I recently spoke with the communications coordinator at one of our wonderful public school districts on the East Coast. She mentioned that, in her busy district, the district leaders seem to have four main concerns throughout the year: starting in August, the district focuses on making sure everyone transitions smoothly back to school; next, the focus shifts to what needs to be accomplished over the course of the year; as soon as March rolls around, the district spends their time and energy in budget mode; and finally, just like that, it’s the end of the year, and the district is making sure everything is wrapped up for summer vacation.
Does that sound familiar? At times, it seems like we move from one focus to the next quickly, and with hardly a backwards glance.
Imagine it this way: every school year you work on constructing little outbuildings. You start your back-to-school building and once you finish, you move on to the next. You might have a website building, a parent-teacher conference building, an athletics building, etc. And by the end of the year, you’ve completed several little, separate structures that have served your purpose at different times over the course of the year.
Most schools operate this way, undertaking one project at a time. The problem with this approach is it leaves your outbuildings disconnected from the main house (your brand). So, what if your school was able to keep all your efforts throughout the year focused under one roof? This is what schools that successfully market themselves do—they build mansions.
They build these mansions yearly, focused on their brand, by bringing together three main pillars—the school website, social media, and strategic communications. While most schools build these up as separate outbuildings, in fact, they should be providing the foundational structure for everything you build. Under one roof, these elements carry out your school marketing, strengthen your brand, and improve your public relations even as your focus switches to working on different rooms of your mansion throughout the year.
We’ve talked before about why school marketing is important, and we hope you’re already on board with the concept. Remember, marketing is the process we undertake to get our audiences to know, like, and trust us. So let’s take a look at why these three elements are so vital to your school or district’s foundation and how they can keep your marketing on track throughout the year regardless of your main focus.
Let’s start with your school website—it is the cornerstone of your marketing; meaning, your website is the most important feature of your branding (what makes your school unique) and communications (your school stories). Websites are the main source of information about an organization, and that includes schools. As soon as someone accesses your website, you have a captive audience and an opportunity to share your school mission, culture, and, most importantly, your stories. Parents and the community will turn to your website to learn about your services, your programs, and your team. And once their student is enrolled, the website becomes a connection for home-school communications. So not only is your school website the center of your online presence, it is your main communications hub.
How does this apply as your main focuses shift over the course of the year? The rule of thumb is this: if it’s important, it needs to be on your website. Parents should be able to access everything from school policies to the lunch menu. If you’re in back-to-school mode, all relatable information should be accessible on the website, including class supply lists, pickup/drop off policies, office hours, meet-the-teacher night information, etc. If you’re creating buzz about the school budget and encouraging your audience to get out and support it, then your school website should be the main reference for the community.
Something you should already be focusing on each month is a newsletter. If you’re not distributing an electronic newsletter, we highly recommend you consider it. Papers rarely make it into the hands of parents, and, when they do, they don’t usually arrest a parent’s attention long enough to convey all the information you hope to. Distributing an electronic newsletter drives traffic to your website. Highlight the projects your school is focusing on in the upcoming month. Post news and stories as they happen throughout the month on your news page. Then in your newsletter, feature a section of “things you may have missed last month.”
By creating a system of posting news, stories, announcements, and events to your website and then using other methods of communication to drive traffic to it on your school website, you bolster your marketing efforts year-round. Not only is your website filled with useful information that makes your school look amazing, but you create an invaluable online presence that is an always-available resource for parents and the community; this is a big step in gaining your audience’s trust. Not only that, but your parents and community will appreciate having 24/7 access to information that is important to them.
In fact, because access to your school website is so important, your audience should be able to view it on any device. If your school website was built correctly, it is mobile-responsive. If it’s not mobile-responsive, it needs to be.
