Monday, March 5, 2018

Meaty Messaging – The Messaging Inventory

Thirty-four years ago, Wendys launched what was probably its most successful ad campaign ever. It featured three elderly women examining a hamburger from an unnamed restaurant and discovering it had a huge bun but a very tiny patty. One of the women repeatedly croaked, “Where’s the Beef” and in the process created a phrase that became part of the mid-80’s zeitgeist, even making into the rhetoric of that year’s presidential election campaign.

What’s more, “Where’s the beef” has become an accepted English idiom meaning that an argument or proposal lacks substantive content. And that’s what brings us to independent schools.

For schools, the road to underachieving marketing results is paved with beautiful full-width, photo-laden websites that include a video featuring a dramatic opening drone shot of the campus at sunrise. Often these websites are visually impressive but in reality tell you next to nothing about the school. There are all bun with no burger.

This is particularly relevant to the current cohort of millennial prospective parents – many of whom were also conceived along with the Wendys ad in 1984. Amongst the characteristics of this new parental generation (some are even calling them parennials) is a demand for authenticity and a distaste for marketing that is superficial, or even misleading. To be able to persuasively communicate with today’s parents, schools need to give them reasons to believe. They need to provide convincing evidence that demonstrates why parents should consider, choose, or, in the case of current parents, continue to choose a particular school. They need to show them the beef.

Enter the messaging inventory.

The messaging inventory is a highly strategic, targeted database of statements, each of which brings to life one of your school’s marketing proof points. And because your school is constantly adding to its programming and curricular repertoire, its messaging inventory is dynamic – growing with each new initiative and program.

The messaging inventory is organized by target audience or, better yet, target segment and for each of them includes these fields:

Needs or interests - the needs/interests of a particular target segment could be anything from more convenience for working parents, to greater athletic opportunities to enhanced initiatives supporting social-emotional development.

The Approach your school uses to address that need or interest – these will be areas of emphasis or a broad curricular/programming initiatives. Examples related to the needs above could be a robust before and after school program, an expansive athletics department or a well-defined character education initiative.

Specific programs, initiatives or outcomes – these are the proof points and there could be many of them for each need or interest.

The Messaging Statement expresses the specific initiative/outcome in a sentence. At this point, it doesn’t have to be award-winning communication. Later, the statement will be refined to better reflect your school's brand and will likely be combined with other statements to create effective copy.

Putting, all that into action, you end up with something like this:

(The table above is available as a Word doc)

Now imagine what happens when you add additional needs/interests, approaches and specific initiatives. This becomes a very expansive document. In addition, as your school introduces new programs, receives new recognition, or records specific accomplishments, the inventory also continues to grow. I have worked with schools with messaging inventories that included hundreds of statements.   

Using the messaging inventory forces you to think strategically about communication because it creates messaging buckets. From a proactive point of view, it allows you to tell administrators and teachers exactly what types of stories you are interested in. Reactively, as items of interest come to your attention, you have the means to categorize them so they can be used more effectively.

The messaging inventory can be the backbone to social media editorial calendars – allowing you to identify categories of content and then find the posts to best represent them. The inventory is a communication source for open house and tour talking points. It can be the basis for website and online content as well as any print communication. It’s also a very effective way of developing video outlines and scripts.

The messaging inventory is the best way to make sure that your marketing communication is always grounded in proof points. It also highlights the need for everyone in a school – teachers, administrators, trustees – to be constantly aware of the need to prove what they say about themselves – to walk the talk. In that way, the messaging inventory is also an important branding tool.

This is not just a communication planning tool for prospective parents. In fact, it may be even more effective in informing and validating the decisions of current parents, ensuring that they are knowledgeable and enthusiastic ambassadors.

Developing and maintaining a messaging inventory is tedious. It requires great discipline and forethought. But the resulting improvement in marketing effectiveness easily provides the benefit of results that will far outweigh the cost of time. It will allow you to proudly and unequivocally declare, “Here’s the beef.”

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Maximizing e-newsletter impact

School e-newsletters are a huge pain. No one, other than those who have to prepare them, would believe the amount of time they take. On top of that, they are a magnet for all kinds of heated and time-consuming discussions about who should control content, why parents still don’t know about upcoming events and who is responsible for all those typos and errors (there’s not usually a lot of takers on that one).

