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  • Writer's pictureBrian and Davis Garrison

A different way to think about Marketing in Undergraduate Education

Marketing, viewed as advertising, may not seem necessary to schools. Especially Public Schools. Schools of choice, like Career Education and Private schools, choose to "advertise" in order to increase enrollment. Marketing, as a function of the education system, has long served one revenue. So you'll see increased communication during levys and prior to enrollment time. Yet, the number one concern people have about their local school? Poor communication.

I sense an opportunity.

Schools are great at asking people for their support. What they are not great at is explaining the "why?". That is where great marketing can play a role .

In my longer than normal service as a school board member in the public school system, and in commercial efforts with schools of choice, I have learned that schools too often communicate only when they have to. "Why X school?" is only answered when it has to be. When the situation becomes dire.

What does dire mean? It means there isn't enough revenue, or enrollment is down, or the community is upset. It means cuts or freezes. Or some other urgent need is forcing a schools hand. The paradigm shift here is that you shouldn't wait for these things to happen. You should expect them. Because they will.

The one truth I know about education is this: At some point you will reach "dire", and you will need more money, and/or more students. And at some point you'll need to ask someone for it.

What if schools improved their communication efforts all of the time, not just when they need to? What if people felt better connected, more in touch, more a part of the spirit and culture? Isn't it easier to ask your friends for support than it is to beg from strangers?

And the best news is, it's easy! Some folks have to look for marketing strategies, and target markets. In the public school system, yours are baked in. Here are four ways and reasons your school needs to communicate/go to market now...and why that can make a difference in the long term.

1). It is always levy season. It is a fact that your expenses are trending up. They always will. And as hard as you'll fight to control them, they will overwhelm your resources. So you cut, and maneuver and kick the can down the road to control the issue. The one thing you can't control is revenue. Sooner or later, you'll need to pass a levy. When you wait to promote your schools need for dollars, you end up focusing on the one thing people don't want to part with. Dollars! Your whole message is painful and unappealing. And that is too bad, because in every other point in time, the message can be so positive!

Do this: There are good things happening in your schools today. Good people doing good work for good kids, making an impact. When you share those stories on a regular basis, not just when the football team beats the rival, or the art show is in the gymnasium, you'll build a brand of excellence that your taxpayers will want to support. And these stories are easy to find. They are in the music department, and the agricultural clubs and the debate teams. They exist in your alumni community and in charitable service groups who are making a difference. They are stories of your everyday heroes that teach in your classrooms. Tell these stories often, even when you think people aren't listening. They will.

2). You have four target markets. That's it! They are Families, Seniors, Staff and the Business Community. These target markets care about different things. You'll need a solid and consistent plan to talk to each of these groups on a regular basis so that they'll be on your side all the time, not just when you are asking for money. If even one of the "plugs" feels ignored, it can be enough to sink your ship at the ballot box.

Do this: The good news is these target markets are specific and captive. That's a marketer's dream! Talk to families about the great things that their kids are experiencing. Talk to seniors about shared values and fiscal efficiencies. Share openly and honestly with your employees and stakeholders, and make them feel a part of the success stories. Talk to businesses about providing a ready for the world workforce and a strong community for the long term. Tell these stories every day and often. When it's time to ask for support, you'll have it already built.

3). Open enrollment works both ways. The efforts you are making to encourage others to join your ranks is the same machine that can keep students in your classrooms. It is far less expensive to keep a student from leaving than it is to encourage another to join the ranks.

Do this: Communicate spirit, pride and mission to your students. Tell them how happy they are. It seems Orwellian, but that's how marketing works! The marketing schemes that help people make up their minds every day in every industry are at play at your school too. So use them. Best of all, if you play your marketing cards right, the efforts don't have to be duplicated. Outsiders will want in, and insiders will want to stay.

4). Bonus: Go for No! Want to pass a levy? Make someone vote no! This one is controversial, but hang with me. The things you need to hang your hat on at levy time are the things people can not argue against. Examples: Are your schools safe, and could they be safer? Are your schools operating at the highest efficiencies, saving money even if that sometimes means spending more? Are your students succeeding in their future endeavors due to investments you've made in them? People like to vote against raising taxes. No one votes against safety, fiscal responsibility or success vs failure.

Do this: Identify the one thing your school system needs or needs to keep that everyone agrees on, and communicate that in your messaging. Don't focus on salaries, or transportation, or the age of your building. Those are 50/50 triggers at best. Don't ignore them of course. I'm not advocating bait and switch. But find the one thing even your harshest critic can't vote no on. Imagine Mr Jones, the biggest anti spend guy in town, pulling the no lever that will force him to spend more money for less safety. Mr. Jones will pass your levy.

Even if you agree with this little rant, there is still a big problem. Most administrators, especially in smaller districts, don't have the budget to hire a marketing professional or team, and they certainly don't have time to tackle this stuff themselves. If you'd like to talk more about potential solutions, maybe I can help. I understand your situation and your need, and I'd like to assist the cause if I can.

Bryan Lefelhoc (yes, that's me!) is a 32 year marketing veteran, serving many types of businesses and educational institutions. He has also served on various school boards as an elected or appointed official for over 14 years. And he has served on levy committees in an advertising role to help get the job done. Contact me and let's start a conversation.

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