The top five school marketing mistakes … and how to fix them

Frustration is the most common emotion imageseven sees when Heads try to describe the current status of their marketing efforts. But you don’t have to stay frustrated.

When your latest marketing effort produces a lacklustre result, the disappointment soon turns into frustration. What went wrong? While there are no generic answers that will solve all communication and marketing problems, the high-level answer is that your efforts must be more than an unconnected series of tasks. Effective communication and marketing at your school is not a single activity, but a well-choreographed effort that requires strategy, planning, consistency and resilience to execute.

Analysis by imageseven has revealed there are five common mistakes that can be fixed and give you the opportunity to better leverage your investment in marketing your school.

#1: Marketing with no strategy

Marketing mistake: Believing your school offers an education suited to every child, that your target market is everyone who can afford your fees and that you don’t have any competition.

Often, when Heads are frustrated by a lack of enrolments, they connect limiting their target market with limiting opportunity. The reality is that for your marketing efforts to succeed, you must refine your target market and define the target market segment where your school offering is most relevant and has the best competitive advantage. Unless you have money to burn — which we know you don’t — you simply cannot afford to market everything to anyone and continue living under the false impression that your offering is the only option for your customers to consider.

How to fix it: You need a marketing strategy first and an effective set of messages second. You need both of them fast. Consider stopping all your advertising spending immediately and take the next twelve weeks to uncover and document your strategy and key messages, then plan your marketing execution. (See Structuring a marketing strategy that works.)

#2: Brand inconsistency

Marketing mistake: Changing your school’s positioning depending on the audience, marketing channel or the person delivering it.

Although some schools have actually gone through the steps of clearly outlining their positioning and voice, we find that many individuals within that school still have their own version. This ‘customised’ statement can change depending on who is receiving the message. The result is a confused audience — unsure of who your school is and what your school can do for them — that is unable to retell your school’s story to anyone else. Word‑of‑mouth is your school’s primary enrolment influencer, but if there isn’t a consistent and well-told story to retell, your enrolments ultimately suffer. Awareness of your school is only built by consistently communicating your school’s position and identity each and every time, so that eventually your ‘listeners’ will repeat your positioning exactly as you intend them to.

How to fix it: You need positioning language — a set of key messages — that clearly defines who you are and what you offer, strongly differentiates you from your competition and can be delivered consistently by every staff member and parent. Schedule three to five two-hour workshops with a small number of your executive team who understand your school brand and where you aspire to be. Develop a key message guide that contains your brand story (<300 words), six to nine key messages of one sentence each that you wish to consistently convey about your school (ensuring only one idea per message), a positioning statement, tagline and elevator pitch.

The positioning statement must include who you are, what you offer, for whom, for what result and why someone should choose you over anyone else. Launch it internally first. School marketing always starts on the inside. Teach staff how to use your new key messages and how important consistency is to achieve positive results. Now you are ready to complete a full audit of all your communication materials (for example, your website, prospectus, brochures, social media and parent newsletters) and fix any inconsistencies. All staff must work together as ambassadors of your school brand. Understanding this concept before you spend money on marketing to external audiences is imperative to your success.

#3: Not integrating marketing with enrolments

Marketing mistake: Developing and investing in marketing programs or materials that fizzle out in the enrolment process.

Marketing teams are often tasked with fixing an enrolment problem by ‘creating a buzz’ or ‘getting the word out’. They spend considerable time, effort and, perhaps most importantly, money to create publications, videos and websites to show your school in the best light possible. However, the enrolments team quietly — often not even consciously — reject using or referring to the materials that have been produced because they don’t address the most compelling selling points they encounter when dealing with parents one-on-one. The enrolments team then fills the void by creating and perpetuating their own messages with different emphases. To further illustrate the point, many times a marketing team will launch a new program to generate enrolment enquiries only to find that the enrolments team doesn’t follow them up because they don’t feel the leads are ‘qualified’. Not having a clear integration between enrolments and marketing can only lead to failed marketing programs, resulting in lost admissions and wasted expenses.

How to fix it: Ask your enrolments team to participate in marketing planning. Implement an enrolment advisory committee that is run by marketing and includes both enrolments and marketing staff to provide feedback on proposed marketing programs and deliverables before they are released. Without uniting enrolment and marketing efforts, your strategies are only realising one-half of the equation. Integrate them now to gain the buy-in and support necessary to generate new enrolments.

#4: Marketing something you don’t actually deliver

Marketing mistake: Aggressively marketing and over-promising school benefits or attributes that cannot be consistently delivered.

Your marketing team has taken seriously your instructions to generate more enrolment enquiries. They have created eye-catching materials, positioned your school well and their work has paid off … but the enrolment leads are consistently disappointed when they visit your school. Your conversion rate plummets and the all-important word-of-mouth in the community starts to turn negative.

How to fix it: As the leader of marketing, it’s up to you to urgently realign the efforts of your marketing team. Perform a gap analysis and assess what needs to happen to fulfill the promises or change the marketing messages. Every day the gap exists, it continues to harm your future prospects.

#5: Not using the marketing mix effectively

Marketing mistake: Focusing on only one marketing vehicle to promote your school.

Many marketing plans we see only focus on one or a few activities like social media, press advertising or out-of-home advertising, and do not use an appropriate mix of vehicles in concert to address prospective parents. Putting your eggs in only one basket may generate some enrolment leads, but this strategy will ultimately limit your ability to maximise enrolment opportunities within a target market and optimise your marketing spend. Your prospective parents need to see and learn about your school through a few different vehicles before they are finally prompted to respond to your offer.

How to fix it: Your goal should be to touch your prospects in a variety of ways through channels they regularly interact with. Select a sustainable marketing mix that caters specifically to your target market and create a program schedule that ensures the right level of coverage across the multiple channels and addresses seasonality issues. Then be patient and let them work. It takes time but rest assured that the variety of vehicles, working in concert, will build awareness and generate leads at an exponentially higher rate than any one vehicle alone can accomplish. 

insight applied

  • There are some common marketing mistakes schools of any size can make.
  • As the leader of marketing, it is the Head’s responsibility to see the mistakes and address them.
  • The most common marketing mistakes have their roots in poor coordination or cooperation between enrolment and marketing functions.

Brad Entwistle is the 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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