Looking to create a marketing plan for your public school or to improve your existing one? Here’s where to start.
Increasing enrollment at a public school is a difficult task:
- Established public schools have reputations that are deeply ingrained in the local community. No colorful brochure will change that.
- For new charter and magnet schools, the problem is the opposite. Parents often don’t know you exist, and if they do, they’re wary of having their children be the test case for a school with no proven track record.
Add to this the competition from independent and religious schools, which undoubtedly have large marketing budgets and entire departments dedicated to recruiting students, and the prospect for a public school to turn around enrollment trends can seem grim.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.
While the road to higher enrollment may be difficult, it’s not impossible as long as you have a plan. Indeed, creating and implementing your school marketing plan is probably the most important task for your Chief Enrollment Officer.
The plan needs to be actionable, adaptable, and data-driven. But even deeper than that, a public school marketing plan needs to be specifically tailored to each school’s unique circumstances.
Creating this marketing plan requires taking a good look in the mirror to understand your school’s assets and challenges. However, when the process is over, you will have a better understanding of your school and your community — not to mention be in a better position to attract the students you need to thrive.
Step 1: Understand Your Environment
One reason there are no one-size-fits-all public school marketing plans is that the environment for every school is extremely localized. Some public schools face stiff competition from independent and religious schools, while others are nationally known and draw families to their districts based on reputation alone.
That’s why every effective public school marketing plan begins with an understanding of the competitive environment among the schools in your area. This includes all:
- Public schools in your district
- Public schools in neighboring districts
- Private, magnet, and charter schools in your district
Equally important is an understanding of the feeder schools that currently are or potentially could be sending you students as well as the schools your graduates go on to attend.
When you look at the schools around you, think about what makes you different as well as what you have in common:
- Is your school bigger or smaller than your competition?
- Is your location more or less convenient?
- How does your academic reputation compare?
- Is there a program that only you offer?
Performing this kind of competitive analysis is essential to help you understand why parents may or may not be choosing your school, and it also informs how you need to talk about your school with families.
Your pitch to parents will involve creating a contrast between your school and the competition, and that all starts with understanding who you are in your local context.
Step 2: Create Customer Personas
Every successful brand, from Apple to Zappos, creates and sells its products with specific customers in mind. These brands spend millions of dollars each year researching who their customers are, what they want, and why they buy what they buy.
Using this information, they create what are called customer personas, which are fictional characters that represent their current and target customers.
These customer personas may include some demographic traits, like age, sex, race, and income, but they are deeper than that.
Useful customer personas are more interested in the customer’s beliefs and motivations rather than data that can be gleaned off a driver’s license or tax return.
To create customer personas for your school, think about what traits, beliefs, and motivations that families at your school share:
- Are the families coming from a certain part of town?
- Are families attracted to certain programs?
- Why are they choosing your school, and why are other families not choosing your school?
Understanding their needs and how you can address those needs is the fundamental step in creating customer personas.
If this seems too complex or “marketing-y,” think instead about the different circumstances of potential families. You might have a family coming from a neighboring district or one who is starting school in your district for the first time. One of your personas might be that of a family who is moving to your area or who doesn’t speak English.
Thinking about your families in this fashion allows you to see if your marketing is addressing their needs or if you’re potentially forgetting a type of family you may be trying to attract.
No matter if you build customer personas against needs or circumstances, identifying personas is a fundamental first step in building a school marketing plan.
Step 3: Understand the Data
Like so much else in education these days, enrollment is driven by data. Data is how you’ll know whether your marketing plan is working, and insights you gain from your data will inform how you can make your school’s marketing plan better in the future.
- Where are your current families coming from, and why do they choose you?
- Are your families concentrated in certain neighborhoods?
- How do the families at your school compare to the median families in your district?
- Are there specific barriers, such as language or transportation, that are keeping families from enrolling in your school?
- Are there certain schools that feed into yours and some that aren’t?
This quantitative data is important for you to understand what to focus on. The data will tell you what to do — if you can ask it the right questions.
