, but it will mean we can communicate more effectively with our audience locally and internationally. Open days were generally the preserve of UK families; now the world is literally one click away and we can reach larger and more diverse audiences.

Going forward, a mix of open days online and offline with bespoke visits, personal online and offline meetings will be the new order of the day. A rather positive “new normal” indeed.