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Professional Opinion

Passing a school bond in the era of social media

How we used online and traditional tools for a coordinated information campaign
Tim Markley is superintendent at New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Tim Markley is superintendent at New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Our growing North Carolina district faced numerous facility challenges in the fall of 2013.

Our aging building needed major renovations and we had significant safety concerns with our schools. The only way to address these needs was with a school bond—$160 million, the largest in our district’s history.

Following the deep recession, this seemed like an impossible task. Other districts had tried and failed to pass either bond referendums or taxes for education. Our county also has a very conservative, anti-tax leaning.

As a school system, my staff and I were prohibited from actively campaigning for the bond. We could provide information but could not advocate for the referendum. We needed a new approach to getting the word out.

Simple and concise

What made this campaign different for us was the extensive use of social media and a very coordinated information campaign. We created a detailed website that included a vast amount of information.

The website proved to be a resourceful communication tool for all audiences, answering questions on the need, the projects and the tax implications. Our message was consistent, simple and concise: “14 Projects, $160 Million, Serving ALL Schools.”

We measured the effectiveness of the web page with Google Analytics. Web traffic increased with frequent Twitter and Facebook messages. We tracked the effectiveness of our social media tools by following our web traffic after every information blast.

Email was another communication tool that we frequently, yet selectively, used. We tapped into our extensive email contact lists and sent a weekly email during the last eight weeks. For this segment of the marketing campaign, we used the “less is more” approach. Each week, we selected a particular point about the bond to highlight and created a concise, factual email that would drive our contacts to the bond website for more information.

Public service announcements and YouTube videos were created to provide visual information about the bond. The videos were promoted through Facebook and Twitter, and linked into our email messages.

When a county commissioner opposed the bond due to potential tax implications, we fought back with facts. We broke down the potential tax impact in terms anyone could relate to with this simple message: “For less than a cup of coffee per month, the bond will address growth, safety and infrastructure needs.”

From July to November, my superintendent’s blog topics focused on the bond campaign. I was able to provide information and address concerns with a more casual, personable approach.

The district’s public relations department sent numerous press releases to local media. These releases informed the media and community about our bond website, endorsements we’d received and the potential impact of the bond. The media releases were shared with both traditional and nontraditional media outlets, which included online press sites.

While we did presentations to groups such as Rotary and Kiwanis, we also expanded our outreach to include homeowners’ associations, sororities/fraternities and both political parties. One of our goals was to make the bond referendum a non-partisan topic.

Effective response

We saved our largest outreach—our parent-contact phone system—for the night before the election. A voicemail message reminded parents about voting on Nov. 4. We told parents that the school bond would be on the ballot and they could find more information about the bond on our district website.

We never included the word “vote” in any of these approaches. All forms of communication were used solely to inform our constituents about the bond.

The result of this six-month, shoestring-budget, nontraditional campaign was an overwhelming victory for the district. The bond passed with 64 percent of the vote. Our extensive use of data and targeted social media pushed us over the top.

Tim Markley is superintendent at New Hanover County Schools in Wilmington, North Carolina.