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Habit in Independent School Marketing: Friend or Foe? Part 1

Habit: friend or foe?

How big a role does habit play in our society, in our institutions, and in our own behavior? Simple answer: huge. So significant, in fact, that habit has been one of the biggest topics covered by philosophers, writers, and self-help gurus from the Greek heyday to today.

This article zeroes in on a distinct niche within this macro subject: how does habit affect marketing in independent schools? What are the core marketing habits in private education, and do they help or hinder schools grappling with the rapid change created by external forces (demographic, technological, sociological) to forces created at least in part by schools themselves (financial and competitive)?

Before we tackle these challenging questions, let’s take a Cliff Notes walk through this profound subject, which can offer us consistency and comfort along with complacency and constriction. Habit is such a deep and substantial element that it’s no surprise it has been dissected by a broad spectrum of thinkers and doers and remains a linchpin of popular culture:

  • "These virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions." (Aristotle).

  • "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Will Durant channeling Aristotle).

  • “Habits are important….nearly all of what we do each day, every day, is simply habit.” Jack D. Hodge

  • “Habit is stronger than reason.” George Santayana

  • “Habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.” Mark Twain

  • “Replace a bad habit with a good or neutral one. Picking up a new, more positive habit won't make your old one disappear, but a new ritual and source of pleasure can make the old one easier to break.” WikiHow

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People – best-selling book by Stephen Covey.

  • What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits – album by the Doobie Brothers (and a nod to 1970s boarding school culture).

For our purposes, it is worth noting the close connection of habit to tradition. As described in How Stuff Works, author Kevin Allen states that “habit and tradition share a common characteristic: both involve repetitive actions that a person feels compelled to take, whether it's a conscious decision or not.” Independent schools are creatures of both habit and tradition.

some traditions make great habits

Like places of worship, schools, colleges, and universities are among the most traditional institutions in America, having arisen at the dawn of our country and helped shape our fundamental beliefs and actions. In schools, the structure and principles lead to a core set of habits that have delivered value and guidance to students and teachers for centuries. Let’s call these our “Friend” habits, as they have been instrumental in the positive development of millions of young people. Many of these time-honored habits are beyond the scope of our marketing focus, including independent schools’ relentless commitment to teaching character and kindness, molding curious minds, and encouraging diversity of experience. So, what are the good habits related specifically to communications and marketing?

“Friend” Habits in School Marketing
  • Formal, Oxford-influenced writing

  • Commitment to support the school mission

  • Effective communication of the latest news and accomplishments to parents and other constituents

  • Positive focus on students’ accomplishments

  • Timeliness and good organizational skills

  • Adept and compelling storytelling

  • Mastery of traditional media, e.g. print ads, viewbooks, and now web content and email

  • Positive instincts based on experience or history

  • Deliberate style geared toward quality work

However, just as most people have both positive and negative habits, most institutions do as well. In many cases, a negative is related to a positive: a diligent, reliable worker may be slow to act or unreceptive to new methods, while a highly creative thinker may lack the focus and discipline to execute the task at hand. Here are several ways I perceive habit to detract from a school’s success, noting that, of course. many schools are exceptions.

“Foe” Habits in School Marketing
Some habits reject new ideas
  • Resistance to marketing itself (belief that it is “a bad word,” “we don’t need to sell our school,” “we wait for the phone to ring,” “we’ve always done it this way”)

  • Focus on tactics versus strategy

  • Reliance on traditional advertising methods

  • Lack of comfort with technology

  • Aversion to or even fear of the use of data

  • Lack of creativity or out-of-the-box thinking

  • “Silo thinking” or minimal marcom input into admissions and development

  • Lack of exposure to advanced marketing capabilities

  • Minimal segmentation or personalization in enrollment or communications

  • Near-exclusive focus on recruitment at the expense of strategic internal marketing that supports parent satisfaction and retention.

Continue reading part II on "Habit in School Marketing"

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