How well do you know your school?
published in Independent Schools Magazine September 2015
Every school is different. Education, care and wellbeing may be common outputs, but the cultural differences, the way things are done in school,can be very different. The traditions, stories and icons that pepper a school's heritage for example, the leadership style, the way in which staff engage with pupils and parents, are key contributors to the 'whole school' experience. Whilst organisations like ISI specify required standards of performance to improve the quality and effectiveness of education and care, as OFSTED do in the maintained sector, leadership style and the 'way of doing things' are drivers of reputations, and can determine a school's success - or otherwise.
So how do you analyse your school's 'way of doing things' to work out what makes you special? And how do you apply these findings to your marketing tactics to actively engage target customers and increase pupil numbers?
Take a 360° perspective
Most Heads understand their schools well, they know why parents do, and don't, buy them. Smarter Heads will know this because they have taken the time to ask stakeholders for their opinions on aspects of the school's performance, to track progress over time and correlate the findings with movements in pupil numbers. They may have used their research to 'sound out' planned strategic changes that their Governing Board has approved. They'll understand that leveraging good 'word-of-mouth' (WOM) content is a significant tool in the marketing framework.
Gaining a 360°perspective on your school by undertaking stakeholder research is a good starting point to understanding what makes your school good, or better than the norm, and also how it can be made better still.
Developing a research questionnaire which asks the right questions to generate open and insightful answers is not rocket science, yet it does require a clear understanding of what you are seeking to uncover. Questions should not 'lead' answers, nor should they be designed to expose cracks or crevasses that may lurk within your educational offering. A successful research project will be friendly in content, underpinned by sound information requirements, and designed to extract constructive feedback. It will involve qualitative and quantitative research questions so you can 'mine' views and opinions, understand insights and uncover prevailing trends. It should also offer an opportunity to explore aspects of your educational offering that maybe you are considering introducing, evolving, or removing, thus avoiding the risk of knee-jerk reactions on implementation.
You'll identify primary and secondary stakeholder groups to research in small groups of participants, using a third party to assure impartiality. Depending on the current state of school communications and priorities, groups is likely to include current parents, staff, pupils, recent alumni, feeder schools, next stage schools and prospective parents. The latter group may be difficult to source, but a good Registrar will identify those parents in the early stages of their recruitment journey, who will be encouraged by the school's interest in wanting to know how it has engaged with them to date. At the very least, prospective parents will be a good source for revealing current reputation drivers.
Face-to-face groups are the most effective research format, as answers can be explored thoroughly yet sensitively. Research can also be carried out by telephone or Skype - the one-to-one nature of a personal conversation can be positive and revealing. What is essential is that anonymity of participants is preserved: all you need to know in each instant is their stakeholder grouping.
Having asked a uniform set of questions to each of your stakeholder groups, you will have acquired a good body of content to distil and digest! Assessing answers to collate usable data requires rigour and good evaluation skills - don't overlook what at first might appear unimportant commentary.
So, what do you do with the answers? If you've done your research with the help of a marketing professional, they will be equipped to extract key outcomes and develop a useful set of current marketing messages anchored by stakeholder views, which, in turn, will underpin future marketing activity. If you're already marketing with good practice, the emerging content will largely be on-target with your expectations and will at least provide useful 'decision support' for creative work. Good research may also unearth valuable insights which can add a distinct flavour to your communications, delivering unexpected responses which can underpin the creation of compelling stories and feed creativity to bolt into your content strategy. Insights from schools or universities that you feed, in particular, can describe the key characteristics of your pupil 'output', while separately distilling pupil and staff perspectives can add colour to your corporate 'picture', helping you understand what it is about your school that makes it special and providing a useful check on staff engagement. As you uncover a richer understanding of your school brand, you can begin to see how the school today fits with the school of yesterday, how it has evolved, how parent expectations have changed, how existing leadership style and 'ways of doing things' shape the messages emanating from the school which are picked up by the outside world, consciously or sub-consciously. Good research will also shape future engagement tactics with each of your primary stakeholder groups. Similarly, it should expose areas that require focus in order to optimise delivery.
