Colleges, universities, and independent schools are under increasing pressure today. With financial, societal, competitive, demographic, and global forces roiling private education, most institutions need to reassess their marketing strategies. These decisions have profound effects on your admissions, retention, and advancement campaigns.
Do you have a strategic marketing plan? Are you using the data from your website, email, and social media to discover what's of interest to your readers? Do you use personlization, benchmarking, and testing to develop and analyze your marketing campaigns?
Despite their powerful grip, it is a fact that habits change. People start exercising more, reading more, going to church more – or they spend even more time on their various screens or eating at Taco Bell. The “why’s” are far beyond the scope of this piece, as they include countless subjective and objective factors. But this doesn’t mean analysis is fruitless. In fact, we can sometimes trace the effects of certain changes in habits to a single or limited number of causes. Take smoking, the most commonly cited (bad) habit among Americans. Smoking among all Americans has declined markedly since the 1960s, from over 40% of Americans smoking regularly to less than 20% today. While myriad factors are credited for this positive change, one stands out: the 1964 issuance of the now-legendary Surgeon General’s warning that smoking causes cancer. This raises the question: how often is habit changed by external factors versus intentional decisions by a person or organization?
Private education in 2018 is being roiled by the factors noted in the first paragraph: demographic, financial, sociological, and technological. These trends have driven, and in many respects, spawned, increased external competition from homeschooling, micro schools, and charter schools. Some of these forces are causing a reassessment of broader habits and traditions at schools and colleges that are increasingly out of step in today’s often-sensitized environment.
In marketing and communications, several distinct shifts may be subverting previously positive habits: fewer words and more pictures, especially via video; less formal, shorthand writing; “stealth” applicants; the evolution in the consumption of information; millennial parents’ (and other groups’) desire for personalized experiences; less control of your message and a less captive audience; a world increasingly fixated on rankings and data-driven results; the growth of personas and micro-targeting; and of course the now-entrenched shift from print to digital.Are you concerned that your school’s communications and marketing efforts may be hampering your progress rather than advancing it? Are some of your significant marketing habits that were once “friends” turning into “foes”? Below are 10 actionable tips for school marketers. Perhaps less obvious are the ideas for school leaders – why is that important, you ask? Heads, assistant heads, directors of admissions and advancement, and some business officers may be even more critical in this reassessment, because they shape the culture, create the broad strategies, define the priorities, and, oh yes, allocate the budgets.
10 Habit-Changing Tips for School MarCom Directors
1. If you haven’t written a marketing plan, get started! Focus first on strategies, not tactics; your audience definition, the message that resonates with them, what marketing channels are the most effective for each segment, and the like; do not simply create a listing of your events and newsletters. Note: before starting your plan, it is critical to listen to the views not only of your current constituents, but also those you want to attract (inquirers, visitors, matriculants, and new donors). Often internal and external perceptions vary and it is crucial that your marketing plan address both perspectives, not just what “we” think about “ourselves.”
2. Use basic data-driven practicesto guide your decision-making. These do NOT have to be highly complex or time-intensive; think of analyzing your parent newsletter to see what topics get the most clicks, or web stats to see the most-visited pages, how long visitors spend on them, and trends compared with the same period last year. Note: data does not necessarily replace your instincts and past tactics; it augments them. Think of data as “your guide, not your boss.”
3. Reassess your content marketing on all your channels to ensure you are speaking in a language and form that resonates with that audience; on your website, consider adding “read more” buttons on your longer web pages. The latter presents a less intimidating first appearance to readers, especially on mobile, and gives you a much better sense of actual interest in that topic.
4. Similarly, on parent newsletters, keep the headlines and copy brief and link to one of your web pages for the full story.
5. Begin segmenting your messages and gradually even your marketing channels and cadence (which includes frequency and relevance). As a practical example, it’s now recognized that millennial parents are different from the previous generation; they want to be communicated with more often, they want more control and choice for their children, and they’re very media-savvy. Perhaps they need two newsletters a week, or more active use of communications alerts that they can control.
6. Become your own market researcher. In addition to a polling your parents on which of your media they’re aware of and what they like (“oh, you didn’t know we had a YouTube channel?”), seek their qualitative comments informally too. Speak with a parent you know at her son’s game, or at intermission of the school play. These interactions will help you know if you’re connecting in the message and format.
7. Many schools have seen that video is the most relevant medium and are beginning to deploy on their website, social media, and ideally a YouTube channel. To illustrate today’s accelerated pace and convergence of technology and consumer tastes, consider that one billion unique visitors, nearly one in every two internet users, watches a video on YouTube monthly. Guess what video is now? A marketing habit. Use short, targeted videos that include students as well as teachers to convey the fun and excitement at your school.
8. Increase your confidence in using programs and platforms that will expand your marketing options. You can learn the basics of In Design, HootSuite, Google Analytics, or email programs such as Constant Contact or Mail Chimp within 2 – 5 hours, 10 tops. As you understand more about fundamental marketing options instead of relying on a colleague, you will increase your own knowledge about possibilities for copy, imagery, video, and analysis, and translate that into more effective communications. Don’t worry about paying for training – you can find “how to” videos on every one of these topics and many more on YouTube.
9. Create further engagement on social media. By now, most schools have grasped the significance of social in the marketing mix. This fact itself is significant; social media was a “foe” for many schools as recently as five years ago due to concerns of privacy of students and uncertainty on tactics and messaging. Now, social media is a “friend” for most schools.
10.Join SchneiderB University, a private Facebook group founded by school marketing visionary Brendan Schneider, in which astute marketers engage in serious, interactive discussions about marketing goals, tactics, social media etiquette, service providers, platforms, “how to’s” and many similar topics. No pressure to contribute right away, but you will probably want to ask or answer a question before too long. This group has deep respectfor school marketing traditions while also being comfortable testing their uncharted waters.
6 Habit-Changing Tips for School Leaders
1. Create an open-minded culture in which it is acceptable, even desirable, to question past practices relating to communications and marketing strategy. This starts with your commitment to supporting more strategic marketing and communications, which does not necessarily mean spending more money.
2. If your school does not have a marketing plan closely connected to your broader school strategic plan, commission one immediately.
3. Ensure that your marcom, admissions, and development/advancement teams collaborate closely on enrollment and fundraising. This can be done through your organizational structure or, if that is unrealistic, by urging your teams' leaders to develop a formal meeting schedule.
4. Make marcom strategy and outcomes a regular component, even if a small one, of your senior administrative meetings.
5. Have at least one experienced marketing professional on your board. This trustee can be an additional resource for the marcom office and can also support and explain their work at the board level.
6. Guide faculty members to evangelize or at least speak positively of the school’s attributes to current and prospective parents. This may require explaining to reluctant teachers that this “ambassadorship” does the school a valuable service; by overcoming habitual resistance to this non-teaching time, respected teachers can help their school recruit and retain the best students, delivering long-term benefits for all community members.
The author thanks the following independent school leaders for their suggestions: John O’Brien, President of St. Anne School in Laguna Niguel, CA; Clay Stites, a founder of Resource Group 175; and Mike Connor, President of Connor Associates Strategic Services.