As you prepare for an important trip, would you ever go without a plan for how to get to your destination, what to do when you arrive, and your most important goals for the visit? Most of us would not – and yet many educational institutions undertake their marketing ventures without a formal strategy or plan.
Failing to plan is planning to fail, they say. Or how about “a goal without a plan is just a wish” (from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)? These and many other well-known quotes convey that simply doing is not always the most effective approach. Without mapping out your objectives and the strategies and tactics to achieve them, you will likely achieve less than you would have with a plan. Sticking with our trip analogy, while you will often have a safe and successful adventure, and perhaps unexpected pleasures, there is a high likelihood you will have paid more and accomplished less by unguided activity.
I suspect that many school marketers genuinely believe they have a “plan” in place. Upon closer review, though, they are often speaking of a series of tactical steps such as doing Facebook ads for admissions, sending newsletters to existing constituents, or producing magazines to increase alumni engagement and fundraising dollars. In education marketing, there is often one marketing element in short supply: strategic thinking and planning. While the Facebook ads, newsletters and magazines are important, perhaps critical, parts of the broader marketing and communications program, they are a level or two below the most critical element of your plan.
Strategy in Planning
What is this most crucial aspect of a marketing plan, and why is it so ignored in education?
What is strategic marketing planning?
In short, strategic marketing planning focuses on the key elements that affect your mission and primary sources of revenue, including your current and prospective clients and donors and your marketing environment.
How does marketing reflect and support your institution’s distinct mission and broader goals?
How do you segment your distinct target audiences and what is your positioning toward each?
What is the perception of your institution from your current (internal) constituents and your external audience? What are the gaps in the research between these two groups
Who are your primary competitors and what are your advantages and disadvantages against them? How do you distinguish yourself from them?
What is your messaging for the most important constituents: current families and students, prospects, alumnae, past parents, and colleagues?
Are you allocating your marketing investment to your most productive channels?
Next, why is strategic planning overlooked in education?
I see the following as some of the main obstacles to strategic marketing planning occurring in schools, colleges, and universities:
First, there’s no getting around it – strategic thinking and planning is hard work.
Strategic planning is where the problems and worries are uncovered (opportunities too, but that’s for another article). Big changes in demographics, economics, culture, and business models can be a harbinger of long-term problems, as is increasingly the case in private education today. Not all of these will affect marketing, but many definitely do.
Many education communications and marketing people are not well-trained for this work. Unlike writing good copy, choosing positive images, or telling stories on social media, marketing strategy requires analytical thinking on your own constituents and prospects, your competition, the marketing environment, and ROI.
It is more time-consuming than many ed marketers think they have time for.
It frequently encompasses long-term trends that require input from a variety of internal and external resources.
Advantages of Your Strategic Marketing Plan
Makes you think through the strategic process, from start to end goal
Defines objectives that will shape your marketing activity
Gains credibility or buy-in among the contributing teams.
Ensures the stated goals fit into the larger institution’s strategic plan
Provides deep insights on your mission, vision, and values
Requires that you define your target audiences and messages for each segment.
Helps you anticipate unfavorable outcomes and prepare alternatives as part of the plan versus scrambling for an answer in crunch time.
Now that you have a sense of the goals, requirements, and advantages of your plan, you can begin to lay out its components. While some of these sections may vary by institution, or appear in a different order, I believe these can form a core for the vast majority of schools, colleges, and universities.
Creating Your Plan
No single template will work for every education institution. You have a unique value proposition, market segments, goals, resources, and other characteristics. However, there are several crucial boilerplate components that must be covered for virtually every school, college, or university regardless of how you present them.
I. Strategic Overview: what is the big picture of your institution as it relates to marketing, e.g., a crisp synopsis of your current results and trends in admissions, retention/attrition, and enrollment; summary of your internal situation and marketplace dynamics; current or imminent research.
II. What distinct institution goals do you support, e.g., “increase new students by X%” or “increase the number of donors by Y%.”
III. An overview of your target audiences, your segmentation scheme (e.g., if/how do you delineate your current families, how do you select your prospects), and your messaging to each group. Database management is a highly under-appreciated skill and is often seen in the context of current families, scholarships, and related topics. However, knowing how to segment your current families/students for retention while also targeting the best prospects for solicitation is critical. Once these segments are defined, the best copy, headlines, imagery, and videos for each group must also be developed and tested.
IV. High-level plans for your marketing channels: here you have several options on how to present your thinking on email, digital advertising, print, and many more. One approach growing in appeal with the rise of inbound marketing is to show your “inbound” and “outbound” marketing channels. Another is to describe major campaigns such as admissions, events, and fundraising programs, though that can create a repeat of the major marketing channels. You can also show each medium or channel as a sub-bullet. No matter how you set it up, you will want to cover the following options if you use them or plan to soon:
a. Email, direct mail, print magazines, social media, digital advertising (include retargeting if appropriate), social media advertising, blog, YouTube/video, managing review sites, testimonials, website planning, SEO, Google alerts (for marketing intelligence), radio, community promotion, event marketing, press releases, open houses, and analytics (needed for virtually every channel or medium)..
