Outsourced or in-house: making marketing decisions that are right for your school

School Heads are faced with a tension for which there seems to be no clear answer. Should they look to all their communication and marketing needs being serviced by the school’s own in-house team, should they look to external providers or should they attempt a combination of both in-house and outsourced?

Like most gnarly problems, there are no simple or singular answers. So we draw on imageseven’s methodology for assisting Heads arrive at the best decision for their school’s unique circumstances.

First, let’s analyse the problem. It is important to understand the precise nature of the problem you are trying to overcome, because attempting to answer the wrong problem can be costly and cause organisational heartburn. Recognising your sense of frustration is the easy part but finding the best answer for your school relies on correct identification of the root cause.

  • Potential source problem #1: Strategy deficit

This discomfort can arise when Boards seek an understanding of your marketing strategy (particularly at budget time) and you realise you lack a substantive rationale, or when you notice your team doubling down on tactical executions that may be individually excellent, but which lack an overall strategic direction and are therefore an expensive camouflage.

  • Potential source problem #2: Execution frustration

This is the most clearly felt of all the potential problems because it manifests itself in ways that cause immediate pain. The scope of the potential problems is so wide-ranging that they can often be mistaken for other issues and are easily dismissed as one-off occurrences. Only after two or three years do the patterns become so apparent they can no longer be ignored. Examples are missed deadlines, budget overruns, low quality work, lack of forward planning that creates a last-minute rush that shifts the onus back onto your desk, and lack of consistency.

  • Potential source problem #3: Creativity drought

This potential problem usually comes disguised as a lack of resources (mostly time and budget) and is recognised most easily in execution of visual design. However, scratch below the surface and it can also be seen in executions that are the same as last year with only an incremental improvement added. Heads are left wondering if they are asking too much when tasking their teams to create value with new ideas or executions. Occasionally creative expressiveness is held more highly than fulfilling on your school’s strategy but this is just a different side of the same coin.

  • Potential source problem #4: Sticky staff

Schools, more than commercial organisations, are burdened with the problem of marketing staff who are difficult to redeploy or expensive to terminate. This potential problem is characterised by team members who have not kept pace with the rapidly changing world of communications and marketing, or that your school has outgrown their capacity to deliver. Such assessments are difficult to make because these sticky staff are genuinely nice people who are trying to do their best and hold a lot of corporate knowledge, but have simply been left behind in a field that changes far, far more rapidly than any area of teaching and learning. Often, as there are generally only a few on the communications and marketing team, the options to redeploy them elsewhere in your school are very limited. In fact, it is common to discover school marketers who have already been redeployed from other areas of schools to which they were found to be unsuited — and the cycle repeats.

  • Potential source problem #5: Crisis of confidence

This problem is easily recognised by Heads because they are the first to feel it — it is usually generalised feelings of embarrassment about substandard communication and marketing executions. But amongst all the other duties in your job description, the task of undertaking repair to your school’s marketing is overwhelming in scope. This is where the crisis of confidence kicks in: most Heads have no marketing training, learned their communication skills on the job and feel utterly unprepared to lead marketing at their school. (Solving this potential problem was the genesis of the School Marketing Journal — Ed.)

  • Potential source problem #6: External validation

Heads, as the leaders of marketing in their school, usually do not have anyone within their normal orbit that can give them unbiased and informed feedback. Sometimes an external perspective is a useful validation of a strategic approach or tactical execution. Heads simply require a critical friend who can advise from a position of deep understanding about the issue as well as the context.

Now that you have identified your source problem, or your mix of source problems, you can address the original question about the best solution for your school: in-house team, external provider or a mix of both?

Some answers may already have given you a level of clarity, but there are more questions that will bring your ideal solution into better focus.

  • Are you seeking to save time?
  • Are you looking for marketing skills and expertise that you don’t have in-house?
  • Are you looking for technical or digital skills and expertise that you don’t have in-house?
  • What really needs attention? Is it your communications and marketing, or your underlying school positioning and brand?
  • Are you trying to solve a tactical execution issue or a strategic direction issue?
  • Are you seeking to improve your marketing ROI?
  • Are you trying to solve an internal parent and staff communication (customer experience) issue?
  • Are you trying to minimise costs?

Now you can begin to consider the best solution for your school’s unique context and requirements.

Working with in-house teams

To work with your existing in-house team may require professional development over an extended period. The marketing ecosystem changes rapidly and even 12 months can make certain types of skills outdated. Be prepared that you cannot successfully address in-house professional development in the same way that you do for your academic staff. The allowance should be more time intensive, more expensive and more comprehensive.

Employing new in-house teams

If your solution is to hire new team members in-house, then be specific about the type of skills you want to hire. The marketing field is so wide that there really is no such thing as a school marketing generalist. There are many communications and marketing sub-disciplines and you should be clear about which skills you need. Are you seeking someone with digital, social media, copywriting, graphic design, production management, photography or videography skills? Of course, this brief list is not complete … and each of these sub-disciplines splits out into sub-sub-disciplines. One of the most common frustrations expressed by school marketers is that their leadership expects them to be expert at everything. In today’s marketing world, that is just unrealistic. 

Working with external providers

It is important that we note this article is not a subtle pitch for the services of imageseven. We certainly believe that the firm adds significant value to the school Heads we work with, but we are not the right answer for everybody.

The experience at imageseven is that many schools have at least a few false starts when selecting and working with external providers. Understand what you are purchasing. Will the provider fulfil your brief, or are you looking for them to help craft the brief? Understand their context. For instance, to a video producer, every problem has a video solution; graphic designers always have solutions that are in print or on screen: and it is right that they should offer solutions within their area of expertise. Be clear with your selected external provider about your expectations but, most importantly, be clear with yourself.

Employing external providers

Some schools have fully and successfully ‘outsourced’ their communications and marketing. This is not a solution that is suitable for every school, but for mid-sized to large schools with an entrepreneurial mindset it is possible. We have never seen true outsourcing successfully implemented in an educational environment. True outsourcing means having a black box approach where agreed inputs are provided and agreed outputs are returned. Schools are more complex and nuanced than the true outsourced model can deliver. Schools also demand responsiveness measured in minutes rather than days. The imageseven model employs a hybrid solution we call ‘co-sourcing’, which has been fine-tuned to the needs of Heads to remain in control and leading the communications and marketing functions at their school.

insight applied

  • Know what problem you seek to solve.
  • School marketing generalists no longer exist.
  • Finding the right solution is a mix of needs, leadership capacity and aspirations.

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