Save your marketing dollars. Focus on fundamentals.

My suggestion to most schools is to stop whatever marketing you are doing and re-consider everything.

The impetus for this unusual advice was the plethora of independent school radio ads I heard this year. It seemed to me that twice as many schools as last year were running radio spots. They weren’t very effective but there were lots of them and they were undoubtedly very expensive.

Of all people, I understand that the independent school marketplace is incredibly and increasingly competitive. That in turn, drives schools – almost desperately – to ratchet up marketing efforts using as many channels as they can think of or afford. The result is ads on buses, bus shelters, national newspapers, billboards and yes, radio. It’s an ad rep’s dream but do they really do anything? After all, these are wide-net advertising vehicles being used for narrow target markets.

In addition, there are now more “education guide” type publications than ever before. Here in Toronto, there are four or five of these. This has created two other dynamics. First, schools are scrambling to get their ads in these publications – in many cases for fear of being notable by their absence. That produces the second effect which is the need for pithy headlines and taglines. These gems of copywriting may keep some of my colleagues in business but they do nothing to differentiate. Here are some examples:

  • Be yourself. Be great. 
  • Be remarkable 
  • I am limitless 
  • Dedicated to Developing the Whole Child 
  • Become. Go Beyond. 
  • Confidence. It’s Who We Are 
  • Igniting A Passion for the Art of Learning 
  • Learning for Life. Creating the Future. 
  • Education with Balance 

Let’s be honest. Each of those could apply to any one of about 50 schools. They become meaningless – as does much of the marketing effort I’ve described above.

All of this marketing activity – with its accompanying expense – is more mystifying when every piece of market research that I have ever done or read clearly indicates that word of mouth is the principal driver of the decision to choose any independent school.

So, as I said, it’s time to stop and re-discover the fundamentals. How? For that I turn to a great social fresh post from the beginning of the year that presented tips for 2014 from marketing pros. Here are the ones that make the most sense for independent schools.

1. Focus on the product. I always tell the educators with whom I work that my job is to take their great work and put in on a pedestal. But there has to be great work. The social fresh post goes even farther. “90% of companies would see more “marketing” success if they focused that energy NOT on marketing, but rather on improving the product or the service. Doing something worth talking about is more difficult.”

2. Create and sustain buzz. Fuel and enable word of mouth through effective ambassador and communication programs. The marketing tip puts it this way: “Nurture advocacy! And instead of creating marketing campaigns, build movements around your brand. Only brands that focus deeply on building and nurturing long-term relationships with their true advocates will see sustainable business results.”

3. Treat your parents like customers. My previous blog post provided some advice on how do that but here’s what social fresh says. “Focus on customer experience. Brands like USAA, Amazon, Apple, and Google don’t succeed in social media because they have better content or social strategies, but because they offer great experiences and let customers do the talking for them.”

4. Make social media a two-way channel. It’s your opportunity to learn, listen and really be able to empathize. Or as the experts say, “social Media is not just a news broadcasting tool. Engage with your fan base: it is a blessing to have fans and customers, so treat them as such.”

5. Stop, take a breath and do a reality check. Then, create (or re-create) a plan. The expert advice goes like this: “Re-evaluate everything. Do you think you know who your customers are, what they need, and how they are getting their information about your products?”

The irony is that sometimes it’s harder to stop what you’re doing and re-evaluate its effectiveness. It’s easy to get caught up in the vortex of needing more marketing – and more marketing dollars. Smart school marketers will find a way to stop the cycle and re-focus on fundamentals.

What do you think? 
Is independent school marketing out of control? What are you doing to stay focused on effectiveness? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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