(Adapted from The Non-Profit Times weekly newsletter, 2006, article #2739)

While the term “marketing” may still be misunderstood, and may even raise the question, “Why do we have to do this?” Philip Kotler and Nancy Lee, authors of “Marketing in the Public Sector,” urge organizations to adopt a “marketing mindset” – an awareness of the basics of marketing.  They offer five principles that must be kept in mind to develop the proper mindset:

1) Adopt a customer-centered focus.  In business, the customer always asks, “What’s in it for me?”  You can take this one step further by putting yourself in the customer’s place – in other words, how would you like to be treated if you were a parent coming to your school?  Are you treating your parents like this?  If you can honestly say “no,” you now have a great place to being your revitalization program.  Remember, parents are much more than simply “customers.”  They are your benefactors and your best marketing tool.  They are also their child’s first teacher, and your school is continuing the work they’ve begun.

2) Segment and target markets.  Those are verbs – not adjectives.  In much simpler terms, “Divide and Conquer.”  The way to win your parents is to treat them as individuals.  We talk about individualized instruction and caring for the needs of the children.  But every parent is different too, and their needs must be addressed differently as well.  To simply lump them all together and bring them en masse to a meeting is tantamount to developing a mob mentality, which can create a battle which you will never win (by the way, if you doubt this, you’ve apparently not been dealing with masking issues at your school).  You can, however, make smaller groups of parents when targeting your marketing activities.  Some of those groups could be:

  • Innovators – the most adventuresome people, they like everything that’s new immediately – technology, programs, curriculum ideas, etc.
  • Early Adopters – they like the new, but want to see a little more before they go for it.
  • Early Majority – they really think through their decisions, comparing and doing research.
  • Late Majority – they are the skeptics, but will adopt new approaches after the above three groups have done so.  They don’t want to be left behind with –
  • The Laggards – they are not only skeptical, but suspicious of any type of change.  “There has to be a catch,” even after explanations have been made several times over.

Each of these groups will respond differently to any initiative you present.  Before you think, however, you only have to deal with five types of people, you actually have to deal with double that amount.  You have internal innovators and external innovators, internal early adopters and external early adopters, etc.  Internal refers to the parents of children already enrolled in your school; external are those that you are trying to get to come to your school.

3) Identify the competition.  It may be a public school; it may be a private school; it may be a cyber-charter school; or it may be a another faith-based school!  After really looking at what’s available in the area you serve, you must then KNOW the competition.  What is it that makes parents want to enroll their children there?  It may be “free,” like a public school, but the activities in the school carry a heavy price tag that parents must pay, or raise!  Yes, there are fundraisers in public schools.  When a parent tells you they’re going to the public school where everything is provided for them because of the taxes they pay, they are, plain and simply, wrong. 

4) Utilize the 4 P’s available in the marketing mix: Product, Price, Place, & Promotion

  • Product: Now that you know the competition, how well do you know yourself (which is actually what you should examine first)?  Can you demonstrate your proof of academic achievement through aggregate test scores per grade level?  Can you share the successes of your curriculum?  Can you display the awards won by your sports teams? Can you attest to the service offered by your students as the put their faith into action?  If you don’t know why children need to come to your school, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing parents to enroll their children.  And don’t just say it’s because of academic excellence, a faith-centered education, and a safe and caring environment.  Those are expectations of your school today…and customers don’t pay for expectations; they pay for outstanding experiences.
  • Price: While the rising cost of tuition may be the number one reason parents cite for leaving our school, there are usually other factors involved in their decision.  The “price” of your school may be lesser than a local high-priced private academy, but “price” will always lose in a tuition (Catholic or Christian school) vs. no tuition (Public school) battle.  In fact, “price” is the weakest argument of the four “P’s” of marketing.  If a parent recommends a school to another parent, the parent tours the school and is impressed by the discipline, the rigorous academics, the smiling faces of the children, and the successes that the school can demonstrate, then the “price” conversation goes from “I can’t afford this,” to ” How can I afford this?”  Welcome, Interview, Present, Demonstrate, Consult – in that order.
  • Place: There are three types of “places” when you consider this factor – the place where your school is located, the place it occupies in the mind of your customers, and the place where parents and the community is exposed to your message.  Schools can do little about where they are located, but the latter two are able to be changed.  The place it occupies in the mind of your customers is “positioning” – how do you want your parents and the community to know you?  Is it as the “only Catholic school” or the “only Christian school” in the area?  Is the school involved in the life of the surrounding community?  Is the student body involved in serving the hungry and homeless, or caring for a community in an impoverished country?  The place where parents and the community is exposed to your message is also important.  Do people talk about your school only in the narthex of the church, or do they hear about it in the grocery store, at the local fitness facility, or in eating and drinking establishments?
  • Promotion: It’s “the message” described above.  How are you getting the “good news” about your school out and into the minds of parents and the community.  How’s your Web site?  Responsive, modern-looking with pictures, white space and serif-less fonts to give it an uncluttered look, or is it text heavy with header and sidebar navigation, and a section to the right that has all kinds of other things that may be of interest (or, offer distractions) for parents?  Do you have a full-color 8 page booklet on quality paper as your school’s brochure that shows children who are smiling and loving the learning they’re experiencing, a chart showing student achievement, and awards for innovative curriculum and champion sports teams?  Or do you have paper flyers that are distributed to the community that tell what’s going on in the school (but don’t mention what school it is) that are created on a copier, sent home in a student’s backpack, and then stuffed in neighborhood mailboxes?

5) Monitor efforts and make adjustments.  As the kids in our local high school marching band say, “Check and Adjust.”  This begins with ensuring that systems are in place to do these things.  It also assumes that you have goals, so that you can make adjustments to meet them.

A lot of work?  You bet!  Unfortunately, if you don’t have time for all this, you may find yourself with a lot of time on your hands as your enrollment numbers decrease.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2021 (Original Publication Date: 20061023)