Blog by Lisa Fathers – Director of Development, Partnerships & Teaching School Hubs
One of my roles at Bright Futures Educational Trust is the strategic lead for marketing and communications. Whilst we were a smaller, developing Trust, we engaged the help of a communications consultancy. Glove Consulting have helped us grow our internal capacity to set up the strategic communications structure needed to allow us to invest in this area of growth. There is so much that we want to do in addition to the wide range of marketing and communication activities already in place.
Marketing is often seen as ‘fluffy’ and sometimes, important concepts like ‘brand identity’ and consistency of ‘the small stuff’ is often brushed aside in schools and Multi Academy Trusts. This is often the case until things are not going well and then marketing becomes higher profile within the organisation. Sadly, this can often be too late. When numbers have declined, reputation isn’t strong, or simply you haven’t been promoting yourself, it can take a few years to change and this can have a significant impact to the school and critically its finances. However, I believe that just like when managing student behaviour, nailing the small things allow the big things to happen, and that marketing is just as important as any other function such as finance and HR.
How effective is your school’s marketing? Like many things, marketing has changed dramatically in the last few years, the last year especially! Social media and digital technology has created new ways to reach parents, partners, stakeholders. It is unlikely that a parent has enrolled their child at a school because of a brilliant ‘tweet’, but, parents are not immune to consistent messaging or the most amazing Instagram post, especially with images of happy, engaged children. Commercial marketing does not map over to schools in quite the same way it does in the commercial world. For schools, the ‘sales funnel’ is long, involved and complex, after all, this is the future of a child that is at stake, it is an emotive decision. An important part of this funnel is face time with the Headteacher and other staff at the school which makes this market unique. Word of mouth and the reputation of a school are also critical. There are also other complexities including; the area, pupil outcomes, the emotional connections to a school, other local schools, religion, the relationship between partner primary schools, and the list goes on. In the commercial world you can be pulled away from one product to another but when selecting a school parents tend to remain committed and not want to move their child. That said, there is much that education can learn from the commercial sector. Nearly everything we do comes back to marketing and communications. Marketing is much more complex and involved than shiny, glossy brochures and press releases, this is just one tiny part.
It is important that we review the 4 (or 7) Ps of Marketing. In this case, the Product, Promotion and Place (Price not impacting us). We know that the Product is critical. How good is the good, how do we perform, what wrap around support do we provide, do we provide an after school club? All of these create the product that we offer. Promotion, how well do we promote our school? Do we promote it consistently and to the right people at the right time. Of course the Place is harder for us to change. The physical location of our school is critical to many parents but not something we can change. We could though highlight the easy cycle routes, the ample car parking, the quiet roads that we are located on.
Communications count! If you were to rank the most important factors for parents when selecting a school, you might choose examination results then perhaps facilities. Recent research (September 2020) from the Youth Sport Trust, found that wellbeing and happiness is much more important now. Wellbeing and location being the most important factors for parents choosing a school. Key findings showed that 65% of parents said wellbeing was important when deciding on a secondary school, with 63% of parents choosing a primary school saying wellbeing was an important factor. 68% of parents agreed that they would like to see more information on what schools were doing to support the wellbeing of pupils and 70% said it should be easier to find this out. This helps us focus on this important factor and how we could gain a competitive advantage. We can easily share what we are doing in schools for the wellbeing of our pupils through a range of communication channels. You can read more here.
The BBC highlighted the importance of parents looking at more that school league tables. In December 2019, they reported ‘The tables show how well a particular year group of pupils at a given school has performed in test or exams. But they will not tell you anything about the extra-curricula activities on offer such as sport and drama or details about a school’s pastoral care system”. The BBC further highlight that there is no substitute for visiting a school you are interested in and talking to teacher, parents and current pupils. You can read more here.
The above clearly shows the importance of having a communications plan with a range of channels. It is not enough to put the information on the website, parents need to be confident with every interaction that they have. How well is their enquiry dealt with, how informative is the open event or digital event?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media channels offer an important channel of promotion. Every single post is a piece of your micro-promotion. Sharing regular content, whether it is pictures on Instagram, or short videos on Twitter, serves as both communication and promotion. This is all underpinned by other tactical activities including parent mail etc. Managing concerns provides yet another opportunity to turn a customer (parent) round and influence ‘word of mouth’ marketing.
How effective is your school marketing? A few pointers to help you reflect on that question: One of the things that is so hard about marketing is demonstrating the impact. We often hear in schools ‘if you can’t measure it, it isn’t happening’. You need to know which marketing activities are generating the most effective return, this can be tricky but most schools ask new parents where they heard about the school and can use this information to help inform planning. This should go a stage further. Schools should be asking current parents why they chose the school for their child and why those parents that showed an interest in the school didn’t choose the school for their child. This level of understanding will help you focus on the right areas and ensure you address the critical areas. When you are confident that you deliver well, you can then share this externally so it becomes part of the decision making process.
At Bright Futures, we use a range analytics to track engagement. We understand how well our websites perform, what pages are visited most and where we lose people. We know the best time to post our messages on social media and what content is the most engaging. When we send digital communications we can see how many are opened and how many click throughs we have. If we place an advert, we create a new landing page on the website so we can see how successful the paid for advert has been. I’m sure we can a more rigorous job with all of this and I know our creation of an internal post will help us have the capacity to do more and be even better. Our new role ‘Marketing & Communications Manager’ will help each individually school as well as our Teaching School Hubs and the trust as a whole.
What is it about your school that enables parental choice, and what factors are the deciders? Crucially, do you focus on these at different points during the ‘sales funnel’? For schools, successful marketing is about doing small things consistently well. It is EVERY e-mail you send to parents, it’s the quality and warmth that is given to responding to parental issues, or complaints, it is consistency of message…..It is all critical to quality marketing and communications.