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What Marketing Can - and Can't - Do for Your School, Part I

NOTE: This article also appeared in Independent Thinking's Head's Letter in January, 2018.

There was a time in the past when “marketing” was viewed as inconsequential, perhaps even harmful to a school. However, as many schools are buffeted by demographic shifts, resistance to high tuition, competition from new education models, and increased demands from millennial parents, the perception of the “M” word is changing. In an ironic twist, some potentially desperate school leaders have flipped the script, now attributing magical powers to this previously-scorned or overlooked function. The time is right to define what marketing can do for your school, what is beyond marketing’s influence, and most interesting, what issues it can address that are not apparent at first glance.

What Marketing Can Do

Strategic Marketing for Independent Schools

Even more traditional heads of schools or directors of communications or advancement would tend to agree that marketing and communications can address many crucial functions. Here are several marketing and communications responsibilities, starting with the most fundamental and manageable and progressing to strategic and complex:

  • Inform parents and faculty about daily activities via e-newsletter and website updates.

  • Convey the school’s brand, mission, and programs with relevant and timely content on a visually appealing website.

  • Reinforce the school’s mission, plans, development, and alumni activities to a wider audience through magazines and a viewbook or similar publications.

  • Support fundraising efforts through direct mail, email and social and website content.

  • Communicate school activities and fun through consistent social media posting on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and potentially other platforms.

  • Increase awareness of various school news and success stories through local publications and potentially media relations/PR.

  • Assist admissions efforts with print and digital ads and messaging for follow-up communications.

  • Present a consistent brand and message across all your media and channels.

  • Use video to tell stories about student life, such as artistic, athletic, and extra-curricular activities.

  • Understand the needs of your current, past and prospective students and families through basic satisfaction surveys, solicitation of suggestions, admissions follow-up communications, and surveys of admitted students who do not enroll.

  • Increase traffic to your website through strategic content marketing, including search engine optimization.

  • Create a strategic marketing plan that reflects and helps implement relevant facets of the broader school strategic plan.

  • Develop multi-channel marketing campaigns that integrate themes, strategic goals and messaging across all channels, with a focus on driving engagement such as social shares, positive word-of-mouth, applications, and donations.

  • Incorporate strategic use of video, including the balance of professional and “amateur” video, targeted placement on your website, and use of YouTube playlists.

  • Deploy image audits to attain a deep understanding of the perceptions of your current and prospective constituents, compare them with your internal perception, and take appropriate action.

  • Apply analytics and data-driven marketing to systematically improve the effectiveness of all your major marketing channels and tools.

  • Build acquisition marketing programs and broader school strategies based on predictive analytics models that project changes in demographics, income and other key factors (especially relevant for day schools).

  • Help admissions increase the percentages of inquiring students who apply and accepted students who matriculate through highly targeted marketing, including “lead nurturing” techniques.

What Marketing (Typically) Can’t Do

Marketing and communications obstacles

Many school leaders and their communications/ marketing teams would agree that the following concerns are beyond the scope of marketing without undertaking a massive and costly re-branding project.

  • Governance problems

  • ​Head-trustees disconnect

  • Long-standing reputational concerns

  • Below-average or outdated curriculum

  • Remote or undesirable location

  • Ineffective teachers, administrators

  • Old/low-tech academic or athletic facilities

  • Outdated physical plant

  • Insufficient endowment and/or declining cash flow

  • Single-sex school

  • Damaging social media posts or reviews

Defying the “Typical” with Strategic and Creative Marketing

We have already seen many responsibilities for school marketers, across the spectrum of the classic “urgent and important” matrix. We have also been presented with a seemingly impenetrable list of areas that marketing can’t address. With all that fundamental work to do, why should you spend time tackling seemingly-intractable problems through a seemingly ill-suited function?

The simple answer is that these problems are likely among your biggest obstacles to success in enrollment, retention, and fundraising.

What If…

But what if some of these hurdles are actually addressable through creative marketing and communications?

See how many schools have successfully tackled these obstacles in Part II !

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