My fourth grade teacher lit my desk on fire. In what was probably the coolest elementary school science experiment ever, Mrs. Harrington selected me from the rest of the twenty-five other students, doused my desk in rubbing alcohol, struck a match and let the whole workspace go up in flames.
I was completely in awe--not so much from the science itself, but the sheer fact that my fourth grade teacher had just done something so incongruous to school etiquette. This experiment was a testament to her teaching style: creative, passionate and a bit dangerous. Her lessons inspired me to think outside the box, challenge ideas, and try things that went against the norm. Needless to say, her classes prepped me well for success in Middle School, High School, College, and beyond.
My main point here is that elementary school is a place that has the opportunity to sculpt an individual's life. While lighting my desk on fire may seem like a small, yet radical event, its a piece of a much bigger experience that defined who I am today. The years spent in fourth and fifth grade are an important, influential period for students, and as such, need to be communicated like so.
Alright, enough reminiscing about past science experiments-- this introduction has a reason! Today's Question MARK-eting challenge comes from Steven, who has a plethora of questions about marketing for an elementary school. He asks:
"Elementary schools need to market their program. What does the school offer? What are the school's strengths? What stories can the school share? School Awards/Recognitions? Why would I send my child or grandchild to this school? Schools do not know how to create a marketing plan. Schools use a website, phone calls, the traditional note in backpack, and a few use Facebook. How can schools send a clear and consistent message? How can schools market their image like a restaurant or shoe company? I want to learn from someone who understands marketing. Thank you for this opportunity."
Well, first of all, you're welcome for the opportunity! Happy to write up some thoughts on the matter. But don't thank me just yet, this whole post could go up in flames (gotta keep the "desk-fire" theme going, right?). There are a lot of questions here, and I can see this turning into a really long blog post. But, let's dive in like the first day of school. I hope you packed a lunch :) Based on what you've described, Steven, it seems as though you need a concrete elementary school marketing plan. Before we dive into the specifics, I'd recommend focusing on the following seven steps that I use when developing a marketing plan:
- Develop Marketing Goals
- Define your target audience(s)
- Allocate Resources
- Measure and Refine
I'll give you some guidance on each of these points and how it can be applied to an elementary school marketing plan. While it may not be as exciting as lighting someone's desk on fire, I think the outline should give you a good understanding of how you can begin developing the foundation of a successful marketing plan.
1. Develop Marketing Goals
I'm a firm believer of establishing marketing goals before setting out to execute on any marketing plan (just ask Jack Bauer!). Without them, you'll have no way to ensure if what you're doing is having the impact necessary to help your business. Goals are the pillars underneath the "marketing plan" bridge. Build the bridge before the goals, and everything comes tumbling down in the end. People can't get to work and the fish aren't too happy either. It's pretty much bad news either way you look at it.
In the case of an elementary school, your primary goal is most likely enrollment focused (i.e. getting newer students to attend and to also retain the ones that are in attendance). Once we start developing some strategy and tactics in the subsequent steps, there's a good chance we'll develop some secondary goals as well (i.e. growing website traffic, increasing social following, fostering engagement with parents of students, etc.), but for the time being, it's good to set a enrollment goal benchmark and develop our marketing plan around it.
We'll eventually need to tie our marketing efforts to the goals (so you know that your activities are making an impact), but that will come in a later step.
2. Define your target audience(s)
Once we have an enrollment goal in mind, we'll need to be sure we fully define the audience that we'll be engaging with. From what you've mentioned, it seems as though the parent (or guardian) are the folks we'll want to be reaching, as they're the decision-maker for the kids. In order to develop a marketing plan to communicate with this audience, spend some time defining who they are and what they care about. In a past article, I mention the steps you can take to create a profile for a persona, but you can use the below questions as a starting point:
- What is the persona (parent/guardian) struggling with that your school helps them solve?
- What is the ultimate value that your school brings to this persona?
- What are some common objections this persona has to your school?
