Former GE executive Beth Comstock put it best: “Marketing’s job is never done, it’s about perpetual motion”. The same can be said about private school marketing, or the marketing systems used to promote value of and increase enrollment in private schools.
Many private schools devote a limited amount of funds to marketing and promotion, while others rely exclusively on volunteer help. The reality is that even if your school has the best programs, the best teachers, and you have data to show that you were able to add value to the students’ experiences, without initial awareness of the school there will be no initial “motion”. In other words, parents need to know that you exist and they need to be aware of who you are. School administrators should not fall into the trap of thinking that their work is enough. This “if-you-build-it-they-will come” approach fails to take into account real world decision making from prospective parents. Since school marketing is so important, how much should schools invest in it? In this article, I will look at how to answer this question, along with some examples of schools that have done this successfully and others who have not. Lastly, a number of various marketing strategies will de discussed.
How Much Should Schools Invest in Marketing?
School marketing can be divided into the famous 4 Ps of marketing: price, product, placement, promotion. For schools it would be: tuition/fees, curriculum, reputation and promotion. It all four of the categories, school management and proper administration is the most important. Financial resources allocation should be seen as secondary. It is in the fourth category, “promotion” where most of the money will be spent. Some schools will pay for an entire billboard near a highway, while others will pay for radio spots. Some larger private schools have over $100,000 in a yearly marketing budget, while smaller schools might have less than $500. Schools need to invest time in marketing, but they also need to invest in people-power. A smart move can be to invest in a marketing consultant. They are aware of the market, research, and have the ability to develop a strategic plan for the school.
When it comes to financial resource allocation, school should understand that not investing in marketing will lead to a difficult situation for them in the marketplace. Creative use of a $1,000 marketing budget can go a long way to gaining value, and helping to spark word-of-mouth. Research is very clear and showing that word-of-mouth is the most successful method of marketing that a school can use.
A rough formula which schools can apply is the following (per year):
promotional expenditures = desired nb of students100cost-of-living index nb of viable alternatives
This will mean that a school looking to find 25 more students to reach their maximum in an average cost-of-living area, with no other private schools in the area (ie. viable alternatives : homeschool and public school) will need to spend approximately $5,000 in promotion per year. A second school with 10 other schools in the area in a high cost-of-living area looking to add 2 students might also have to invest in $10,000 in promotional material. It should be reiterated that one needs to take any formulas with a grain of salt as each school will have to make a decision as to how their marketing resources should be allocated according to their own realities. Marketing is all about value and resource allocation and data-driven approaches are the most efficient. However it is done for your school an investment in marketing is key.
A Private School Marketing Success Story
The amount that schools should spend on their marketing efforts is only half of the story. Has it been successful? A small school I worked with in the Pacific Northwest knew their market very well, they also do themselves very well. They balanced tradition, publicity, and a legacy story they were easily able to package. The school of about 200 students adequately spent money where it was needed and hired a consulting team to make sure that their long-term marketing strategic goals were fresh, realistic, and doable. Instead of a radio spot or other paid advertisements, they looked at the school programs that their competitors were offering.
The focus on the product was important. In an effort to position themselves not only as a competitor in the local market but also in the international market, they began a residency program and used an outside firm to recruit students from abroad to come and study and live on their campus. This had the effect of broadening their brand in the mind of prospective parents. Over a 5-year span, smart marketing and product offerings allowed them to not only recuperate the costs of their initial investment but they were also able to attract more students from the local market.
A Marketing Failure Story
A former colleague of mine had the misfortune of working in a school whose marketing strategy was non-existent. While administrators were keen on promoting the school, and spending money, they had no understanding as to the meaning of a marketing success for their situation. Money was spent on what seemed good, interesting, or what was popular among the decision-makers. If the idea was flashy, or sounded vaguely innovative, administrators thought that it would be ”worth a try”. This ended up costing the school in time, money, and reputation. The latter being something often forgotten by entrenched school administrators. Without a deep analysis of their current market situation, the school was shooting in the dark. There was no numbers based rationale for any of their decisions. They needed a strategy.
The Need for Strong Marketing Strategies for Schools
As the stories above show marketing efforts can fail without a goal. The use of multiple marketing strategies adds a level of redundancy which can help secure any promotional efforts. In that regard, schools should consider a reputation management approach along with a strong digital marketing effort.
Digital marketing is an important component to the overall marketing strategy of a private school. Managing your school’s online reputation is a lot more involved than it may appear on the surface, and it gets much more involved and critical once bad reviews or articles related to your school begin to pop up in search engines. A good digital marketing agency will also ensure that you have maximum reach within your target geographical area by deploying paid ads (PPC) and local SEO.
As long as these marketing strategies are synergistic and all point to the same congruent message, there will be a strong likelihood of success.
Why Not Just Let Teachers Market The School?
It may be tempting for school administrators to think that the best marketer for a school is the teacher. After all, they are the ones on the ground, in the trenches everyday with the students. Who better than the teacher to explain to parents what their program is and why those parents should send their children to that school? The problem is that the research shows that an overwhelming majority of teachers feel uncomfortable, unable, and unwilling to perform marketing duties for their school. In numerous qualitative and quantitative studies out of Israel and the U.K., researchers have found that teachers do not feel that it is their responsibility to promote the school. Therefore it becomes counterproductive to ask them to do this work. [2,3]
School marketing activities are not only beneficial, but essential in today’s world. It is no longer enough for a school to have a good program and good teachers…prospective parents must know about it! In my experience as a school teacher, administrator, and school marketing specialist, I have found that a smart investment can yield great results.
CAE Marketing & Consulting is a Boca Raton SEO Company and Digital Marketing Agency.
 2017 MarCom survey of private schools by InspirED School Marketers.  Oplatka, Izhar & Hemsley-Brown, Jane & H Foskett, Nick. (2002). The Voice of Teachers in Marketing their School: Personal perspectives in competitive environments. School Leadership & Management. 22. 177-196. 10.1080/1363243022000007746.  Oplatka, I., Hemsley-Brown, J., & Foskett, N. H. (2002). The voice of teachers in marketing their school: Personal perspectives in competitive environments. School Leadership & Management, 22(2), 177-196.
- Private School Marketing – an Essential Investment - January 2, 2019
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