Structuring a marketing strategy that works

Most school marketing and communication strategies don’t live up to their promise. 

They become bloated documents with little relevance to daily operational requirements, so turn into relics, dusted off when it is time for the annual Board review. The ‘Strategy on a Page’ methodology helps create a marketing strategy that is understandable, actionable, measurable and, importantly for Heads, linked to your whole of school strategy.

“School marketing strategy doesn’t work,” and “we just need to get out there more” are words we often hear from frustrated school Heads who are struggling to gain traction with their school marketing. It is hard to reconcile that in a complex school environment a small marketing department of one to three people even needs a strategy. But, in schools, marketing is everyone’s job and the marketing strategy is not just for the benefit of the marketers. A well-structured marketing and communications strategy will make your job as Head and brand custodian much easier to manage.

Traditional marketing strategies are large documents written by marketing professionals for use by marketing professionals and are impenetrable to anyone not on the inside. In contrast, a Strategy on a Page is a ready reckoner for daily marketing decisions that can be referred to by your whole leadership team. It is the yardstick by which you will measure your progress, as well as your reference point for meaningful and productive Board discussions.

To construct your Strategy on a Page you will need to be even more rigorous that usual in preparation. It takes hard work to be brief, to the point and unequivocal. Not all the elements come together fully formed and in order. Be prepared for multiple draft versions. This will probably be the most time you’ve ever spent on a single sheet of A4 paper — or A3 if you like some white space.

Step 1: Purpose

Start with describing the purpose of your school in no more than 25 words. You may be able to pull this directly from your whole-of-school strategy.

Step 2: Current reality

In the first section you will describe your current reality.

  • In three bullet points of fewer than 12 words each, describe your target market. For example, “parents of 2-15 year old children living within 8km of the school.” No room for fluff or eloquent prose here.
  • State your value proposition in fewer than 25 words. In itself, this is an exceptionally important piece of work (and worthy of its own article).
  • In no more than five bullet points, each of five words or fewer, note how you measure success. From all the available options, you need to narrow down exactly which measures you will use. Total student enrolments, enrolment enquiries and enquiry conversion rates are typical measures, but each school has its own requirements.
  • Now state your current performance on your chosen success measures. In our example above, these could be simple numbers such as 950, 81 and 68 percent. If you don’t know, insert “not currently measured.”

Step 3: Desired future reality

In the next section you will describe your desired future reality. At this stage you will need to decide on a timeframe for your strategy. In marketing terms, three years is a long horizon, but don’t worry too much about trying to look too far forward. You need just enough to give you a sense of trajectory. You will also be revisiting and updating the strategy each year.

  • What will your targets be for each of your chosen measures in three years? It may make more sense to give them an annual context. For example, the total enrolment measure might read 2019 – 950 students, 2020 – 960 students, 2021 – 985 students, 2022 – 1,000 students.

Step 4: Marketing strategy

This section is the hardest. This is your marketing strategy, but you must articulate it in no more than 25 words. Yes, it can (and should) be done. There are whole books about how to write strategy statements but, at its most basic level, a strategy is simply a plan, and that is what needs to be articulated here. It is not the details of how you will execute the plan; it is a description of how you will achieve your marketing objectives. For example, “we will consistently position XYZ school as the best option for families who value multiple post-secondary pathway options.” It is common, although certainly not mandatory, for your marketing strategy to reflect your value proposition or one of your success measures.

Step 5: Strategic elephants

Next comes the section where the Strategy on a Page methodology takes a sharp departure from traditional strategy documents. It is the heart of your marketing communication strategy.

You have built up a comprehensive picture of your school’s purpose, who you serve, why they choose you (your value proposition), how you measure success, where you are now, where you want to be in the future and how you intend to get there (your marketing strategy). You have done a lot of the work … but now it gets very real.

In this section you detail what we call your school’s strategic elephants. This idea draws on the Argenti System which talks about “hunting your strategic elephants.” It helps you ignore anything that is not of significant importance and consolidate smaller symptoms into underlying causes. Express these as problems (no solutions yet) that are preventing your school marketing from achieving your measures of success. This is an iterative process of hunting out the big issues and expressing them, only to realise they are part of a larger issue that needs addressing. This is best approached over multiple workshop sessions with your team and a large whiteboard.

Good practice suggests that if you have more than six ‘elephants’ listed, you probably haven’t gone deep enough. It is also very hard for any school or marketing department to devote sufficient focus to seven or more ‘elephants’. If you truly do have more than six and can’t consolidate any further, rank them and action the top six. Record the remainder and hold them ready to insert when you have completed one of the top six. Try to express your strategic elephants in 15 words or fewer. For example, “lack of word-of-mouth lead generation.”

Step 6: Marketing strategies for strategic elephants

In the next section, address specific marketing strategies for each of your strategic elephants. Use only one strategy per strategic elephant and articulate each of them in fewer than 15 words. For example, a strategy to overcome the above word-of-mouth strategic elephant might be to “increase quality and quantity of internal communication with an emphasis on story generation.”

Step 7: Targeted marketing initiatives

Finally, you get to create a list of marketing initiatives that respond to each of your marketing strategies. You might have up to four initiatives for each strategy. Again, using our word-of-mouth example above, one of the initiatives could be to “write and distribute one story each week about a student achievement.”

You can see the cascading flow of your overarching marketing strategy into your strategic elephants, each of which has its corresponding and highly focused marketing strategy and, finally, a small number of extremely targeted marketing initiatives.

Now you have your marketing Strategy on a Page. It is a guide for you and your team’s daily activities and, most gratifying for you as Head, it is a guide about what your school should not do.

Insight applied

  • Strategy is simply a plan of how you will get to your goal.
  • Marketing strategy must be in harmony with, and support, your whole of school strategy.
  • The Strategy on a Page methodology works because it can be easily understood and used as a daily reference point across your school.
  • Success begins with a strategy but is realised through relentless and consistent execution.

Andrew Sculthorpe, aka Scully, is the Managing Partner of imageseven. With a wealth of experience gained in both the UK and Australia, he is perfectly positioned to deliver insights that create a world-class impact for schools and their Heads.

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