Why Do Schools Need to Take Marketing Seriously?

In business and higher education, organizations spend much of their time and effort (and up to 10% of their turnover) on marketing. They research markets, spend huge amounts of time and effort on targeting customers through advertising and manage huge customer databases. By contrast, marketing is a much lower priority in many schools.

This is probably because until recently this did not matter. Some schools were good at marketing but for many the concept was not very important. During the economic boom between 1998 and 2008 many private schools had long waiting lists and competition between public schools in many areas was limited. 

Now due to economic and political realities, to succeed all schools must do more than “a good job in the classroom.” They need to compete for students and the competition is growing – from charter schools, international chains of private schools, home schooling and much more.

With all schools receiving their income on a per student basis, recruiting just one extra student will bring in thousands of extra dollars to the school in the first year alone – whatever type of school you are.

Even those schools that are ‘full’ now must show that they are listening to and responding to parents as well as ensuring that their reputation is strong enough to survive changes in their market.

However, compared to other sectors, there is relatively little marketing expertise in the sector. The vast majority of school leaders have spent almost their entire career as teachers or administrators. They might acquire knowledge of finance and people management but few learn marketing skills on the way to the top. Compare this with the newly appointed CEO of a similar sized multi-million dollar business. They often have an MBA or equivalent qualification that has significant marketing content, as well as a dedicated marketing team.

The result is that schools have many hard working senior staff who are good at placing advertisements in local papers, running open houses and selling the school to individual parents, but have little knowledge of the wider aspects of marketing. Schools need to take a wider, strategic approach to marketing—by identifying potential customers early while creating a brand and key messages that attract and maintaining a culture of continual communication and improvement. 

This approach has many positive benefits as well as improving recruitment. A marketing focus will improve the service offered by schools and make it easier to respond to the needs of parents and students. A school will be able to align staff behind a set of core values more easily if it can show them in practice. It will find interesting stories from all parts of the organization and develop the confidence and talents of students and staff. Internal communication becomes easier. A school might end up with a new school newspaper or TV station.

On the other hand, schools that don't listen to and respond to customers can suddenly find themselves with a poor reputation compared to others. This can lead to falling enrollment and a negative spiral into trouble. 

This article (adapted for US audiences) is taken from "Marketing Your School," a new book by Simon Hepburn.

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