An Open Letter to Heads of School About Marketing & Communications

This post first appeared in the October 2016 issue of  "The Head's Letter" produced by Educational Directions, the well-respected consulting firm for chief executive and senior administrative searches, governance, institutional advancement, and customized projects. Thank you to Harriet DiCicco and StacyJagodowski for requesting my thoughts on the subject of independent school marketing and communications. 


For a new series, experts will share their insights about the head’s role in marketing. Our first author, Liza Fisher Norman, is founder and principal of Turnaround Marketing Communications, an independent school branding and marketing firm, and creator of InspirED School Marketers, an online professional development resource for school marketing staff.

The New Paradigm for Independent School Marketing & Communications

In more than 25 years of working with close to 100 independent schools, much has changed in marketing and communications (MarCom) for schools—particularly since 2008—and so have the responsibilities of the director of MarCom’s position. The 2016 version of an independent school MarCom professional is someone who, first and foremost, is the champion and steward of the school’s brand. This person recognizes the importance of a distinctive way for the school to differentiate itself. Armed with a strong brand accompanied by strategic, long-term, institution-wide, data-driven communications, the MarCom director can have far-reaching impact:

  • Admissions will find right-fit (and numerous full-pay) families at their door.
  • Development will attract donors who believe in the school and contribute to its health and longevity.
  • Current families will promote the school through word-of-mouth.
  • Alumnae/i will affirm their loyalty through contributions of time, money, and referral.
  • Current and prospective faculty will recognize the school as an outstanding place to work.
  • The local community will recommend the school to family and friends.
  • All constituents will know the school for what it wants to be known for.

In the last 15 years, the responsibilities of the MarCom office went from solely developing  materials that were distributed via print; to print and web; to print, web, and social media; to print, web, social media, and marketing strategy; to print, web, social media, marketing strategy, and data analytics. Titles for the position changed from director of publications to today’s all-encompassing director of strategic marketing and communications. The changes in this office continue as enrollment and development pressures increase, and private schools need to defend and validate their existence in many communities.

What hasn’t changed commensurately in most schools is the number of personnel and resources allocated to this office, resulting in understaffing and a critical shortage of time for strategic thinking. I’ll wager your admissions and development offices have at least double the number of personnel that the MarCom team does. It’s easy to see the value of those offices because the results are quantifiable. MarCom efforts are less so, but they are critical to admissions and development. MarCom is barely treading water with existing staff at many schools because the channels have increased exponentially and the importance of this work has been magnified. Examples include:

  • Sophisticated websites have become the most critical marketing channel in a school’s toolbox.
  • Social media is constantly changing with trends and audiences.
  • Online conversations about the school take place in real time and require constant monitoring and response.
  • Newfound, complex, and extensive data require skill and expertise in analytics.
  • Website and viewbook redesign occurs every 4-5 years and each requires 6-8 months of time and strategic thinking.

Here’s where you, as head of school, can take steps that will benefit your school both immediately and in the future. Ask your MarCom director a few key questions:

  1. If cost weren’t a factor, how would you build your dream team, what resources would you have available to you, and what perceptions about your position would you change with other administrators and faculty?
  2. To whom do you want to report (hint: the answer here is “to you.”), and how do you want to work with and for admissions, development, and other departments?
  3. What does the data show about your impact on enrollment, development, and the school community?
  4. What benchmarking data is available for peer schools with regard to staffing , resources, and responsibilities?
  5. If you could change or boost our school’s brand, how would you do that?
  6. How can all of this benefit our school?

Rethink how you and other school leaders regard the MarCom office, its current and potential role in realizing your school’s immediate and long-term goals, and the support and recognition it needs to achieve them.

 

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