Not surprisingly, by the time you hit week 15, the strong temptation is to minimize the pain and just get the bloody thing done. But here’s the thing. Retention is the key to enrolment success and that means that e-newsletters are a critical marketing communication vehicle that deserve (almost) all the time they take to prepare. The key is to maximize the investment. Here then are nine ways to focus your efforts and improve the effectiveness of e-newsletters.

1. Strategy first. Remember that the e-newsletter is a key to building brand among current parents and stakeholders. That means that content must be both functional and strategic. Choose content based on what best reflects strategic marketing goals and don’t be afraid to have multiple items – whether in news items or captions – speak to the same topic. What you imagine to be heavy-handed is likely not perceived that way by the casual reader.

2. Content control. Some weeks finding content is like pulling teeth. No one responds to your emails and two hours before deadline, you’re still tracking down photos and details about a school event. And then you have the polar opposite when the development department is convinced that each of their 32 school fundraisers must be represented in this week’s newsletter. The solution is to have established and agreed-upon guidelines that detail content categories, indicate exactly who is responsible for getting you content and determine in advance the number of items that can appear under any heading. 

3. The tyranny of attention. Your e-newsletter may be chock full of all the things you want parents to know about like the softball team’s big win and the STEM contest that the 5th graders participated in. But none of that is going to get read unless you first meet parents’ most basic communication needs. It’s kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy. Tell parents what they need to survive the week ahead  - the early closing days, the no-lunch days – and then they will pay attention to the stuff you think they should know.

4. Know your limits. Studies show that people read online material at a rate of about 200 words per minute. Now, how much time do you expect parents to spend reading the weekly e-newsletter? If three to five minutes sounds reasonable, that translates into no more than 600-1000 words.

5. Be photo-literate. Rest assured that a good photo paired with a strategic caption can outperform any paragraph of copy alone. Whatever you can say with a photo will get more attention and will be more compelling. However, not all photos are created equal – and some, if not most, of the ones provided to you should likely not be used. The group photo of 25 students who participated in an event will be indiscernible. Rather look for shots of one or two people who look interesting or are doing something interesting. Remember - you can fill in the details in a caption or short story that accompanies the image.

6. What's the subject. Data indicates that 33% of email recipients decide whether to open an email based on the subject line alone. And get this – there’s an 18.7% decrease in open rates when the word “newsletter” is used in subject lines. Don’t fool yourself into imagining that your e-newsletter is so important to parents that data on subject lines don’t apply. So, instead of “Your newsletter for the week of September 18” try writing a creative subject line about an item in the e-newsletter - maybe something like “Our B-Ballers Beat the Best.”

7. Be a tease. Not every detail about every item has to appear directly in the e-newsletter. By using links to pages on your website or other sources, you can provide readers with just enough copy to “tease” them or for them to decide whether it’s something they want to know more about. It’s a win-win approach that conserves space and respects the reader’s interests and judgment.

8. Make it mobile. It’s critical that your e-newsletter can be easily read on a smartphone. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage of email open on mobile devices rose from 20% to 55% and from my experience the percentage of independent school parents using smartphones is higher than that. Content viewed on a mobile device always feels longer than on a tablet or desktop. That magnifies the importance of almost all of the points above. For example, the average mobile screen can only fit a 4-7 word subject line. So, in addition to being interesting, subject lines need to be concise.

9. Draw on data. Take advantage of the incredible array of data that is available to you in almost all email software. You can see which subject lines get better open rates and which items are more attracting clicks. You can even see who is opening emails and segment them by gender, location, campus or the grades of their children. All of that can be essential in the ongoing evaluation of the e-newsletter.

By using these nine points (and probably a bunch more that I didn’t think of) you can transform your weekly e-newsletters from a necessary evil into a superhero force for good.

What do you think?
What are your best e-newsletter tips? Or better yet, let’s see some examples of your outstanding e-newsletters.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

10 Other Reasons Parents Are Choosing Your School

Independent school marketing is in many ways a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. We promote schools based on certain attributes and then we research why parents have chosen our schools and remain satisfied with them based on those same attributes. That, in turn, provides the proof that we need to convince ourselves that we completely understand parents' decision-making. But, maybe it’s time to jump out of our comfort zone and look more deeply at parents’ motivation.

