Wired for engagement – the Schoolwires blog

Competition for K-12 student enrollments: It's real!

Posted by Debbora Woods on 2/10/15 9:30 AM


How do public K-12 district leaders compete in this competitive environment of choice?

By thinking and acting like competitors...and competitors compete!

Hot off the press is our brand new eBook - Congratulations! You've got competition. - designed with five steps to compete for student enrollment, new families, new teachers, and business partners in your district:

  1. Positioning
  2. Targeting
  3. Messaging
  4. Engaging
  5. Improving

In this new guide, we review each of these steps in detail and provide examples of how they can be used to improve the competitiveness of your district's branding and communications efforts.

Get your copy today >>

Topics: K-12 Competition

Congratulations, You’ve Got Competition. Five ways to win in the new competitive K-12 environment.

Posted by Marc Rubner on 10/30/14 9:00 AM


Guest blogger: Marc Rubner, VP of Marketing, Schoolwires

Part 5: Improving

“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” - H. James Harrington, Poor Quality Costs

One of the most important assets required to compete in any arena is information. This is no less the case for K-12 district leaders who must compete for enrollment, funding, and resources on a daily basis. Just as a product manager uses market data to improve her product features, functions, marketing, sales, and profitability, so must K-12 leaders who want to succeed at attracting parents and students to their communities.

Fortunately, with the growth of online resources (i.e., websites, mobile applications, social media, etc.), K-12 leaders have the ability to measure the impact of their initiatives with more reliability than ever before. However, simply doing a few surveys and tracking web traffic is not enough to drive continuous improvement in community engagement. K-12 district leaders must build an information-based culture within their organization.

There are five key steps to creating an information-based culture and driving continuous improvement:

  1. Test: When creating messaging, employing new communications channels or working with new partners, create several iterations of your final output and test them. If you’re creating new copy of an email campaign, send one version to a portion of your base and a second version to another portion. Then measure the results to see which one fared better with your audience. Testing should be a standard part of your marketing process to ensure messaging and creative approaches hit their mark.
  2. Measure: Measure the results of everything you do. Utilize online tools like Google Analytics to measure your website traffic. Use Hootsuite or other commercial solutions to track your social media impact. Use marketing automation tools to measure the open rates and click through rates of your email campaigns and ads. Also, utilize your forms and surveys tools within your website content management system to measure the pulse of your community through surveys and polls.
  3. Track: Track the results of your measurements over time. Always look for opportunities to employ regular measurements to gauge progress. Monthly web traffic reports can provide a measure of improved website performance, while annual surveys of community members track attitudes and behaviors over time. This helps create a measure of progress as a reward for your efforts. Measurements should not be one-time events.
  4. Refine: Use the data you’re gathering and the measurements you’re taking to refine your messaging, channels, and communication initiatives. If something is working, do more of it. If it’s not working, stop doing it. Use data to stop bad investments in channels that are not delivering results. Put that money and time toward initiatives you can prove are working.
  5. Repeat: Never stop measuring. The result of all of this data gathering, measurement, and analysis should be continuous improvement. That improvement should be measurable to ensure your progress never ends.

In the battle between facts and opinion, facts win every time.

Topics: K-12 Competition

Congratulations, you've got competition. Five ways to win in the new competitive K-12 environment.

Posted by Marc Rubner on 10/23/14 9:20 AM


Guest Blogger: Marc Rubner, VP of Marketing, Schoolwires

Part 4: Interactive Engagement

New online channels and capabilities, coupled with in-person events, offer K-12 district leaders the opportunity to engage directly with community members in a way that can help define a district’s brand. The more leaders take advantage of and combine these online and in-person opportunities to personalize their communication with community members, the more likely their district’s brand will be identified with coveted brand images like responsive, personal, progressive, and transparent.

Five ways to enable interactive engagement include:

School and District Town Halls: Transparency begins when leaders take the stage and provide district information directly to community members. Transparency and responsiveness are optimized when leaders enable interactive discussions, respond to new ideas, and confront detractors head on, in open forums. This can happen at both the district and school level.

Regular Meetings with Community Influencers: Savvy K-12 district leaders know that brand building can be accelerated through the communicative power of a few highly connected and influential community members. Identifying and meeting with these influencers should be done on a regular basis. These are opportunities to share information and acknowledge new ideas and approaches. Ultimately, this leads to better message control by letting influencers work to build the district brand.

