If you’re hashing out marketing and school public relations on your own, then a full-blown strategic communications plan can feel overly complicated and time-consuming. Sometimes looking at complex processes in different ways can help with understanding and executing and, thereby, simplifying the process. In this blog, let’s look at your school marketing plan like a road map—complete with simple, stops along the way to help you reach your goal.
To keep things as unconvoluted as possible, we’re going to skip over some of the “essential,” strategic steps (like completing an in-depth situation or SWOT analysis and conducting research). Instead, we’re going to have you run on generalizations, things you already know, and situations that are apparent.
It’s not easy to make school marketing plans on your own. To get started on the right path, gather a team and hold a brainstorming session to determine your goals.
If this were traditional marketing, your goal would grow out of the foundational work you completed in your situation analysis and research. But sometimes it’s already painfully clear where you need to start with your school communication efforts. You need to increase enrollment; you need to attract new teachers; your school needs a plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Use these questions to guide your brainstorm:
- What matters most at this time?
- Why is this important?
- What are we truly trying to accomplish? Or what outcomes are we trying to achieve?
- What will success look like?
- Will this goal support our mission?
Whatever goal you choose for your marketing plan, it must relate back to your school mission. This might seem like overstating a trivial matter. You might be thinking, “What does it matter if our goal doesn’t relate to our school mission?” But it does matter. Your mission is the unifying, rallying call for all your school activities. It is the standard to which your school is constantly striving. Your school marketing goals will be successful when they relate to and uphold your school mission.
Identify Your Audience
Now that you have a destination in mind, the next stop on your journey is to identify the people involved in or affected by the goals you have set. These people have stake in your actions, therefore, they are your key stakeholders. We’ll skip the nitty-gritty business of developing stakeholder personas and doing in-depth research to understand your various audience needs. While that information is important to you in the long run, we’re on the fast road here. Instead, we’ll focus on the basics. As you identify your audience, make generalizations.
Ask your team:
- To whom is our communication targeted?
- Why are these stakeholders important to this goal?
- How does our goal benefit our audience?
- What matters to these stakeholders? What are their interests, values, motivations, prejudices?
- How do our stakeholders prefer communication (channel and frequency)?
- Are there any constraints on communication (language, culture, technology, etc.) that we need to consider?
If you aren’t able to answer these questions, you may need to take a detour off of the fast road and do some of that nitty-gritty research on your stakeholders.
Brief detour to research methods
A common misconception about research is that it has to be time-intensive and costly. However, there are a number of simple things you can do to better understand your parents, staff, community, students, or whomever it is you need research. Try some of the following fast and simple research methods:
- Focus groups with a few stakeholders. Bribe attendants with coffee and donuts. This is a great way to ask questions to learn what your stakeholder’s value, have negative attitudes toward, are skeptical of, and appreciate.
- Curbside surveys. Take advantage of the morning drop-off and evening pick-up to ask your stakeholders a few questions. This is especially good for short discussion questions, including demographic information and communication preferences.
- Social media or website-based surveys. These channels can be helpful for opinion polls to see how stakeholders feel about certain issues. Keep in mind, though, if you’re polling areas where your stakeholders don’t prefer communicating, you may have trouble getting results.
Define Your Key Messages
Back on track with our school marketing plan, the next stop is to define your key messages. Keep these high-level; at this stage, you’re not planning on exactly what you’ll post on Facebook or on the website, you’re defining the overall message you want to communicate.
One of the best school marketing tips we can give you here is to make sure your messages are credible. Just one key message that your audience won’t believe can undermine all your marketing efforts—so be honest, be clear, and be sure to back up what you say. Here are a few questions to discuss with your team as you define your key messages.
- What are three to five points we want our target audiences to retain?
- What matters most to our stakeholders that will help these messages resonate?
- How do we want our stakeholders to feel, think, or act as a result of our communications?
- Is this message memorable?
