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Parents: Talk About What Matters to Them
2015-10-06
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I’ve been preaching for years that content is king. I’ve written numerous articles espousing this recommendation. However, I’m kind of old-school and I actually read content—on the Web, in books, in ads, etc. However, our co-founder my graphic designer daughter and I continually debate this subject. She says people don’t read content anymore. The attention span of the general populace is short and we need to be entertained if we are to stay engaged and interested. She opts for visual and video in lieu of text.

Well, our debate is over. We are both right (that in itself is a miracle). But, in Tammy’s defense, the reading content versus visual content debate is actually weighed in her favor with one caveat. If your written content is the right sort of content, which means it is compelling, interesting, and targeted to the interests of your audience, your message will succeed. You need to be heard above the noise. 

Whether it is your school website, blog, brochures, parent messaging system, or social media, it will not be effective if you don’t write your content with the needs of your audience in mind. If the content is compelling, it can trump visual—if not, the entertainment value may keep them on the page, but won't make your case. (Think of all those very entertaining commercials you like, but by the end you have no idea what their message was. Great visual. Very ineffective.)

You must engage rather than repel. And what repels is anyone who wants to talk about themselves to customers (your parents, students, or taxpayers) who want to know what your services will do for them, their children, or their community.

Start with simple steps. Whether it is the school website or school social media, make sure your information addresses your topic from your audience point of view. For example, let’s say you are looking for increased funding through bonds or tax overrides. Don’t just say you need the money; tell your audience what you will do with it that will help your students or staff and how the community will benefit. 

Provide real examples that they can relate to. “We will continue to offer quality science and math classes that will help our students (your children) get into the best colleges or to compete for the most coveted jobs.” Describe, specifically, what the courses can do to enthuse students and to make the knowledge applicable to them in a real-world setting.

Then, include visual reinforcement for your written message. Interview a few students who will be impacted if the override fails and the courses will be cut. Or, take the positive approach and interview a few students (or alumni) who benefited from the courses and in what way. Create a short video of those interviews. 

A video doesn't have to be anything fancy and can even be done with your cell phone if necessary, but showing people telling their stories is very compelling. Look at all of your existing school web pages and see where you could incorporate a more audience-focused message. Where could you tell a story? Where could you add a video?

Content may still be king, but the visual reinforcement can seal the deal. Use both approaches whenever possible—whether it is a presentation to the governing board, a story on the school website, or on your school's social media channels.

To help you get started, here are a few additional articles to help you along:

How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook
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Choose Your Words Wisely…It Matters!
2015-09-29
Image of man selecting a customer service review icon

Are the words you are using undermining your school’s intended messages? The words used in all forms of communication can be some of the strongest branding taking place at your school. Consider this example:

School A has a sign posted, like most schools, telling visitors that they must first go to the office to sign in. The sign reads:

    “All visitors MUST report to the office before proceeding further. Violators are trespassing and may be reported to authorities.”

 School B’s sign says:

     “For our students’ safety, all school visitors must first check in at the office. Thank you for understanding.”

Which school’s messaging makes you feel the most welcome? How would a prospective parent feel? What message are you trying to send? Once, when visiting an alternative high school in an inner city area, I was greeted by such a sign (only more strongly worded). However, it was quite intentional. They did not welcome visitors as it was for a unique student population and they meant business—multiple armed security guards to prove it. Unless that is the message you intend, choose your words with your audience perception in mind.

For another personal example, we once had a school where we were writing the content for the school’s website. We encourage a welcoming and conversational tone. However, when the administrator we were working with read it, she requested that we remove anything that sounded welcoming and insisted that we remove any reference to enthusiastic staff. “We don’t welcome parents,” she said, and “our teachers aren’t enthusiastic.” We complied, of course, but I could sure understand why the staff was less than enthused!

Words and tone matter

Even the rules, like those necessary “shalt not’s” listed in the discipline section of the student handbook, can be worded in a positive rather than negative way and still get the message across.

