A boarding school is a business. Is your business on brand?
Boarding schools must never forget that they are businesses. Private schools must continually attract new students to stay in business. Public schools have a steady supply of students. That supply is more or less guaranteed by the fact that public schools must take every child living within their jurisdiction. Private schools do not have a built-in supply of new students. They have to go out and find those students the old-fashioned way, by selling the school and its attributes to every family they can.
In several ways, boarding schools are a tougher product to sell than private day schools. As much as a boarding school makes great sense regarding the complete package it offers, many parents find it difficult to send their children off to a residential school in 9th or 10th grade. Parents may be aware of a couple of boarding schools which family and friends attended. On the other hand, most parents do not know much about individual boarding school programs.
I have written this article with boarding schools which do not have a full-time marketing department in mind. These schools have talented admissions and administrative staff who have to wear many hats, often all at once. So, I hope that my suggestions and advice will help them stay on brand. You see, a boarding school has to market its story and make its case to a customer base which consists of families with children in 6th through 9th grades. Reaching these families is the key to full enrollment in the years ahead. It takes a lot of hard work and luck to accomplish this goal. Having a strong brand has to be part of your marketing strategy. Here are some suggestions to set you off in the right direction.
Always start with the basics. What makes your school unique? What makes your school different? What sets it apart from the competition? A strong identity is what a good brand embodies. Most businesses cannot survive unless they have a very strong sense of what their brand is. Their brand is unique. It is the essence of what their business is. Tim Latham covers the basic concepts of marketing your school.
Once you identify what your brand is, then you need to market it. Marketing a clearly identifiable brand attracts the clients you want. That, in turn, generates the revenue you need to operate the school. Branding also strengthens your alumni base so that you can grow your endowments to help secure the future of the school.
Make your brand clearly identifiable.
One of the great things about identifying schools for your child is that it is so easy to do. Every school is online. Most have websites. Many have a robust Facebook presence. Many also use Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest to flesh out their social media presence. That's probably how most parents will find out about your school. That's how parents who might have heard of your school through friends and family will explore your school.
Know your target market.
If you are trying to reach parents in the 25-45 age group, you will need to target that market. What are they looking for in a private school. More specifically, what are they looking for in a boarding school? Is safety important? Academics? Sports? Extracurricular activities? To find out the answers to these questions, start with your current parents. Survey them both formally and informally. You hire a professional marketing firm to develop a survey, or you can have a small committee of stakeholders at your school develop the questions you need answers for. If you have been strategic in selecting trustees, you probably already have somebody who knows a thing or two about branding and marketing. Co-opt them to lead the project.
Marketing dovetails with one of the more important duties of any head of school, namely, fund-raising. A head is constantly selling her school, its aims, objectives, mission and future. A clear, readily identifiable brand will hopefully make her fund-raising duties easier. But, more importantly, she will now have several additions to her marketing toolkit which will help reinforce her message. Put another way, she will not be a single voice proclaiming the benefits and advantages of attending your boarding school.
Reach your market.
Once you have defined what your school's brand is, then you need to market it. Not all at once. Not just at certain times of the year. Marketing has to occur daily, weekly, monthly, and, yes, even when school is closed. You will need a staffer or two who can handle press releases, as well as curate all your social media sites. That staffer should work very closely with your admissions department.
Now you see where this is going. You are creating buzz about your brand. Every story has to be on message. Everybody on your team has to create the necessary synergies to make your marketing effort effective. Selling your school is a long-term strategy which needs daily hard work and incredible amounts of creativity so that the message is always new, fresh and exciting, yet unfailingly consistent. Just like your school, right? Next, the team at Enrollment Catalyst introduces us to Word of Mouth Marketing for Schools.
Remember: your school community is dynamic. People are doing wonderful things in the classroom, on the athletic fields, and in the band rooms. Parents intrinsically want their children to be part of an active, diverse learning community. Perhaps they feel that they can't get that anymore in their local public school. Maybe they have a child who would be the happiest kid on earth to be part of your choral arts program. Perhaps they are busy professionals who need the peace of mind which comes from sending their child to a caring, nurturing environment like a boarding school. To a school just like yours.
I am not for a minute suggesting some cookie-cutter, one-size fits all approach to marketing your school and making the outside community aware of happens on your campus. Discover what makes your school exceptional. Then charge somebody with the task of spreading the word consistently and efficiently.
Define your brand.
The survey which I suggested that you needed a few paragraphs back should have uncovered some unique features of your school. Let's call these features bullets. For example, perhaps some of the following highlights surfaced during that survey.
- Your school's graduates matriculate to colleges with easily recognizable names.
- Your hockey team has won championship games for several years running. Several team members have gone on to play professionally.
- A group of students has been going to a Latin-American country over spring break since 1995 to rebuild homes for disadvantaged citizens.
- Your board of trustees has made it a policy that no family making less than $75,000 per year will have to pay to send its children to your school.
The list goes on and on. But look at what that list says about your school:
- The academic program is excellent.
- The hockey program is first-rate.
- Your community has a global awareness and willingly shares with the less fortunate in other parts of the world.
- Your school is affordable to all who qualify.
Any professional marketing person would have a field day with material such as these hypothetical bullets. But the important thing to understand is that there is nothing fictional about any of it, is there? Of course, the details may vary from school to school. But you can see your community in so many of the bullets above, can't you?
Parents will respond to a distinct, clearly presented brand like yours. That is a win-win for both you and the parents.
Questions? You may contact me via Twitter. @privateschl