Now that you know what your school’s strengths are, the next step is marketing them to the community.

While that may sound simple, that can be a very difficult statement to fully comprehend.

There are five things that must be considered:

1) There are at least several (and sometimes many) communities within your “local community,” and developing one message and then distributing it to all of your communities is not necessarily the best method to accomplish your objectives;

2) You need to examine, and not just determine, your school’s strengths before creating a marketing plan;

3) You need to create a marketing plan (you knew that was coming after reading the previous item, right?);

4) Completely understand that great marketing generates inquiries – not enrollment!  A great enrollment process turns those inquiries into students in the school; and

5) This will not happen overnight.

Let’s start with the second item.  I’ll bet you thought you should start with number 1, because it’s either the most important, or the first step of a process.  After all, it’s “number one,” right?

And that’s where our problems begin.  Our minds have been trained to follow things in a numbered order.  Even Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.  That’s a very good place to start.”

But, in “The Sound of Music,” she didn’t start with “Do;” she started with “Do, Re, Mi.”  Three things.  And that’s a great place to start to think systemically, which is NOT  how we are trained to think!

Even in testing today, teachers encourage students to read all the questions first, then start with the ones they know how to answer after reading all the way through – and we all know that educational fable about the teacher who distributed a final exam, telling the students to read all the questions before starting.  One person finished the test in just a few seconds…when she saw that the last question was, “Don’t answer any of the questions on this test.  Just sign your name and submit your exam.  Have a great summer!”

So let’s look at Question #2 first by examining what you consider to be the strengths of your school.  Are they “typical?” For instance, if your school is a faith-based one, does your school offer:

– Faith-based values allowing the formation of the entire person?

– Small class sizes to promote personalized learning which result in higher academic performance?

– A safe and caring community to nurture each person as an individual?

If so, consider the fact that while these are indeed strengths, they are not “differentiating” traits.  In fact, they are “expectations” rather than “remarkable” attributes, simply because almost all, if not every, faith-based school can lay claim to them. It’s like saying that you like the car you drive because it has brakes, a steering wheel, and this really cool thing called “reverse” that allows the car to move backwards! Isn’t that great??

Um…yeah, but…

And that’s what parents are thinking when you attempt to woo them with faith-based values, excellent academics, and a safe and caring community. They’re attributes that probably brought them to your school in the first place (there’s that “first” again) because if they didn’t want faith-based values, “Everybody gets a C” academics and a community that cares about standardized testing rather than differentiated instruction, there are some educational environments that provide that type of education with no out-of-pocket cost to them.

Today’s parents and guardians know there’s a cost associated with enrollment, and they want to ensure they’re receiving value for the four or five figures you’re going to ask them to pay per year.  Remember, there is no “free” education.  Nothing is free…there is a price to pay…perhaps a big one somewhere down the road.

Again, while these are excellent qualities, expectations won’t bring parents to your school’s door and only your school’s door. It will bring them to your school’s door as well as to the doors of other faith-based schools that are in their area. In this respect, a faith-based school’s greatest competition is not necessarily the local public school, but perhaps other faith-based schools in your community.

Moreover, if two or more faith-based schools have the same “Big 3” strengths, the school the parents choose will usually be the one that has the lowest tuition – and price is something that you don’t even want to get into with a marketing mindset (even though it’s one of the 4 P’s of Marketing).  That’s something which has to be dealt with in the enrollment process.

BPHere’s a real example:

The map to the right shows the location of four Catholic schools about 15 years ago.  School A is about a mile and a half away from school B, while school C is about 2 miles from school A.  From those measurements, you can see that school D is about a mile from school A, but about 3 mile drive to get there from school C.

About 14 years ago, schools A, B, and C were merged into one school, located at school A’s location.  Why?  It’s the midpoint.  Makes all the sense in the world, right?

The interesting phenomenon is that schools A, B and C all charged tuition, so the merged school at location A did too.  However, School D did not charge tuition!  In order to attend school D, a family must be a member of the parish, and contribute to support the parish.

And while the road from A to D goes through C on the map, when B and C go away, the new road from A to D is only about a mile-long drive!!

Even more interesting is that 3 years after the merger, the merged school at A’s location closed due to declining enrollment…the same reason that forced the merger of the three in the first place.  Why?   More than likely, they kept doing things the way they did when they were individual schools.

