What I’ve Learned This Year – 2018

One of my strengths (according to a great book called “Teach With Your Strengths”) is “Learner,” so to continue the tradition I began in 2007, as the last Marketing Matter for 2018, here’s what I’ve learned this year.

Since one of my (and SchoolAdvancement’s) mantras is “3 Leads to 4 Leads to 5,” I’ll offer 5 items since we need to hold 5 ideas in mind constantly at the same time. Steven Jobs said most people can only hold 3 things in mind at the same time, and some people can hold as many as 4. But 5 is the number that we all must aspire to if we really want to think systemically rather than linearly to have a profound effect on what we do.

Interestingly, the 5 items learned in 2017 are still valid today, so here’s a summary of last year’s items before launching into this year’s:

1) Surprise and delight as a way to make customers and employees happy.  A “tweak” of this item is included as the first item for 2018, especially since the Heath Brothers published “The Power of Moments” this year.

2) We need to be open to “shift” our thinking rather than “change,” since people hate change – even though it’s the only constant in our world.

3) Web sites need to be responsive, and a “good” Web site isn’t “good enough” anymore.  Also, some research was done in 2018 that validated one of my contentions, and caused some spirited discussion at several schools I’ve visited.  More about that in item #5.

4) School leaders can no longer simply focus on one activity (like marketing) and think that it will solve a problem of declining enrollment.  A little more about that in item #2 for this year.

5) Tuition-charging K-12 schools are probably the only business in existence which believes they can offer a product by charging less than what it costs to deliver it with the excellence that’s expected from its customers.  That, along with the fallacy that “stabilized enrollment” is achieved when the number of students entering the initial grade level of the school is equal to the number of students graduating from it, are mindsets that need to not just shift, but flat-out change.

Keeping those items in mind, here are the learnings from 2018:

1) People don’t like surprises.  They love to be delighted, however.  In fact, they expect to be delighted!  If not, they’ll take to social media and complain ferociously.  Stan Phelps, in his work “Purple Goldfish,” spoke about GLUE – Giving Little Unexpected Extras.  He compared it to the chocolate chip cookies at Doubletree Hotels.  Unfortunately, they contain nuts, and the flour used to produce them is certainly made from wheat, so if one has a nut and/or gluten allergy, eating one may cause some unpleasant side effects.  Also, they’re no longer surprises…they’re expectations.  Notice what happens, however, if you Give Little Expected Extras – it causes “GLEE.”

2) People don’t read.  If you’ve read this far, you’re one of the few.  It’s why article publishers are now indicating how long it should take to read the article they’ve written.  If they don’t, and the article goes on for a number of paragraphs, people will simply stop reading, think to themselves, “I don’t have time for this,” and move on.  This is unfortunate because writing is taught differently today (even though teachers will say it isn’t).  In marketing, “Storytelling” is the new buzzword.  When one tells a story, the listener is engaged.  The stage is set, there’s a build-up, a climatic point, and then the aftermath.  To be clear, this is a great tool when one is “telling” a story, or even writing a novel.  It’s not, however, how news articles are supposed to be written.  If they are, the writer is “burying the lead,” since the climax of the story is usually the headline and the pertinent “5 W’s” are disclosed early on, and the “H” can be the topic of the rest of the article.  Web sites today are full of news items that are written like stories.  People like the limited characters of Twitter, since it can then contain a link for more details if they want to delve deeper.  The resultant effect, however, is that people no longer read important communications that your school may publish.  More and more, parents are asking, “Can’t we just watch a video about it?”

3) The world is full of experiential learners.  No matter how one tries to counsel someone and provide insights gained from years of observations and creating customized solutions, many school leaders still respond with, “Well, that’s all well and good, but that’s not the way we do it.”  It takes all that’s in me not to say, “Which is probably why you’re in the situation you’re in.”  If I would say it, I’d be considered to be rude.  People have to get to the point where they themselves say, “It’s not working,” and come to the point to where they’re open to new ideas AND willing to expend the time and energy to implement them.  They have to experience the difficulty at have it personally affect them.  Sometimes, sadly, by the time that time arrives, it can be too late to save the institution.  Why?  Because all the elements of your school act systemically.  I know one school that is changing their processes to provide a consistently branded experience to their parent community…but can’t understand why their enrollment has dropped by over 100 students in the past 6 years.  Could it be that the processes they’re using don’t function the way parents expect them to function?  Could it be that the tuition has broken through the 5-figure mark?  Could it be that by publishing this tuition on their Web site, they’re sending a message to prospective parents who don’t even call the school to set a time for a tour?  Could it be that they’re not prepared for parents who just walk in with no appointment, with the expectation that they’ll be given a tour – even if there’s no one available since the enrollment director is teaching a class?  Could it be all these things acting as a system – or is it the school’s perceived need for simply having a process to capture inquiries and follow-up with families who visit the Web site and fill out the forms?

4) The number of experts have increased dramatically.  Every day, someone is creating a platform to provide advice through speaking, coaching, training, or consulting.  SchoolAdvancement has been a resource site for 11 years now (but the articles actually started 14 years ago in 2004), and there are still people who are finding it for the first time, simply because they’ve never been in an institutional advancement position.  I’ve found only 2 programs that lead to a Master’s degree in Institutional Advancement with a concentration in Higher Education…but there are an abundance of workshops and seminars available.  Ironically, many times, there aren’t funds available for those involved in this important ministry to attend these events and gain certifications to further their experiences and careers.

5) Your school needs 2 Web sites – again.  Previously, a school needed a Web site.  Then it needed a mobile site that could be accessed by mobile devices.  Then responsive design came along, and the site adjusted itself to the device it was being viewed on, and the need for only one site made the mobile site obsolete.  Designers are now adopting “mobile first” practices since more and more people are using their mobile devices to access the Internet.  But today’s parents don’t want to wade through all the content on the Web site to find what’s important to them.  Therefore, the need for two sites is back in vogue – one that’s a marketing site for your school, geared to those who are interested in enrolling their children, and another (call it an app) for your current parent community.  If you’re a member of the SchoolAdvancement Group on LinkedIn, you know the benefit of being part of a group.  Parent members of your school community know this feeling as well.  Having an app for your current parent community lets them know and feel they’re important to your school.  If they know and feel they’re important, they’ll act with the same type of confidence, which helps to strengthen your retention efforts.

One school asked how can they increase the number of phone calls to the school, since no one seems to make an appointment anymore.  I said that’s a simple one – remove the tuition schedule from the school Web site.  The school’s administrative assistant was shocked, and commented, “Do you realize how often I’d have to answer the phone with people asking what our tuition was?”  I responded by saying, “Well…you’re increasing phone calls to the school, aren’t you?  Now you need to know how to properly handle those calls.”

In summary, it’s important to remember that ALL these items need to be addressed simultaneously, which is the essence of systems thinking.  They can’t be addressed one at a time, or selectively implemented by saying, “Let’s try #5 first, and then after a while, we’ll try #3.”  Also, as I mentioned last year, everything doesn’t need to be “changed,” but everything does need to be “optimized” so that all the elements of the system (which will be called LINES moving forward) are working the way they were designed to work, as well as aligned (see the connection?) with the expectations of your customers and the goals you have for your school.  I’m looking forward to 2019 to continue to bring some FRESH perspectives to schools (an acronym, that you will be hearing more about too), as well as a system to help those engaged in this work to learn more about it.

May we all be blessed with a safe and prosperous 2019, held together with the peace of Christ.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement 2007-2018 (Original Publication Date: 20071231)