As has become the tradition, the last Marketing Matter of the year is a compilation of what I’ve learned since Marketing is Education, and we are to be life-long learners. In keeping with my systems thinking theory of the need for 5 elements in any successful system, I limit my sharing to only 5 lessons per year. Some of them may be profound; others…not so much.
Here we go:
1) The phrase, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” is dead.
While many in the world started to feel the effects of CoViD-19 near the end of 2019, it hit home in the United States in March. Friday the 13th began the big shutdown, as work from home, remote learning, essential workers, mask up, and wash your hands became phrases that are now part of our common lexicon. Personally, for the past 12 years, I’ve travelled to schools, meeting with principals, business managers and school boards, attending conferences and giving presentations. This year, all of that stopped. Interestingly, I had one of the most successful years in my career. It was proof-positive that doing something different will change results, even though they weren’t the results I expected! I never thought that school leaders would be open to meetings via computer video, since, when we tried to shift to using more Webinar meetings a number of years ago, school leaders and board members still wanted to meet in person. And, if the weather got in the way, after struggling to get into town safely during a snowstorm, it was not uncommon to receive a phone call and hear, “Hey, we need to cancel tomorrow’s meeting. Can we reschedule for next week?” Because travel plans needed to be made a couple of weeks in advance to get the best rates, the answer usually started with the word, “Unfortunately.” This year, that’s all changed. I can even offer a link where school leaders can choose a time to meet that’s best for them!
Still, there are school leaders who knock themselves out with manual billing practices, and chasing past due tuition rather than redirecting those energies into contacting families excited about enrolling their children in school. While many public schools were going “all remote” since they couldn’t effectively and safely distance students, faith-based schools in some parts of the country needed to cap their enrollment because parents wanted in-class instruction. Yet there were other parents that may have been furloughed and could not afford to continue to pay tuition, as what might have been a struggle before suddenly became impossible. While some schools saw significant increases in their enrollments, other school lost up to a third of their enrollment!
Speaking of phrases, because students are now learning online from home, and need to be able to pivot regarding in-person and remote instruction relative to someone testing positive for the virus who is part of the school community, another phrase can also be officially retired: “What about those parents that don’t have a computer?” If they don’t today, their children aren’t going to be learning. And that leads to the second item:
2) Your school’s Web site needs to be modern and responsive in design, AND you need an app for your school.
Today’s parents, now more than ever, live on their phone. It’s the communication device of choice. Further, if they’re working from home, it’s now not uncommon for someone to be working off of two or three screens at once, as well as their tablet and their smartphone. If your school’s Web site looks like it was made in the early 2000’s, your school has a good chance of being considered by parents to be irrelevant. Here’s how the parent thinks: “If that’s what their Web site looks like, how am I going to get messages about my child and communicate with the school about their performance, or get help if my children don’t understand what they’re supposed to do for homework?
Your school’s app keeps everything in one location. Soon, if they haven’t asked for it already, parents will be asking for one password to remember. Some parents today need to remember 5 logins and passwords for the different programs the school uses. That might be great for internal audiences at the school, but not necessarily for those parents who are looking for convenience. It IS true that security outweighs convenience, but what’s even more important is that programs actually connect in some way through technology, and not just “infer” or “assume” that they do.
3) No one reads “Terms and Conditions.”
This one could be called “No One Reads,” since last year, a learning was that people would rather watch a video than read instructions. Many parents have asked school administrators, “Can’t I just watch a video?” when given a list of instructions to follow. In our “Covidian” times, there are now tools available that allow you to make videos! They may not win awards, but the technology exists, and is very affordable! All you need is a mobile device for your camera, and a way to get that raw footage into a computer program, or, perhaps even edit it on your tablet! In working with schools, I would offer parent meetings in the Spring so the new processes the school would implement could be explained. As the years progressed, however, fewer and fewer parents attended those meetings. This year, I offered to make videos for some schools, and they received views by the majority of their parent community!
Further, what I mentioned last year bears reiterating: if parents MUST read instructions, then more than likely, they’ll simply skip them, especially if technology is involved since technology processes are expected to be “intuitive.” It’s a quality of the Millennial generation – they expect excellence from everything they pay for.
This year, it’s become clear that more individuals besides parents don’t like to read. Do you have an iPhone? If so, when the new software update is released and installed, do you read all the terms and conditions before you accept them? Probably not. Interestingly, there has been some new verbiage placed on requests for support for non-profit organizations that hasn’t been there before. One of the organizations my wife and I support now has a checkbox on their pledge form that says, “Check this box if you do not wish to have your information shared with other organizations.” While some people may think that is very kind of them to ask, others may think, “Wait a minute! Has this organization sold my name and address to another charitable organization?” And the answer would probably be “yes,” which is how you can get mail from organizations you’ve never heard of. You may also be thinking, “I didn’t agree to that!” But, if you didn’t read the terms and conditions, you may have given permission for your information to be used however the organization wants to use it just by giving the organization your name, address email and/or phone number!
