Education Marketing and Advancement

Objectivity, transparency, and a collaborative spirit

Marketing Therapy

with Mike Connor

Is There a Unified Field Theory for K-12 Marketing?

We’re not saying this is bigger news than Einstein’s 1915 attempt to explain the "theory of everything," but guest blogger William Bullard’s well-researched and case study-rich examples of what marketing can do, what it can’t do, and the area in-between (which I’d call physics' "observer effect") posits that you can change reality and behavior by simply observing it. At least in my consulting work with schools, I've found that objective observation reveals great truths and moves people to make necessary changes -- as long as there is the institutional will to act on what is observed! Always remember that the goal of marketing is to listen to and create ways you can continually improve your product: teaching and learning.  Promotion is the end product of marketing! 

I think you’ll enjoy this tour de force as much as I did, and I’m honored to give William a soapbox here at Marketing Therapy. His contact information follows. Enjoy!

by William Bullard

Founder, EdChanges

Using Innovative Marketing to Overcome Major Obstacles

In the past, “marketing” was often viewed as inconsequential, perhaps even harmful to a school. However, as many schools are impacted by demographic shifts, resistance to high tuition, competition from new education models, and increased demands from millennial parents, the perception of marketing is changing. In an ironic twist, some potentially desperate school leaders have changed course, now ascribing magical powers to this previously-criticized or overlooked function. The time is right to define what marketing can do for your school, what is beyond marketing’s influence, and most interesting, what issues it can address that are not apparent at first glance

Marketing’s Strengths

Even more traditional heads of schools or directors of communications or advancement would tend to agree that marketing and communications can address many crucial functions.

Here are several marketing and communications responsibilities, starting with the most fundamental and manageable and progressing to strategic and complex:

  • Inform parents and faculty about daily activities via e-newsletters and website updates.
  • Convey the school’s brand, mission, and programs with relevant and timely content on a visually appealing website.
  • Reinforce the school’s mission, plans, development, and alumni activities to a wider audience through magazines and a viewbook or similar publication.
  • Support fundraising efforts through direct mail, email, social media, and website content.
  • Communicate school activities and fun through consistent social media posting on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and potentially other platforms.
  • Increase awareness of various school news and success stories through local publications and potentially media relations/PR.
  • Assist admissions efforts with print and digital ads and messaging for follow-up communications.
  • Present a consistent brand and message across all your media and channels.
  • Use video to tell stories about student life, such as artistic, athletic, and extra-curricular activities.
  • Understand the needs of your current, past and prospective students and families through basic satisfaction surveys, solicitation of suggestions, admissions follow-up communications, and surveys of admitted students who do not enroll.
  • Increase traffic to your website through strategic content marketing, including search engine optimization.
  • Create a strategic marketing plan that reflects and helps implement relevant facets of the broader school strategic plan.
  • Develop multi-channel marketing campaigns to integrate themes, strategic goals and messaging across all channels, with a focus on driving engagement such as positive word-of-mouth, social shares, applications, and donations. 
  • Incorporate strategic use of video, including the balance of professional and “amateur” video, targeted placement on your website, and use of YouTube playlists.
  • Deploy image audits (confidential perceptual studies) to attain a deep understanding of the perceptions of your current and prospective constituents, compare them with your internal perception, and take appropriate action to close the gaps.
  • Apply analytics and data-driven marketing to systematically improve the effectiveness of all your major marketing channels and tools.
  • Build acquisition marketing programs and broader school strategies based on predictive analytics models that project changes in demographics, income and other key factors (especially relevant for day schools).
  • Help admissions increase the percentages of inquiring students who apply and accepted students who matriculate through highly targeted marketing, including “lead nurturing” techniques.

Marketing’s (Seemingly) Untouchable Topics

Many school leaders and their communications/marketing teams would agree that the following concerns are beyond the scope of marketing without undertaking a massive and costly re-branding project.