. . . and value innovation?
Once feedback has been collated and marketing is responding with appropriate tactics, it is often a good time to review the value proposition of your school. It's sometimes easy for staff teams to become set in their 'ways of doing things', and for Heads to merely follow the flow and maintain the status quo. Yet a research project will also throw up an opportunity to review your educational 'product' and how this might be evolved to meet - even exceed - the ever-changing expectations of parents and pupils. Super-pleasing customers, even delivering 'customer delight', to borrow a phrase from the marketing world, should be the aim of a good school. It's a by-product of providing a great education. In other words, 'delight' at every touch point: how the school delivers education, responds to parents and pupils, handles pastoral care, provides the unexpected 'add ons' and delivers all this in a well-managed, well governed framework that is responsive to the market. Good research will help you shape a compelling 'value proposition' that supports your school in emerging above from the grey area of what everyone offers, into the sunnier climes of what the very best offer. Research results will directly influence the accuracy of your marketing messages, the segments you target, the engagement programmes your run with feeder and senior schools or universities, which in turn will contribute to prospective parent interest and pupil numbers - the lifeblood of your school.
Then there is just the small matter of consistent delivery of what you are promising!
A new level
Conventional wisdom might encourage schools to accept market conditions, to build competitive advantage through a refinement of services (better teaching, better learning experiences, better curriculum offering, innovative timetables) but there is one question to ask which supports the shaping of a compelling school value proposition. If this school were starting out from scratch today, how would we do things? How might we structure the curriculum and the school day to develop an uncompromised educational package, to develop skills for the coming decades and achieve inspirational teaching? Is there perhaps a school motto that might underpin the creation of a new, distinctive area of teaching in your school, giving you a step change in expected educational provision, one which parents will note?
Going through a research process will not only give you a blueprint to understand the DNA of your particular school and the unique 'offer' that makes it special, you also gain important insights into the school's organisational culture and 'ways of doing things'. As a bonus, it presents a golden opportunity to re-visit what you offer and ask: is this really is as good as it can be?
How well do you know your target audience?
published in Prep School Magazine Autumn 2015
New communication tools surround us. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Google Analytics. School marketers face a fast-moving communications world with both new players entering and fresh vocabulary (tweets, likes, shares, follows) evolving fast. So how do we harness these new tools to help us, and when we spend time tweeting about what's happened in school today, does it translate into results and income?
People are easily caught up in the 'noise' of new platforms but in practice it is a minority who understand and apply social media activity strategically - unsurprising really, given the rate of technology growth out there and the plethora of tasks which wrap up the average school day. So where do you start?
Know your audience
It's an interesting starting point to ask a school how many customer 'types' they have identified. Do you know precisely who your target parents are? A target is not a prospect already on your radar, it's any one of the 'unknown' number of potential buyers of private education. Private education is a high end luxury purchase, so demonstrating your school's value is essential.
A clear picture of who will buy is an essential starting point in optimising marketing spend. Perhaps it is the segment who have not yet decided to take the step from state to private education. Maybe it's a different cultural group with ambitions for their child's English education, or even an overseas segment seeking entry to the English independent education sector and associated culture.
To pinpoint targets accurately, you could start by adopting accepted demographic definitions to classify and measure people of different social and earnings levels. One such system is Acorn, where individuals are grouped into segments such as affluent achievers - with sub sections of 'lavish lifestyles', 'executive wealth' or 'mature money'; rising prosperity ('city sophisticates' or 'career climbers') or comfortable communities (embracing 'countryside communities', 'successful suburbs' and 'steady neighbourhoods'). Given a good Registrar will speak with prospective parents on a regular basis, he or she will already have a good picture of likely target parents, yet once you have initial target 'types' identified, the next stage of drilling down and pinpointing the less predictable behaviours and interests is less easy to predict. For example, you might have identified young professionals aged 36-40 as one target segment. In this group you will know that your segment are ideally parents with children of a set age, and you'll also have a pretty good idea of their geographical base, depending on if you are a day or boarding school, a prep or a senior school.
