Reverend Chris Ivey, Principal of St Andrew’s Anglican College on the Sunshine Coast, talked with SMJ about student enrolment and how marketing metrics influence decisions.
SMJ: First of all, give us a word picture of St Andrew’s College.
CI: St Andrew’s is a young school. We’re only in our seventeenth year on the beautiful Sunshine Coast, just near Noosa. It has grown to 1,300 students within 15 years, so it grew very quickly. It’s a co-educational Anglican school and we would consider ourselves mid-fee. We’re still in the building phase, therefore enrolment means numbers and it means income, which means we can continue to build.
SMJ: How would you describe yourself in your role as Head?
CI: I love what I do. I think it’s one of the greatest roles ever because you get to actually do so many different things in one day, and that’s what I love about it. I became a teacher because I love working with kids. I wanted to move into ministry and someone said to me, “You really want to work in a church with a bunch of 60 year old people?” I moved into chaplaincy work, which I did for a number of years and then I guess my desire for leadership was actually around Christian ministry. Someone said, “If you want to create the right environment where Christian ministry is valued, you have to be in the hot seat.” It’s the job with the highest highs and the lowest lows, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
SMJ: How would you describe school marketing?
CI: I think for me, school marketing is about reminding parents first and foremost of why they are investing in your organisation. Why are they committing one of their largest investments to you? Marketing to me is about telling parents, and reminding them, of the awesome job that you’re doing with the significant amount of money they’re giving you. It doesn’t matter what your context is; it’s a sacrifice for parents to pay for. It is really about reminding your own community about the value you have that is so different to the other three schools around you. The second part for me is then the wider community, reminding them of the good things you’re doing and why you’re there.
I would say that the first one is far more important to me. Marketing for me is really and truly – in my world, and I realise it’s different to other schools – is about my own community. We don’t do it well enough yet and we’ve got a long way to go … but I think as the school grows, and now we are full, our focus is different. Word-of-mouth is the best advertising and we believe that’s really important. So our strong focus is on, as imageseven calls it, ‘brand storytelling’ to our own parents.
SMJ: How much of your effort is internal and how much is external?
CI: I would say it’s probably 70/30. But not just the good things, because everyone says they’ve got good musicals, everyone says they’ve got great sports programs. It’s about reminding them of our values, and saying, “Look, you’re buying into a school that creates opportunities and builds connections; these are our values and that’s what is different about us.”
SMJ: Do you consciously influence the stories that are being told?
CI: Yes, we do. We actually sit down once a term and once a week at our leadership team meeting and say, “What’s this week’s story?” So we plan the term and we know our strategic objectives for the year. We ask ourselves, “How does that link back to our values?” We think very strategically about it at the beginning of the term and then we can respond to changing events. So we have the termly approach, but each week we ask, “Is this week okay?”
SMJ: How have you seen school marketing change over your career?
CI: I think we were all very good in the early days at saying, “All you need to do is advertise that you came first at the Eisteddfod.” You put that on your newsletter and Facebook, post it on a billboard and off you went. When all schools are doing that – our state schools and the local Catholic schools are all doing that same sort of thing – we try to be more strategic about it. We’re actually saying that we need to tell parents the value proposition of our College, based on our values.
Another big change in school marketing is video. Short, sharp messages that see our parents go, “Yep. Great. Love it.” They love seeing kids in the videos. They love seeing the kids’ stories and what they’ve been doing. I’m really interested in our students telling the story of St Andrew’s to prospective parents, so we do a lot of video. It’s becoming more and more popular.
SMJ: Do you look beyond schools for marketing inspiration?
CI: Always. Absolutely. I’m a great believer in looking at what other organisations are doing. I’m really interested in seeing how successful organisations tell their story. A simple example is that awesome Qantas story of ‘bringing you home’. Oh my gosh, what a tearjerker. At the end of the day, it’s a plane that takes you from A to B, but they’ve created this massive story … I had a tear at the end of it! We wouldn’t go that far and have our parents weeping after viewing our website, but it’s a prompt to ask the questions, “What are they doing that’s getting me in? What are they doing to keep me in?” Again, we don’t always get it right, but it’s always good to learn.
