Summer Marketing Series #1: What is Your Word of Mouth Campaign Saying?

Word of Mouth Marketing

by Jonathan Oleisky

This week we kick off a summer-long, weekly series to explore effective ways you can bolster your marketing, branding and enrollment efforts come September.  We will tackle a topic each week and offer easy – it’s summer vacation, after all – tips and techniques to help you create a more cohesive marketing program to help meet your enrollment goals. First up is something your school already has, whether or not you are cultivating it: word of mouth.

What are your parents, teachers, alumni, student and board members saying about your institution? If you track inquiry data and ask your prospects how they heard of you, most will answer “Reputation” or “Referral/Recommendation.” More than your viewbook, website, social media or any print or radio ad, what your internal and external communities – word of mouth – say about you matters. A lot.

Businesses use it all the time. You’ve probably used it yourself this week, whether looking for a new restaurant or dog groomers. You ask around and what your friends and neighbors say holds more weight than a print or radio ad. Check out the infographic from Impact Marketing on five effective word of mouth marketing strategies from business that are great for the nonprofit world.

What is Word of Mouth?

Good word of mouth is the most effective marketing tool you have. Happy students and their happy parents talk about how happy they are at your school to anyone who will listen. And unhappy families talk just as much.

Word of mouth relies on three components: Is the message portable, repeatable and emotional? In other words, how easy is it to talk about your school quickly and with a story that resonates? Your parents, current and prospective, will spend a lot of time this summer with peers, at the pool, in camp carpool lines, on the sidelines for summer sports. “How was so-and-so’s 6th grade/junior/first year?” will be part of the conversation. How will your parents answer?

Of course, you can’t control the narrative. Word of mouth is deeply personal and always comes back to an individual student’s experience. But time spent this summer developing a strong word of mouth program will help with retention of current students and improve referrals and inquiries. There are several things you can do this summer to give alumni and current families reasons to talk about your school and to make it easy for them to do so.

Easy, Word of Mouth Marketing To-Dos to Start This Summer

Did you send a survey to all the families new to you this past year? The National Association for Independent Schools has a good first-year parent survey of secondary schools or you can create your own with Survey Monkey. People want to share their opinion and feel that their ideas and voice matter. Their feedback is invaluable to your admission process. An important question to ask is if their first year was what they expected it to be after going through the admission process.

If you have the budget, what about a thank-you note with a gift card for coffee, to Amazon (for summer reading), to your school store, etc. to thank students who were new to your school this past year for being part of your school family? The amount isn’t as important as the gesture. A short and sweet message – “Here’s hoping you are enjoying your summer. We can’t wait to see you in September. So glad that you’re a part of our family.” – makes the point. Maybe send it to all rising seniors? To parent volunteers? You could work with your school store or an online retailer to do this electronically as well.

Summer is the perfect time to plan and produce a give-away that sparks word of mouth. Car magnets can be relatively cheap and students, parents and alumni love them. Consider creating one (or designing one that is different from what is sold in the school store) to give to all parents at Orientation in August. Ask them to post a photo of the magnet on their car on your social media sites along with a specific hashtag for your school. Post a photo of the magnet on your Head of School or President’s car (with them in the photo) and ask alumni to reply to the post requesting one. Of course, the “cost” of their free magnet is to take a photo and post it on their Facebook or Instagram feed and tag your school. Many schools have a tradition during student orientation when seniors decorate their cars with their class year. Be on hand to take photos and hand out the magnets.

Scroll back through your social media feeds this past year. Which parents and alumni were consistent “likers” and, more importantly, engaged in your content with a comment or share? Compile a list and run it by your alumni and development colleagues for their input. You are looking for good potential “digital ambassadors” for the coming year. Having a small, devoted cadre of volunteers willing to push out your posts by liking, sharing and commenting on a regular basis extends your digital reach. Develop clear expectations if you want the ambassadors to create their own posts – perhaps a photo of the field hockey team with a “Great job on the win today, Spartans!” And, of course, thank them with a small gift.  (Check with your school store right now. Chances, there is deeply discounted inventory that needs to move.)

And if your summer plans include cleaning up your inbox, photo folders, etc. from this past year, consider sending your new families photos of their child from this past year. It doesn’t need to be an album’s worth, just a short email stating with the photo of their child. Getting these types of emails make any parent proud, especially when it’s unexpected and personal. And getting it in the middle of summer makes them excited for the school year ahead.

You might consider putting the protocol in place over the summer to make photos available to your families and alumni on your website using a photo sharing site or a program offered by your web vendor. Determine which event photos you want to make public, curate the photos first (keep the ones you want to publish on your social media and in print), but share the rest – for free. A late-August email to parents with back-to-school messaging about this new service (with reminders on social media) will be well received.

Create a Faculty Word of Mouth Campaign

Engaging your faculty – the best, most authentic voices you have at your school – in an effective word of mouth campaign takes some legwork, but is worth it. Before you implement anything, talk to faculty and give the proper “training.” Tell them why this is important, how it makes a difference and show a sample message. Give feedback when you get it from parents (and you will) to the teacher and his/her department chair or division head.

A great, impactful way to steward a new or current family is a faculty letter-writing (snail mail or email) campaign. Ask a faculty member who knows the student well to write a postcard, handwritten note or email to the student (for 6th grade and up) or parents (for Preschool through 5th grade). If you have end-of-year faculty meetings, ask division heads if you could leave a stack of pre-labeled postcards for the faculty to pick up and write a short note. Singling out all the new students for this past year keeps it to a manageable group, and most faculty won’t mind penning a few kind words about how much Billy improved in Calculus this year or how impressed the teacher was with Erin’s creativity in designing her 5th grade science project.

Each school and faculty culture are different, but figuring out just how to manage these kind of personal notes (or emails) on a regular basis during the school year can truly move the needle for enrollment. This type of outreach is a cornerstone of a sold word of mouth campaign.

Reach out to the department or faculty member who runs new faculty orientation and/or the opening faculty meeting. Get on the agenda to talk with faculty about the importance of sharing news with you and pushing out their own news. Some ideas to make this easier for very busy educators:

  1. Create an email address with so teachers can easily send you photos for you to post and curate. All they need to do is send a quick note in the subject line about what is happening in the shot and email it to you.
  2. Make it a competition: create a “Photo of the Week” for faculty and have a prize box of gift cards for the winner. Post it as this week’s winner and give them some cred!
  3. For those faculty who tweet, post, etc. already, ask them to use the hashtags you create for your school. Print them on a piece of paper and hand them out. There’s a lot of information to take in at the opening of school and they will appreciate the reminder.

If your internal school community uses an Intranet, consider a weekly email to faculty with links to news articles and social media posts once school starts. Most faculty members don’t regularly check the web news, school blog or social media. Curating it in an email on a weekly basis gives shout-outs to faculty who are sharing news, promotes cross-divisional communications and inspires more faculty to share news on a timely basis. Be sure to include your hashtags and any feedback from a parent from the letter-writing campaign.

What ideas do you have to jumpstart a word of mouth campaign over the summer? Let us know!

Next week, we will tackle “Making Blogging Easier.”

Read Kalix’s tips on Making Donor Recognition Stick.

Jonathan Oleisky is President of Kalix Marketing


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Jonathan Oleisky

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