But how do you Identify their likely behaviours? What do they like doing in their free time? Are they primarily home-dwellers who spend time and money on DIY to enhance their living environment? Do they have a particular lifestyle profile, like sports or competitive activity? Are they adopters of mobile technology and gadgets and are therefore more active on social media? The sharper the picture you can build of your target segments, the greater your understanding of the type of news or event that will that will seize their attention. In turn, over time, you can create content and organise activities that will engage their interest, bringing them firmly onto the school radar. It is not unusual to identify upwards of twenty potential parent segments in the first round of identifying your audience.
Make that connection
Once you have an initial picture of the segments you want to communicate with, the next step is to find out, and be seen in, the places they go to. Are they parents who enjoy cinema, in which case are they using Netflix or Nickleodeon websites? If they're sporting types, are there local events and gyms in your catchment area which offer engagement potential in the form of website and Facebook advertising? Thinking laterally about your target segments and how they spend their free time will undoubtedly open up novel avenues to access their attention.
Stage two of this process will require you allocating a budget and putting relevant primary reach messages 'out there' on paid for social media which matches your target segments, to see what engagement you can stimulate. Initially, primary reach activity will be reasonably widespread as you target all your segments, with the longer term aim of distilling and then tailoring messaging. In each instant, the initial aim is to build data which is actionable, i.e. if people click through, share or start following what you are saying, you'll know they're engaged!
This process will require a canny use of budget as well as the application of precise, specific and impactful messages. It is a learning curve to identify which of your target segments is responsive, based upon how new parents connect and respond to your messages. If for example you offer sports scholarships, you may want to place this offer in front of parents who actively participate in mainstream sporting events via one of the many websites dedicated to running, cycling, swimming and triathlon events, then track uptake to your website using Google Analytics to see the source of new traffic.
Apply what you've learned
The beauty of new marketing tools such as Google Analytics is that you can measure engagement. Increased website traffic can be tracked from source to monitor time spent on particular site pages, as well as track functionality requests such as downloads, newsletter sign ups and information requests. As you gain insights from each of your segments, you can feed this data into your initial audience profiling and, in turn, fine tune the segment profile. It is quite likely that your resulting target segments will be different to the initial profile you identified.
With a clearer idea of your parents, you are now in a position to re-frame and tailor your messaging and content to optimise appeal and stimulate engagement in the form of likes, click throughs, downloads and shares. Your advertising or promotional messaging will become a 'content' sell rather than a 'feature and benefit' sell as you have discovered a little more about what your target parents are wanting to read about, yet with 4.2 billion* pieces of content uploaded to social media daily, you'll need to be sure that what you say is distinctive and of value.
Building on insights
Leveraging the metrics offered by new technology to better understand your target segments means you can start to publish tailored content within a strategic framework which actively interests your priority segments. Your twitter feeds will become more meaningful as you now have a clear picture in your head of who you are talking to and some of the subjects areas you might focus upon. Undoubtedly you will have individuals who fit the traditional mold of a target preparatory school parent, but without doubt you will also have uncovered some less predictable segments to whom you can tailor your marketing tactics.
Similarly, your engagement tracking results will influence your event planning. Perhaps in your initial outreach activity you uncovered a large percentage of professionals aged 36-42 with young children who are active gamers - they like to play X box or Playstation (arguably, there's growing evidence to suggest that gaming helps with hand-eye coordination, puzzle solving, logical thinking, spatial awareness, teamwork and other transferable skills). So how about hosting a half day conference for parents exploring the skills developed by playing video games, constructively assessing the risks and benefits of this pastime? It will not only bring parents onto your school campus and offer a chance to showcase the school and its facilities to build familiarity, it will also get your school talked about and provide original content for parents to engage with and share on social media. It will also position you as open minded school, willing to explore sparky and topical subjects for the benefit of all.