Schools of all types and sizes across the country are increasingly thinking about how to maximize enrollment. Independent schools have long been focused on marketing and community relations for the obvious reason that they are not publicly funded. Like other businesses that survive in a world of choices, they realize that brand strategy, a strong value proposition, an attractive website, and engaging social media channels are essential to generating awareness, engagement, and preference. No surprise there.
But public schools have historically lacked a marketing mindset. And who can blame them? In most communities they are the only game in town, not to mention free, making for a hard-to-beat value proposition for most families.
Choice in Education is Exploding
Enter pandemic. A study by EdChoice revealed that from February 2020 to Fall 2020, the percentage of parents enrolling children in public schools dropped from 61% to 54%, with private schools, home schooling, and charter schools picking up the slack. Washington State is reporting a 14% reduction in Kindergarten enrollment alone. New remote learning options are cropping up, and in many states, funding and financial aid are enabling more families to exercise choice.
Types of K-12 education options:
Disruptive Impacts for Public School Admissions Leaders
Public school funding has long been doled out based on enrollment, which was fine so long as enrollment was a simple function of community population. Today is a much different reality, with a myriad of external factors disrupting the status quo. These realities are creating a perfect storm that is forcing many administrators to think much more proactively about how to attract, engage and retain new families and students.
My how times have changed.
Some Important Marketing Strategy Questions To Be Asking in 2021-22
Since Covid hit us in early 2020, school leaders have been in a brave new world of adapting to the new normal. No doubt you’ve made many changes, learned from mistakes, and evolved in the ways necessary to adapt to your situation.
You know you’ve evolved. But does your community? Here are some questions that a strategic growth marketing plan should answer:
- Is your community (current and prospective families) aware of how you have adapted and handled concerns about health and safety, social and emotional learning, remote learning options, and academics?
- What are the most important consideration factors for your current and prospective families?
- How does your school compete on these factors compared to the other educational options available?
- How effective are you at keeping current families engaged and informed?
- Are you providing the information and tools your prospective families need during the decision making process?
- Is your website designed, structured, and optimized for engagement and conversion of prospective families?
- Who are we? Who is our target audience? What’s important to them? What is our “value proposition”?
- How do we reinforce our competitive advantage to both current families and prospective families?
- Are we equipped with the resources (people, tools, marketing budget) to meet this challenge? What gaps exist preventing us from upping our marketing game?
Your situation is unique, based on the type of school you operate, your specific audience attributes, the competitive landscape in your area, and your access to capital and/or funding. This is why you can’t cut out the important strategy work.
Public Schools: It’s Time to Start Thinking Like a For-Profit Business
The general strategic approach:
- Do the research to understand your audience, find out what’s important to them. This study by the National Center for Education Statistics sheds light on the drivers of school choice generally, but your community or target audience may vary.
- Assess your current situation including your strengths and weaknesses.
- Identify where your strengths intersect with your audience’s needs; this informs your brand positioning.
- Develop a marketing and communications plan that emphasizes your brand positioning and value proposition, and engages all your audiences and stakeholders.
Major factor 1: Your website
The vast majority of public school websites are grossly outdated and out of sync with driving growth (which ironically is the primary objective of most for-profit business websites). The approach for developing a growth website is completely different and almost always requires a growth specialist agency to produce.
Major factor 2: Your brand identity
As we alluded to earlier, public schools tend to be behind the curve relative to private schools when it comes to branding. Why is this important? That’s too loaded a question to unpack here in any depth, but the short answer is, branding makes your messages stickier and more memorable. And over time, as you become a marketing organization, branding amplifies and maximizes the impact of every single touchpoint with your audience.
Private Schools: It’s about Retention & Sustainability
Up until 2020, private school enrollment was in a slow gradual decline. The pandemic has provided a dramatic opportunity. Demand for alternative options is high, supply is low. That is, until the market adapts…and it always does.
The worst mistake independent school administrators can make is to fail to plan for the inevitable correction. Even if the demand curve permanently shifts to a new equilibrium point favoring private options, new entrants are already rushing to meet that demand.
It’s likely that the influx of new families over the past years (let’s call them “pandemic boomers”) chose your school for different reasons than families who enrolled pre-pandemic. Keep that in mind and think about how to meet their unique needs going forward after things get back to normal.
Your 5-year strategic plan should address:
- How will we retain and sustain our new enrollment levels, especially as things normalize and the gap between free public offerings closes?
- Many private schools have historically differentiated themselves with personalized learning. As new remote hyper-specialized offerings enter the market, usually for a much lower cost, how will you adapt your value proposition?
- How can we maximize financial aid and policies to encourage diversity?
- What offers, programs, and features are needed to retain “pandemic boomers” for the long run?
How to Get Started
We like to say, start with the strategy. Seems obvious, yet, the vast majority of schools’ marketing efforts are spotty reactive efforts that are not grounded in a comprehensive strategy.
Rocketship can help. We’d love to learn more about your situation. Contact us to set up a free consultation.