The Anatomy of a Great School Message

Parents face a near daily barrage of decisions about what is best for their children, from what to eat to how much technology is appropriate to which school they should attend. The school choice movement, which has amplified the number of options parents might consider, lets parents choose between public and private, charter or STEM, even online and homeschool programs. The benefit of school choice is that it allows parents to choose the school they feel best meets the needs of their children; the question is how to best make that choice, and what tools are you as a school providing to help them properly evaluate you. This is where having a well-defined marketing strategy is critical.

Developing Your Message

Your school message should describe what you excel at, and how that sets you apart. But don’t just tell us what you do, show us. Give specific examples. Understand who your families are and why they are choosing your school over other schools in their community, and give parents the opportunity to envision how they can make that same connection with you. Below are a 5 simple steps for developing your school message:

Step 1: Create a Focus Group

  • When pulling a focus group together, diversity is key. Select individuals that best represent your school – parents, staff, board members, teachers and students. Be sure to include both genders, different ages and varying lengths of time the families have been at the school.
  • Don’t limit the size of this focus group. Take advantage of technology to engage individuals remotely by using online surveys and other collaboration tools.
  • Throughout the process take note of individuals who are actively involved in the process and work well with others. They may be interested in continuing to assist with future marketing tasks, committees or other projects within the school.

Step 2: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

  • Hold a kick-off meeting with your focus group (as many as you can get together at one time) to set expectations and build excitement around the project.
  • Include high-level details of the project in your school newsletter and other communications to help generate some positive buzz in your school community.
  • Provide regular updates throughout the project to keep the momentum strong.
  • Identify how the focus group, students and other parents can get involved, including how they can communicate with you.

Step 3: Identify Your Current Messages

  • Your next challenge is to identify your current school messages. Whether it was intentional or not, as long as you’ve gone through one student recruitment cycle your school has created a marketing message.
  • Talk to the individuals in your focus group – why did they enroll in your school initially? What keeps them returning year after year? A lot can be learned through a few simple phone calls.
  • Look at foundational documents if they exist. The original vision, mission and founding principles should highlight the reason the school was created, and the opportunity the founders believed in.
  • Look at news articles and school review sites (the good and the bad) to better understand how your school is perceived in the community.

Step 4: Evaluate Your Current Messages

  • Once you’ve identified 5-10 key messages, develop an online survey for your focus group to complete. In the survey, ask each individual to rank each message on how well they believe it reflects your school today.
  • Include an open comment field on your survey, and take time to read the comments! These open comments might include additional gems that can be integrated into your final marketing strategy.

Step 5: Review and Communicate (again!)

  • Review the results of your online survey and discuss how well they reflect your current school mission. Were there any surprises in the results?
  • Look at the school programs in your community including private schools, neighborhood schools, magnet programs and others. Does your message stand out above everyone else?
  • Share your school message with parents, staff, board members and the community!

Execution: Consistency is King!

With competition among schools increasing, it is critical that schools understand and effectively communicate what sets them apart from the rest. This project is a great opportunity to engage a variety of individuals from your school community and build relationships with new and legacy families. When executed effectively, your new marketing message should align with your founding principles, help attract new families who support your school mission, and also open the door for unique opportunities within your local community.

Originally Published: Charter Focus – A Quarterly Journal for Charter School Business Managers | Winter 2016

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