A number of years ago, I started the tradition of making the last Marketing Matter of the year a compilation of what I’ve learned during that year.  After all, Marketing is Education, and we are to be life-long learners.  However, since we’ve experienced some significant changes over the past two years, and realizing the timing of the article made it one of the least read articles during the year (probably because every school leader is on break),  I’ve changed things up a bit.  The first Marketing Matters article of the new year will be a “Year In Review” article.  To maintain some of the tradition, however, and my systems thinking theory of the need for 5 elements in any successful system, I limit my sharing to only 5 lessons per year.  This year, most of them are reinforcements from last year, since we’re still experiencing the “Covidian Era.”

1) The phrase, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” is still 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 2020, and continued to throw 2021 into a tizzy.  Travelling was still curtailed, and, while a vaccine for the Co-Vi-2 pandemic was developed in record time, fueled by something no one (to my knowledge) has ever mentioned – the decoding of the human genome in 2003 – people are still wary of the science, don’t believe that they should be forced to be vaccinated, and want to continue life by living in the way that they’ve become accustomed to.  For some, that means not masking, and for others, wearing their masks improperly because they’re uncomfortable.  Remember, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting, and, for too many people, that means getting sick, and, unfortunately, and tragically, dying.

Everyone wondered why it took so long to come up with a vaccine for the SARS virus (that was the Co-Vi-1 coronavirus that started in 2002).  It didn’t spread throughout the world for a couple of reasons.  First, there was very limited air travel at the time since it was only a few month after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and second, the United States had a pandemic response team that sprung into action to contain the threat.  In 2003, the human genome was decoded, which brought about significant advancement in the treatment of many diseases.  For instance, due to this breakthrough, treatments for those living with the human immunovirus (HIV) were developed, so that those individuals didn’t progress to having AIDS.  In other words, one could live with the virus, but receive treatment so that they wouldn’t die from the disease it caused.  As for COVID-19, medications are now being developed for us to be able to live with the virus, since coronaviruses are nearly impossible to eradicate.  While the vaccine and booster are available now, there will soon be medications in pill form to further protect us from this deadly virus (along with masking, distancing and sanitizing to stop the spread).

How does this relate to schools?  While there are solutions that have helped school leaders with their billing and collection practices as well as offering convenience and security to their parent communities, there are still 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. Also, even when effective solutions are offered to school leaders who know they have to change, some do move forward, but then become upset when the new solution doesn’t function like the old one did.  Now, you might think, “Well of course not – because it’s a different solution!”  But that’s not the way many people think.  They know they need to change one thing, and only want to change that one thing, assuming that everything else will remain the same.

As the song by The Fixx from the 1980 stated, “One thing leads to another.”  Because we’re currently in a state of perpetual change, schools now need to be able to pivot relative to in-person and remote instruction in case someone who is part of the school community tests positive for the virus.  Because of the need for technology to allow schools to be agile during this time, 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 too.  Some parents today need to remember 5 to 8 logins and passwords for the different programs a school uses.  That might be acceptable for internal constituencies working for 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 a recent 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 to use as 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 over the past decade, I would offer to come to the school for a parent meeting 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.  Last year, I offered to make videos for some schools, and they received views by the majority of their parent community.  In the Spring of 2021, however, parents really didn’t have questions, except one big one: “What took you so long to put this technology in place?”

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 17 to 36 years old.  It’s safe to say that the majority of parents in an elementary school is 36 or under, while most parents of high school students are over 36, 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.

But there’s one more thing to consider – “Where.”  Parents today, just as every customer today, craves “vision.”  Scripture tells us “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  “Where” is the first question asked in strategic planning, and, frankly, needs to be asked in EVERY planning session for any significant undertaking.  For school leaders, the most important question they need to ask, especially as we start a new year, is “Where do I want this school to be five years from now?”  Then, the planning process starts by assessing where your school is today, and then, how you’re going to get there.  For those leaders who “hope” the school will be open next year, that’s thinking that does NOT resonate with parents today, and, accompanied with a feeling of constant change, is cause for enrollment to decline.  Please note, however, that the feeling of constant change isn’t the problem.  It’s only a problem when paired with anxiety about where the school is headed, rather than following (and adjusting) a planned course of action.

5) “When” Is not for us to decide – but it’s what everyone wants to know, and immediacy is the expectation because technology has trained us to expect it.

This one is also a repeat from last year, simply because the pandemic has further 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.  The expectation was for the vaccine to be created “now,” but it would also provide “immunity” from the disease!  Unfortunately, that’s not what a vaccine is.  A vaccine helps to protect you from serious complications if you contract it.  Many folks get a flu shot every year, but it’s not to provide immunity; it’s to mitigate the complications that can result from contracting influenza.

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 2022!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2022 (Original Publication Date: 20220103)