As administrators, you spend a lot of time on desktop computers or laptops, but parents are more likely to pull out their smartphones to access and check information. A 2016 study of how people use mobile devices, showed 83% of smartphone and tablet users use browser apps to access the Internet (source). Parents need to be able to verify information with the tools that are available to them. If a parent forgets what day early dismissal is, and they pull out their smartphone to check your school calendar but can’t see the calendar because your website isn’t set up to be responsive, they will be frustrated. And if the information they were searching for is need-to-know-now, their next step will be an irritated call to your front office. Your school marketing depends on your school website, so be sure you can reach your audience wherever they are.
Not only is a mobile-responsive site good for your public relationships, but a fully optimized mobile-responsive website is ranked higher by search engines. Why is that important to your school marketing? Well, the opposite is also true, if your school website isn’t responsive, you lose ranking. Higher ranking equals greater visibility. Google says 61% of users are unlikely to return to a mobile site they had trouble accessing—that means more phone calls to your front office.
Once good habits for using your website as your main communications hub are in place, the next pillar of successful school marketing is social media. Social media for schools is a great way to genuinely connect to your audience. This is important because the “business” you’re engaged in—educating children—is a very personal topic for families.
Think about it. Parents are the dominant providers of their child’s education for the first five years! Then, they entrust their child to your school for approximately six and a half hours daily. They trust that you will do as well as they would (or even better) educating their child. That’s a lot of trust they’re demonstrating in your school.
When used correctly, social media supports parental trust by positively confirming that parents have made an excellent choice enrolling their child in your school. When marketing your school, social media also encourages school-parent relationships by opening a window to your campus and classrooms and showing the great things that are happening. As your focus shifts throughout the year, social media helps you to not only market your programs and events but also to connect with your key stakeholders.
In fact, school social media is a way to keep in constant contact with your parents and community. Constant communication is the key to growing a successful business, and your “business” is arguably so much more important than corporate industries. A habit of communicating consistently across this medium sustains your marketing efforts and helps you grow enrollment. Here are just a few ways how:
- Social media builds levels of trust and awareness. With daily, one-on-one contact (or as one-on-one as we can get on social media), your school improves interpersonal relationships. This helps your audience trust you more and solidifies brand loyalty. Furthermore, by maintaining a social media presence, you grow your brand recognition—more people in your community have an opportunity to see and learn about your school.
- Social media expands your school community and reach. Increased awareness, as discussed above, improves your school’s opportunities to “convert” (or, in other words, increase enrollment). As your audience likes, shares, and comments on your posts, you will reach more and more people. I once heard social media compared to a shopping mall. In order to make your presence felt in the community, you have to display your products and services in the midst of potential buyers. Social media is an ideal place for schools to reach new audiences.
- Social media can improve transparency. Hiding issues or not explaining things in terms your audience can understand can destroy their loyalty. For example, we frequently throw around the term “social emotional learning.” While that might be clear to educators and others who take the time to understand the phrase, many parents don’t understand exactly what it means. Explaining terms and phrases we use frequently demonstrates that we have no hidden agenda. Every customer interaction you have on social media is an opportunity to publicly demonstrate your customer service level and enrich your relationship with your customers. Social media encourages open conversations, which give your audience an opportunity to join in and become your partners in communication.
Strategic Communications Plan
So, if you use the school website as the main communications hub, and your school social media keeps you in contact with your community daily, the next pillar to successful school marketing is having a strategic communications plan. Many schools skip this altogether because they don’t have the resources or personnel for this element, but, trust me, successful school marketing plans can’t ignore this element.
A strategic communications plan is the keystone to school marketing. It is the central element that locks everything else together—including the school website and social media. In fact, the strategic communications plan is what organizes your website and social media efforts to work together to support the rest of your efforts throughout the year.
Think about it this way: Let’s say you make your list of focuses this year. It might include events like back-to-school activities, a new 1:1 initiative, Red Ribbon week, mid-year parent-teacher conferences, passing the school budget, a book drive, a fundraiser, teacher of the year awards, student concerts, and graduation. If you were to address each of those focuses over the course of the year as separate little outbuildings, your events might turn out okay. However, if everybody on your staff works together with a strategic year-long plan, clear goals, and a strong and consistent message, throughout the year, everything works together and your events turn out impressively cohesive. A strategic communications plan takes all of those disconnected events and ties them together with strategy—each program supports the other, and every event relates to a mission and vision bigger than just the event itself.
