Marketing: What Schools Can Learn from Business, Part II

From the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) The Savvy Trustee newsletter, April, 2014

By William R. Bullard

In part I of “Marketing: What Schools Can Learn from Business” (February 2014 Savvy Trustee) we offered tips for trustees to help the head of school prepare his or her school take full advantage of marketing strategy, market research, analytics, and database marketing to enhance the institution’s long-term success and sustainability. In part II, we provide additional insights on strategies, tools, and techniques that can help your school enhance its reputation, enrollment, constituent satisfaction, fund-raising and alumni participation.

• Dynamic websites and use of content: Video is reshaping the content landscape due to rapid changes in user behavior, video technology, networks, and platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo ,and now Vine. Many businesses saw this years ago, and while some schools have caught on, others aren’t using enough video and pictures to tell their story. Worried about costs? Urge your head of school to consider “crowdsourcing,” the practice of getting needed services, ideas, and content from nontraditional sources, including the online community. For example, by training students to shoot video within certain guidelines, you get the action first-hand, while educating students in a critical new skill. Though more complex, you can also use this approach to involve interested parents and alumni/ae.

• Digital marketing: Businesses jumped on strategic use of web content, email, and, more recently, social media, to drive awareness of new products, programs, and events. While many companies still use catalogs and printed newsletters, many have rapidly migrated to online and electronic formats, hastened by the stunning growth of smartphones and tablets. Schools can benefit from accelerating the migration of some of their publications, including their viewbooks, to a digital format . Trustees will immediately grasp the economic benefits of shifting appropriate campaigns to electronic channels. Mobile marketing via mobile apps and text communications with prospective students are relatively easy to execute and inexpensive (a mobile-enabled website is critical but usually requires a site re-design). School marketing teams must also be aware of changes in search engine optimization/marketing (SEO/SEM).Google, the search leader, periodically updates its algorithms, which can significantly affect the results of a prospect’s search. Previously, webmasters would tweak tags or keywords to maintain their school’s rank. Now, with Hummingbird, Google’s latest big release, the focus remains on high-quality, original content and inbound links from respected websites; the algorithm also acknowledges the sharp increase in mobile searches by trying to extract the searcher’s intent or meaning, akin to a “conversation.” The implications for content marketers are still evolving. In sum, marketing is evolving from “outbound” tactics to “inbound” strategies that earn the customers’ attention through relevant and interesting content on blogs, web pages, webinars and the like, and foster engagement and amplification through social channels.

• Campaign integration: How can schools align their messaging across email, the web, social media, fund-raising appeals, printed publications, and other communications? This is a proven method for ensuring its positioning and messaging comes across consistently to its target audience. Unfortunately, many schools are still in “silos.” For marketing purposes, this is most common when communications and development are in separate teams. Instead of sharing themes and marketing strategies, many teams work in isolation on email, social, and print programs, often leading to disconnected programs and sub-optimal marketing as development people move beyond their areas of expertise. Getting all administrators, faculty, parents, students, and alumni on the same page about your school’s vision, culture, and programs will enhance the school’s brand and reputation long-term.

• Deep social engagement: Schools have made good progress recently in having credible social media presences, with some Facebook posts and tweets that are of interest to alumni, students, and parents. However, most social content for schools, and even for many higher education institutions, is still a one-way channel, with the vast majority of the communication coming from the school. Businesses have not completely cracked the code on driving community engagement, but a few of their techniques may be instructive. Astute businesses track what topics generate the most interest and plant those seeds in appropriate social media channels; recruit external ambassadors who can advocate for the organization; use compelling graphics to stand out from the crowd; test techniques across multiple channels; dive or at least tiptoe into mobile marketing; reward engagement with fun prizes or recognition; and broaden their campaigns into Instagram, Pinterest, Foursquare, and Google+ as more young people look for alternatives to Facebook (G+ also has the advantage of enhancing the search rankings for schools’ websites).

