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:
- This communications pro did his research to find the optimal messaging opportunity - bust that myth!
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.