Community Events: Community events don’t have to be restricted to the school level. District leaders should have the opportunity to interact with community members in a casual interpersonal setting that promotes the district’s brand. It also gives district leaders an opportunity to distribute information on district success and progress that might otherwise get lost in increasingly crowded online channels.

Social Media: Interactive engagement doesn’t have to be confined to in-person events. Creating a brand that in recognized as personal, progressive, and responsive can also be done through online channels. Social media is a particularly effective way to increase interpersonal communication. A strong social media presence is one that not only consistently provides content through popular channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but also responds immediately when community members comment through these channels. These habits build a K-12 district brand by equating it with transparency and responsiveness.

Blogging: Corporate business leaders have begun to embrace blogging as a way to personalize their brand and connect directly with their market. K-12 district leaders have been a bit slower to embrace this medium, but those who have report very positive effects. Blogging is a way to distribute information directly to the community while also allowing the community to engage through comments and discussion threads. It takes the old monthly newsletter to a new level of engagement.

Along with successfully executing these events, a critical key to success is how district leaders promote these initiatives. Utilize all assets including your website, notification system, mobile application, social media channels, local offline advertising channels (newspapers, radio, etc.), and direct marketing lists to drive attendance and build awareness.

By combining online and offline events and initiatives, K-12 leaders can impact their district’s overall brand through interactive engagement. The results will be a broad recognition of your district as responsive, progressive, transparent, and personal.

Topics: Community Engagement, K-12 Competition, K-12 Brand

Congratulations, you’ve got competition. Five ways to win in the new competitive K-12 environment.

Posted by Marc Rubner on 10/14/14 9:12 AM


Guest Blogger: Marc Rubner, VP of Marketing, Schoolwires

Part 3: Messaging and Marketing Communications

In the first segment of our five-part series on the new competitive K-12 environment, we discussed how to effectively position your K-12 district to compete effectively in the new era of school choice. In Part 2, we continued the discussion with a focus on segmentation and targeting. In Part 3, we’ll focus on developing effective messaging and – bonus time! – the best way to select the channels through which to deliver your messages so they reach those clearly defined segments.

I was meeting with the head of communications for a large urban high school district in a highly competitive market. Charter schools, private schools, and state-wide open enrollment were seriously impacting his enrollment numbers. In an effort to understand why students and parents were choosing other districts, I asked him, “What is your biggest challenge that keeps you from attracting students as effectively as you’d like?” Without hesitation, he replied “Mythbusting?”

“Mythbusting?” I asked.

“Yes. Mythbusting,” he reiterated.

He explained his research indicated that despite outstanding safety records, new and modern school buildings, and rising standardized test scores, parents and students who should be attending his district chose not to because they believe the myth that urban public high schools are unsafe, falling apart, and produce fewer students who meet state academic standards.

I was fascinated. “So," I asked, “What are you doing about it?” He responded, “We’ve initiated a marketing and advertising campaign to raise our profile and attract more students.” And he proceeded to share with me the direct mail postcards, print advertisements from the local newspapers, and billboard ads he was running in town.

What I noticed was three things:

  1. This communications pro did his research to find the optimal messaging opportunity - bust that myth!
  2. He knew who he wanted to reach: Parents and students across his district who were unaware of the facts about his schools’ safety, modernization, and academic achievement.
  3. He had the appropriate channels of communications scoped out. He even worked out a pro bono deal with the billboard owners to secure the billboards at a significant discount.

But why wasn’t his approach working? When I reviewed the materials he provided, it quickly became obvious: none of the post cards, billboard ads, or newspaper ads mentioned anything about his district's fantastic safety record; or their new facilities; or the students' test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. In other words, he didn’t align his messaging with his target. It was an opportunity missed.

The three steps to effective messaging and marketing communication are:

  1. Research: Identify the needs, information gaps and perceptions of your audience. If you’ve already identified your target, talk to them, listen to them and find out why they choose your district and why they don’t.
  2. Use Clear and Concise Language Backed by Facts: The goal of your messaging is to convince your target audience that your district is the best choice for them. Stay focused on this. Use as few words as possible. Support them with facts. In the example above, one effective messaging approach would have been a billboard featuring a simple stat: “Our standardized test scores and graduation rates have improved by more than 25% over the past five years. That’s better than 95% of districts in the state.” A message like this cuts through the myth and offers a point of comparison that’s credible and impressive. Use Carmine Gallo’s Message Mapping as a guideline for developing concise, effective language.
  3. Use Testimonials from Credible Members of Your Audience:  To bust the myth of underperforming schools, a quote from a recent graduate could offer “More than seventy-five percent of my graduating class went on to college. Thanks to the challenging courses and great teachers at my high school, I got a scholarship to my first choice!”