Let’s be more specific. If you were to scan the websites of any number of independent schools, you would find the following attributes that are being used to promote the school: 
  • Academic excellence
  • Character Development
  • Whole Child Education
  • Acquisition of skills for learning
  • Being part of a community of students 
To measure their success in attracting and retaining families, schools then survey parents. That’s good. But here’s the self-fulfilling part. Survey questions are based on the promotional attributes above or some variation on them. For example, every parent satisfaction survey that I’ve seen asks respondents to rate the school based on something like this series of questions: 
  • How satisfied are you with the quality of the academic program/the Math curriculum/the Language Arts program?
  • To what extent do you feel your child is developing positive character traits? 
And surveys to new families will most often ask parents to rank the reasons they chose the school based on variations of the attributes above.

Then the survey data is collected and analyzed and guess what? Yup, now we have proof that the features we are using to promote the school are exactly the reasons that parents have chosen our school and the criteria they use in deciding whether to stay. And with great confidence, we can continue to market our schools the way we always have. Phew!

So how do we break the cycle? Two recent Harvard Business Review articles provide some guidance. The first – Creativity in Marketing – is based on discussions with leading marketers and provides some approaches that will definitely lead to new insights.

For example, what if we think about marketing with parents as opposed to marketing to parents? Strategic marketing is targeted. We talk about target audiences or target segments. Implicitly that means that we keep our distance, disseminating marketing messages, like arrows, toward the bulls-eyes we seek to influence. But parents aren’t sitting idly waiting for our cupid-like missives.  In fact, they are creating their own content in the lives they lead as reflected on social media. The imperative for independent school marketers is to remove the distance, have meaningful interactions with parents and make their stories and experiences the centerpiece of marketing efforts.  

The second article advocates a less empirical and more experiential way of interacting with customers – or, in our case, parents. By intuitively analyzing the customer experience, it’s possible to discover previously hidden motivation for buying a product or service. The authors characterize these motivators as “jobs to be done.”

With these two articles in mind, if we were to market with parents and really immerse ourselves in the parent experience, we may discover other attributes upon which parents are selecting independent schools and choosing to remain at them. Here are some of the “jobs to be done” that we might find: 
  • Creating a sense of accomplishment or status for parents
  • Building community and developing new friendships for parents
  • Developing a more homogeneous social circle for children and parents
  • Meeting the expectations of grandparents (parents’ parents) or other family members
  • Providing a worry-free experience that relieves the stress of having to continuously monitor school progress and advocate for children
  • Delivering convenience – in pick up/drop off and in scheduling of meetings, presentations and assemblies
  • Providing seamless access to tutoring or other supports
  • Communicating in ways that find the balance between providing “must-know” information and the validation of continuing to make the right choice
And, removing barriers to choosing independent schools, such as:
  • Assuring parents that they will fit in with other families at the school
  • Relieving a sense of guilt about their ability to afford higher tuition fees and separating themselves from peers (as may be the case with any luxury product) 
Implicitly, each school will have its own meaningful promotional attributes which doubles down on the need for marketers – and, I would argue heads of school and other key administrators - to immerse themselves in the parent experience.

Uncovering these real attributes at your school is way more than an exercise in marketing because each of them is an expression of need that must be supported. Being attuned to the parent experience requires action in programming and communication.

Lest anyone thinks I am disparaging the use of data, I offer these points. As is best practice in the use of qualitative and quantitative data, once you uncover new motivational criteria, you can – and should - use broad based surveys to determine the degree to which they are a factor for all parents. But perhaps more importantly, I am reminded of an amazing quote by author and speaker Brené Brown, who said, “stories are data with a soul.”

The bottom line is that as independent school marketers, we may be looking for love in all the wrong places and by being shoulder to shoulder with our parents, we may discover the true path to their hearts.

What do you think?

What are some of the other reasons that parents are choosing your school? What have you done to validate those reasons empirically? More importantly, what programs or communication have you put in place to support them?

Monday, October 10, 2016

7 paths to being a parent-centred school

To distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace, schools must become parent-centred.

These days, being a child-centred school doesn’t provide much competitive advantage. Child-centred approaches are clearly linked to educational success and have been woven into the practice of most schools. Frankly, being child-centred is a must-have that parents expect.

On the other hand, being parent-centred represents an opportunity to differentiate and create recruitment and retention success. The data from the business world on the benefits of improving customer experience is incontrovertibly positive. Focusing on the quality and the characteristics of the parent experience in your school has innumerable benefits including fostering more satisfied parents who are more enthusiastic ambassadors. So, how do you do that? Here are seven paths to being a parent-centred school.

