Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Why your school needs to be like Alexa

The advent of digital assistants is having huge impact on our culture but Google and Alexa also account for larger shifts in how we engage with brands and technology. Those shifts are influencing the way parents engage with independent schools and are shaping their expectations. To be successful, schools need to pay attention and adapt to a changing marketplace. With that in mind, here are two reasons that your school needs to be like Alexa.

1. Your voice is more important than your logo or any other visual communication.

In a September 2017 Fast Company article, a CMO commenting on the rise of digital assistants said the following: 
“What will brands look like in a more-voice-oriented world? Is there a post-logo world there? It’s just so interesting to think that the visual world may be less important and what that means.” 
While the CMO was clearly talking about the voice of digital assistants, the reality is that schools have a voice as well. It is reflected in the language used in communication as well as in its tone and style. Your communication makes a statement about who you are and what’s important to you. In short, your communication is the voice of your brand and one should be as unique as the other. In fact, in an increasingly competitive environment, your school’s voice is a key differentiator.

In the same Fast Company article, an agency creative officer said, “…we shouldn’t be going at people with what we sell, we should be telling then what we believe in. Get them to buy into your brand by understanding what it stands for.”

The reality is that what you say and how you say it is more important then what it looks like. Content trumps design. That applies to everything from websites to email to print to video. Let's face it. The most popular YouTube videos are often shot on smartphones.

The design of the Amazon Echo is attractive but purposefully unobtrusive. It is a vehicle, a platform for its voice. And when you hear that voice, you know its Alexa.

An interesting test would be to give someone something written about your school that contains no give-away references. Would they recognize it as referring your school? Would your school’s voice be as distinctive as Alexa’s?

2. Customer expectations are being driven higher than ever.

Digital assistants are all about the user. A recent Google blog post presented results of a study of voice assistant owners. These are the reasons that people use voice-activated assistants:  
  1. It allows them to more easily multitask.
  2. It enables them to do things faster than other devices.
  3. It empowers them to instantly get answers and information.
  4. It makes their daily routine easier. 
Me. Me, me. In fact 41% of respondents said that using their voice assistant felt like talking to a friend.

So, here’s the obvious question. Is your school as customer focused as Alexa? Voice assistants are empowering, enabling and responsive. They answer the questions they are asked and, by the way, admit when they don’t know the answer. They provide the information you need to be better at what you do. They tell you what you absolutely need to know on any given day. They don’t hide facts and they make no assumptions about why you are asking a question. Alexa is never short or condescending.

You can also extend the capability of your voice assistant so that you can control your thermostat, lights or choose TV channels. Are you equally anticipating the needs of your customers and extending your capabilities? That could be before and after school care, parent education programs or financial planning seminars.

Just as was the case with social media, ongoing technological advances empower customers and raise expectations. They also put a premium, both literally and figuratively, on the voice of your school. There is no turning back. To be successful, schools must meet the challenge and be more like Alexa.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Meaty Messaging – The Messaging Inventory

Thirty-four years ago, Wendys launched what was probably its most successful ad campaign ever. It featured three elderly women examining a hamburger from an unnamed restaurant and discovering it had a huge bun but a very tiny patty. One of the women repeatedly croaked, “Where’s the Beef” and in the process created a phrase that became part of the mid-80’s zeitgeist, even making into the rhetoric of that year’s presidential election campaign.

What’s more, “Where’s the beef” has become an accepted English idiom meaning that an argument or proposal lacks substantive content. And that’s what brings us to independent schools.

For schools, the road to underachieving marketing results is paved with beautiful full-width, photo-laden websites that include a video featuring a dramatic opening drone shot of the campus at sunrise. Often these websites are visually impressive but in reality tell you next to nothing about the school. There are all bun with no burger.

This is particularly relevant to the current cohort of millennial prospective parents – many of whom were also conceived along with the Wendys ad in 1984. Amongst the characteristics of this new parental generation (some are even calling them parennials) is a demand for authenticity and a distaste for marketing that is superficial, or even misleading. To be able to persuasively communicate with today’s parents, schools need to give them reasons to believe. They need to provide convincing evidence that demonstrates why parents should consider, choose, or, in the case of current parents, continue to choose a particular school. They need to show them the beef.

Enter the messaging inventory.

The messaging inventory is a highly strategic, targeted database of statements, each of which brings to life one of your school’s marketing proof points. And because your school is constantly adding to its programming and curricular repertoire, its messaging inventory is dynamic – growing with each new initiative and program.

The messaging inventory is organized by target audience or, better yet, target segment and for each of them includes these fields:

Needs or interests - the needs/interests of a particular target segment could be anything from more convenience for working parents, to greater athletic opportunities to enhanced initiatives supporting social-emotional development.

The Approach your school uses to address that need or interest – these will be areas of emphasis or a broad curricular/programming initiatives. Examples related to the needs above could be a robust before and after school program, an expansive athletics department or a well-defined character education initiative.

Specific programs, initiatives or outcomes – these are the proof points and there could be many of them for each need or interest.

The Messaging Statement expresses the specific initiative/outcome in a sentence. At this point, it doesn’t have to be award-winning communication. Later, the statement will be refined to better reflect your school's brand and will likely be combined with other statements to create effective copy.

Putting, all that into action, you end up with something like this:

(The table above is available as a Word doc)

Now imagine what happens when you add additional needs/interests, approaches and specific initiatives. This becomes a very expansive document. In addition, as your school introduces new programs, receives new recognition, or records specific accomplishments, the inventory also continues to grow. I have worked with schools with messaging inventories that included hundreds of statements.   

Using the messaging inventory forces you to think strategically about communication because it creates messaging buckets. From a proactive point of view, it allows you to tell administrators and teachers exactly what types of stories you are interested in. Reactively, as items of interest come to your attention, you have the means to categorize them so they can be used more effectively.

The messaging inventory can be the backbone to social media editorial calendars – allowing you to identify categories of content and then find the posts to best represent them. The inventory is a communication source for open house and tour talking points. It can be the basis for website and online content as well as any print communication. It’s also a very effective way of developing video outlines and scripts.

The messaging inventory is the best way to make sure that your marketing communication is always grounded in proof points. It also highlights the need for everyone in a school – teachers, administrators, trustees – to be constantly aware of the need to prove what they say about themselves – to walk the talk. In that way, the messaging inventory is also an important branding tool.

This is not just a communication planning tool for prospective parents. In fact, it may be even more effective in informing and validating the decisions of current parents, ensuring that they are knowledgeable and enthusiastic ambassadors.

Developing and maintaining a messaging inventory is tedious. It requires great discipline and forethought. But the resulting improvement in marketing effectiveness easily provides the benefit of results that will far outweigh the cost of time. It will allow you to proudly and unequivocally declare, “Here’s the beef.”