Above all, connect the dots all the way through to the end messaging.

Finally, even if you’ve managed to get the messaging right, failing to identify the right communications channels that reach your audience will render all that work moot.

Again, there are three steps (there’s a theme here…) to ensure you’re investing in the right channels.

  1. Research: Here it is again. Start with research. Poll your audience to find out what media they are using. Get insight into online channels (your district website, email, text messaging, pay per click, etc.). Schoolwires clients often use the Forms and Survey tools within Centricity2 content management system to survey their constituents.
  2. Test, Measure and Adjust: Invest modestly in a variety of channels. Measure what works and keep doing those while eliminating those that don’t. Online channels are typically easier to measure than offline channels (newspaper ads, billboards, direct mail), but not impossible. Using response codes and measuring incoming phone calls or response rates based on the timing of offline campaigns can provide insight.
  3. Network: Use the power of your teacher, administrator, and community networks. Make sure you ensure success via word-of-mouth. Neighbors talk to neighbors. School choice is a referral business. Ensure your network is working for you and not against you by joining the conversations and providing accurate and timely information to help your network spread positive news and reviews about your district.

As marketers in competitive product industries know, connecting effective messaging with the right communications channel improves sales. K-12 school district leaders can achieve similar results by utilizing the same approach.

Topics: K-12 Communications, K-12 Competition, Messaging, Marketing Communications

Congratulations, you’ve got competition. Five ways to win in the new competitive K-12 environment.

Posted by Marc Rubner on 10/10/14 9:00 AM


Guest Blogger: Marc Rubner, VP of Marketing, Schoolwires

Part 2: Segmentation and Targeting

In the first post of our five-part series on the new competitive K-12 environment, we discussed how to effectively position your K-12 district to compete in the new era of school choice. In Part 2, we continue the discussion with a focus on segmentation and targeting.

Product managers and corporate marketers realize their products can’t be all things to all people.  However, this is a hard concept for district leaders to grasp. Even if you want to attract all students to your district you’ll still have to develop messaging that appeals to varying constituents within your community. One universal message will not resonate with all audiences. Focus your messages on what’s most attractive to smaller audiences that have the greatest chance of hitting the mark.

There are two steps to effectively segmenting and targeting audiences that will be attracted to your district.

1. Conduct Research

Competitive marketers focus their energies toward the buyers that are most likely to be receptive to their messages and ultimately use their products.

How do they know who is most likely to become a customer? They conduct quantitative and qualitative research to find out. District leaders who want to identify the most receptive audiences should too.

Quantitative research is most commonly conducted via survey.  Surveys can be conducted via email (using the Forms and Surveys tool in Schoolwires Centricity2, for example) and can cover a wide range of topics. Surveys are a great way to gather demographic information and attitudinal perspectives of large groups as well as preferred communications methods, technology usage, and other engagement related trends.   Conducting consistent surveys over time allows K-12 districts to establish benchmarks and trends among their community that might help with the development and refinement of district positioning and messaging.

Qualitative research in the form of focus groups and one-on-one interviews can provide deep insight into constituent perspectives.  Best conducted via a third-party researcher without ties to either the community or the district, qualitative research can uncover messaging and positioning opportunities at a detailed level.

2. Create Community Personas

In the product world, these are called Buyer Personas, but for the purposes of K-12 school districts, we’ll call them Community Personas.

District leaders must decide and focus on specific audiences. Who are you targeting? Are you targeting all potential students within your district? Students outside of your district?  Parents? In order to effectively target, competitive organizations create buyer personas that help to define the key characteristics of their target. Here’s a link to how Hubspot, a leading marketing automation solution provider, approaches Buyer Personas.

This approach humanizes the target (because your targets are, in fact, people!) and identifies their challenges, aspirations, and decision making criteria for selecting a school or district.

These personas may differ from school to school along with your overall targets, so take care to develop personas on a detailed level.

Community personas can be as detailed as you need them to be, but should always include the following information (see the Hubspot template for more details)

  • Demographics
  • Personal Goals
  • Personal Challenges
  • How Your District Helps
  • Some Quotes From Your Research Interviews
  • Common Objectives
  • Marketing Messages
  • Elevator Pitch (see last week’s blog post)

Effective segmentation and targeting will significantly increase your chances of reaching and attracting the most receptive audience. Taking the time to conduct illuminating research and create focused community personas are important steps.

