School marketing – the new challenges

How are schools marketing themselves in 2020, and has the Covid-19 crisis made a difference to their plans?

Why is marketing so important to independent schools? As Alison Taylor, managing director of Conscious Communications, explains, due to the saturated markets that schools often operate within on a geographical basis, they are actively competing against each other for the attention of the same families (both local and further afield).

This means that they need to establish what sets them apart and utilise a range of different marketing tools in order to get their message across effectively.

She says: “These schools will also have similar facilities, academic offering and outcomes so, from the outset, it is important that schools determine their USP, and how they ‘sell’ that to the right families. Some schools may also face issues of historical perceptions in the community (and further afield) which need shifting – for example, old-fashioned, not academic enough, too focused on results.”

School marketing in 2020

Philippa Scudds is director of marketing and communications at Canford School in Dorset. She has worked in independent schools marketing since 2003, a time when she says few schools had a website, digital photography and video were not widely used and advertising an open day usually consisted of a black and white text box in the local press. In addition, a dedicated marketing department was something that only a few schools had, and any publicity was usually managed by a member of the existing teaching or support staff.

Discussing how things have changed in her experience, she says: “Fast-forward to 2020, and most independent schools now employ a member of staff, or in some cases a fairly large team, of specialist marketers to handle marketing across the spectrum of the discipline – advertising, press relations, social media, website content, events and strategic communications. Through this, the sector has therefore become even more competitive, added to which have been the ever-rising fees and resultant questions surrounding affordability. With this in mind, schools deciding not to invest in marketing do so at their peril.”

“Schools deciding not to invest in marketing do so at their peril” – Philippa Scudds, director of marketing and communications, Canford School

Tim Laker, bursar at Lewes Old Grammar School (LOGS) in Sussex also believes that having an experienced marketer on board is crucial in terms of independent schools being able to utilise the different opportunities that they have for promotion, especially when it comes to digital media. He adds: “It’s not simply a case of buying advertising space in a magazine and considering your work done. Now social media marketing plays a crucial part and so does good external communication with the media.”

Over the last five years, Solihull School (which is set to merge with Saint Martin’s in September) has made the decision to move away from print advertising entirely, choosing to focus on online channels instead. Discussing this further, Lucie Ray-Barrett, marketing manager, said: “We now take a much more targeted approach, employing a digital media agency and utilising our website, app and social media channels.”

school marketing
During Covid-19 Solihull School has supported the local community with a drive-through food bank

The impact of coronavirus

Since March, schools have faced the unprecedented challenge of having to close their doors in light of the Covid-19 crisis. However, despite facing such adverse times and huge uncertainty, many have used the opportunity to be creative with their marketing and remind current and prospective families (as well as the local community) of their presence.

Taylor has seen many of the schools that she works with focusing more on online marketing during this time, and has found the way they have approached and tackled the current situation inspiring. She says: “We have seen many schools offering virtual open days with great success, and it will be interesting to see how this approach continues in the future. UK independent schools have a big job on their hands to convince international students and families that schools in the UK are a safe space for their children to thrive within in the coming years.”

At LOGS, Laker says that despite being in uncharted territory, current parents have been extraordinarily loyal and supportive. However, he believes that the subject of school fees is something that will need to be addressed in light of the ongoing economic impact of the crisis. He says: “We hope that potential parents will see how our staff have worked tirelessly to provide live Teams lessons throughout the homeschooling period and realise what a good proposition LOGS is.”

Highfield and Brookham Schools were forced to close about a month before a planned open morning in April, and within a week the marketing team had been able to launch a brand-new ‘Virtual Visits’ campaign instead. Discussing the challenge of running open events during lockdown, head of marketing and development Caroline Beldham says: “We decided the most valuable thing we could offer for our prospective parents was a one-to-one video conference with our heads. This meant, no matter where a parent was in their decision-making, this would allow them the chance to ask specific questions, discuss their child and get to know our heads just a little bit better.”

