Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Maximizing e-newsletter impact

School e-newsletters are a huge pain. No one, other than those who have to prepare them, would believe the amount of time they take. On top of that, they are a magnet for all kinds of heated and time-consuming discussions about who should control content, why parents still don’t know about upcoming events and who is responsible for all those typos and errors (there’s not usually a lot of takers on that one).

Not surprisingly, by the time you hit week 15, the strong temptation is to minimize the pain and just get the bloody thing done. But here’s the thing. Retention is the key to enrolment success and that means that e-newsletters are a critical marketing communication vehicle that deserve (almost) all the time they take to prepare. The key is to maximize the investment. Here then are nine ways to focus your efforts and improve the effectiveness of e-newsletters.

1. Strategy first. Remember that the e-newsletter is a key to building brand among current parents and stakeholders. That means that content must be both functional and strategic. Choose content based on what best reflects strategic marketing goals and don’t be afraid to have multiple items – whether in news items or captions – speak to the same topic. What you imagine to be heavy-handed is likely not perceived that way by the casual reader.

2. Content control. Some weeks finding content is like pulling teeth. No one responds to your emails and two hours before deadline, you’re still tracking down photos and details about a school event. And then you have the polar opposite when the development department is convinced that each of their 32 school fundraisers must be represented in this week’s newsletter. The solution is to have established and agreed-upon guidelines that detail content categories, indicate exactly who is responsible for getting you content and determine in advance the number of items that can appear under any heading. 

3. The tyranny of attention. Your e-newsletter may be chock full of all the things you want parents to know about like the softball team’s big win and the STEM contest that the 5th graders participated in. But none of that is going to get read unless you first meet parents’ most basic communication needs. It’s kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy. Tell parents what they need to survive the week ahead  - the early closing days, the no-lunch days – and then they will pay attention to the stuff you think they should know.

4. Know your limits. Studies show that people read online material at a rate of about 200 words per minute. Now, how much time do you expect parents to spend reading the weekly e-newsletter? If three to five minutes sounds reasonable, that translates into no more than 600-1000 words.

5. Be photo-literate. Rest assured that a good photo paired with a strategic caption can outperform any paragraph of copy alone. Whatever you can say with a photo will get more attention and will be more compelling. However, not all photos are created equal – and some, if not most, of the ones provided to you should likely not be used. The group photo of 25 students who participated in an event will be indiscernible. Rather look for shots of one or two people who look interesting or are doing something interesting. Remember - you can fill in the details in a caption or short story that accompanies the image.

6. What's the subject. Data indicates that 33% of email recipients decide whether to open an email based on the subject line alone. And get this – there’s an 18.7% decrease in open rates when the word “newsletter” is used in subject lines. Don’t fool yourself into imagining that your e-newsletter is so important to parents that data on subject lines don’t apply. So, instead of “Your newsletter for the week of September 18” try writing a creative subject line about an item in the e-newsletter - maybe something like “Our B-Ballers Beat the Best.”

7. Be a tease. Not every detail about every item has to appear directly in the e-newsletter. By using links to pages on your website or other sources, you can provide readers with just enough copy to “tease” them or for them to decide whether it’s something they want to know more about. It’s a win-win approach that conserves space and respects the reader’s interests and judgment.

8. Make it mobile. It’s critical that your e-newsletter can be easily read on a smartphone. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage of email open on mobile devices rose from 20% to 55% and from my experience the percentage of independent school parents using smartphones is higher than that. Content viewed on a mobile device always feels longer than on a tablet or desktop. That magnifies the importance of almost all of the points above. For example, the average mobile screen can only fit a 4-7 word subject line. So, in addition to being interesting, subject lines need to be concise.

9. Draw on data. Take advantage of the incredible array of data that is available to you in almost all email software. You can see which subject lines get better open rates and which items are more attracting clicks. You can even see who is opening emails and segment them by gender, location, campus or the grades of their children. All of that can be essential in the ongoing evaluation of the e-newsletter.

By using these nine points (and probably a bunch more that I didn’t think of) you can transform your weekly e-newsletters from a necessary evil into a superhero force for good.

