Marketing communications is finally becoming an accepted strategic tool in good school management. Effectively connecting with your audiences cuts across all departments if you hope to meet your goals in student and faculty recruitment, philanthropy, parent and alumni relations and happy neighbors. Reputation is born in relationships (delivering on your promise), and your active responsiveness will be viewed as an important aspect of your excellence.
You may be ready to step it up a notch, but does your school pass the fitness test to support your move from the tactical (producing the play poster and getting that web copy updated) to the strategic (conducting research, planning and then executing and measuring)? Here are some important diagnostics to track your marketing fitness.
#1. How important is the understanding and acceptance of marketing to your institution?
- Beginner level—Only a small cadre of administrators get how important marketing is to your institution. It’s probably your admissions and development colleagues, and maybe your head of school. Faculty are in their own race for resources and tend to see things from the classroom view of day-to-day activity and needs. Parents just want to communicate the way they want to communicate.
- Intermediate level—Marketing has gotten the attention of some members of the board who are worried about enrollment treading in place—or slipping back—and how to speed up voluntary support to help balance the budget. Marketing is a topic of discussion in your strategic planning, accreditation self-study or annual fund appeal plan.
- Advanced level—You’ve got a strong level of support from the whole team—head of school and trustees, faculty, parents, alumni, and even students. Your school leaders view marketing as an investment, not as a burdensome expense. You have a functioning trustee committee that is reliable and supportive. They advocate for your efforts in budget negotiations. They are a fantastic sounding board for helping set strategic priorities. And they do not cross the line into day-to-day operations in your office.
#2. Is implementing the communications function centralized or scattered among various individuals or departments? Is your staff adequate to handle the increased load coming from maintaining your website and social media?
- Beginner level—You are a one-person shop, perhaps with only a portion of your time dedicated to communications. Some areas of school communications are handled outside your purview. (Sports? Summer programs? What else?) You may get help from other staff, faculty or volunteers, but they too are pulled in a million different directions. There’s no time to step back from the day-to-day triage to plan ahead.
- Intermediate level—The head sees the wisdom in centralizing communications under you and has consolidated your job description. You might still have a one-person or small shop, but you are full time in communications. You have regular help on the website and social media. There is a modest budget for outsourcing work to freelance writers and designers. You have hired an intern.
- Advanced level—You sit at the leadership table and report to the head of school. Your position is viewed as strategic, and you oversee staff proportional to your school’s constituent base. You use outside expertise as needed—market research, creative services and web/social media support. Most important, you feel that your school supports your marketing and communications efforts. Research and planning are an expected part of your position.
#3. How well is your brand articulated? Do your key messages and visual identity accurately reflect your school as it is today?
- Beginner level—It has been years since a formal review of your vision, mission and core values took place. Your brand is fuzzy (and maybe dusty) and you can feel the school losing touch with important audiences. Your school logo is years old and used inconsistently throughout the campus.
- Intermediate level—It has probably been about two to three years since you completed a full assessment and update. You are in a stable position but can see how your communications program needs to support new ideas, new colleagues, and market changes. Your school has a visual identity system that represents your essence (brand) okay but you are still working on getting that identity on all school communications, collaterals, signs and signage. Your social media is not where it should be.
- Advanced level—You just completed, and are pleased with, your newly articulated vision and mission. The core of your brand is in place with new program innovations carrying the institution forward. Your school is sporting a refreshed or redesigned visual identity system that is supported and utilized consistently by your school’s community. Old iterations have been retired to take their rightful place in the history book.
Getting Fit—The Essential Exercise: Just Say No
Building your fitness doesn’t happen overnight. It takes constant work. You can’t do it all, so keep in mind the importance of:
- Linking your short- and long-term communications planning steps to the school’s business goals. Demonstrate positive outcomes. This is the quickest way to gain the support you need from the top. Choose your three highest communications priorities for the coming months by linking them to your enrollment, friend- and fundraising goals. Learn how to say no.
- Which audiences do you communicate with the most? Which audiences who are important to you may deserve more of your attention? For many schools, parents are the squeaky wheel constituency. Websites and social media cater to your current audiences. Yes, internal marketing is important, but so is being in touch with alumni, past trustees and parents, grandparents, referral sources, neighbors, and community influencers. Learn how to say no.
- What is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of you doing a better job communicating for the school? Is it lack of time, money, or staff? Being a beginner in communications fitness? Maybe, but remember you have to stand up for yourself and learn how to say no.