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Effective marketing strategies for schools: why everything might need to change

Often when setting a strategy for a school there will be a tendency to either largely base this on previous years and do more of the same, or attempt something new and innovative. But both of these approaches are flawed if they don’t really latch on the prime educational objective – to inspire the next generation and secure them great learning outcomes.

I’ve seen it where a new sales and marketing manager comes in, hired for their creative thinking and inspirational ideas, but where the very people hiring her or him are the ones that needed to change and move on. If the senior leadership don’t have the impetus to help the rest of the school revolve around the new marketing strategy, then it will always be a siloed, separate affair which is divorced from the main business of the school.

In contrast, taking a ‘same as last time’ approach to your school’s marketing strategy might prove more effective in the sense that the marketing measures will be familiar to staff, and the roles they play in that strategy will be known, understood, and pencilled into the timetable already. For state schools this might be things like new parent consultation evenings, guided tours around the school and outreach work in local feeder schools. In the private school sector, particularly those welcoming international students, the school may even be used to helping you out on marketing trips overseas.

The question I’ve faced frequently though, is where to go when bright, shiny new ideas are met with hostility and yet the tried and tested approaches don’t seem to be working any more, and what place the customer in all this?

The most effective marketing strategies for schools

It’s nothing new to say that the most effective marketing strategy for a school will be the one that works the most holistically and where there are the highest levels of engagement amongst all the stakeholders, such as teachers, admin and marketing staff, premises and leadership, governors and local community representatives.

But even with broad support from the entire school for what the marketing department has in store, how do we know whether in a year’s time, it will have made a difference?

How effective can a school-centric marketing strategy be?

The traditional way of compiling a marketing strategy is probably past its sell-by date.

Marketing strategies usually start from the perspective of a school which has a target it wishes to hit. This is either purely financial or may be softened into a number of students required or even a volume of student weeks.

These targets are often plucked from thin air by a couple of people with an excel spreadsheet, and in spite of claims that they’re based on careful analysis of past data, we know that the targets will be poor predictors of the complex patterns that lead to enrolments. Clearly the point behind an aggressive or enthusiastic target is that the team or whole school will reunite behind the objective and together, you’ll make it happen.

In reality, many schools have relatively small marketing teams, and their work can be quite separate from the rest of the school. Therefore the ability to make a significant difference to sales on a low budget with just a handful of people working on it, is going to be limited. At the end of the day that means the school is left much to market forces, micro- and macro-economic factors, and the other PESTLE factors.

So if this is your reality, how can you create an effective marketing strategy for your school?

Marketing in schools: the internal conflict

So on the one hand you’ve got the marketing team and the senior leadership team and possibly even shareholders, stressing over how to get enrolments up. If we don’t get bums on seats, we won’t get the funding to survive/grow/prosper/invest/get our big dividend and return on investment. It’s a compelling argument.

On the other hand, there are the educators – your teachers, assistants, curriculum managers and others who are already heavily targeted around the quality of their teaching and the measurable learning outcomes of their students. In some countries like the UK, the state sector is crippled by targets. The idea of a school being above or below the national average for exam results mathematically means that 50% of teachers will not achieve the “top 50%”! In spite of this ridiculous situation, the pressure on teachers to get it right means they have little time or creativity left to get involved with fancy but largely ineffective marketing fluff.

The secret to the most effective strategy for schools: total learner-centricity

If inspection outcomes are what matters for parents, if teachers are hell bent on improving attainment, if everything on the teaching side is about working out how young people tick and helping teaching and learning to best respond to today’s student’s learning styles, well go with that.

Marketing is supposed to be about understanding the customer and their needs and using that insight to deliver the best possible product or service back to them. Well if that’s the case, the marketing department in a school could go a long way to helping teachers understand what students are thinking, so they can deliver education in the best possible ways. Oh, and if that means putting a video together on a certain subject for them to watch at home as a flipped learning exercise, well marketing could do that. And if teachers’ handouts need a revamp and need digitising so that students can access materials on the intranet, well that wouldn’t be bad either. If you’re bursting with creativity, why not apply it to surprising your students one day with a lavish or memorable happening like when a New York Film School surprised students with a visit from actors Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt ? And it goes without saying that you can also come up with ideas which will get plastered across social media afterwards, but more importantly will have inspired your students.

The more marketing can work to empower teachers to empower learners, the better the outcomes will be. The better the success of learners, the more they will speak favourably about the school. Because if one thing is alive in the digital age, it’s word of mouth. Word of mouth moves faster now than ever, and the more marketing can help to ‘wow’ students into talking positively about their experiences, the more word will spread. And that will be your best guarantee of hitting higher enrolment targets in the future.

This article is based on an excerpt from the book, Flipped Marketing – Digital Marketing in Education: How to Succeed With The Resources You Already Have by Richard Bradford. Available for pre-order. Contact us for more information.