Stakeholders are the people and groups you need for your school to survive and thrive. But it’s not just enough to know who they are — you need to find out what they want from your school. In the case of some groups, such as parents or current students, there may already be some ways of listening to their needs (such as a student council). Other stakeholders will be more difficult to research but should not be neglected.
There are two main ways of gathering this information – quantitative (number-based) surveys and qualitative (thoughts- and opinion-based) focus groups.
Surveys provide an ongoing, quantitative, way of checking stakeholder opinion. They can show how a group of stakeholders feels at a point in time, allowing their opinion to be tracked over time. This can show the impact of marketing and allow refinements in marketing activity.
Typical survey questions will include asking how aware the respondent is of a school, what they think the strengths and weaknesses of the school are, what influences or influenced their choice of school to work with, and which media they use to find out about schools. You should also ask for opinions on other schools in the same area or market. A further option would be to ask about wider educational issues or changes you are considering making at your school. As well as being useful when you are looking to make changes to your offering, some of these results may make interesting research that can be used in media relations and school publications.
Surveys can be carried out using different media. Staff can hand out feedback forms at the end of visits, schools can write to, email or telephone selected individuals or ask visitors websites to give their views using free or low cost tools such as SurveyMonkey. For groups you are not in contact with, you can buy mailing lists or arrange for companies to carry out telephone or online surveys.
In all cases it is important to focus on finding out the truth — this is not an exercise in gathering positive comments. The best way is to make the survey anonymous, allow respondents to give a full range of opinions and free comments.
Schools need to remember that by handing out paper surveys someone has to extract and tabulate all the information that is offered by the respondents and then conduct any relevant analysis. Don't underestimate how long this can take. It is more important to focus efforts on deciding which questions to ask and then considering and reflecting on the output rather than processing large quantities of data. Although in some schools you can draw on the expertise of math teachers to perform statistical analysis.
Another good way to gather information is through focus groups of key stakeholders. These are a key qualitative research tool and are useful for investigating softer issues, uncovering in detail the various attitudes and motivations which may exist about a particular issue. (Whereas surveys tend to focus on knowing how many others feel the same about a particular issue.)
Focus groups of people who are not supporters of the school will need incentives to take part. This could take the form of direct payment or charitable donations.
The best group for a marketing leader to start with would be the head teacher and other members of the senior management team. They will be able to clarify what they feel the strengths of the school are as well as their vision for the future of the school and changes that are in progress. Talking to other groups such as teachers, parents and students then allows the marketer to see how these strengths are shared. It is best to run a number of groups with participants who have common ground between them (e.g. new parents) rather than creating a large, mixed group.
There are a number of different ways of running these groups, from informal chats over coffee to videoed sessions with expert observers. Expert consultants are often hired to assist with this and using them can improve the level of validity and robustness, both in positive and negative feedback. An expert facilitator will be able to ensure that all participants are able to give feedback rather than, for example, letting one person dominate.
A focus group should be well planned and be based on a discussion guide — a series of open questions which will shape the flow of conversation. The moderator needs to keep the group on track (allowing specific issues to be explored where relevant), while probing for as much detail as the respondents are prepared to give. It is difficult to both moderate and record the results of a focus group. Try to record the conversation (allowing time to transcribe it later) or have a note taker present to take down general notes and specific quotes and soundbites. If recording or videotaping, you must tell the group that you are doing so before you begin and allow anyone to bow out if they want to.
Don't lead participants or make assumptions about what they want from a school — for example from reading some media it is easy to assume that all parents want traditional, academic schools. You should also accept any issues that stakeholders have with the school in a non-defensive manner. However, try to keep issues general (lack of communication, poor exam results) rather than focusing on the specific issues that for example a parent may have with one teacher (although this should be noted and addressed following the focus group).
At the end of the focus group remember to add general questions about the media the group reads and other ways they find out about schools.