Looking ahead to the 2020/21 academic year and beyond, Scudds from Canford School believes that marketing budgets will be scrutinised more than ever: “It will be crucial that marketing departments re-examine their strategic communications plans to ensure that they are maximising on any spend and directing their efforts in the most effective ways.”

school marketing
Highfield and Brookham had to close a month before an open morning

School marketing in practice

Conscious Communications have worked with St Mary’s School, an all-girls faith school based in Cambridge. Although the school has a consistently good academic record, it had a historic reputation for being the ‘second choice’ independent school in the area for parents who believed their children to be less academically able, and the agency were asked to help raise its profile.

Taylor says: “Our team leveraged its relationships with education media to create opportunities for the headmistress to provide comment and opinion on topical issues and to contribute thought leadership content in the form of articles about single-sex education, gender equality, religious education, and more, which were published in national print and digital titles. We were also asked to bring the school’s digital presence up to date. Over four years we achieved a 437% increase in Twitter followers; a 166% increase in likes on Facebook; a 235% increase in followers on LinkedIn and a 415% increase in followers on Instagram.”

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, Solihull School has been working on various initiatives to promote positivity and support the local community. As part of this, Solihull Preparatory School launched the #NHSstaffrock campaign to deliver messages of support and goodie bags to key workers across the region, and Solihull Senior School opened a drive-through food bank. Discussing the impact, Ray-Barrett says: “These activities generated a ‘feel-good’ factor and support across our Solihull community and beyond.”

“Our marketing describes what we are and helps families to decide if we are the right school for them” – Tim Laker, bursar, Lewes Old Grammar School

As there are so many different types of independent schools in Sussex, Laker believes that marketing for LOGS is all about promoting what makes the school unique. He says: “We are a very inclusive school and our timetable is highly bespoke to suit pupils of all abilities as they rise through the school. Our marketing describes what we are and helps families to decide if we are the right school for them.”

At Canford School, they launched their #CanfordTogether campaign when the school closed its gates to onsite learning in March. As Scudds explains, the campaign provided a simple way of drawing all the positive news stories from across the school community together and sharing them across social media.

She says: “The goodwill that this campaign generated cannot be overestimated. In the aftermath of Covid-19, we will be able to review the year in pictures and film drawing on the results of the hashtag for marketing material, so from a time perspective this will really help the marketing team to collate all the material together.”

Beldham from Highfield and Brookham Schools thinks that because independent schools offer similar things, their marketing allows them to promote their character, feel and quirks and showcase what makes them different.

She says: “For example, don’t you immediately get a better feel for Highfield and Brookham Schools knowing that Phillip Evitt, headmaster at Highfield School, and his wife lovingly decorate our chapel every Christmas with handmade garlands made from holly grown in our woodlands? Or that Sophie Baber, headteacher at Brookham School, shakes hands with every child on their way into school in the morning?”

School marketing tips

Alison Taylor: “Students and alumni are schools’ most effective ambassadors and we always advocate that schools consider them in their marketing strategies; they are the most authentic selling tool that a school has.”

Tim Laker: “If you have an open day you are promoting, then billboards locally work well as does an advert in the local paper. But if there is something you want to tell the world about, like your excellent chemistry department, that might be part of an article in TES or a specialist education magazine. It just depends on the marketing message.”

Lucie Ray-Barrett: “From our experience, word of mouth has to be one of the most effective – and most cost-effective – forms of marketing. Hearing about someone’s personal experience – good or bad – can really influence a decision. This, of course, relates to all sectors not just education.”

Caroline Beldham: “The most successful shift we have made at Highfield and Brookham Schools is to a focused-content marketing strategy. Sharing advice pieces from our heads, ideas on celebrating VE Day at home and science projects you can do in the garden have meant we have seen an increase in new visitors to our website. New visitors comprise 65.5% of our web traffic compared to 49.8% last year.”

Philippa Scudds: “This is not an industry that can ever rest on its laurels – it must manoeuvre and adapt to market conditions and the requirements of the 21st-century family. What was effective in your school’s marketing three years ago may no longer be relevant.”

You might also like: Clifton College’s director of marketing explains how you can establish and strengthen your school’s brand

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