Online Exclusive: The Big Benefits of a Marketing Strategy for Small Schools
and Liz Yee
In meetings at your school, do eyes roll when someone mentions marketing? Do your colleagues think marketing is just another word for sales? Or maybe you deal with enthusiastic parents who think effective marketing is simply posting a bunch of fantastic videos. Marketing is not always clearly defined. But when done well, a marketing strategy can advance your school and the very special work your teachers do every day.
If you work in a small school, you might think you don’t have the time to develop a marketing strategy, much less get people to buy into it. It’s hard enough keeping up with admission events, digital advertising trends, and demand for published content. And even if you could develop a marketing strategy, how could you possibly compete with bigger schools with larger budgets and staffs?
Three years ago, at Lowell School (DC), a PK-grade 8 school with an enrollment of 340 students, we embarked on a strategic branding and marketing initiative, which has led to advantages we hadn’t even expected. We’ve realized a host of benefits by developing a marketing strategy, garnering the necessary buy-in, and using our plan as an annual roadmap for our administrative team.
One of the biggest misperceptions is that marketing is synonymous with advertising, reducing the complex and nuanced process of educating children—the relationship-building, experience and expertise of the faculty, careful program design, and character-building—to a tagline. Creating a website, printing attractive brochures, and placing ads are important ways to help parents find your school. But these activities are not the sum total of marketing.
Marketing is about informing, and ultimately persuading, parents that the education you offer is worth the investment. And it is reminding them, year after year, about why they fell in love with your school so that they remain in your community and support it as volunteers and donors.
“Marketing is everything, and everything is marketing,” Regis McKenna, well-known tech marketing pioneer, has said. If you subscribe to this view, then everything from programs and pricing to advertising and facilities is part of marketing. As a school marketer, you need to understand the intricacies of your school as well as the families to whom you are marketing.
One of the most important things you can do when bringing marketing to the forefront of your school’s advancement efforts is to cultivate a team of supporters. These are people who understand what marketing is, how it can help advance the school, and what role they can play.
In a small school, you only need a few people in your camp to make significant headway. Don’t hesitate to reach out to key colleagues or board members who can be instrumental in advancing your school through marketing. Consider the parent who has experience running their own business or has a marketing or public relations background. Or those families or teachers who just can’t stop talking about their positive experience at your school. Drawing these community members into the conversation early will help you develop a plan that will engage the rest of the school when it’s time to roll out key tactics.
The head of school is your most important supporter and must understand marketing as a crucial element of school operations. If you work in a small school, you may already work closely with the head, which is a great start. Take into account the head’s vision for advancing the school and help the head fully embrace marketing as part of that path forward.
There are many ways to educate heads of school about marketing. The NAIS Annual Conference has workshops and sessions on marketing and communications—scout out the sessions that you think would be helpful and make sure your head attends. Marketing and communications firms can also offer heads of school and board members information, insights, and case studies. If your plans involve a big-ticket budget item, you’ll need to make your own case, and you can draw on your school’s strategic plan or accreditation report to help.
Collaboration between departments is key. At many schools, advancement is synonymous with development and fundraising. However, when marketing, and therefore admission and communications, are part of advancement, you have a fuller sense of your community—past, present, and future. When the development, admission, and communications departments have seats at the leadership table, gaining broader buy-in for a marketing initiative is more natural because you’ve already been working side by side to solve problems and imagine the future.
At Lowell, we have an advancement team of three—the director of development, the director of admission, and the director of communications. We attend board meetings, and each of us has a board committee that supports our work. In addition, we all sit on the school’s 10-person administrative team. Our head of school has fostered a very collegial and collaborative administrative team, where we share departmental goals, explain what we are trying to achieve, and solicit one another’s expertise and ideas. The relationships we have developed on this team have fostered a deep, shared sense of purpose, even as members of the team have changed.
Our advancement team meets weekly. In these discussions, we often share what current and prospective families are saying about our school—what they love as well as their questions and concerns. The board was hearing the same things from current and prospective families. Leading up to our rebranding and marketing initiative, common themes emerged, and we identified knowledge gaps and misperceptions about the school.
Understanding Brands and Rebranding
A brand is built on the ideas and experiences that families have with your school and what makes your school unique. Specifically, a brand is:
You don’t have to hire a marketing firm or conduct expensive focus groups to understand your brand. In some cases, you may already have a gut feeling or helpful anecdotal information. Answering the following questions can help:
- the personality your school conveys
- what your community values
- what your school is, what it aspires to be, and what people perceive it to be
- how your school delivers on its mission and philosophy
- how people remember your school
- how the school makes parents, students, alumni, faculty, and staff feel
- what “pops” into people’s heads when they hear your school’s name
- how your school measures up to parent expectations
After you’ve explored these questions and better understand your brand, you might decide to embark on a rebranding exercise or gather more information about your brand in its competitive market.
- What do prospective parents say about why they are looking at your school or why they decided not to proceed with an application?
- What words do prospective parents use to describe how they felt about your school during their tour?
- What do parents of your graduates say as they reflect on their time at your school?
- How do your mission and philosophy resonate with your faculty and staff? What language do they use to describe the program, the students, and how they want students to feel in their classroom?
- What kinds of programming are your donors supporting?