- What does this persona care about most in having their child attend a school like yours?
- Bonus: answer the question you posed up above, "Why would I send my child or grandchild to this school?"
Answering these basic questions on your own (and even developing persona interviews) will help us understand who we're reaching, what they care about, and how your school can appeal to them. Why is this important? Just about every marketing activity you do will be focused on reaching your target persona and leveraging them to reach your enrollment goal. Like a parent-teacher conference, get to know them as best you can!
3. Allocate Resources
Before embarking on a dedicated marketing plan, it's important to assemble your crew. You don't need marketing team equivalent of the super friends behind you, but definitely don't attempt this as a one man show. If you try to fly solo, one of two things is bound to happen: 1.) the amount of work required to reach your marketing goals will pull you away from your regular responsibilities or 2.) you won't put in enough time to do the amount of work required to reach your goals. Either scenario isn't ideal, so make sure you can pull in a few people you can count on to get the work done. If you don't know where to start, I recommend having the following roles (each filled by one person):
- The Project Manager: Most likely you-- the person who's leading the charge and is overseeing all the activities, making sure your marketing efforts are on track to reach your goals (and if not, making the necessary adjustments to get back on track). You'll rely on the other key members to hold their own weight and be accountable for their work.
- The Content Creator: An individual who will be developing the marketing content (more on what that entails in an upcoming step). The ideal person to fill this role is someone who understands your target audience, is a proficient writer, and can get tomorrow's work done yesterday. If you don't know anyone like this, I'd recommend an intern. Suggesting this strategy feels like throwing the Al Biedrzycki circa-2009 under the bus (education pun attained!), but it is an effective method. Business student interns get digital and are eager to please-- just make sure the individual is a competent writer and you've got a winner on your hands.
- The "Do-er": Okay, I couldn't think of a good name for this one ("executioner" sounded too dark), but the ideal person for this role is someone who understands the Internet, social channels, email platforms, websites, etc. They'll be leading the charge making sure everything is getting sent out at the right time and responded to accordingly. An understanding of HTML and CSS is also a bonus, because they'll most likely need to make website changes every so often as your marketing plan rolls out.
Those are three roles I can recommend for getting started--and each position doesn't need to be a full time commitment. Just understand that there will be action items to accomplish and you'll need to figure out who does them (and when).
Ah, now we're getting to the good stuff! With your goals set, the target audiences identified and the crew assembled, we're ready to embark on the actual plan itself. The first part is strategy, or in other words, outlining the activities you'll be spearheading to execute on this marketing plan to reach your goals.
To begin, there are thousands of directions we can go in to develop a strategy (which can be overwhelming). So, my rule of thumb is to keep it simple. First, we'll focus on the messaging strategy to both audiences (how we'll communicate with the target personas defined in step #2). Then, we'll discuss how three different channels (website, email and social media) can help reach those audiences with the ultimate goal of growing enrollment. Persona Messaging:
- Parents/Guardians of Prospective Students: Our goal is to have this persona have their children attend the school (i.e. the enrollment goal). After discovering what they care about most, we want to feed them content that embodies these points. School science project successes (you may want to omit the desk fire experiment), cultural events, music classes-- the list goes on! My hunch tells me that this persona wants their child to get the best education possible, so figure out how you can take these proof points and convey them to this audience (we'll get more tactical below, so just hold on to the "how" questions for now).
- Parents/Guardians of Current Students: This persona already has the child attending the school, but why not continually let them know they made the right decision by spinning up similar content that you'll be producing for the first audience? Make them your evangelists so their younger kids attend the school. Heck, they can even go on to recommend the school to their peers (basically the first persona group), so don't neglect these folks!
- Website: The website should be the nucleus (school biology reference!) for your marketing efforts. It'll be a destination for both personas defined above, so make sure it's defined for both audiences. I'd recommend positioning the website as a functional brochure for your school. This means having information on the site AND opt-in (this will be how to capture new email addresses) content for prospective students' parents wanting to learn more. The latter content should be useful enough to the target audiences for them to want to opt-in. They're looking to learn more about the school and why it's the best choice for their child, so put together more types of content that reflect this. Place these opt-in places across the site so you can start developing a database of each type of persona group.
