The seven stages of school marketing

School marketing — like all marketing — is undergoing a seismic shift from outbound marketing to inbound marketing.

To succeed in today’s competitive educational environment, leaders of school marketing need to think and act more like publishers and media companies rather than traditional school marketers.

Traditional outbound marketing is designed to interrupt what people are interested in. In contrast, inbound marketing aims to be the very thing that people are paying attention to and actively searching for. It’s about being front and centre of a prospect’s search options.

Data from the latest instalment of the What Parents Want survey, conducted every four years since 2006 by Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) shows that, “Nearly two-thirds of parents (66 percent) indicated the start of the process of school selection commenced at least two years before the child started school. This suggests the importance of marketing to parents of children who will enter school in the medium and long-term, not only the group of students that could be seen as student intakes in the near future.”

So, how do you integrate this marketing approach into your school?

Getting discovered when people are looking online is the strategy for which creating valuable content is the tactical execution. One of the best ways to harness the power of content in a strategic way is to develop content that follows the life cycle of your prospect through every stage of their journey to becoming an advocate for your school.

One simple model that can be successfully adapted for schools was made popular by author and consultant, John Jantsch. When applied to the particular needs of independent schools, the model recognises that your responsibility in the first instance is to get a prospective parent to know, like and trust you. Your next task is to leverage that trust into an opportunity, then ultimately turn that prospective parent into an advocate for your school.

  1. Your prospect needs to KNOW you

One of the best ways to become known is through organic search engine results. This is something that cannot be bought; it must be earned. A blog that is content-rich with topics of value to your audience is your power tool in inviting prospective parents to get to know you. The more traditional marketing tools will also deliver value at this stage, but every piece of advertising should be measurable. Additionally, it’s important to ensure you have suitable website content that will engage referred and new prospects who are looking for information. The ISQ survey found 42 percent of respondents identified the school website and social media as the most influential sources of information that led them to seriously consider a particular school. The three sources that outranked websites were all in-person interactions, making your online presence the most influential channel over which you have full control.

  1. Your prospect needs to LIKE you

For a prospect to like you, they need to have had multiple interactions with your brand. At this point, it is very unlikely prospective parents will have spoken with you. They will have seen you in the community and appreciate what you are doing. Which is why contributing positively to community partnerships and highly visible community events is important. Of course, you also have hundreds of ambassadors already … your students, as they travel to and from school. The appearance and behaviour of existing students scored 3.8 out of 5 on an index of relative importance in the ISQ survey. Don’t miss the opportunities this presents. Also, an enewsletter designed specifically for prospective parents can be an incredibly powerful tool at this stage of the life cycle.

  1. Your prospect needs to TRUST you

It is normal for people to buy products because they like them. But it is very rare for a person to commit to an organisation like your school unless they trust them. Fortunately, every school has immense trust-building resources at its disposal. The most powerful tool you have is parent testimonials, case studies and stories that demonstrate how others have trusted you in the past, and how that trust has been rewarded with positive outcomes.

  1. Your prospect may want to TRY you out

This is one of the easiest ways to move prospective parents from consideration to enrolment. You’ll need to think creatively to garner the best results. Annual Open Days sit more within the ‘know’ and ‘like’ stages of a prospect’s life cycle. To ‘try’ you requires the opportunity for deep participation. This might mean having a student join a class for a day or a prospective border staying in your boarding house for a weekend. Allowing prospective parents these opportunities is an important way to differentiate your school at a key moment in their decision-making process.

  1. Your prospect needs to BUY your school

Once it’s time to sign on the dotted line, you can be sure that the decision to buy has already been made. At this stage, you need to be able to clearly articulate to prospective parents what the future outcomes for their child will be. Be clear about what you can promise. You’ll also need to be clear about what input is needed from the family, because this also forms part of their buying decision.

  1. Your parents need to become REPEAT customers

Each year — and quite possibly more frequently — your parents need to commit to repurchasing what you offer. Many schools take this stage for granted, but it is dangerous to do so. Content that reaffirms the significant investment parents make in a child’s education is important at all times, but even more so towards the end of a school year and during the holidays. Stories about students who have grown and prospered over the year are ideal. Stories about how your school is improving its capabilities indicate forward momentum and confirm that the future is bright for students.

  1. Your parents need to REFER others

Word-of-mouth is the lifeblood of every school. You can’t buy it, create it or manufacture it. While it needs to be authentic and driven by parents, this doesn’t mean that you are powerless. Consider creating tools that make it easy for parents to refer others — a landing page on your website created specifically for parents to refer friends; communicating with parents to inform them that you will make yourself available to speak with their interested friends; host a referral-only question and answer forum and then record it and place it on your new landing page.

Importantly, don’t think you need to create all your content from scratch. There are many different ways to effectively use your existing content. Schools create vast amounts of valuable marketing content of which they are largely unaware. Unload your brain, dig out old brochures and trawl through shared network drives. The next time you speak with a prospective parent try recording yourself with your smartphone — listen back and make notes of the questions being asked as well as your answers. Voila, you have just created your first piece of content … an FAQ document!

If you plan your marketing content creation with these seven stages of your prospect’s life cycle in mind, it may well be the best ‘bang for your buck’ that you can get.

insight applied

  • Match your marketing content to each stage of your parent life cycle.
  • Schools now need to act more like publishers and media companies.
  • The parent marketing life cycle is: know, like, trust, try, buy, repeat and refer.
Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness.

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