- What are the school’s priorities? Evaluate where resources are allocated. Think about professional development funding, class schedules, faculty/staff meeting agendas, space allocation, hiring practices, programs, and facilities.
Rebranding—while an exciting effort—might not be the tool that has the biggest impact for your school. You might feel your brand is already clearly articulated and well understood. If this is the case, you might be ready to move directly into writing a strategic marketing plan. Here are some questions to help you determine if rebranding will advance your school:
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, consider what you might gain from rebranding.
- Do current or prospective families wonder what makes your school different?
- Is there a mismatch between what you are promoting and what parents seem to value?
- Do you know who your biggest competitors are? Are you unsure what makes your program similar or different to theirs?
- Do your board, staff, faculty, and parents highlight very different aspects of your program?
- Do you have doubts that your school is truly offering the program you are selling?
- Are there knowledge gaps or misperceptions about your school?
- Has your school moved locations, added or subtracted grades, changed programming, or undergone another significant transformation?
We had a tight budget for our school’s rebranding effort, so we were very clear about our goals and the scope of our needs. In addition, we set a realistic timeline that allowed us to spread costs over multiple budget cycles.
We hired a firm to conduct market research, create a messaging platform, and design a new look and feel for our materials. While we knew this work would help inform our marketing efforts, we were surprised at the new energy that the rebranding efforts brought to our community.
The messaging platform was the linchpin of our efforts and provided us with a guide for talking about our school in a consistent and compelling way. Messaging platforms can take different forms, but they typically include the school’s mission, a positioning statement (your distinctions), and a promise (what your school delivers to children and families). It might also include key values, a tagline, and qualities of your school’s personality. Some messaging platforms also include the school’s history and an elevator speech or key talking points.
Our key stakeholders and champions of the school were particularly excited about the ways that the messaging platform would help ground them as they shared their stories of the school. This energy produced more buy-in for our subsequent marketing plan.
Identifying Goals and Writing a Plan
A marketing strategy outlines the ways you will promote your school’s brand. You might be tempted to try something new simply because it seems cool, but you need to stick with the tactics that best advance your brand and goals.
Establishing your marketing goals at the outset will help you tune out tactics that don’t clearly align with your goals and will also help stretch your budget. As you think through your goals, ask yourself these hard questions:
If you are the only person on your campus with marketing, communications, or admission responsibilities, find a colleague (or a parent with expertise) who can help you identify the right goals, generate ideas for your plan, and ensure your tactics are focused on those goals. Two heads are always better than one.
- Are all of your goals equally important? If not, rank them.
- Are there connections between the goals? For example, will focusing on one goal positively impact another? (Win-win!)
- Double check: Do your goals align with your branding work? Do any of the goals fall outside what you’re selling to parents or what you want your brand to communicate? If so, why?
Keep your marking goals front and center as you craft your plan. Think about what’s nonnegotiable and what’s aspirational.
We started our goal-setting and writing process by carving out dedicated time to do this work. We decided to meet weekly, and we considered our meetings sacred (no double bookings!). We took a full year to write our plan.
- Consider the how, what, where, when, and to whom you will communicate and deliver your brand promise.
- Recognize that your plan should touch on all parts of the school, not just what is coming from the communications office. The programs you offer, the look and feel of your campus, fundraising strategies, and what parents, students, and alumni say about your school all factor into marketing. Use that information to expand your list of tactics.
- Your goals should be clearly visible throughout the plan. Write your goal(s) next to each tactic to show how it will impact the overall objectives.
Our strong relationships with the members of the administrative team helped this process. We kept our head of school informed about our progress, and we brought in members of the team to help shape initiatives. For example, when it became clear that our plan needed to address attracting more full-pay families, we collaborated with the director of development. We had discussions with the director of finance and operations about our facilities and how our buildings and grounds help form people’s first and lasting impressions of the school. We talked with division directors about the marketing implications of program decisions, and we worked with our director of diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives and the rest of the team to make sure our messaging was authentic.
When the plan was complete, we shared it with the team and our board committees and got to work.
Using the Plan
As you implement the marketing plan, consider it a living document that you will use and adapt over time as your brand becomes more clearly defined, your local market changes, or priorities shift. Sticking to your goals and adapting as needed to advance your school is a delicate balance.
Keep your plan handy, mark it up, flag pages, and make sure you are maintaining a bird’s-eye view on your school’s goals, as well as trends in the marketplace. Keep the marketing plan front and center in all of your future planning. For us, this has meant referencing the plan in our advancement team meetings, in our administrative team meetings, and also in our respective board committee meetings. It has helped us prioritize projects and initiatives and say no to ideas that would have taxed our resources with little progress toward our goals.
At Lowell, our marketing plan has made us more strategic. We are no longer trying anything and everything; we have clear goals and benchmarks. We are laser focused on what will help us achieve our objectives.
Early on, we saw signs that our rebranding and marketing efforts were paying off. Our applications went up, our retention rates improved, and our yield increased in targeted grades. As we continue to reach toward our goals, we have, in some respects, accomplished more than we anticipated. We can communicate our unique advantages in the marketplace much more clearly. As our programs evolve, they more fully reflect our values and the outcomes we hope our graduates achieve. Our community’s sense of pride continues to grow, and we’re gaining momentum that is spurring us on.