Tardies (this replaced a whole list of “musts” with an explanation of the importance of being on time and what to do if they aren’t.”

    “Tardies affect the entire class, so we appreciate all students who get to school on time. If your child must be late, we ask him or her to stop by the office and get a pass before heading to class.”

Absences (this absence process helps parents and students know why the process is there in the first place):

    “If you know your child must be absent, please send a note to your child’s teacher explaining the circumstances and the dates of absence. We will try our best to get any work together that your child might miss. If your child is sick, please call the office the morning of the absence, and let us know where your child is. Not only do we want to make sure your child is safe, we also want to mark your child as “excused.” If we do not receive a call or note explaining the absence, we will record it as “unexcused.”

Signage for how the school can accept payment for fees or activities:

    “We can only accept checks or credit cards for Activity Fees. Thank you for understanding.” (Positive spin.)

    “NO cash will be accepted for Activity Fees.” (Pointing out what you can’t do instead of what you can do.)

These are only slight variations in word choice but these first impressions can set a tone for all future communications.

Keep your audience needs first  

The example we used earlier, where the person wanted all references welcoming parents removed, was thinking only about his needs (or rather his wants). He didn’t want to be bothered. I’m sure many of us have felt this way at times. But, by creating an uninviting tone, the overall nature of all future communications can be adversely affected. This less than inviting first impression, far from saving this administrator time and bother, likely deter only the supportive parents and not the unsupportive.

In order to create effective communication, we have to keep our audience in mind. Therefore, we have to understand the various audiences in our community. Are you telling the audience what you want them to know or what they want to know? You might be composing the Open House invite with when and where but leave out the “Why Attend” and “what they will learn, or “how your child will benefit,” which may be the vital information needed to get them there.

This idea of focusing your words and messaging on your audience’s needs means:

    Avoid education industry jargon. At best, it creates confusion, at worst it comes off as condescending.

    Let your visuals reflect your audience when possible. Use pictures of students and staff (your own when possible), and parents. Be sure you also reflect your audience diversity to help create an inclusive visual environment.

    Remember WIIFM (“What’s in it for me,” but from the parent’s perspective). Using the Open House example above, parents should feel that their attendance could benefit their child. Better yet, have the students invite their parents—and that can accomplish the same thing.

When you develop your message, think in terms of one individual. The kind of individual you want to reach and imagine them reading, listening, or seeing your message. How would you feel? If you still can’t put yourself in their shoes, find someone who fits the profile of your target audience and run it by them.

This includes wording and tone in everything from your signage on your school marquee to your school websites. The best school websites will include school website content that is an inviting conversation. The same recommendations above apply to your website.

It’s a two-way street

So, you’re crafting your message with your audience needs in mind. Good. That’s a great start. But, are you the only one talking? Are you listening as well? You’re sending home newsletters, parent phone notifications, flyers, website links, and using social media. Are you also making it easy to receive communication? Are you using feedback forms on your website, social media icons like Facebook and Twitter? Are you attending community events and listening? Are you asking your staff, who has their ears to the ground in their various social, religious, and cultural communities?

If you aren’t able to answer “Yes” to these questions, it may be time to conduct a communication assessment, either through informal channels using staff and parents or more formal using a survey. However, that’s a topic for another post!

For a few more articles that will help keep your school communications on track and improve your school customer service at the same time, check out these articles:

Bonnie Leedy, CEO


How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook
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9 Reasons Why You Should Outsource Your School Website Management
2015-09-22

Yes, we are talking about outsourcing your school's website management. Not just the design of the website, which is quite common for most schools, but to include the ongoing content updates, proofing, copywriting, graphics, and content additions day in and day out.

The most vital work of a school website is the ongoing upkeep. It might look great when you first get handed a nice looking and intuitive new site, but what happens a year or two down the road when you've had a variety of people adding, deleting, revising, and reorganizing it? Did those folks making the changes understand best practices for website design or layout? Do they have a good grasp of public relations and how the school website affects your school's reputation and image? Do they know the requirements for maintaining ADA website accessibility and WCAG 2.0 standards? Or, is everyone doing their own thing–or maybe doing nothing because no one has the time to take on these extra tasks? 

