Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Save your marketing dollars. Focus on fundamentals.

My suggestion to most schools is to stop whatever marketing you are doing and re-consider everything.

The impetus for this unusual advice was the plethora of independent school radio ads I heard this year. It seemed to me that twice as many schools as last year were running radio spots. They weren't very effective but there were lots of them and they were undoubtedly very expensive.

Of all people, I understand that the independent school marketplace is incredibly and increasingly competitive. That in turn, drives schools - almost desperately - to ratchet up marketing efforts using as many channels as they can think of or afford. The result is ads on buses, bus shelters, national newspapers, billboards and yes, radio. It's an ad rep's dream but do they really do anything? After all, these are wide-net advertising vehicles being used for narrow target markets.

In addition, there are now more "education guide" type publications than ever before. Here in Toronto, there are four or five of these. This has created two other dynamics. First, schools are scrambling to get their ads in these publications – in many cases for fear of being notable by their absence. That produces the second effect which is the need for pithy headlines and taglines. These gems of copywriting may keep some of my colleagues in business but they do nothing to differentiate. Here are some examples:

  • Be yourself. Be great. 
  • Be remarkable 
  • I am limitless 
  • Dedicated to Developing the Whole Child 
  • Become. Go Beyond. 
  • Confidence. It's Who We Are 
  • Igniting A Passion for the Art of Learning 
  • Learning for Life. Creating the Future. 
  • Education with Balance 

Let's be honest. Each of those could apply to any one of about 50 schools. They become meaningless – as does much of the marketing effort I've described above.

All of this marketing activity – with its accompanying expense – is more mystifying when every piece of market research that I have ever done or read clearly indicates that word of mouth is the principal driver of the decision to choose any independent school.

So, as I said, it's time to stop and re-discover the fundamentals. How? For that I turn to a great social fresh post from the beginning of the year that presented tips for 2014 from marketing pros. Here are the ones that make the most sense for independent schools.

1. Focus on the product. I always tell the educators with whom I work that my job is to take their great work and put in on a pedestal. But there has to be great work. The social fresh post goes even farther. "90% of companies would see more “marketing” success if they focused that energy NOT on marketing, but rather on improving the product or the service. Doing something worth talking about is more difficult."

2. Create and sustain buzz. Fuel and enable word of mouth through effective ambassador and communication programs. The marketing tip puts it this way: "Nurture advocacy! And instead of creating marketing campaigns, build movements around your brand. Only brands that focus deeply on building and nurturing long-term relationships with their true advocates will see sustainable business results."

3. Treat your parents like customers. My previous blog post provided some advice on how do that but here's what social fresh says. "Focus on customer experience. Brands like USAA, Amazon, Apple, and Google don’t succeed in social media because they have better content or social strategies, but because they offer great experiences and let customers do the talking for them."

4. Make social media a two-way channel. It's your opportunity to learn, listen and really be able to empathize. Or as the experts say, "social Media is not just a news broadcasting tool. Engage with your fan base: it is a blessing to have fans and customers, so treat them as such."

5. Stop, take a breath and do a reality check. Then, create (or re-create) a plan. The expert advice goes like this: "Re-evaluate everything. Do you think you know who your customers are, what they need, and how they are getting their information about your products?"

The irony is that sometimes it's harder to stop what you're doing and re-evaluate its effectiveness. It's easy to get caught up in the vortex of needing more marketing – and more marketing dollars. Smart school marketers will find a way to stop the cycle and re-focus on fundamentals.

What do you think? 
Is independent school marketing out of control? What are you doing to stay focused on effectiveness? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How to personalize the parent experience

A recent Huffington Post article asks the question, “Is 2014 the year of personalization?” Examples of personalization in marketing abound from the sublime of Virgin America's Chatter initiative that will use video screens to deliver a personalized travel experience to the ridiculous of Nordstrom's personalized panties.

For any business or organization, personalization is an important, and maybe even essential way to differentiate and build strong customer relationships. So, how do independent schools jump on the bandwagon and begin to offer their customers a personalized experience?

Let's start with the obvious. Parents expect that their children are going to receive individualized attention and that any interaction related to their child's progress will be uniquely focused. But let's face it - meeting the individual needs of diverse learners isn't exactly groundbreaking in 2014. You are more likely be notable by the absence of differentiation, than by its presence.

Also, let's be clear about who the customer is. Parents pay for the education their children receive. From a customer relations perspective, students are essentially a proxy. If you want to impress the customer, it's the parent that must be the focus.

First, let’s deal with the prerequisites to personalization.

Data is the foundation of personalization. It starts with basics – contact info, names of other family members like siblings or grandparents. Beyond that good data could include birthdays and other milestone dates. However, the real crux of useful data is that the details of every meaningful interaction a parent has with the school must be recorded whether its a meeting with a principal or a negotiation with the tuition office. That leads to the next point.

Data discipline and consistency are vital to personalization. Every staff member must understand the importance of recording the details of interactions and effective data conventions must be in place. Something as simple as recording a date as 3/5/14 as opposed to 5/3/14 can yield disastrous results. This also means using the right tools. Schools need a database that provides necessary structured data fields as well as the ability to create specialized areas in which to record information that is particular to the school.

What can you do with all this data? Here are a few basic ideas that share one common theme. Parents want to know that you know who they are.

Personalize the personal meeting. Any time a head of school, a principal, an educational consultant or someone from the business office meets with a parent, it’s essential that they access to detailed information and ideally have familiarized themselves with it. It’s both impressive and comforting to a parent when the person with whom they are meeting can ask about other family members, knows about unique circumstances and the details of previous meetings or calls.

Acknowledge important events. This should include personal letters recognizing a birth or a death in a parent's family. Personal birthday wishes for students are commonplace. Take that to the next level and send each parent a birthday greeting. What if you sent birthday cards to siblings not yet at the school? You can also recognize significant achievements in parents’ lives, whether those are in business or in communal efforts.

Personalize the business experience. Think about your last call to a local utility or financial services company. It makes a huge difference when the person with whom you are speaking can access notes about your individual circumstances and previous interactions. A parent’s communication with the school’s business is no different. When a parent calls, the person on the line should be able to call up a database record and speak knowledgably about that parent’s circumstances. In addition, every form that a parent is required to fill out, whether online or on paper, could have the name, address and contact info fields already completed.

Tailor the web. A school that I work with recently introduced a personalized parent dashboard that upon login, presents essential links for each child including teacher names and contact info, class lists and parent resources. Using cookies would make it possible for a parent visiting the website to be presented with the items he or she viewed most often.

While these may all sound like common sense, in a busy school environment, it takes forethought and discipline to make any of these happen on a routine basis. Think about all the ways a parent interacts with the school and be vigilant about finding ways to personalize the parent experience.

What do you think?
Is personalization a key to independent school success? How are you personalizing the parent experience in your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts.