Monday, January 23, 2012

Six Pillars of Independent School Marketing

(Note to readers: Even though this post focuses on independent schools, the points made are easily transferable to other nonprofits and businesses. Don’t discount what can be learned)

After directing the marketing and communications activity of an independent school in Toronto for the past six years, I gave some thought to what has accounted for our success. Here, then are my six pillars of independent school marketing.

It starts with numbers. Even the most creative marketing efforts won’t be effective without a wide array of reliable data. You need a demographic and attitudinal profile of parents - current, new and prospective. You need to know what’s going on in your catchment area in terms of real estate and business.  It’s important that you do your own surveys and access other available research. All of this will allow you to more accurately put yourself in the shoes of prospective parents and develop positioning and messaging that hits the mark.

Fish where the fish are. Let’s face it – not every parent considering an independent school is going to be interested in yours. Wide-net techniques like advertising in high circulation newspapers are expensive and often ineffective when you’re really interested in a very narrow target. Once you've determined the profile of the prospective parent that is most likely to choose your school, figure out where to find them. Use mail drops to particular postal areas, advertising or presentations aimed at specific organizations, create cooperative opportunities with local businesses or service providers. Make sure you have the right online presence. The more laser-like your targeting is, the more results you will see.

Think outside in. Education is one of those fields where it’s easy to fall into professional patter that most parents don’t understand. "Differentiation" is an example of a word that most people can define (sort of) but few can apply in an educational context. Yes, prospective parents want educators to be experts but they need to be able to understand them. The key is to use plain language in your materials and presentations. More importantly, remember that the heart rules the head in most (if not all) decisions. You need to evoke emotional responses through images and words that speak to what parents really want for their children.

Your parents are customers. Think Zappos or Starbucks and provide your parents with an outstanding consumer experience. They are paying a lot of money to send their kids to your school and they have choices. This presents unique challenges in an educational setting because the product can’t always conform to the desires of your customers. There has to be integrity to the educational product and experience. But parents can still feel like their voice is being heard if the outcome isn’t the one they wanted. Respect and responsiveness must still be the basis of all communication. Every interaction with a parent – in the front office, in the classroom, in the tuition office, in every email or letter and e-newsletter, must let parents know how much they are valued and appreciated. Perhaps more importantly, there needs to be multiple channels - both online and off - that allow parents to provide opinions.

Constantly collaborate. Educators and administrators must be strategic partners. Meet with Principals and Vice Principals often and involve them in marketing planning and decision-making. The truth is that the educational staff determines the nature and the quality of the product and your job is to put the fruit of their efforts on a pedestal. They can be the source of great ideas and provide outstanding marketing content and events. Administrators have daily contact with parents and frequently speak to colleagues in other schools. They are invaluable sources of information. Your marketing efforts won’t be nearly as effective without them.

Listen. Very carefully – to all stakeholders – faculty, administrators, current and prospective parents, lay leaders, non-educational departments, support and maintenance staff. You may not always agree and it may try your patience, but there is something to be learned from every interaction. It will add richness to your understanding of the school. You would be amazed at how often the kernel of a great marketing idea comes from a conversation with a member of the office staff or one of the custodians. Listening also means monitoring social media and using it wisely. Encourage people to offer opinions – online and off. They will make you a better marketer.

Admittedly, these are pretty high level principles and each of them could be spun off into detailed discussions. But I think these represent a meaningful starting point.

Having said that, I’m interested in the opinions of others who are marketing independent schools. What are your six pillars?


  1. What happens when the best sources of the independent school are not providing "the fruit of their efforts" because they say they are too busy, and you are trying so hard to create an annual report that speaks so well of the school? Very very frustrating situation.


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