Benefits 

 #1 Your School’s Image

Every parent, student, and taxpayer should be able to go to your school websites and see evidence of great things happening within the walls of your schools. They should see what quality their tax dollars or tuition is buying. It can also save you money when it saves your staff time by providing answers to those commonly requested questions, making forms readily available, letting parents get the information they need quickly and conveniently–just by visiting your school website. It can cut down on phone calls to your office. It can buy goodwill by making the job of being an involved parent a bit easier while improving communication. It can help you build the positive and respected image you hope to present to your patrons.

Keep your eye on the ball here–if done right you will not only improve your public image but can attract more students, save money, go green (stop using all that paper to get the job done), improve staff morale, and gain the respect that our educators in this country deserve. All this by making good use of that school website and your social media platforms? Yep. It's just good school public relations and smart leadership.

#2 Website Management Skillsets

Getting the right skill sets, especially for the areas critical to website management, which include graphic design, copywriting, editing, proofing, public relations, and a solid understanding of website best practices, means requiring much more from typical school personnel who are hired for a completely different set of skills. You also must deal with staff turnover so you will be hiring for those skill sets over and over again. 

#3 Saving Money

Outsourcing can save your school money, as compared to paying internal staff to develop and manage a website, especially considering that payroll is the most expensive budget item in any school. It can also provide you with predictable costs–you'll know what to expect each year. A company focused on these specific skill sets can also save money by taking advantage of economies of scale, which you can't do in-house. They must, however, make a profit in order to stay in business and continue to serve you, so depending on what all is included you might not see immediate cost savings. However, if you receive more for the money spent, you are indeed saving. For example, if you get higher quality, consistency, and reliability while spending no more money, you can still count yourself ahead. If your formerly static and out-of-date website is now informative and inviting, you are way ahead financially and in brand reputation.

#4 Management

Some schools like the idea of more than one person being able to upload content to their website. Their theory that “many hands make light work,” can quickly become “too many cooks spoil the broth” if some oversight for how and where to post this information isn’t strategically managed. When many people have access to upload content, the tone and the message of the content can vary drastically within your website. Inconsistent messaging, tone, and voice, can hurt your school's image and branding, and you can lose credibility. Especially if you have teachers or staff who like to underline, highlight, and bold text, then use exclamation marks for emphasis. Setting clear expectations and establishing style sheets can help reduce this problem, but one or two people should still review content before it’s uploaded, just to be consistent—and that adds time and money to your website management process. 

So while CMS might seem like a perfect website solution you can control, there are a lot of other factors to consider that might not become apparent until you’re hip-deep in website issues. Here at School Webmasters, for example, we have about 30 people dedicated to performing your updates on a daily basis (including graphic updates, ADA website compliance, and quality control). We have our own style sheets so that your content is always edited and consistent. Have a problem or issue? We fix it. We become your professional, personal webmasters. All for a low monthly hosting fee of $149.00 per site). While managing your own CMS might be what others are doing, it may no longer be the wisest use of your staff’s time or skills.

#5 Training Time – recurring expenses

One of the often hidden costs when keeping your website management in-house is that of training. No matter how well designed your CMS system might be, no matter how good the documentation is, training is be required. Anyone who has been requested to provide content will need to be trained—not only on the system you’re using but to include all aspects for keeping your website looking professional and representing your school as you’d like. This means using best practices, having an eye for good design, good grammar and spelling, inviting tone, avoiding passive voice, following a standardized style guide, and much more. And training will be an ongoing cost—with staff changes and refresher courses, it will be at least a yearly project that will take time and money (and possibly resentment by staff who are already wearing too many hats and don’t appreciate being given one more). The more people editing the site, the more the cost in time and budget.

