Focus On

Daring to be digitally different

By Elizabeth Akass, Editor, Engage Business Media

Canford School, a co-educational independent school for day and boarding pupils, explains how it transformed its digital marketing through an innovative website redesign to uphold its standard of excellence. 

In 2018, Canford School was named Best Boarding School of the Year by industry-leading magazine School Parent, and was rated amongst the top 10 most beautiful schools in the UK by The Telegraph. The 250-acre campus is situated in Wimborne Minster in Dorset, and currently has 660 pupils aged 13-18, which is the highest number in the school’s history.

The school boasts impressive on-site facilities, including a golf course, a real tennis court, a sports centre, and the grounds have also proven a popular wedding venue for the general public. Philippa Scudds, Director of Marketing and Communications at Canford School, says: ‘Canford is thriving at the moment – we’re very lucky.’

Canford School collaborated with Finalsite, a global provider of school marketing and communications software and services, to completely redesign their website and, by extension, improve the first impression many prospective parents and potential customers would have of the school.

Scudds describes the typical website structure many schools follow, and why Canford School wanted to take a different approach. “Lots of school websites focus very much on recruitment of new pupils, and obviously education is the core business of the school, so I can understand why schools do that.” However, she says that there are other stakeholders that Canford wanted to give “pretty equal weight to” on their new website as they are “equally important” in many ways, and part of the “school community”.

She clarifies who these different stakeholders are. “You’ve got your current parents, they’re your existing customers, and all your former parents and pupils (we call them ‘old Canfordians’, and they are often very helpful to us in terms of career support and advice to our current pupils). We’ve also got a whole section of people who aren’t interested in their children attending the school, but like to come and make use of our facilities, such as the 500 members of our sports centres, and the club members who row on our rivers, or people who play golf on our course, or real tennis on our court. There are a lot of stakeholders who all contribute to the life of the school, and in some ways financially as well through their membership.”

Scudds also highlights the schools’ other connection to the local community: “We’ve got over 8,000 hours of community service that our pupils do each year, and those are local links with churches, businesses, hospices, childcare facilities, and more”.

She notes that it is possible that the reason “few schools” give adequate emphasis to similar areas on their websites at present is because they may have several different websites running simultaneously to cover these, which is what Canford School used to do.

She highlights the issues this approach raised: “When I joined the school about 10 years ago, we had separate websites for different facilities; these were all branded in different ways and lacked consistency”. She explains that this lack of consistency didn’t align with Canford School’s communications strategy, and that they wanted to move towards a uniform standard of excellence in their messaging across everything they put online. “It was really important for us to draw all of those websites into the same overall school website when we were building the design.”

She continues: “Another thing we’ve done is ensure we’ve trained staff that are now responsible for those different parts of our website, and we’ve still got centralised ultimate control of what’s put out there. So that’s given us much more clarity and consistency of the branding across everything that we’re marketing.” She says this has proven successful in enabling the school to align its brand messaging with corporate strategic goals.

In addition, Scudds notes the importance of the research conducted before the redesign, and how looking at brand marketing beyond the school sector proved beneficial. “We found that many of the schools similar to us had websites akin to each other, and in some cases they didn’t stand out. We asked Finalsite if they could look into some different industry websites based on the brief we’d given them, just to have something a little bit different, more exciting, and very clean in terms of the look of the site. We came up with some really fantastic examples of work that was being done in different sectors.”

“There were lots of really great points and layouts that we could take inspiration from in our design, and that enabled us to produce a site that really did look quite different and innovative from others within our sector, and therefore have differentiated us. There are so many exciting businesses and industries out there that are doing some really great digital things, and we want to be part of that.”

She describes the result of this collaboration, and how it made Canford School’s website unique in its sector. “Finalsite came out with some brilliant different layouts, templates, and quick links, which has enabled us to have variety throughout the site, and I hope encourages people to stay on the site for longer and browse. Also, quite a bit of video which is becoming increasingly important on websites. We found a lot of schools’ websites had some beautiful photos on their landing page, but when you got into the information pages, they all followed quite a predictable style and there wasn’t a lot of flexibility in terms of the design.”

“Our site does have quite a lot of pages on it because we have to provide an awful lot of information in different areas for people who are looking at the school as prospective parents. But, we also wanted to make it quick and easy for our current parents who have been through the admission process already and just want quick links to key information.”

Moving forward, Scudds says that Canford School is currently working with Finalsite regarding the potential of personalising the customer experience on their website. “We’re not quite sure how far you can go with personalisation, but certainly tailoring the site and experience to individuals so they find the parts of the site relevant to them as quickly as possible is something that is really exciting.”

She finishes by acknowledging the ever-changing nature of digital marketing, meaning that the website will continually be advanced, and mentions that some schools have already taken inspiration from Canford’s progression in this area. “There’s always new techniques and new software coming out – sometimes we can feel a bit overwhelmed thinking that we’re not keeping up. But it’s important to take a step back and think what’s going to work best for us and our business, and when you see your competitors following your lead you know you’re hopefully doing something right!”


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