SMJ: You have a very accurate view of your enrolment pipeline. Can you describe that for us?
CI: Once a week our Registrar produces a spreadsheet that gives us the answers to a number of key questions: What are our enrolments today? What will enrolment be for census? What do we budget enrolments to be for census? What are we looking like for the end of the term? Then on another tab she has waiting lists – but there are no names, it’s just numbers – and then she also gives me the waiting pool for 2020 and we just focus next year on Prep and Year Seven as our two main intake years. Lastly she says, “Okay Chris, Prep is now full for 2020, we’re starting a waiting list. And Year Seven is now full, and here is the waiting list for 2020.”
SMJ: So you’ve got a granular view of what’s happening and yet it’s not a massive spreadsheet?
CI: Yes. One page.
SMJ: How does this inform or even change your marketing decisions?
CI: When we saw a bit of a drop as the GFC began to hit and we lost numbers in Prep, One and Two, we made the decision to maintain three classes with smaller class sizes. It forced us to look at our pedagogy in the primary school. It forced us to think, “How can we make it part of our value proposition? How is this investment in St Andrew’s worth it?” We actually looked at a complete review of our primary school, introduced a new pedagogical approach, and then marketed that. We said to our parents, “Right, we need to sell why Prep, One, Two and Three are crucial years for education.” We marketed our position as a leader in what’s called Walker Learning. Now our Prep numbers are full for the first time in about five or six years. That’s because we had a shift with our approach to pedagogy, but we also marketed that as our point of difference. This sets us apart from any other school in Queensland. From a marketing point of view, we’ve actually articulated the way it has engaged our staff. We’ve talked about the professional learning our staff have had to undertake, which has been a great thing.
SMJ: What is the importance of marketing strategy at St Andrew’s?
CI: I think every school is different and every community is different, but you’ve got to have a strategy that works, implemented by people who are passionate about it. I’d be the first person to remind my staff they are all part of our marketing strategy. We actually tell our staff, “The way you communicate with our parents, the way you interact with them, is actually part of our marketing strategy because we value relationships, and if you’re stuffing that up, then you’re making our job harder to market these values to our parents.”
Our Council is incredibly good at setting the strategic vision of the College with me, and really their interest in marketing is no different to any other aspect of the College. The lens through which they see the importance of marketing is that as long as it is about selling the strategic vision of the College, that’s what I think they are passionate about. So I don’t ever report on our marketing strategy as such to them, because their simple philosophy is, if the enrolments are strong, then obviously the school is being successful and we’re marketing the school, and if our parents’ satisfaction score in our MMG surveys are strong, then they’re happy with that.
SMJ: What do you think the future is for school marketing?
CI: School marketing is going to be about telling a story that is aligned to your values. I think there’s a change in what we market and how we market. At the end of the day, I don’t think old-fashioned word-of-mouth is going away. I still think that how well your parents are talking about you is going to be the biggest marketing success of any school. We have the Net Promoter Score from our MMG survey. That’s a key one for us. If it is up, that’s one of our biggest marketing tools. But I think the big shift is around selling the value proposition of your story that is different, and why parents shouldn’t go to the school down the road, they should come to yours. We can no longer just rely on the clichés of a ‘well-rounded education’. Everyone does that. You need to determine what it is that you really believe is different about your school and really celebrate that and sell that.
- School marketing is primarily aimed at internal audiences.
- Staff are a key part of your marketing strategy. Make sure they understand how they need to support the strategy.
- Regular visibility of your enrolment metrics is a solid foundation to inform your marketing decisions.
- Heads should be open to marketing inspiration from beyond the education sector.
- Sell your value proposition.
- Driving word-of-mouth marketing is still key.
- Video is an increasingly effective marketing tool.