The Head as thought leader (part two)

Thought leadership is an approachable and scalable marketing strategy for school Heads that doesn’t discriminate on school size, geography or budget. When consistently applied, the outcome is a positioning of your school as the leader in your market niche, and leaders are usually the first to be considered when a prospective parent has an unmet need.

In part one of The Head as thought leader we uncovered the value of consistently creating pieces of thought leadership that are built around your core story (that is, they are true and reflect the concerns of your prospective families).

But what if you could use a thought leadership strategy (already proven to be well-loved by school education buyers) to acquire new students at a lower cost, without compromising your entire marketing strategy?

As with anything, it can be hard to get ideas off the ground and turned into a reality — especially in the midst of a demanding role as Head — but fear not, part two of The Head as thought leader completes the picture.

What is your ‘tilt’?

As the name implies, thought leadership is original thinking that is ahead of your competitors. That can appear daunting until you add the final filter; it is thought leadership not from the perspective of your peers, but from the perspective of your target audience. It is quite possible to develop a following for your school as a thought leader without creating any new thinking, but by reinterpreting existing knowledge in a way that is new and relevant to your audience. That is why differentiation is key.

Your thought leadership content must be different. It must fill a hole not being filled by another school in your marketplace, a government department or the media. This is your content ‘tilt’. With this tilt, your thought leadership creates the opportunity for you to stand apart from your competition, lead and ultimately earn the attention of your target market.

For example, the tilt of SMJ is to cover school marketing and communications for Independent School Heads, providing practical and concise content to help them lead the marketing function in their schools with confidence and make better decisions so they can save time and money, bring their vision to life and enjoy their school’s success. We do this through the School Marketing Journal in print, the School Marketing Journal podcast and the School Marketing Journal enewsletters.

Prospective parents are looking for a school that stands out from the crowd and offers a compelling reason why they should have an initial conversation with you. Failing to stand out condemns your school to competing for enrolments on factors over which you have little control or influence such as location, tuition fees and curriculum. Competing for enrolments in a sea of undifferentiated choices is hard work. It is also often a more expensive proposition as you need to spend more on paid advertising to reach and get noticed by your prospective audience.

Have an opinion

Schools usually shy away from standing for something because it automatically means that the school stands against something. Schools quite correctly try to be the reasonable voice in the cacophony of shrill opinions in the public sphere. However, standing out by standing for being the ‘reasonable voice’ is a viable tilt in many cases. For example, the ongoing debate in Australia about the best way to teach early literacy — synthetic phonics versus immersion in language experience.

You might write an article for your local paper, shoot a video for YouTube and your website, or perhaps even promote a seminar for the local community. In each of your chosen channels you explain what the debate is about, along with the pros and cons of each perspective; you point out that concern only arises when one approach is forced upon all students, but how at your school you consider what is the best approach for each student and teach accordingly; and you then explain your reasoning. You have created valuable (and timeless) thought leadership for your target audience by becoming their trusted guide through what is, to them, a confusing topic.

Parents are also looking to the values of a school for clues as to its suitability for their family. Creating thought leadership content about the values of your school is particularly beneficial. But to be different and have a position, you will need to explain why your approach to, say, the value of respecting others, is different in origin, implementation or outcome from other schools.

Thought leadership is not a campaign

There is a myth that needs tackling head-on. School marketing — and thought leadership in particular — is a long-term enterprise that does not work well when used inside a ‘campaign’ framework. A campaign is ideally suited to business-to-consumer marketing because it can focus on a single theme and has defined start and end points. School brand positioning is built over years. Of course, there are exceptions such as the promotion of a drama event or open day, but campaign strategies are rarely efficient long-term builders of brand equity for schools.

Thought leadership as a strategy is not to be entered into lightly. Effectiveness will be significantly diluted if you think that you will just jot down an article or two when you have a spare moment. It must be sustainable over the long term; it doesn’t have to be you that does all the work; it can be scaled to suit your circumstances; and it positions you as the expert. There is a lot to like about a strategy that can deliver all that.

Insight applied

  • Thought leadership is from the perspective of your audience.
  • Differentiation is key. It is your ‘tilt’.
  • Being an undifferentiated choice is ineffective and inefficient.
  • Stand for something. Have an opinion.
  • Thought leadership is not a campaign.

Brad Entwistle is Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness. 

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