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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Community as Marketing

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

How can schools build marketing efforts that support and leverage the enthusiastic praise of current and past families, faculty/staff, alumni and friends? Knuckleball Consulting can recommend excellent marketing consultants who know a lot about search engine optimization, click through rates, psychographic data mining, retargeting, social media strategy, content marketing, etc. What Knuckleball Consulting can help your school understand is what all of these tools are empty without: the complex web of relationships between families and the school that generate loyalty, and the earnest investment in community that schools must make to create them.

If your school is like most, you know that the foremost way that people have chosen your school has remained word of mouth. That is, people currently or previously associated with the school and whom the prospective parents respect have recommended your school, in detail and in multiple conversations. Ever since enrollment professionals have been measuring it, that number has been a wiggly line in the low to mid-90 percents, despite (and also because of) the proliferating forms and immediacy of communication over the last two decades.

Much of it has to do with the fact that we're selling the most intimate of luxury products, the most meaningful thing (after unconditional love, and relationship with a higher power for some) that a parent or guardian can provide for the young people they treasure. In fact, there may not be an analogous "product" in the marketplace. This aspect of choosing a school has only become more true in the United States, fueled by parents' anxieties about their children's future and our atomizing social climate. As a result and to varying degrees, independent school families want your school to be their place of worship.

So how can today's independent schools meet the lofty and diverse expectations that will ultimately create powerful ambassadors for your school and the most important force in its sustainability? First, and at the risk of being glib, you've got to be good. The product has to live up to the brand. Few emotions ignite as quickly, smolder longer, and drift more broadly than disappointment, especially if it tips over into irony, when too many families find your "nurturing" school to be aloof and cliquey, or your "academically rigorous" program doesn't produce acceptances at prestigious colleges.

But for argument's sake, let's assume that your school is generally delivering on its mission and you are left with the enormously gratifying but incredibly complex task of creating and stewarding the web of relationships that will cement families to the school and make them the center of your marketing efforts. This is internal marketing which is in the end the school's most important external marketing.

The responsibility for overseeing these relationships lies in the head's and enrollment director's offices as they have the greatest capacity to oversee how the school purposefully comes to know each family and how it connects them with others and with meaningful opportunities to contribute to the school's efforts. The work begins in earnest the day after the contract is signed and continues for each student's lifetime and perhaps beyond.

I've described in a previous article the ideal profile of an independent school admission director who will have made the entire admission process transparent, meaningful and heartfelt and captured the well-deserved and strategically powerful reward of being forevermore the one person on campus about whom families have unmitigated warm and happy feelings. Through the summer, enrollment directors and heads transfer this good will to their colleagues to insure that all new families walk confidently onto campus on the first day of school. In collaboration with the summer session director, division directors, teachers, learning specialists, counselors, development director, and volunteer coordinator, the head and enrollment director invite new families into the critical aspects of membership throughout each new family's first year.

For new and continuing families, heads must make certain that division directors have clear expectations for how teachers will establish community in their classrooms, how they will communicate with parents, how they will communicate with each other about kids, their learning, and the circumstances of their home lives that could have an impact on their school lives, and how this information gets funneled to division directors, development director and potentially the head. Heads must also delegate and oversee an internal marketing campaign that reminds parents of the school's outstanding programs and capstone experiences, leading families to both reflection and forecasting. On top of this structure, the head and division directors should make time to be present in classrooms each day and join the enrollment and advancement directors as part of a flexible group present at every arrival and dismissal time, and at all key school community gatherings. These informal and organic intersections with students, parents, grandparents, guardians, nannies, alumni, older sibs have immeasurable practical and cultural value. Each of these administrators might bring a light agenda to any of these moments--quick follow up on a previous conversation, in-person thank you, reminders--but the real value is to be found in growing your understanding of families, discovering their interests, introducing them to others, helping them feel connected and cared for.

These efforts and similar investments in community are the center of a school's marketing strategy and the time and resources a school dedicates to it should reflect that fact. The growing number (and relative affordability) of tools that schools can use to spread the good news of the school in targeted and measurable ways are extraordinary, but they will only yield results if those messages are brought to life in back-fence, water-cooler, grocery aisle conversations between prospective parents and grateful, enthusiastic members of the school community.

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