- Email: Email campaigns should be geared towards both audiences as well, with the enrollment goal in mind. Any opt-ins you get from the website or addresses you've already captured should be utilized. They're a valuable marketing resource!
- Social: Social media is also a great way to generate engagement with your personas. The overall strategy here should be to publish content that is geared towards both audiences, with the ultimate goal of having them visit the site to take some sort of marketing action (i.e. fill out a form to opt-in, read a blog post, etc.).
With an established strategy for each channel, it's time to get tactical! I'll review each channel in more detail and the specific tactics you can take to execute on the strategy to reach your goals. Are we having fun yet? I know I am :)
- Website: As the website is aimed to be the main destination for your audience, it's important to structure it accordingly. I recommend putting together content offers to appeal to both audiences to foster opt-in, as it'll be your most powerful communication channel with your personas. If you need some guidance on how to create content, I recommend reading this HubSpot article on creating lovable marketing offers that outlines the process very nicely. Also, I'd recommending reading a past article I wrote on how to optimize your website for lead generation. Lastly, a blog is important for keeping your audiences fed with fresh content and driving new visitors to your site. Keep up a blogging regiment of at least twice per week and make sure you keep up the pace (remember the content creator? It's their time to shine!) If you need assistance with this practice, please check out my past article on strategic blogging.
- Email: Send out a newsletter to existing students' parents letting them know about all the happenings and encourage them to get involved. This will foster retention AND future enrollment. For the prospective personas, have special email campaigns directed towards them that are more educational--focused on the basic characteristics of the school and WHY it's the right choice for their child. Monthly newsletters would probably suffice for the existing students' parents, whereas weekly email updates would probably be best for the prospective students' parents. Remember to keep the enrollment goal in mind! Don't send out an email just for the sake of sending one out. Think through the goal of each individual email and how it plays into the grander scheme of driving enrollment.
- Social: If you don't have a Twitter account, Facebook Page or LinkedIn Company profile for the school yet, now is a good time to make 'em. Think of these channels as a way to keep your audiences engaged and as a means for conversion. Much like the email campaigns, the goals of social should bring people back to the website to complete some sort of marketing action. Unlike the email campaigns though, social media provides a channel for engagement and discussion, which should definitely be utilized to keep in touch with your audiences. Tactically speaking, you'll want to create a social media publishing calendar that's manageable and measurable.
You've made it this far? Awesome. Because we're almost there. The execution step isn't very detailed-- in fact, it's basically a placeholder to remind you that all the planning of strategy and tactics needs to be put into action. My main recommendation for this step is to keep very organized as you execute. Create an email newsletter schedule, an editorial calendar for your blog, a posting schedule for social media and most importantly, have a planned means for measuring the success.
Typically, email performance can be measured by clicks and subsequent conversions (i.e. new students) and social can be measured on clicks, social growth, and (also) conversions. You'll need a goal tracking tool (Google analytics provides this) or marketing software (like HubSpot! ::insert shameless employer pitch::) to measure these conversions effectively. As the project manager, it's important to develop a process for connecting your marketing actions to your overall goals, so progress can be assessed and modified.
7. Measure and Refine
So that brings us to our last point. If you're planning and executing on all the above points and have a process for measuring the results and how they pertain to your goals, this step should come relatively easily. The difficult part is dissecting the data and making better informed marketing decisions based on the numbers. Remember, keep the marketing goals on the forefront and don't lose track of them. Justify your marketing activities by connecting them to these goals and then measure your progress against them.
I hope that helps, Steven! I think the biggest challenge is putting this plan into action. It seems like most of the preliminary pieces are there, so now it's just a matter of connecting the dots and putting together a solid marketing plan that helps you reach your enrollment goals!