Topics: K-12 Competition, K-12 districts

Congratulations, You've got competition. Five ways to win in the new competitive K-12 environment.

Posted by Marc Rubner on 10/3/14 2:06 PM


One million students are on a waiting list to attend a charter school. (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

The number of full time students registered in online education is four times what it was a decade ago. (National Education Policy Center)

Ten percent of U.S. students attend a private school. Congratulations, you’ve got competition. (Council for American Private Education)

How do public K-12 district leaders compete in the new environment of choice? By thinking and acting like competitors.

… and competitors compete.

In order to compete successfully, K-12 school districts need to focus their efforts the way product companies focus theirs. Here are five steps to effectively compete for student enrollment in your district:

  1. Positioning
  2. Segmentation and Targeting
  3. Messaging
  4. Engaging
  5. Improving

Over the next few weeks, we’ll review each of these steps in detail and provide examples of how they can be used to improve the competitiveness of your district’s branding and communication efforts.

Today’s topic is Positioning.

Effective positioning is a product of formal and informal research initiatives, market listening, and expert guidance that serves to solidify your differentiation. It answers the question: Why should I choose you over all these other options?

There are 3 elements to effective positioning:

a) Start with Why

Simon Sinek, in his best-selling book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (The Penguin Group, 2009), suggests that in order to properly position yourself against competitors, tell your audience WHY you exist. For example, at Schoolwires we strive to help every K-12 community reach its optimal level of engagement. We don’t just sell websites or mobile applications. We exist for a higher purpose; which begins with technology solutions, services, and training.   Why does your district exist?

b) Create a positioning statement

A positioning statement is a critical tool for all competitive organizations. A well-constructed positioning statement defines the market in which your district competes, your district’s unique value proposition, and your competitive advantage. The structure for developing an effective value proposition comes from Geoffrey A. Moore’s classic book Crossing the Chasm (Harper Collins Publishing, 1991). Although developed for technology companies, the positioning statement structure holds up for competitors in any industry. I’ve adapted the structure for K-12 districts:

  • For (target student). Who is your real target? What type of student are you hoping to attract?
  • Who must (solve a specific problem). What concern do they have Do the research. Talk to your community. If you are not addressing a top of mind concern of your target student, you will not attract them to your district.
  • Our district is a new or different (describe your unique or new approach).
  • That provides (key breakthrough benefit vs. current way of doing things – which solves dilemma). What is the remedy you are offering to your target students above?
  • Unlike (competitor in your district). Who is your real competition?
  • We have (whole offering most relevant for you). What differentiates you from your competition? Think about the whole offering. Go beyond clichés and vague statements about “helping every student achieve his/her full potential.” What is different about your district that is sustainable and relevant?

Here’s an example:

For high school students and their parents Who are searching for the right high school to meet their unique academic and extracurricular needs The West Point School District offers a broad choice of seven academically and socially diverse high schools That offer a unique combination of Advanced Placement courses, athletic teams, arts programs, and community activities. Unlike local charter and private high schools, The West Point School District’s high schools have all achieved Blue Ribbon status ranking each of them within the top 25 in the state. Our graduation rates and college attendance rates are also highest in the state, while five are among the top 100 in the country.

The positioning statement is NOT advertising copy. This is not a statement you would necessarily print on a post card. The positioning statement is a foundational description that helps leaders maintain a consistent focus on your unique value proposition, your competitive advantage, and the specific market you’re looking to target and attract.

c) Create an elevator pitch message (see Carmine Gallo)

An elevator pitch is a very short message everyone associated with your district should be able to recite when asked, “Tell me about your school district.” Again, it’s not a tagline or a full positioning statement. It’s a brief statement that makes the person asking the question say, “Really? Tell me more…”

A terrific primer for developing effective pitch messaging comes from communications coach, Carmine Gallo. Gallo’s Message Mapping exercise (Watch youtube video) details the method by which any communications leader can develop effective pitch messages.

Message mapping begins with developing a 140 character statement describing what your district is all about. The 140 character limit forces the writer to be extremely concise, eliminating hyperbole and wasteful language. Then, the map branches out to three supporting facts that further clarify the main statement. Check out Gallo’s video to review the example and develop a message map for your district.

Come back next week when we’ll focus on Segmentation and Targeting to ensure your communications are saying the right things to the right community members at the right time.

Topics: Student Enrollment, K-12 Competition, Positioning

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