Billy Cometti is the Head of Communications at Ark. He first joined Ark in 2012, having previously worked in communications and marketing for The British Red Cross and The BBC in the UK and at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. He has written this blog based on his experience helping schools to market themselves, but he also has a parent’s perspective, as he is busy evaluating secondary schools for his daughter.
As Head of Communications for the Ark network, Principals often ask me for advice on how to encourage more students to apply to their schools. In an environment where there is considerable financial pressure on schools, Principals need to understand the basics of marketing to parents and students, but often they don’t know where to begin. More students translates to more funding and more funding means more resources for things like specialist staff and facilities – things that help schools to offer a better standard of education. There’s a sense that there is a vicious circle at work – “More marketing would probably help us to attract more students, but we don’t have the funding to pay for marketing.”
The very best tip anyone can offer a Principal looking to better market their school is “run a really good school.” Marketing techniques will never be the only answer, but there are several things you can do to increase awareness of your school that don’t cost a penny.
Do: understand that it’s not just about results
Academic performance matters to parents when they choose a school, but it’s not the only thing that matters. Different families will have different criteria for what they think makes a school great. That’s why it’s important to have a clear pitch. What is it about your school that makes it special? Are you outstanding in STEM subjects? Music and performing arts? Pastoral care? Whatever it is, identify it and don’t be afraid to repeat it over and over until the message gets through. Also, for many parents, something more important than the school’s current results is the school’s current direction of travel. Have results improved each of the past three years? Are your results above the local average? A school that claims to be pretty good at everything leaves a very bland impression in a parent’s mind. Understand what’s different and unique about your school and market to that strength.
Don’t: see parents as customers, see them as partners
The single biggest asset you have as a school is your Principal and they should be front and centre of any marketing efforts, visiting local community centres, nursery schools, mosques, churches, synagogues and sports centres. Most parents will conflate their image of the Principal with their image of the school. Come across as engaging, personable and approachable and they will see your school that way as well. The same is true for open days. If you only have one or two open days each year, arranged at inconvenient times with a “hustle them in and hustle them out” approach, you will be sending the message to the community that you see them as punters not partners.
Do: understand what you can’t control and what you can
There’s an old adage that says the three most important factors in any new business are location, location and location. Studies show that a school’s location is one of the most important factors in choosing a school. While you may not be able to control your address, you can control how you market your school.
Is your school really central and located next to transport links? Point that out on your website. If your school isn’t in the most accessible location, make sure your site includes information on how to get there, including nearby bus routes. Some parents may discover it’s easier to get there than they had realised. Some schools also have “walking buses” or “buddy systems” where students partner up to make the trip to school together. Even if a parent doesn’t need that kind of programme, seeing this implemented sends a signal that the school’s leadership cares about student wellbeing. That’s a message that will resonate with every parent. Also, it may sound obvious, but make sure your facilities are clean, welcoming and accessible. A large sign in front of your school inviting parents to open days can make a world of difference, and many heads believe that lettings are a good way to showcase your school to the community.
Don’t: think of admissions as something for the council to deal with
Schools often don’t realise how bewildering the admissions process can be to parents. If you want to create a positive image for your school, make sure that every interaction with a prospective parent is a positive one – especially when it comes to the stressful topic of admissions. You should offer advice about the process in person and on your website and make sure to list key admissions dates clearly online. If you’re not sure how welcoming your school is, you can always test it by ringing the reception as a “mystery shopper.”
Do: put someone in charge
Schools have maths leads, assessment leads and inclusion leads, but most of them don’t have marketing leads. It’s important that Principals don’t try to do everything on their own and that they delegate some of the marketing responsibility to members of their team. This is particularly true when it comes to social media. Find out who is digitally savvy on your staff and ask them to lead on Twitter, Facebook or other outlets. Remember that parents speak to other parents and if you create a positive social media presence, they will have more opportunities to become ambassadors for your school. Your marketing lead should also be encouraged to pitch stories to the media. Local newspapers love good stories about schools, so don’t underestimate the potential for your students to become local stars. Good content is the key to good marketing and you’ll never have good content if you don’t put someone in charge of generating it.
Don’t: be afraid
The last tip is the most important. Don’t be afraid. Marketing requires you to put yourself and your school out there in the public sphere. There are of course risks involved. If people are talking about your school, then there is a chance that not all of the talk will be positive, but the alternative is worse – nobody talking about your school at all.
Social media is a particular worry for Principals: “What if someone criticises us?” These are legitimate concerns, but they are issues that every school has to deal with and closing yourself off from social media doesn’t mean that these worries go away, it just means you won’t be part of conversations that are going to happen anyway. There is plenty of advice online for schools worried about the downsides to being present on social media, but for most schools, the upside makes it worth the risks. One thing is certain, marketing your school well is a game you definitely can’t win if you refuse to play.