The key to rolling out this effective strategic communications plan involves educating your staff and employees to build support and organizational unity and shift attitudes to match your objectives. This standardizes your communication by setting an expectation for communication with employees that, in turn, extends from employees to parents, the community, and students. Your strategic communications plan spells out how they should communicate and creates consistency in communication, helping to reduce confusion or missed information.
The basic elements* of an effective strategic communication messaging include:
- Identifying an overall goal. The goal should affirm and be driven by your school or district’s goals and vision.
- Identifying your audience. This is more than just saying “parents” or “the community,” but really understanding who those people are, what communication they need from you, and how they prefer to receive that communication.
- Defining your key messages. Your key messages should relate your school’s mission, vision, and values and are what you want your audience to remember, repeat, and act on. Use your school’s mission statement as the blueprint for your communications, keeping your messages clear and simple.
- Setting tasks. Tasks include your lists of focuses (projects, programs, events, etc.). Break each task down to create an itemized “to-do” list to achieve your goals. Again, building a large roof over all the things you want to accomplish over the course of the year gives you direction and consistency. You can ask yourself, “does this event help us reach our vision” or “does this program support our mission?” If the answer is no, don’t waste your time and energy!
* See our “School Marketing Road Map to Success” blog for more detail.
Incorporating these elements of a strategic communications into your year-long plans helps you standardize communication. When done right, strategic communications will become an important part of your school’s daily operations. Your plan is a living document that frames your internal and external communications, helps you remember to include the website, social media, and the local media in your school events, and, more than that, it clarifies your school’s priorities, target audiences, and staff assignments.
Under One Roof
You can tackle each of your focuses one at time—you can even create individualized strategic communications plans for each activity—but you will end up with disjointed efforts. Let’s talk about some of the benefits of bringing all your marketing efforts under one roof.
- Value and differentiation. By centralizing your marketing efforts, you are better able to demonstrate your school’s value. On your website, on social media, in your classrooms, at your events, your audience can see and hear what makes your school great. And not just what makes your school great—it also demonstrate what makes your school unique! Strategic, consistent communication is positive reinforcement that your school is the school of choice, differentiating you from the competition.
- Big picture. One of the biggest benefits of building your marketing efforts under one roof is that employees understand the big picture. They can see how they fit in—what your expectations are for them, and they are able to be more productive. Because your goals, messages, and communication channels are clearly defined, when one teacher is in charge of a book drive and another is in charge of helping with the dedication of a new playground, both events can be cohesive and drive results in a unified way. In other words, your marketing efforts are adding meaning to what you’re asking them to do.
- Culture. By putting these pillars into practice, you are creating a culture of communication. Schools that understand the benefits of good communication prioritize it and consistently try to improve. As a result, they achieve better marketing results and have more positive public relations. Your culture of communication sets you up to enable your employees to do better at their jobs by creating a school environment that encourages a common sense of purpose. And you achieve trust, credibility, and likeability with your publics.
- Engagement. A successful school marketing plan incorporates these pillars of an effective marketing plan to communicate better with parents and the community. You invite your audience to receive and send communication, and in doing so, you build engagement.
No matter what kind of school you run—public school, private school, charter school, or faith-based school—these three pillars should support your school marketing plan under one roof. These elements will not only help you transition throughout the year from one focus to the next, but they’ll bring all your efforts together to strengthen your school brand and messaging and improve your public relations. With your school website, social media, and strategic communications plan in place, and functioning well, then no matter how fast you have to switch from one project to another, your school marketing will have the solid foundation of a well-built mansion.
Bonus! If you stuck with us for this whole blog, you are entitled to a bonus. Check out our Marketing Your School toolkit. It is a 50-week program for anyone who wants to help market their school. Use the coupon code “success” and get $100 off!
Katie Brooks, Public Relations Specialist