  • Governance issue
  • Head-trustees disconnect
  • Long-standing reputational concern
  • Below-average or outdated curriculum
  • Ineffective teachers, administrator
  • Remote or undesirable location
  • Old/low-tech academic or athletic facilities
  • Old/outdated physical plant
  • Damaging social media posts or review
  • Insufficient endowment and/or declining cash flow
  • Single-gender school

Surmounting Barriers with Strategic and Creative Marketing

We've already seen that school marketers have many responsibilities, across the spectrum of the classic “urgent and important” matrix. We have also uncovered a seemingly impenetrable list of areas that marketing can’t address. With all that fundamental work to do, why should you spend time tackling seemingly-intractable problems through a seemingly ill-suited function?

The simple answer is that these problems are likely among your biggest barriers to success in enrollment, retention, and fundraising.

Changing Your Thinking

But what if some of these obstacles are actually addressable through creative marketing and communications? What if, by shifting your mindset, you can use strategic marketing to create a different lens through which your constituents can view your school? What if you consider the following possibilities, including real case studies of marketers tackling or uncovering perceived issues head-on?

  • Use targeted communications to address prospective families based on unique interests that map with your strengths.
  • Refute a core perception or stereotype:
  1. Case Study #1: Culver Academies. Director of Strategic Marketing Bill Hargraves recognized that Culver had a reputation as a military reform school, so he created a video strategy that highlighted the quality of student leadership opportunities, academic programs and support relevant to current prospects’ needs. This direction served as catalyst in recasting Culver’s reputation and leading to impressive enrollment growth.
  2. Case Study #2: Buckingham Browne and Nichols Director of Enrollment Management Geordie Mitchell recalls “We had a reputation as a ‘sink or swim,’ grind-type school as recently as 10 years ago, so we focused our marketing on opportunities for students to be well-rounded and added a page to our website on student support services. We have been able to reposition BB&N as a place of both rigor and nurture.”     

Location is another seemingly insurmountable marketing challenge in attracting some families. So how about campaigns that focus on exciting experiences outside of your school, and emphasize the underestimated advantages of your rustic or urban area, e.g. beautiful lakes or mountains, outdoor adventures, or hidden cultural gems?

  1. Case Study: Salisbury, an all-boys boarding high school in beautiful Salisbury, CT, has made its setting a crucial part of its value proposition. Its marketing materials, including a large home page video, present advantages of the bucolic surroundings for high-energy young men: trail running, mountain biking, hiking the Appalachian Trail with stunning views of the Taconic and Berkshire mountains, and fishing or catching rays at the lake. Director of Admissions and Marketing Peter Gilbert and Director of Communications Shana Stalker also emphasize the outsized role the rural setting has played in shaping Salisbury’s intimate culture. The 300 students feel safe and secure, and the extensive time they spend together reinforces the community’s sense of “brotherhood. "

Single-sex schools lose specific groups of families concerned about their child's potentially missing out on a broader set of relationships, especially in high school.

  1. Case Study #1: Bob Dully, Director of Marketing & Communications at Avon Old Farms tackled this with creativity and social media: “We’re located between two all-girls schools and use Instagram to show social as well as a bit of academic/arts joint interaction, and have their locations on our home page map to show proximity. Next up is visual presentation to be shown at high school fairs promoting these relationships (dances, theater plays, socials, fund raisers, etc.).
  2. Case Study #2: EdwardsCo, and education brand consulting firm, supported The University School in Ohio (boys) and St. Paul’s School for Girls by “leading with the benefits to overcome the labels.” President and CEO Maria Kadison noted that long-standing biases about boys schools resembling “Lord of the Flies” or girls schools tailored for the “socially awkward” or “weak math and science students” had to be addressed head-on.  Successful messaging strategy focused on “being a hockey star and a poet” or “your strengths made stronger,” meeting emotional needs expressed in prospect research.

Use market research to uncover governance issues such as the performance of the head of school or the board, uncertainty about strategy or resource allocation, poor internal communication affecting performance, and the like.