4) The key to your school’s success Is not “Why,” “How,” “What” nor “Where” – it’s “Who.”
This is a “three-in-one” item, so to speak, and a direct repeat from last year. It deals with “who” comprises your school’s target market, “who” are your school’s paying customers, and “who” is in leadership at your school. It’s also important to know there are two other “who”s you need to be aware of. More about that a little further along.
Your school’s target market deals with your main audience, and to set your school up for success, you must choose the audience you wish to serve – those who can pay for your school’s services, or those who can’t. When I mention this to school leaders, the usual response is, “We want to offer our educational environment to everyone!” While that’s noble, it’s not a successful business strategy. Before you say your school is not a business, does your school have a business manager? If so, it’s a business….AND a ministry…AND a school. The interesting thing is that when you choose your primary audience, you have the ability to serve everyone…not the other other way around.
Your school’s paying customers are primarily Millennials. Millennials were born from 1985 through 2004, and are 16 to 35 years old. It’s safe to say that the majority of parents in an elementary school is 34 or under, while most parents of high school students are over 35, and therefore members of Generation X – the ME Generation. These groupings will change moving forward, as GenX-ers move toward paying for college for their kids while also dealing with their own student loan debt, and in a few years, Millennials will be the vast majority of parents with children in the PK-12 experience who have even more college debt! This experience will also, more than likely, last longer than the usual 20-year timeframe, since Millennials are waiting to have children, and the average age for first-time moms is now around 25 years of age (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/04/upshot/up-birth-age-gap.html). We missed the insights into Generation X, and are inundated with the qualities, habits and preferences of Millennials since they are different from every generation that has come before them. It’s good to know “who they are” so that you’re able to meet the demands of excellence from these customers since they determine your school’s “brand,” and share that brand through their social media connections. You might think you want to brand your school with a phrase, like “Walking by Faith, Anchored by Hope and Connected by Love,” but if that’s not what the parent experiences, it doesn’t matter what you say it is.
Leadership is also key, as evidenced by the examples provided all around us regarding those in leadership. The leader of your school becomes synonymous with the school in the marketplace.
The “who” relative to your school’s staff is what makes your school a remarkable place to be. There is no other school that has the staff that your school does, and it’s the interaction of those staff members that create the culture of your school. There’s been significant discussion about a “cultural fit” when new employees are being sought, so becoming more aware of your school’s “culture” can help to foster enrollment discussions with parents and donors interested in your school.
The fifth “who” refers to “who” makes up your school’s board. It’s important to note that the board is an entity. It is singular. There have been many examples of a person who seeks a position on the board because they’re upset with the direction the school is taking, and then derails any of the advances the board has made toward the vision that the school’s been working toward. There may also be instances where board members who are parents expect to receive special considerations regarding tuition and financial aid, sometimes to the chagrin of other board members who have a long-standing history of financially supporting the school.
5) “When” Is not for us to decide – but it’s what everyone wants to know, and expects immediacy.
This one is also a repeat from last year, simply because the pandemic has exacerbated the expectation of immediacy. All I need to do is mention one word, and you’ll understand. Ready? “Vaccine.” Here’s a brand new organism, causing people to get sick, affecting different age groups differently, and those with underlying chronic conditions have a greater chance of experiencing more serious complications. And we expect a vaccine to be created, “Now.” Let’s take a look at one of the most insidious viruses of the 20th century – the virus that caused poliomyelitis (Polio). Researchers started working on it in the 1930’s – but an effective vaccine was not found until 1953. If the vaccines that have been developed help to lessen the chances of contracting CoViD-19 do their job, we will have witnessed a true miracle.
As for the school, Advancement, Development and Enrollment professionals are well aware of the expectation of immediacy. The school hires an Enrollment Director, and it’s expected that enrollment will increase – immediately! An Advancement Director is hired, and the expectation is that $100,000 in new gifts will come rolling through the door – immediately! Unfortunately, that’s not how relationship-building works. The school may be struggling simply because there has been no one to “own” the responsibility of contacting parents of prospective students on a consistent basis, or sharing the success (rather than just the “we need your help” message) of the school with those who are interested in seeing the school succeed to serve students today and into the future (and there’s the referral back to “who,” as stated in item number 4).
May you and yours be blessed with a (note the 5 elements here) safe, joyful, healthy, prosperous and peace-filled 2021!
© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2020 (Original Publication Date: 20201228)