Think you know your school? Think you know how others perceive your brand?
My entry into education market research 20 years ago centered on encouraging schools to take an “outside-in” look at themselves. The tendency of school administrators at the time was summed up in the phrase, “We know who we are better than anyone else!”
But I kept hammering away, asking school leaders these questions:
- How do those people who approached you but didn’t apply actually experience you? (The ones who showed up for the first date but you never heard from again?)
- What about the perceptions of those whom you accepted but quickly vanished into thin air, as if they had been beamed up to a parallel universe? (The ones who left you standing at the altar?)
- What about the families you invited back but who voluntarily left the school before graduation? (The ones who divorced you, often drawing other families into their wake?)
The Image Audit is still a powerful tool to inspire reflection and growth. Its reach now goes far beyond enrollment conversions and yields and into marketing and branding's prime directive: LISTEN FIRST.
- What do people who are in a position to refer you, such as educational consultants, think about you in relation to other schools they might recommend to families?
- How would the leadership at the schools or colleges where your students matriculate rate your graduates’ preparation and engagement on their campuses?
- What is preventing “mission-appropriate families,” as identified by your parents, trustees, and faculty, from taking that first step to inquire?
- What do your graduates have to say about the transformational experiences they had at your school, or how you might better prepare your current students for the next step?
- What opportunities would community influencers recommend to explore partnerships and outside educational opportunities for your students that would raise awareness of your school in your city or region?
The beauty of an Image Audit conducted by a third-party familiar with independent schools is that you can’t lose.
Perception is the currency of an Image Audit. Your brand and identity are what people say about you after you’ve left the room. Your brand and identity exists in their minds, not yours. A wise soul once said, “You can’t see the label from inside the bottle.”
Schools typically get a lot of positive responses when they seek honest feedback. Those we confidentially interview often tell us, "It's great they're doing this. It shows they're self-assessing." You may also encounter some critical comments, but that's all good. No need to be defensive:
1. If perceptions are positive, then you have an opportunity to reinforce and communicate the positive perceptions.
2. If perceptions are negative and are not true, you need to communicate more effectively.
3. If perceptions are negative and true, substantive changes are called for, and the school should take the opportunity to communicate those changes.
Inspired in part by Scottish poet Robert Burns’ "To a Louse" (which recounts how a lady of high social standing sat proudly in her church pew in front of the poet -- as he observed a louse crawling on her bonnet), the Image Audit gives a school community an unbiased opportunity to see themselves as “others see us”* -- through the eyes and perspective of those who matter to you in the outside world.
Following an Image Audit we conducted for a large day school in the Southeastern United States, a Leadership Team member confided, “I hope that the conversations will continue in regard to how we respond to some of the perceptions and comments from the Image Audit.
"I find it extremely valuable," she continued, "to ask the question, 'What does it look like on the other side of me?' I cannot disagree with findings that reveal others’ perceptions. While they may not be true or our fault, we must accept others’ perceptions as our responsibility to redirect, educate, and bring them to our side."
Today, as independent schools face challenges from multiple directions, it is a naïve and dangerous attitude to continue to proclaim, “We know who we are better than anyone else!” The ones you seek to serve don’t care about how great you think you are. Better to listen objectively to your market and adapt your program and messaging accordingly.
Let's take the opportunity to redirect, educate, and bring them to our side. The Image Audit is the foundation for compelling strategic content for marketing and promotional efforts that will engage. I know it's tempting to put the cart of social media in front of the horse of perception. Please don't.
You have nothing to lose by objectively listening to those you seek to serve -- and actionable insight to gain for your program and how you communicate it.
*In Burn’s Ayrshire dialect: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”