We are moving into a new era of school marketing. The buying journey of your prospective parent is no longer a straight line.Marketing is all around you. Marketing has been part of how you interpret and understand the world since your youngest years. You know what you will eat beneath the ‘golden arches’, you know where to find the ‘city of love’ and you know what to expect when you hear the ABC News theme. Marketing inhabits every corner of the world in which you live. It has changed you. It has become part of your landscape. But that landscape is changing under your feet and, as a school Head, you can no longer rely on the old marketing maps to chart your course.
Before venturing into any discussion about the changing face of marketing, we need to have a common definition of what ‘marketing’ is. For over a century, marketing and advertising have been synonymous. The success of marketing was measured by how much was spent on advertising. The equation was relatively simple. Money invested in advertising was judged by the enrolment enquiries generated or attendance at a special event. The advertising cost divided by the number of leads generated equalled the cost per lead. School marketers with a scientific approach would exert influence over the quality of the leads generated by choosing the most appropriate advertising vehicle … if a choice was available. For the sake of common terminology, let’s call this traditional marketing.
Of course, school marketing goes much deeper than traditional marketing. School marketing is on display in everything you do and everything you say. How you answer the phone, the way your students wear their uniform, consistently using the typeface identified in your visual identity style guide — this is all school marketing. In fact, marketing your school is far too important to be left to the marketers. Marketing your school is everybody’s job.
Modern marketing, however, requires a paradigm shift. School marketing can no longer accept the premise of traditional marketing that measures success by the quantity of leads or enrolments. Modern marketing is based on humility, empathy and effectiveness. Modern marketing is the act of making change happen, and to make change happen you need to change people.
Modern school marketing is characterised by promising and offering an educational product you can be proud of, generating trust rather than shouting louder to gain attention, and building empathetic relationships with individuals.
There are many workable definitions of ‘brand’, but one that is particularly applicable to schools is, ‘Who you are, what you promise, and your ability and willingness to keep that promise’1. As school Head, you are in charge of your product design, deciding what you promise and how you will articulate it, and consistently keeping that promise. In today’s school, the Head, marketing and admissions staff serve as ‘promise-makers’ of family experiences, and the rest of the staff are the ‘promise-keepers’. The effectiveness of the promise-keepers determines if parents believe you have kept your side of the bargain. Making a promise to prospective families about what they should expect when they do business with you (yes, it is a transaction) and then keeping that promise is the very heart of marketing; both traditional and modern. But it seems that many school Heads have missed the importance of promises. It is not that they want to break their promises; far from it. It is that they have allowed their brand to become so different that they neglect to make any promise of substance and thereby frustrate attempts to secure parent satisfaction.
Becoming a small target does not guarantee any marketing outcome other than that you will be ignored by most. This means that school marketers have to expand their scope of activity and influence. Internal and external alignment has never been more important.
It is easier than ever to make a connection and, as a result, there are more people than ever who are connected, but far fewer who are trusted. This hyper-connected environment creates a vast amount of background noise that washes over promises that are weak or meaningless. Such promises become undifferentiated embellishment that fail to break through the noise — instead, they become the noise. Your school can pay to buy advertising and get noticed, but you cannot buy more relevance and trust. Generating real trust is a long-term investment, but it is the only strategic marketing investment that pays for itself. This reaches far beyond your marketing team. Being ignored is clearly an investment option with extremely poor prospects of a positive return on investment. The alternate option — tricking prospective parents with marketing promises that cannot be substantiated in the real life of your school — is clearly a short-term ploy that erodes trust. Being trustworthy is not only appropriate positioning for any school, it is the easiest option to live with.
If trust is built by being trustworthy, it follows that your actions are the catalyst. Actions do not happen in a vacuum; they impact and influence people. It is at this nexus that the opportunity to build prospective parent relationships is most commonly realised. Relationship building is not achieved with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Technology can be an effective tool, but relationships are built between people – not your school, your school brand or your Enrolment Office. It requires real people having real conversations, talking less and listening more; not fits and starts of activity when enrolment demand dips. Building relationships requires relentlessly consistent application on a scale of one-to-one.
It is important to be clear that modern marketing is not digital, online or automated. Modern marketing can use the ever-increasing power of digital technology, but technology and all its promises are just the tools in your marketing toolbox – very useful tools if you find the right one, but still just marketing tools.
It may sound strange, but this marketing disruption – primarily enabled by the rise of the internet – is now more than 20 years old and continuing to gather pace. While many schools still struggle to adapt their marketing to the online paradigm, your prospective parents have already adapted to and adopted the next evolutionary step of modern marketing. Indeed, the newest generation of parents in the market, looking for the right school, have never known the world without the internet.
The interruption model of marketing (advertising) has changed forever to a modern marketing model that is fuelled by empathy and trust. You are responsible for attracting the right number and type of students to your school. The times require that you become a competent Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Relationship Officer and Chief Experience Officer along with your already overloaded list of responsibilities. The whole world, your world, and the marketing landscape have changed and are not going to go back to what they were before Google.
The change in the buying behaviour of prospective parents has been understood for the better part of a decade, but very little has changed in how school Heads view their role in creating experiences for the same audience. When the pressure is on, it is easy to default to what is known and comfortable.
For some, marketing is considered simply as a necessary cost centre that creates attractive ‘brochure-ware’ while the critical work of education is performed by the specialists. The reality that has emerged is far more challenging. Every person in a school – from the Head to the gardener – is a marketer, because they all impact on the experiences of both prospective and current parents.
The dramatic nature of change to marketing has left many school Heads fearful of embracing the modern marketing mindset. The outcome is marketing communications with a factory feel, churning out the same execution as last year with the hope of a different result. Meanwhile the attention and trust of your prospective parent — and even worse, your current parent — has moved on.
Marketing and marketers suffer from a poor reputation. Heads who could be making a positive difference for their school and the families they serve have often removed themselves from the marketing conversation because they fear being aligned with the small but visible portion of marketers who shout, spam and use shameless tactics to achieve momentary attention. Marketing your school is a noble cause. Indeed, if you truly believe your school can bring benefit to families, you are doing them a disservice if you do not engage with them and articulate your brand promise, generate trust and build a relationship.
There is no simple one-size-fits-all formula or silver bullet to implement modern marketing. It is clear that you, as school Head (and Chief Marketing Officer) have the opportunity to make change: the opportunity to take people from one emotional state to another2, to take them on a journey and to become the family they have dreamed of becoming.
Modern marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem.
Marketing has changed.
- Traditional marketing was often equated with advertising.
- Modern marketing is characterised by humility, empathy and effectiveness.
School marketing needs to change because prospective parents already have.