And that begs the question, “If enrollment was declining in the individual schools, what kind of effect do you think you’d have if kept doing the same thing in the newly-created school?”  As Einstein has been quoted as saying, “You can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them.

Today, School D is still open, and until just two years ago, charged no tuition.  Unfortunately, the “no tuition” approach became more and more difficult to maintain, and with the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the school was pushed over the edge, and had to merge with another school because that school was experiencing significant enrollment declines!

Here’s the really interesting effect of systems thinking.  As more and more people from the parish schools at A, B and C moved to the “free tuition” school at location D and became members of that parish, what do you think happened to the parishes located at A, B and C?   That’s right…the parishes lost membership!  A few years ago, parishes were merged in this area due to the declining number of priests, and these four parishes were merged together into one, further necessitating a tuition-based revenue structure since the school could not support all its new school families enrolling their students.

So, instead of thinking on those “Big 3” traits mentioned above, think of the strengths that make your school, “Your school!”

What makes it a remarkable place to be, to learn, to grow? If you don’t know, take some time to find out by really revisiting your strengths again, and putting the question to your parents that are “raving fans” of your school. It could be mean the difference between being able to create a strategic five-year plan versus a closure ceremony in the near future.

If you can’t think of anything that makes your school uniquely different from EVERY other school in the market – actually, from every other school in the world – drop an email to [email protected] with the words “My School’s Most Remarkably Unique Quality” in the subject line.

Now let’s take a look at those communities I mentioned earlier. There are at least four different communities you must market to:

1) Prospective Parents – your target market. They want to know the remarkable things about your school. Get them emotionally involved so that they will know your school is the best educational choice for their child. Facts about your school are great, and solidify the decision to enroll the child – but “facts” don’t excite anyone. “Cool stuff” does, and the decision to enroll is an emotional one.  You need to find the “Wow” factor that’s going to grab parents and hold their emotional “right side of their brain” attention. There will be enough for their left side to do later. Remember that marketing to your target audience increases the number of parent inquiries to your school. An effective enrollment process – following up with those inquiries – increases enrollment.

2) Current Parents – your current market. These are the people you want to keep involved with your school so they become vital members of the school community and “raving fans” of your school. These are the folks that want and need to know everything that’s going on with your school. Do your prospective parents need to know that you have three fundraisers this month? No – you might scare them away. But your current parents need to know this information, so sending prospective parents a copy of your monthly newsletter that goes to current parents isn’t necessarily a prudent thing to do.

3) Alumni and Parents of Alumni – these are your main development targets. Share your successes with them. Again, don’t tell these folks you have fundraisers coming up, because if you’re planning on asking them to support your efforts with a recurring gift of $50 to $100 a month, they may wonder why you need those funds if children are engaged in selling wrapping paper for the holiday seasons.  Instead, share the exciting news that two of your students were selected to represent your school at an American History event in Washington, DC, or that the volleyball team is moving into the semifinals round of competition if they’ve never reached that milestone before.  People give to people, and when the people of your school succeed, your school succeeds.

4) The community at large – because the local community needs to be aware that your school is located in it and is a vibrant part of it!  Publicity in online publications (note that I no longer say newspapers – unless your community still has a newspaper that’s delivered to every household in your community), social media and yard signs should highlight service activities from the student body, perhaps cleaning up elderly residents’ yards during the Fall, and participating in community events to communicate your school’s “remarkability” to the public at large.  These activities don’t increase enrollment, but if you’d like development support from the community, your school needs to be a vibrant part of it, and not just constantly ask for support – material or monetary – from the community all the time.  Remember, marketing is not just education…it’s emotional education, and that’s what evangelization is – spreading the good news about your school.  The “help us” message just gets lost among every other “help us” message that’s once again bombarding mailboxes with appeals for funds.

Just like the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi regarding “Preach the Gospel always – when necessary, use words,” remember that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on advertising. Actions really do speak louder than words. Back in 2010, when the city of Nashville, TN flooded, Father Ryan High School remained closed after other schools reopened and students returned to classes.  Why?  So the students could continue to provide service to the victims of the flood in need of clean-up and other tasks that they may not be able to accomplish could be handled by young men and women of the school dedicated to serve.

That’s faith in action…and that’s remarkable.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2023