What do you think?
What are your best e-newsletter tips? Or better yet, let’s see some examples of your outstanding e-newsletters.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

10 Other Reasons Parents Are Choosing Your School

Independent school marketing is in many ways a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. We promote schools based on certain attributes and then we research why parents have chosen our schools and remain satisfied with them based on those same attributes. That, in turn, provides the proof that we need to convince ourselves that we completely understand parents' decision-making. But, maybe it’s time to jump out of our comfort zone and look more deeply at parents’ motivation.

Let’s be more specific. If you were to scan the websites of any number of independent schools, you would find the following attributes that are being used to promote the school: 
  • Academic excellence
  • Character Development
  • Whole Child Education
  • Acquisition of skills for learning
  • Being part of a community of students 
To measure their success in attracting and retaining families, schools then survey parents. That’s good. But here’s the self-fulfilling part. Survey questions are based on the promotional attributes above or some variation on them. For example, every parent satisfaction survey that I’ve seen asks respondents to rate the school based on something like this series of questions: 
  • How satisfied are you with the quality of the academic program/the Math curriculum/the Language Arts program?
  • To what extent do you feel your child is developing positive character traits? 
And surveys to new families will most often ask parents to rank the reasons they chose the school based on variations of the attributes above.

Then the survey data is collected and analyzed and guess what? Yup, now we have proof that the features we are using to promote the school are exactly the reasons that parents have chosen our school and the criteria they use in deciding whether to stay. And with great confidence, we can continue to market our schools the way we always have. Phew!

So how do we break the cycle? Two recent Harvard Business Review articles provide some guidance. The first – Creativity in Marketing – is based on discussions with leading marketers and provides some approaches that will definitely lead to new insights.

For example, what if we think about marketing with parents as opposed to marketing to parents? Strategic marketing is targeted. We talk about target audiences or target segments. Implicitly that means that we keep our distance, disseminating marketing messages, like arrows, toward the bulls-eyes we seek to influence. But parents aren’t sitting idly waiting for our cupid-like missives.  In fact, they are creating their own content in the lives they lead as reflected on social media. The imperative for independent school marketers is to remove the distance, have meaningful interactions with parents and make their stories and experiences the centerpiece of marketing efforts.  

The second article advocates a less empirical and more experiential way of interacting with customers – or, in our case, parents. By intuitively analyzing the customer experience, it’s possible to discover previously hidden motivation for buying a product or service. The authors characterize these motivators as “jobs to be done.”

With these two articles in mind, if we were to market with parents and really immerse ourselves in the parent experience, we may discover other attributes upon which parents are selecting independent schools and choosing to remain at them. Here are some of the “jobs to be done” that we might find: 
  • Creating a sense of accomplishment or status for parents
  • Building community and developing new friendships for parents
  • Developing a more homogeneous social circle for children and parents
  • Meeting the expectations of grandparents (parents’ parents) or other family members
  • Providing a worry-free experience that relieves the stress of having to continuously monitor school progress and advocate for children
  • Delivering convenience – in pick up/drop off and in scheduling of meetings, presentations and assemblies
  • Providing seamless access to tutoring or other supports
  • Communicating in ways that find the balance between providing “must-know” information and the validation of continuing to make the right choice
And, removing barriers to choosing independent schools, such as:
  • Assuring parents that they will fit in with other families at the school
  • Relieving a sense of guilt about their ability to afford higher tuition fees and separating themselves from peers (as may be the case with any luxury product) 
Implicitly, each school will have its own meaningful promotional attributes which doubles down on the need for marketers – and, I would argue heads of school and other key administrators - to immerse themselves in the parent experience.

Uncovering these real attributes at your school is way more than an exercise in marketing because each of them is an expression of need that must be supported. Being attuned to the parent experience requires action in programming and communication.

Lest anyone thinks I am disparaging the use of data, I offer these points. As is best practice in the use of qualitative and quantitative data, once you uncover new motivational criteria, you can – and should - use broad based surveys to determine the degree to which they are a factor for all parents. But perhaps more importantly, I am reminded of an amazing quote by author and speaker BrenĂ© Brown, who said, “stories are data with a soul.”

The bottom line is that as independent school marketers, we may be looking for love in all the wrong places and by being shoulder to shoulder with our parents, we may discover the true path to their hearts.

What do you think?

What are some of the other reasons that parents are choosing your school? What have you done to validate those reasons empirically? More importantly, what programs or communication have you put in place to support them?