The clearest path to enrolment success

It’s been said that enrolling new families is a numbers game, but the most successful schools would vigorously disagree. The very best schools focus their efforts in areas where they have a clear advantage and pass on everything else.

Of course, these initiatives have their correct place, but let’s contrast that with schools that win enrolments with ease, have deep waiting lists and rarely have to compete in a shootout with other schools on the prospective family’s shortlist. These are the schools that have answered what management consultant and educator Peter Drucker calls the first essential question of any business: “Who is our customer?” They have committed to stand for something rather than trying to stand for everything.

More to the point, schools that have chosen a clear area of differentiation often don’t have to ‘sell’ much at all. They are so well positioned that prospective families actively seek them out.

Stop selling and start marketing

To quote Drucker again, “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.” In other words, the goal of marketing is to make your school so relevant and compelling that it actually sells itself. If your school spent more time and energy developing and marketing a relevant, differentiated service offering, you could spend a lot less time and energy trying to sell it.

Schools with a compelling positioning strategy don’t just have prospective families; they have followers and advocates. While this dynamic is readily apparent in the mass market (look at Apple, Tesla and Marvel), it’s just as true in the world of independent schools. When you’ve done the work necessary to build a school that has followers, you have a brand in demand. You have prospective families who make the first move, rather than having to track them down with a direct sales effort.

In place of a traditional outbound sales program, well-positioned schools have devoted themselves to a content marketing program that allows them to showcase their thought leadership in their particular differentiated area. Their blog posts, tweets, white papers and downloadable resources are all based on providing useful information to their current and prospective families. As a result, they are regularly invited to speak at conferences, contribute guest columns in local newspapers and serve as expert resources to the community and education sector. This form of inbound marketing is infinitely more effective — and less expensive — than the outbound programs funded by most schools.

Give away everything you know

Unfocused schools resist a content marketing program as they feel it takes too much effort and because the few times they mustered the energy to write a blog post, it produced little interest. This is, of course, because these schools lack a positioning strategy. They don’t really know what to write about because they are educational generalists who lack deep expertise in much of anything. So, they write superficial posts that could have come from any school. 

The self-referencing enrolment programs developed by many schools are mostly fruitless because they focus on the accomplishments of the school instead of the interests of the prospective parents or students. Countless newsletters, blogs and Instagram posts are all about the school, its latest awards, successes and people. While some of this may be moderately interesting to prospective families, it doesn’t work as an inbound marketing approach because it breaks the first rule of marketing: start with the customer.

The late British adman Paul Arden advocated that you should “give away everything you know, and more will come back to you.” This is an incredibly effective marketing approach for independent schools, but it absolutely hinges on one thing: having a clear positioning strategy.

So, as you wrestle with the question of how to attract more families next year, it is essential to muster the courage to stop selling and to instead do a better job of marketing, starting with a commitment to focus on what you do best. If you’re willing to spend a little more of your intellectual capital on a customer-focused content marketing program, you can spend a lot less of your financial capital on selling enrolments.


Insight applied

  • Effective marketing can make selling superfluous.
  • Before we can stand out, we must first get clear on what we stand for.
  • Always start with the customer in mind.

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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