Market Research Begins at Home

Posted on Dec 17, 2019 in Blog, Fundamentals

My friend and marketing expert Jeff Wack recently commented, “For me, marketing/enrollment is not the output goal of truly strategic planning; rather, coupling an understanding of market factors (competitors, demographics) with a cold-eyed look at the organization (product, price, messaging, staffing, resourcing), are the main inputs to strategic thinking.

I agree with Jeff. Sometimes we mistakenly think survey data is an end in itself (that can end up sitting on a shelf) without taking into account a hard look at a school through other lenses. So what can you do to become an expert on strategic thinking at your school?

Test your mission statement against the reality of your school—does the founding philosophy remain relevant and accurate today? Does it need updating? Are you living the mission 100%? Take these steps before you invest in research that is really going to be meaningful to school strategic thinking. You will make more informed decisions and be able to direct next steps with some important information in your pocket.

    • Gather all the research you’ve done on your school in the last three years in one place and study the findings. This might include:
      • accreditation self-study and report
      • strategic plan meeting minutes
      • campaign feasibility study
      • exit interviews
      • admission funnel studies
      • website and social media usage stats
      • new curriculum plan
      • zip code map and travel time for current students
      • faculty salary scale
      • open house evaluations
      • net tuition and financial aid data
      • college freshmen surveys
      • reunion questionnaires
      • individual discussion notes
    • Conduct informal guided discussion groups to get at the hearts and minds of your important audiences and provide useful insights on what people’s opinions are on topics you want to know more about. In addition to teasing out issues for study via quantitative research, engaging in discussion with small groups of people can yield a crop of great stories and a deepened sense of belonging—every person’s idea counts.


    • List obvious strengths—attributes and distinctive differences that support the value-for-the-cost promise you make to your audiences:
      • signature programs
      • individual and community achievements and outreach
      • facilities
      • philanthropic engagement and volunteer involvement
      • financial aid and diversity
      • location and access
      • outcomes (AP scores, college placement, alumni distinctions), etc.
    • List obvious weaknesses and misperceptions about your school you know are out there.
      • under the radar
      • false modesty
      • hard to get accepted
      • uneven excellence of departments or divisions
      • frequent turn-over of staff
      • inconsistent discipline
      • exclusive, for rich kids, or in a bubble
      • over-communicating; sending out confusing or conflicting information
      • cost—expensive, too expensive
      • too much homework
      • lack of good outcomes
      • less-than-great facilities, etc.
    • Look objectively and critically at your school’s visual branding and all your print and electronic communications. Does the overall presentation make a positive impact and match the quality of your programs? How do you stack up online with your competitive set?


  • Form a marketing team (admissions, development, alumni and parent relations, academics, communications, athletics, arts, diversity and community outreach) to meet at least once a month to talk about marketing issues and how you can solve them. It won’t happen overnight, but a holistic approach and regular attention to building and maintaining important relationships is the collaborative work of everyone in the school. It’s how reputation is made.

A self-audit of what you are doing now is a must—evaluating all school communications for relevance, overlap, conflicting information and presenting in the right medium. You need to inventory and assess. When necessary, condense, transfer and eliminate. If you can’t be honest with your critique, get an unbiased opinion from someone outside the school family.”—the late Michael Miller, former Director of External Affairs, American School in London, and former Consultant, MLW