• Lead generation and “nurture” campaigns: Businesses have made a science of using “marketing automation” to recruit and market to prospects. The term refers to software systems that efficiently perform marketing segmentation and campaign management. Businesses have found great success in qualifying and increasing conversion rates for leads they receive from advertising, trade shows, their website, and social media by using targeted multi-touch “drip” email campaigns, tracking the reader’s action, “scoring” the leads, and assessing the value of various lead sources. Most schools have a major advantage because they can handle leads personally; even so, they can ensure they’re focusing on the most qualified prospects by developing “personas” (a technical way to define your top four or five market segments, often in playful categories such as “Suzy the athlete” or “well-rounded Steve”) and tailor content in emails that can be sent in small batches. You can help your head of school think through the potential investment and ROI associated with a lead nurturing system. Smaller schools can help their development teams be more effective by segmenting leads, developing targeted content for each segment, and sending regular follow-ups manually. Staying in touch with prospective families on a regular basis can help “close the deal” in enrollment.

• Testing: Businesses and agencies, especially those that understand direct marketing techniques, are obsessed with testing key variables in virtually every medium. Schools as a whole have not tested topics, subject lines, copy content, length and tone, images, tag lines, incentives, and similar components that affect how people interact with and respond to marketing messages.
School marketers can set up basic tests in email, direct mail, banner and pay-per-click ads, Facebook posts, and websites (using A/B testing), then track with built-in analytics packages, Google Analytics, and similar tools. Testing is a critical part of strategic marketing and execution, and is an appropriate area for the board to guide your head of school if this isn’t being done regularly.

• Technology platforms: Schools are similar to businesses in having multiple database needs that require effective technology. Your school must have an efficient platform to track current family, student, alumni, and prospective family records, payments, and donations. Its course offering needs to be available online, ideally as part of an e-learning program that permits assignment submission and student collaboration. The school must also communicate to divergent constituents on many topics including ongoing newsletters, emergencies, transportation and athletic updates, news, events, and very specific programs like that third-grade field trip. Questions of platforms and databases at a high level are well beyond the scope of this article; for marketing and communications, trustees must have confidence in a long-term strategy to effectively manage communications. Most likely, this will require integrating multiple databases because there will be an increasingly high opportunity cost (people/time) to effective marketing using multiple systems; training, tracking of opt-outs (when constituents request to be removed from emails, it must be airtight), market segmentation, personalization, and consistent presentation are complex and prone to error.

• Benchmarking: Does your school formally benchmark itself against the leaders in its space? If not, this could be valuable guidance for the head of school. Top businesses always identify the best competitors and assess their strengths and weaknesses in a wide range of disciplines. In marketing and communications, schools should benchmark their leading peers for messaging, website navigation, content and ease-of-use, email content and frequency, social media presence, search engine effectiveness, and community feedback.
To be clear, not nearly every business is masterfully using each of these strategies and tools. However, businesses are further along in their understanding and application of increasingly sophisticated marketing capabilities. The sooner independent schools embrace appropriate marketing techniques as a way to greatly enhance their constituent satisfaction, reputation, and enrollment, the faster they will capitalize on the current “boom” years and be prepared for the challenging times ahead. As custodians of your school’s institutional sustainability, trustees can play a valuable role by supporting the head of school and senior administrators with insights about the importance of data-driven decision making, the power of market research, and the tremendous opportunities offered by today’s digital, social, and database technologies.

William R. Bullard is a marketing and Internet consultant. He had extensive experience in business before becoming the first interim director of communications at Dexter Southfield School (MA). He will begin as the Director of Communications at Hillside School (MA) in July, 2014. The author would like to thank and acknowledge Donna Orem, chief operating officer at NAIS; John O’Brien, head of school, St. Mary’s School (CA); and Mike Connor, president of Connor Associates Strategic Services for their assistance with this article.

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

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