How to focus your school marketing in a COVID-19 world

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It is hard to comprehend how much the world has changed as a result of COVID-19. If you had told me at the beginning of 2020 that schools would physically close and be forced to instruct students virtually, that all families would have to stay home and practise social distancing and that purchasing a roll of toilet paper would be more difficult than just about anything, I would have laughed.

Sadly, I’m not laughing now.

As a school Head, the challenges and changes that were thrown at you are too great to count, and one can’t blame you for putting marketing on the backburner. Despite being consumed with communicating with your community and keeping them informed, it’s equally important to continue to market your school. In order to do that, you can focus your efforts on the three Be’s: Be nimble, Be helpful and Be personal.

Be nimble

When you began 2020, your school worked from a marketing plan. That plan was based upon certain conditions and made certain assumptions about the world. As the year progressed, those conditions and assumptions were most likely no longer valid so, in that kind of situation, the first thing you should do is create a new marketing plan based on how the world looks today.

You don’t need to create a new plan from scratch, but I would recommend distilling your marketing messages down to one or two key differentiators between you and your competition. Even though people are home and online, they are also being inundated with content, and the more direct and concise your messages are, the more likely it is they will be remembered.

Be helpful

One of my favourite marketing books is Jay Baer’s Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is about Help not Hype. The premise is that you are not only competing for attention against other educational options but also against your current and prospective family’s friends, family, news … and how to find more toilet paper. To gain their attention, you must ask how you can help them. The key idea is that “if you sell something, you make a customer today, but if you genuinely help someone, you create a customer for life.”

The question your school should be asking is: “How can we help our community?” You can answer that in many different ways, but examples include sharing information freely, creating content to train people on how to use a new work-from-home tool, or simply reaching out individually to each of your families to see if there is anything you can do for them. As you think about how to be helpful, your first focus should be on retaining your current families for next year. If you can genuinely help your community, the resulting word-of-mouth your school will receive will support your marketing efforts in the recruitment of new families. By focusing on retention first, new students will follow.

Be personal

I’ve written previously about automated lead nurturing emails and your martech stack, concepts that allow you to use technology to automate and scale your marketing efforts. One could argue that those techniques are impersonal, so isn’t it hypocritical of me to suggest that you should be personal? What a great question! When done correctly, your lead nurturing emails are intended to be part of a greater campaign that should include personal touches to move a family from enquiry through to application. It is always important to be personal in your marketing whenever you are able.

With all that said, I refer you back to my first point, ‘Be nimble’. The landscape has changed, which means your plan and tactics need to be modified. There are many ways your school can be personal, including simply picking up the phone and calling your current families.

One way to make sure your marketing is personal is to review your scheduled social media posts. Your marketing team is probably using a scheduling tool to help post content throughout the year. It would be prudent to check that your scheduled social media posts are appropriate and that the tone feels right in light of what is currently happening.

An example of how this can go wrong occurred in March 2020, when USA-based Spirit Airlines sent a promotional email message with the subject line “Never a Better Time to Fly” the day after then President Donald Trump announced a 30-day ban on travel from Europe. According to the airline, the messaging was created months earlier and sent accidentally. Ensure your school doesn’t make the same mistake.

We were in uncharted territory with COVID-19 and the ramifications are still being felt worldwide. It’s during times of crisis, stress and uncertainty that you should focus on the essential aspects in each area of your school; marketing is no different. By engaging your marketing team to think about how your school can Be nimble, Be helpful and Be personal, you’ll be a step ahead when the world returns to normal and your school will be the better for it.

Brendan Schneider is the Director of Advancement at Sewickley Academy in Pennsylvania USA, and a leader in the field of inbound marketing for schools. He is also the Founder of SchneiderB Media, a digital marketing agency specialising in helping schools use inbound marketing. 
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SMJ Brendan Schneider

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