Work in the value zone

You are the school Head. You are responsible. It is your job to ensure a steady supply of new students to your school. You might not consider yourself a marketer, but you are definitely the leader of marketing.

As your school’s marketing leader, it is your role to set the strategy and priorities for your marketing team. It does not matter if that team comprises a 0.5 FTE assistant or ten seasoned and specialised operators, they will look to you for direction and guidance.

It follows then, that the issues that get your attention and receive your focus will significantly influence the effectiveness of your school marketing team. What are the issues that should get your attention? As far as possible, the only marketing issues you tackle should be strategic and high-impact. They should be big.

A big marketing issue is a problem that matters to both your parents (current and prospective) and your Board of Governance. The problems that live in this overlap of needs do not naturally attract school marketers. They need to be shepherded to understand the value that successful resolution to these big problems will bring to your school.

Suppose your school marketing team spends most of its time and resources acquiring prospective families for your school. After all, attracting the right quantity of new enrolments who are also the right fit for your school is their raison d’être. Acquiring enrolments is your school’s lifeblood. Attracting enrolment applications is what marketers do. However, your Board doesn’t share their view. In their opinion, acquiring new parents — at least the way you are currently doing it — is expensive and wasteful because some of them switch their preference to a competitor school late in the school selection process. 

Your Board argues that rather than putting so much effort into attracting more enrolment applications, priority should be given to nurturing and retaining existing parents. That kind of disconnect between your marketing team and Board would spell trouble. You would be working outside the overlap of what is important to both Board and parents.

This zone of overlap — call it the Value Zone — is a challenging but rewarding place to be. When Heads (marketing leaders) work there, they create value for parents (an education service that meets their needs), value for the school (revenue and mission fulfilment), and value for themselves (greater influence and better careers). 

Finding the overlap between parent needs and school needs is the principle behind successful school marketing leadership. 

The natural focus of school marketers is on parent acquisition (doing marketing). But as in every organisation, people from different departments need to work together in creating the customer (parent) experience. To succeed, an exclusive focus on customers isn’t enough. To get things done for parents (customers), school marketers must also understand how to serve the needs of the organisation. Often these needs don’t overlap easily and there will be tension. School marketing leadership is about trying to increase that overlap of parent needs and organisation needs. This is where the big issues live.

It is important to recognise that school marketing officers seldom have the freedom to devote all their time to marketing, as might their counterparts in a commercial enterprise. Schools are complex communication environments where operational needs for accurate and timely information (think of your parent newsletter or school intranet) will almost always outweigh the long-term imperative to attract new families into the prospect funnel.

At the risk of sounding a little mercenary, your school’s survival depends on serving customers (parents) better than your competitor schools do. You are the key player of your school’s understanding of your customer. It is your job to mobilise the school’s marketing team — which is really every teaching and support staff member — to serve customers better. This means it is your job alone to tackle the big issues.

Too few school marketers get to work on big issues. Partly because they don’t have time with the constant rolling deadlines of internal school communications for which they are responsible, and partly, perhaps mostly, because they are seldom invited into the value zone by their marketing leader. Ask a school marketing officer what they do, and their answer speaks volumes. Usually the answer is along the lines of, “I run our marketing.”

Such broad and nebulous summary statements seldom boost a Board’s confidence. Outspoken marketing professor and columnist Mark Ritson wrote, “Too many marketers go into a room full of executives from their company and warble on about the need to build brand awareness and brand equity. No one gives a [expletive deleted], except you — and presumably you are already on board. Good marketers work out how to link what they do with what other stakeholders within the organisation want — employee retention, improved profits, clearer leadership.”

The best leaders of marketing speak differently of their role. Recent research points to a common perspective amongst successful chief marketing officers: a top management viewpoint (Barta and Barwise, 2017). Rather than speaking about marketing, they talked about the business as a whole. They didn’t talk about advertising, branding or customer insights much at all. They did discuss revenue, costs, profit and how they could serve the customer better. In short, successful chief marketing officers were concerning themselves with one thing: how marketing helps their company achieve their biggest priorities.

Of course, most non-government schools are not-for-profit entities and ‘profit’ is not the primary motivation. A school must enjoy an appropriate operating surplus to remain sustainable, but the true motivation is usually revealed in your school’s mission statement.

Barta and Barwise’s research demonstrated for the first time that focusing on big issues in the value zone — aligning important customer and company needs — “substantially influences marketers’ business impact and career success.”

“In our core study, a whopping 76 percent of marketers told us they were good at finding and aligning on what matters for the business.

Unfortunately, their bosses disagreed. In the large 360-degree database we analysed, just 46 percent of bosses believed their marketers knew where the organisation was going and shared this with their teams.”

This misalignment has also been reported by The Economist Intelligence Unit who found that 54 percent of company leaders thought their marketing and business strategies were not aligned.

Your Board will usually be concerning itself with how to maintain or grow your school sustainably, your reputation, mitigating risk and how to build talent. Your marketing team is often more concerned with getting the next newsletter out, advertising, Instagram and their budget. It can be pretty frustrating being the marketing leader, but as Head, that is what you are.

Working inside the value zone is key for your success. You may think you are tackling big issues — but your Board may not see it.

Insight applied

  • Find the overlap – the value zone – between parent, school and Board needs.
  • Invite your marketers into the value zone.
  • Ensure your marketing and business strategies are aligned.

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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