V. Who is your marketing planning team and what is your timetable for building and finalizing your plan? NOTE: you will likely have several conversations during your plan development with a range of administrators and a few teachers, coaches, specialists, board members, and others you respect. Thank all colleagues who added valuable insights to your plan:
a. Core contributor(s)
b. “Guest” contributors
c. Reviewers of milestones such as your first and final draft: the larger the team, the more extensive the feedback, so you will have more opinions and more juggling as you go beyond key roles such as the head of school, directors of admissions and development, and perhaps the director or dean of academics or curriculum
VI. Results of your plan: what outcomes will your well-conceived plan and marketing programs achieve? Can you commit to helping achieve the broader goals noted in step I above? Will your proposals on various media and campaigns result in more, say, applicants or donors than you currently have? Will your marketing ROI improve?
a. This to me is one aspect of a plan that differentiates it from many other well-meaning but less substantial versions. By placing a stake, or several, in the ground on expected returns of your efforts and how they support the school’s mission, you are showing that you understand the bigger picture and how marketing and communications are a critical piece of your school’s success.
VII. Conclusion – wrap it up neatly.
Managing Your Plan
First, while I recommend a three-year plan, even that relatively short period can be tricky. Your data-driven factors are most likely to change, such as the number of applications, gifts, or student departures. One way to combine a medium-term strategic vision with the latest data and trends is to reassess the critical parts of your plan annually. This has two advantages: helping you assess the broader effects of your campaigns, and adjusting for key factors that may affect your projected results in key, revenue-generating areas. Rename your plan, e.g. “version II” with the date and circulate to key contributors and senior staff. To clarify, you will want to collaborate with appropriate colleagues in admissions or development before finalizing your updates.
Do not let your strategic marketing plan become a permanent fixture in your bookcase! The education market has become especially dynamic of late, and you must keep pace. Making your plan flexible by reviewing it at key milestone dates and making necessary adjustments will help it stay relevant.
Assuming you don’t have a current marketing plan, here is how to proceed:
Step 1: Decide you are going to take the lead on developing a marketing plan. If you see the wisdom but are not in the appropriate position to drive the effort, forward this piece to your director of communications and head of school.
Step 2: Create a rough layout of your plan, including your strategic viewpoint and titles of each primary
Step 3: Take this rough layout to your head of school, or boss if different, to recommend the development of the plan (you will need the head’s blessing eventually). Be prepared to discuss your reasons and overcome predictable objections such as how you will manage the effort along with your other work. Request that you receive a commitment to participate from other key colleagues as noted above. Having the head’s full support can be the critical difference between success and failure for your venture.
Step 4: Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead, begin developing the sections of the plan you control.
Step 5: Meet with other key participants such as the heads of admissions and development to explain your mission and how their support is critical to their own success as well as to the broader marketing strategy.
Step 6: Build the first draft of the plan based on your work and your colleagues’ input. Circulate that draft to other contributors and the head of school as well as to other influencers you believe can add value with a review.
Step 7: Release the first draft, with final copies to the same group as in step 6.
Step 8: Immediately begin working on execution of the plan, with the focus on the most pressing needs..
I expect that the direction provided here will help you in multiple ways. The first is that making the commitment to develop a strategic marketing plan is itself a substantial statement about the crucial role of marketing and communications in your school’s direction. Second, collaborating with your colleagues on shared issues of importance to marcom, admissions, development, and other significant departments offers many benefits beyond the plan itself. Third, creating a dynamic strategic and analytical framework for marketing programs in the context of your institution’s broader strategy will almost certainly increase their effectiveness. Good luck!
Addendum: Role of Strategic Plans in Independent Schools
I reviewed the websites of 40 schools across the U.S., including a broad mix of boarding and day, big and small, and religiously affiliated. Some were top-ranked, others tier II and III, some serving students who learn differently, in a very wide range of configurations from K – 12 to a couple of middle schools only
The objective was two-fold: to see how many schools had a strategic plan on their website, and if so, did it include communications and marketing. This was not a marketing plan, but a broader school strategic plan. Though my hypothesis was that the numbers would be relatively low, I was still surprised by the numbers below. Just 35 % of schools had an active strategic plan, and of those that did, a mere 14% found marketing important enough to play a material role in the plan.
These findings reinforced my hypothesis that strategic planning as a whole is lacking in schools, and that marketing remains an underutilized facet of broader school strategy. The next move is up to you and your school leadership.