1. Think like a customer. This is primarily about empathy. Put your self in the shoes of a parent and use all your senses. For example, when you walk into the office, what do you see and how are you greeted? Are you talking to parents in language that they can understand? Often, there is a tendency to use internal technical terms like, “you need to complete an RTC form.” Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into “edu-speak,” using terms like authentic learning and differentiation while a parent’s eyes glaze over.

No matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to look at your school with fresh eyes. In that case, borrow an idea that retailers use all the time and enlist mystery shoppers – or in this case, mystery parents. Have two or three people contact the school (using various means) and express interest in enrolling their children. Be sure they record details of all their interactions. Review their reports to see if the experience that’s being delivered is what you really want it to be.

2. Collaborate. Parents aren’t really at the centre of your enrolment and marketing efforts unless you seek their opinions and participation in meaningful ways. Considering a change to the daily schedule? You’d be wise to consult parents. Partnering with parents also means encouraging feedback and, of course, being willing to accept criticism.

3. Be Transparent. There is no point in trying to hide information from parents. If you’ve made an error, you have got to own it. Let parents know what happened and how you’re going to fix it. Schools can be notoriously secretive about how decisions are made – often because they don’t want them to be questioned. A great example of this is class placement. A common statement is something like, “we place students using our best judgment in optimizing their academic performance and social environment.” This is vague enough that parents don’t really have a basis for questioning a placement decision. Contrast that to listing the specific criteria on which placement decisions are made and being prepared to entertain discussions with parents based on those criteria. Being transparent doesn’t mean having to accede to every parent request. Many times, parents will tolerate a decision that doesn’t go their way as long as they feel like they’ve been heard.

4. Solve Problems. Effective problem resolution requires many elements. First, you need to encourage openness. If staff members feel that every reported error is just another step toward discipline and dismissal, you won’t know about most of what goes wrong with parents. Second, you need to know the root cause of problems and that, in turn, requires asking incessant whys. Why did the Smiths get the wrong letter? Why were they on the wrong list? Why were they tagged incorrectly in the database? Why did someone edit their profile? You get the picture. Resolving problems is only half the battle. The real prize is problem prevention and that will require lots of internal collaboration with staff members at all levels.

5. Consider First Impressions. This isn’t just about the first-time visitor to your school, although focusing on that is a pretty good idea. But this could also be the first experience that parents have with your school every morning. You know, the dreaded drop off line. (Here’s a hilarious rant about drop-off). This is a great opportunity to greet parents and reduce their anxiety. What about the first impression of parents coming to the school for parent teacher conferences? They are totally stressed at having to quickly navigate the school and find the appropriate rooms so that they can then spend six minutes and 28 seconds with a teacher before being rushed out. Some schools place student docents in front of each room who can tell parents whether the teacher is ahead of or behind schedule and can even disarm parents by having a conversation with them.

6. Prove You’re Listening. It’s not enough to tell parents that you care about their opinions. You have to put your money where your mouth is. Be prepared to make changes based on parent feedback. You can take that to another level by making proactive changes. For example, let’s say a parent reports that her child was dropped off at the wrong spot when taking the bus home. In addition to finding out what happened to that child, you should likely be investigating whether the same thing has happened to other children – even if those parents haven’t said anything. And, make sure you tell parents about the action you are taking in response to their concerns. As consumers we all know how gratifying it is to be told that changes have been made because we spoke up. Be sure to give yourself credit for listening – and acting.

7. Break Down Silos. Making your school more parent-centred can’t be done as a unilateral initiative of the admissions department. Or the marketing department. It’s going to take a multi-disciplinary approach that has the parent experience on the agenda of every department in the school – including faculty and lay leadership. You may want to share articles about parent/customer service or better yet, be sure to communicate parent experience successes. In all likelihood, it will require the active involvement of the head of school to make it happen.

Technology and demography (think millennials) have created conditions where word of mouth is the most powerful channel in marketing success. While educational success is the most potent subject of word of mouth, being a parent-centred school will create the motivation and impetus for positive ambassadorship that will in turn lead to gains in recruitment and retention.

A more detailed look at the Parent Experience is available in the e-book, "Tailoring the Parent Experience."