This is where a platform like SchoolMint Insights can help you extract meaning from your wealth of data. SchoolMint Insights is a data-centric enrollment platform that helps public school districts understand what’s working (and what’s not) to improve enrollment in their schools.
Step 4: Define Your Value Propositions
Now that you’ve done your research, it’s time to build off the information and insights you’ve gathered so far and define your value proposition. This process is not the same as coming up with a tagline or slogan.
Instead, defining the value proposition for your school involves identifying the benefits of your school, describing what makes those benefits valuable, and, most critically, connecting the value your school provides to your target family’s main problem.
You’re not just telling families what makes your school great. You’re demonstrating to families how your school’s greatness addresses a problem or concern they already have.
What does this look like in practice? Well, let’s start by talking about what makes your school different or special. You already did some of this work in step one when you did your competitive analysis:
- Are you a neighborhood school focused on building community?
- Are you an established school with a tradition of excellence?
- Are you a new charter school that is exciting and innovative?
Now, look at your customer personas and the data you’ve collected, and see how your school addresses your target family’s concerns. For example:
- If your target family has two busy working parents, perhaps your value propositions focus on convenience and reliability.
- If your target family is concerned about safety issues in local schools, perhaps you stress your school’s focus on the well-being of your students.
- If your target family is concerned with college admissions, perhaps your value propositions highlight your school’s academic reputation and the breadth of classes you offer.
Remember, it’s not enough for your school to be special. It has to be special in a way that attracts prospective families. And, most importantly, it must communicate that to prospective parents.
If you look at your school’s website and don’t see it answering the basic question of “Why should I send my child to this school?” then you still have work to do on how to express your value proposition.
Through our digital ad services, SchoolMint can help you communicate your school’s unique value proposition. Learn more about the service here, or see how we helped one of our clients by clicking the image below.
Step 5: Set Your Targets
Just as you used data to gain insight into your target families, it’s important to set admissions goals you can measure yourself against in the future. Sometimes, these goals will be defined for you.
For example, in the case of a charter school that needs to hit a certain size to be self-sustaining. Other times, the goals will be internal benchmarks to measure how well your school marketing plan is working.
Either way, it’s imperative you have target numbers in mind so you can work toward a verifiable goal.
This goal is not “more kids.” You should set specific goals on how you want to grow your school’s enrollment. Is it by 5%? Is it 12 more kindergarteners than last year?
Being specific will help you to realize if your plan worked or didn’t.
Step 6: Choose Your Strategies and Tactics
This is where the rubber meets the road. After you’ve defined your value propositions and set your targets, it’s time to create your plan and execute it. Of course, this process is easier said than done, which is why choosing your strategy and tactics is so critical to your success.
Before we go too deep, we should define some terms:
- Strategy is your larger vision for how you’ll increase enrollment. It might be to redesign your website to be focused on target families instead of currently enrolled families or to reach out to parts of your community where you’re having trouble recruiting.
- Tactics, by contrast, are the specific steps you’ll take to achieve these goals, like choosing engaging visuals for your website based on your value propositions and customer personas or designing an outreach plan that will draw target families to a specific event.
In both cases, your strategy and tactics should emanate from all the work you’ve done up until this point. By understanding your competitive environment, getting into the head of your target customers, and using data to track your results, your plan will be specifically tailored to who you are as a school as well as the families you’re trying to reach. The goal is to create a plan that is efficient and effective, and one that can show data to back this up.
Step 7: Analyze Your Results
Just as your students have to sit for final exams, your marketing plan needs to be evaluated as well. Did you reach your targets — and if not, why not? If you did reach your targets, is there still room to improve?
Now, if you don’t hit your goal, it’s not the end of the world. However, it should be an indication that you need to reevaluate your marketing plan.
Go back through the steps, and see where you can improve. School marketing plans are living documents that should constantly be refined. If you don’t hit your goal, use that as motivation to see how you can do better.
Similarly, just because you hit your enrollment goal doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. In fact, if you overshoot your goal by a large amount, that’s probably a sign that you should have set a more aggressive goal in the first place.
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