#6 Gaining Commitment

You and your staff are committed to your professions. You’re enthused and motivated. But transferring that enthusiasm to the website means taking time and commitment away from your job to update the website. It’s just not a top priority. Whether it is the IT department or teaching staff assigned the duty, it is not the primary objective for them. There are other duties more important. By outsourcing to someone whose job it is to keep your site current, intuitive, and informative, you get commitment.

 #7 Improving Quality

Look next at the quality and service levels you have now against what you would have if you take this to an off-site provider. The goal, besides saving your school or district some money, which cannot be ignored, is whether or not you end up doing a better job with your website than you are doing now. Your website can be a vital part of attracting new students, quality staff, and establishing outstanding communication channels within your community. No matter how large or small your school is, quality in education matters for everything you touch.

By using your CMS software to allow everyone to post to your site, you are likely to see a decline in the quality, accuracy, and ADA compliance of the site content. But, if you narrow the input to only a few trained staff members, your content will be sparse and your website uninformative. They just won’t have all the knowledge to keep the site current. There is a better choice and you can get the best of both worlds. You can have lots of up-to-date and informative content posted in a manner that keeps the high quality you must maintain. School websites are your primary communications tool and often the first impression people have of your school. So, quality matters.

#8 ADA Website Accessibility Compliance

Website accessibility is a complex and challenging requirement. Your school website is required to meet ADA website accessibility mandates and Section 504 of the rehabilitation act. That means every website update must be completed in such a way as to maintain an ADA compliant website. By outsourcing your website management to professionals, and avoiding the required training you would need to provide to your own school staff, you save money and time as you fulfill ADA accessibility requirements. You will also save the cost of expensive accessibility checking software.

#9 Continuity and Disaster Preparedness

The requirements of keeping up with the latest software and the redundancy, safety, and backup requirements needed to keep your websites up and running with optimum speed and efficiency can be a full-time job. Not many schools or districts have the funds or personnel to manage this in-house. Space, power, and capacity can all be scalable when outsourced.  The complexity of managing a website has gotten exponentially more challenging in the past few years. Just watch the nightly news to see who was recently hacked to be reminded of this reality—and those are companies with extensive security in place. Your IT department needs to be focused on their core responsibilities, and hosting and server security isn’t one of them.

In Summary 

So, take a look at what you are doing now. Is it really what is best for your school and your staff and your patrons? Contact us and let us show you how we can manage this for you and for a lower cost than you can keep it in-house. Is it time to take your website management to the next level? If so, we’ve got your back!

Next Steps!

Good questions to ask yourself when considering outsourcing the website’s management:

  1. What problems are we trying to solve? 
  2. What can outsourcing bring to the table that we can't supply using existing staff? 
  3. What will be the effect on our staff? (Save or cost them time?) 
  4. Do I need someone local or nearby? If so, why would that matter?
  5. How much control would we lose (or gain) by outsourcing? 
  6. Can we improve our internal customer service by the change?
  7. Will this require any layoffs or reorganization at our school? (Would that be good or bad?)
  8. Will website quality suffer or improve by outsourcing? 
  9. Will we be able to integrate with other technology functions? 
  10. Will outsourcing the management save YOUR school money?

Don’t forget to do the math!

Look first at the real costs. Figure everything that it now costs to manage your website in-house. This should include staff time, administrative time, system costs, hosting costs, training time, software/hardware expenses, website accessibility compliance, and the cost of implementing repeatable and effective processes. If you currently have many of your staff doing content updates to your existing website, you need to factor in how much of their time they spend on these tasks. Even if you don't track that time, if they are doing that instead of their mission-critical tasks then there is a cost to your school and to your students' education. We've gathered some "typical" data from other schools in the chart below. This might be a good matrix to help you determine what your costs are now.

We hope you'll consider the benefits you will gain by putting School Webmasters' dedicated staff to work for your school. Give us a call at 888.750.4556 and ask for Jim, or just REQUEST A QUOTE and tell us what challenges we can help your school overcome.

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