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 three years as we continue to deal with COVID – and will for years to come – the first Marketing Matter of the new year will continue to be a “Year in Review” article.

This year’s article will also share some of the changes being put into place on SchoolAdvancement.com.  As you may have seen, the logo for the site has changed, and doesn’t reflect the ARMED acronym.  That’s one of the things I’ve learned this year.  As we’ve witnessed in 2022, things change…and sometimes, the changes we experience are not pleasant.  While the DREAM acronym was changed several years ago to ARMED so that we can be prepared for the challenges we face, that’s not necessarily the connotation the acronym conveys.

Of course, as things change, some things will remain the same – at least for now.  We know that practice as “tradition.”  Therefore, because of my systems thinking theory of the need for 5 elements in any successful system, I limit my sharing to only 5 lessons per year, and, as in the past, most of this year’s learnings are reinforcements from last year!

“So let’s get to it, and then share one big change for 2023.

1) People don’t listen

Which is “better,” to hear, or to listen?  Perhaps a better question to ask is, which requires more attention?

If you look up the definition of both words, “hear” means to perceive a sound; “listen” means to pay attention to that sound.

And if you put a lot of sounds together in a random way so that none of the sounds are particularly distinctive, “noise” is created.  Listening to particular types of noise is soothing and relaxing, as research is telling us.  But in order to “break through” the noise and “listen” to what’s really important and what is being communicated, we must focus on what is being said and how it’s being said, as well as “where” – as in the particular context – something was said.  So many time, soundbites are taken out of context, and twisted to mean something that was not the intention of the communication.  It’s why verbal communication is so important, and simply writing or texting loses the rich “non-verbal” elements of communication.

Realizing this, it makes it easy to realize why people don’t listen anymore – we hear lots of noise, it takes energy to really listen, and listening isn’t something that happens when communication occurs through emailing or texting.

2) Your school’s Web site needs to be modern and responsive in design, AND you need an app for your school’s current families (a reinforcement as well as additional learning from last year).

Today’s parents, now more than ever, live on their phone/mobile device.  Indeed, even MORE than last year!  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 because of similar naming conventions.

3) People don’t read.

Last year, this was titled “No one reads ‘Terms and Conditions,’ and I was thinking of calling it “No One Reads” because of articles what published stating people would rather watch a video than read instructions.   Even today, many parents have asked school administrators, “Can’t I just watch a video?” when given a list of instructions to follow, and in our “Covidian” times, there are now tools available that allow you to make videos!  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 a tablet!

A year later, however, it’s becoming more and more clear that “lots of words” on a document or an article means that it won’t be read.  News items now list how long of a “read” it is when they’re viewed on a mobile device.  Therefore, the headline might capture one’s attention, but if the article will take 7 minutes to read, then that may require too much attention to read the full article.  I wonder if the thought in doing this was so that time could be budgeted to digest the entire article, but digestion takes time.  Reading for understanding takes time – perhaps to read the article a second or third time, or to review salient paragraphs, or to take some time after reading it to ponder the message and evaluate one’s reaction to it.

Further, since most of the “news” we see or read about is “bad news,” experts suggest to stop focusing on it to relieve anxieties.  Therefore, people may simply ignore what’s going on, or continue to believe what they currently believe because they want to believe that’s the way it is.  Doing so is also one of the ways to deal with change, especially if the changes being experienced are difficult ones to comprehend or that will eventually cause us to take action.

Further, what I stated for the previous two years still holds true: 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.

As for those terms and conditions, ask yourself: “When my mobile device or computer software updated, did I read all the terms and conditions before accepting them?” Perhaps not.  New verbiage continues to be seen on contribution solicitations asking if the contributor wishes to share their personal information with other similar organizations.  This can cause people to think, “Wait a minute!  Has this organization sold my name and address to another charitable organization?”  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!  You may be surprised to find that some of the services you use will tell you that simply by using them, you agree to their terms and conditions whether you expressly consent to them or not.

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 the last two years.  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 in 2023, are 19 to 38 years old.  It’s safe to say that the majority of parents in an elementary school are 38 or under, while most parents of high school and college 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 the past two years.  Two years ago, the pandemic further exacerbated the expectation of immediacy because a vaccine took a year to develop.  Then, after people were vaccinated, they were still diagnosed with COVID, and didn’t understand why.  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.

This past year, as more and more people are using their mobile devices, working from home and seeing technology becoming more and more intuitive due to the advances of artificial intelligence (and the immediacy of response from devices when one calls out “Alexa” or “Siri”), communicators are expecting an immediate response to emails or texts, following up with another email or text that simply says “Hel-LO!” when an immediate response isn’t generated.  This is in direct opposition to productivity experts who say that the longer someone is distracted from what that person is doing, the longer it takes to refocus on what the individual was working on.  The recommendation is that emails be reviewed and answered at a particular time of the day (usually the end of the day), and that means someone that emailed in the morning may be waiting for hours before they receive a response.

Some email autoresponders aren’t only being used for “Out of Office” messages.  They’re being used to say that an email has been received, and to “reset” the expectation timeline.  A message which states, “We have received your email, and it will be answered within 48 to 96 hours” is considered to be an indication of how busy one’s worklife is; however, it may have the unintended consequence of further infuriating the recipient.

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).

And here’s the big change for 2023 – the posting schedule!

For the past decade, articles have been posted on the 5th (Development), 10th (Tetrahedronics), 15th (Enrollment), and 20th (Asset Management), with Marketing Matters published every Monday and Advancementality articles published every Saturday.

Marketing and Advancement will remain the same, but each of the other categories will have new dates:

  • Development – the first Tuesday
  • Enrollment – the second Wednesday
  • Asset Management – the third Thursday
  • Tetrahedronics – the fourth Friday

The fifth week (for those months that have fifth weeks) are reserved for consolidation, visioning, and dreamcasting, preparing work on new articles and additional components for SchoolAdvancement, as well as a couple of other sites according to the long-term strategic plan.

May you and yours be blessed with a safe, joyful, healthy, prosperous and peace-filled 2023!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2023 (Original Publication Date: 20230102)