- Why will our stakeholders invest in this message?
- Do these messages support our school brand (mission, vision, and values)?
- Are these messages clear and concise?
- Will there be disagreement, argument, or opposing opinions to our messages? If so, what is the opposition? What can we communicate proactively to counter the negative messages?
- Are there points in our messages that need to be communicated to only some of our stakeholders?
Your carefully crafted key messages will be the starting point for your strategy and tactics. While the main point of your messages will remain the same, as you start planning your communications, you will modify your messages to fit specific communication channels and tailor them to specific audiences.
Your strategies are the main tasks—the big picture ideas—that you want to execute to reach your goals. The main tasks can include things like newsletters, feature stories, marketing videos, social media campaigns, etc. Your tactics are the sub-tasks (the specific actions) that need to take place to accomplish your main task. This is the part where you will start to craft the contents of your newsletter or plan social media posts. Work with an editorial calendar or a communications calendar to plan your strategy and set deadlines.
Be careful to keep focused in this step. Your goal should be supported by one or more communication strategies. But you don’t want to overdo it; the last thing you want is to set too many strategies. Too many different tasks can lead you down detoured roads, and you run the risk of losing sight of your main goal. You’ll never reach your destination if you keep adding new stops along the way, especially if you have limited personnel to help with your school marketing plan. The best advice? Keep the number of your strategies to five or less.
Here are several questions to help your team set tasks:
- What can we do to reach our audience?
- What stories, illustrations, analogies, or anecdotes will help our messages be memorable?
- What communication channels do we have available, and how can we best use them?
In this step, you’ll want to streamline your tasks by assigning a responsible party. Choose someone on your team who has a passion for the task. For example, you’ll want to assign your social media addict to social media updates and your resident closet-novelist to writing stories for your newsletter. The key to this suggestion is to make sure your responsible party has the time to commit to the project. You don’t want your plans and efforts to fall by the wayside because your team doesn’t have the time to commit to the task.
Celebrate Your Successes
“Evaluation” is sometimes the least favorite part of any campaign, but it is a crucial step. Without it, how will you know if you’ve been successful? Evaluation is easier when your goal is something with clearly measurable results (like increasing enrollment or increasing your social media engagement). But what if your goal is more abstract, like “improving public relations” or “creating better teacher-parent interactions”?
One of the best marketing tips I can offer is: celebrate your successes as you go! There is no overstating this. When something goes well, toot your horn! And I’m not just talking about sharing your school successes with your community (which you should be doing anyway). You need to share your marketing successes with your team and with the school administration.
Did you post a picture and caption on Facebook that engaged your audience with likes and comments? Grab a screenshot and send an e-mail to your principal with a note saying, “Did you see this? Our fans loved it!” If you’ve been working on gaining more coverage in the local papers, then every time your story gets covered, send a link to your team and admin.
Tracking these successes will help you evaluate your campaign when you reach the end. If you’re really clever though, you won’t wait until the end to spend time evaluating. In fact, you should schedule times throughout the year to meet with your team and follow up. Sometimes your marketing goals might have relatively short time frames—for example, promoting your back-to-school activities. In that case, don’t worry about evaluating until it’s over. However, other times, you might have year-long goals (or longer). Especially with longer-term goals, you may hit a roadblock with a tactic that isn’t working or need to detour if an emergency arises. Keep everyone on track by getting together periodically to talk about what’s working, what isn’t, and where you may need to make some adjustments.
Are you ready for the journey? We’ve mapped out the major stops along the way, so don’t let your school marketing plan feel overwhelming. Stick to these and reach your goals:
- Gather your team and set goals
- Identify your audience
- Define your messages
- Set your tasks
- Celebrate your successes
A lot of what feels overwhelming about marketing plans can be the manpower to see it through. If this is your case, ask us about our PR4 Schools service line. It’s an affordable solution to the man-power conundrum.
Katie Brooks, School Public Relations Manager