By William R. Bullard
This article was first published in the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) The Savvy Trustee newsletter, February, 2014.
As stewards of independent schools’ institutional sustainability, today’s trustees are presented with increasingly complex choices in the areas of communications, marketing, and research. Do you—the board and the head of school— understand the attitudes of both your current parents toward the school as well as the perceptions of prospective families about the school? Do you have a strong grasp on the return on investment (ROI) for your communications and marketing programs? Are you actively using data to make your resource allocation decisions? Lastly, are you aware of the school’s database and marketing technologies and their level of integration?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, you may find the following insights valuable. While many independent schools have begun to see the value of marketing and research, most schools are not fully capitalizing on the potential of these programs to significantly enhance constituent satisfaction, enrollment, retention, community engagement, alumni participation, and fund-raising. Lessons from the business world can help.
School administrators and faculty are often skeptical of business’s relevance to their tight-knit communities, often singling out marketing as contrary to the school culture and personal ties. However, with declining demographics, increasing competition, and other macro-economic factors already in motion, schools can greatly benefit from marketing approaches that businesses and agencies have honed during very challenging times. While trustees are rightly wary of becoming directly involved in marketing, you can better support your head of school if you are aware of the potential opportunities to use data and new marketing tools on behalf of your school. Summarized below are some of the most critical areas for your school:
• Marketing Strategy: Many schools have not translated their carefully conceived goals, vision, and mission well to their websites, the foundation of marketing efforts for businesses today. In addition, many schools don’t communicate effectively with all their constituents, tending to focus primarily on parents. Is your school’s culture clear online and in print? Does the website have a “mission,” “purpose” or “values” section, and if so, does it speak to your alumni, faculty, students, past parents and grandparents, prospective students, and your local community? Have you reviewed your school’s site carefully, both on a computer and mobile device, and given feedback to the head of school? The web, both on a PC/laptop and increasingly on a smartphone or tablet, is the core of your public presentation and must be closely aligned with your organizational strategy as conveyed in your school tours, printed publications, ads, brochures, and social media.
Strategic thinking and execution are two of the key differentiators between “communications” and “marketing” resources. Often these are confused, and indeed, there is significant overlap. However, as complexity grows in private education, most schools need to move beyond basic, though essential, communications responsibilities, such as sending newsletters, informing local publications of student achievements, announcing events, and updating web pages to more strategic marketing functions, such as highly targeted messaging, data-driven campaigns, testing, and lead generation and nurturing for enrollment and campaign integration.
• Analytics: Many schools have not used the tools they have at their own disposal to understand what’s happening on their websites, to their search engine content, and in email, social media, and other channels. Many organizations continue to rely on intuition, or equally dangerously, habit, for their selection of positioning, marketing channels, message frequency, and revenue allocation. With rapid changes in social media, competition and demographics, what worked in the past is no guarantee of future success. Trustees can help their schools by ensuring the head is attuned to the dynamic marketing environment and is prioritizing data-driven thinking among his or her communications and marketing team.
This means not just tracking what web pages people visit and for how long, what keywords they use in search, what topics interest them on social channels and in email, and what paths they travel after clicking on an ad. It also means understanding the implications of this behavior and the best methods to translate your constituents’ actions and interests into more effective presentations. In practical terms, this could require overhauling web pages with frequent exits, creating or enhancing pages for topics of interest, updating web copy to better accommodate search engine updates, changing keywords and themes, re-positioning landing pages reached from ads, or engaging the community on different topics in social media.
• Data management and marketing: The ability to understand and leverage data cuts across many crucial segments of independent schools. However, while schools have been very conscious of data for enrollment and budgeting, many still rely on anecdote and precedent in their strategic planning and resource allocation. Companies have been using data-driven techniques, such as audience segmentation, targeted messaging, and large-scale trend analysis for years. Most companies have also grasped the need to integrate their databases with other key systems. Here are some data-related areas where schools can learn from business:
o Effective market segmentation of key current constituents: Understanding the interests and characteristics of your current students, parents, and alumni in particular can help schools communicate with more relevance to each segment.
o Prospect identification: Take your most mission-appropriate current students and families and model their characteristics, then search for those in your enrollment campaigns. The use of data-driven profiles can be used across not only academic, athletic, and economic criteria but also behavioral.
o Demographic trends. Knowing birth rate, socio-economic, and immigration trends can significantly improve marketing effectiveness and long-term financial success via geographic targeting and new services, courses or sports, e.g. focusing on select states or countries for recruitment, or offering Mandarin courses,
o Customer relationship management (CRM): With the advent of systems such as Salesforce.com, companies have become much more proficient at tracking basic customer activity, such as orders, conversations and requests. The “Chatter” feature expands the capabilities to capture more nuanced information about customers and employees, such as personal interests and unique skills. Schools can benefit greatly from
collecting and sharing activity and knowledge, either from expanded capabilities offered by existing database providers like Senior Systems, or new entrants.
o Database Integration: Many schools, like businesses, have multiple systems or platforms for their parents/students (customers), alumni, website management, email, and analytics. In part two of this article in the April Savvy Trustee, I will discuss what trustees need to know about these databases and platforms as they relate to marketing and communications.
• Market research: Most successful businesses have understood the importance of listening to the customer for decades, while schools often assume they know what key constituents feel and need. Data-driven boards will ask the head to create a “research agenda” and report the results to the board to aid in strategic decision-making. While these projects can encompass all aspects of school life, most relate to marketing and communications in some way. There are many options, which in most cases need not be impersonal, technical, or expensive. Focus groups (or moderated parent meetings) are great for idea generation while surveys can quantify satisfaction or choice. Board members can remind the head of school of a basic premise: don’t start a project or ask a question unless you’re prepared to act on the findings. Your school can conduct moderated parent meetings for high-level discussion and build and implement (by email or direct mail) basic surveys about activities, communications, or upcoming programs. For more complex needs, such as image audits or demographic studies, the trustees will need to support the head in assessing the goals, ROI, and frequency. This is a classic case in which the institution may have to choose between using internal resources, with low costs but more limited capabilities, and outside consultants, which require an investment in return for their broader experience and research methodologies.
Part II of this article will be published later this spring and provide additional insights on strategies, tools, and techniques that can help your school enhance its reputation, enrollment, constituent satisfaction, fund-raising, and alumni participation.
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, a pre-K-12 school (MA). 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.