  1. Case Study #1: Mike Connor, President of Connor Associates Strategic Services (CA), used an Internal Image Audit (an objective perceptual study) to help a Western day school address a leadership problem. Dozens of conversations with school personnel revealed that the head’s commitment to teaching detracted from his external promotional duties and hampered the school’s need to expand the school’s visibility and recognition. The objective presentation of these audit findings elicited an open-minded response from the head, who dropped his teaching role and increased outreach - with the board’s full support. Applications and enrollment are significantly ahead of previous years.
  2. Case Study #2: Another challenge for a Connor client was solved by an External iImage Audit. Connor noted that a successful Bay Area K-12 day school was perceived as unstable, with a swell of discontent and exodus of disgruntled teachers. (Which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Extensive discussions with community leaders and exiting parents indicated that there was a lack of proactive communications about internal changes to address their concerns. These confidential conversations reminded school leaders of the importance of listening to their constituents - and communicating how change would positively impact the value of their school. Inquiries and applications are up.
  • Address communications and potentially media efforts to positive stories or cases that counter common objections to your school, e.g. an innovative science project, a cutting-edge dance performance, an athlete who is honored for service to his or her community.
  • Issue teasers or advance notice of key elements in your strategic plans, such as capital campaigns for new buildings or curricula changes.

Produce market testimonials, across print, web, social, and video, from an appropriate cross-section of constituents, that subtly rebuff the current gossip or reviews, as these can often counter negative social posts or online reviews. There are other tactics available too, for example:

  1. Case Study: A K–12 coed NYC school was losing inquires and applications due to damaging reviews on school review site Niche. Niche’s increased visibility, along with high traffic to a few negative reviews, drove those posts to the top of search engine results – ahead of the school’s own pages. EdwardsCo’s two-pronged strategy is reversing these trends. The first is enhancing the school’s website to increase its domain and page authority through search engine optimization, which has started to move some pages ahead of the Niche results. Second, by requesting that current parent influencers submit their own Niche reviews, Edwards has seen the negative reviews decline in Niche itself, further hastening their drop in broader Google rankings.

Millennial parents are playing a growing role in independent schools, both as prospective and current constituents. They often demand custom solutions and want a la carte services. Once your school has developed guides and policies to address their needs and concerns, you must communicate as personally as possible to this crucial group.

For optimal success of these strategies, you may need to reassess your marketing and database approaches, as these messages could resonate with different market segments than you traditionally target.

Marketing is not a panacea for any school or business. Some core problems are indeed insurmountable without fundamental, substantive changes that those institutions are usually unwilling or unable to make, regardless of marketing. But - perhaps - your school has a few situations similar to those above. Are you open to new thinking about the potential role of marketing to address perceived deficiencies?

Action Items

  1. Ensure you are effectively performing the fundamentals noted under “What Marketing Can Do.”
  2. Assess some of the more strategic roles of the marketing and communications leader in that same section. Do they make sense? Can your school and various departments benefit from them? Are you capable of achieving some of them, on your own or with assistance from a third party?
  3. Then take a closer look at some of your school’s primary issues as noted in “What Marketing (Typically) Can’t Do” and the potential “What If” responses. You will need to collaborate with your head of school and other leaders, listen objectively, and step out of your comfort zone to consider unique marketing solutions for your school. This will take strategic thinking, fluency in relevant marketing channels and tools, and a deep understanding of what makes your school distinctive. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No. As you’ve seen from these examples, schools willing to take a clear-eyed look at their perceived weaknesses can often negate them with creative marketing.  

The simple reason strategy is under-utilized in schools and elsewhere is that it is hard. It is easier to competently perform basic functions such as communicating news and creating ads for open houses. However, if you believe, as many forward-thinking school leaders do, that change is not just coming but already here, and that competition and broader social forces are reshaping private education, you may wish to consider some of the suggestions presented here.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank those who contributed to the “mini-case studies” and Clay Stites, President of RG175, a leading firm in educational leadership and governance, for the initial idea that sparked this piece. I also appreciated input from John O’Brien, President of St. Anne School (CA) and Pat McGraw of DWS Associates.


Do you have examples of how your school has successfully used marketing to address a seemingly-insurmountable issue? If so, please contact me so I can share for the benefit of other school marketers. Thanks!

W.R. Bullard, Founder, EdChanges

EdChanges is a marketing services firm that offers schools, colleges, and universities a wide variety of strategic marketing services.






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