Number Three of Five Marketing Ideas for Private Schools

This is the third in a series of five brief articles each with a piece of marketing counsel for clients in the private, independent education sector.

Idea #3: The best marketing helps parents understand how the school helps them become their best selves as parents and their students to become their best selves as human beings.

Those marketing independent and international schools face a harsh paradox: the harder they “sell” features and benefits, the less loyal customers parents become; yet, if they don’t talk about features and benefits no one enrolls. The problem is that conventional marketing, by focusing on features and benefits, feeds into a transactional mindset that makes it easy to switch schools based on something better at the place up the street. So much for conventional approaches to marketing and telling the school story!

The challenge is to change the conversation from what is on offer to the sort of parents and people the school creates. Seth Godin, in his new book, This Is Marketing, points out that “Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem.” The problem is that most of us try to solve our problem when we market. We try to sell more of something, not solve the problem our “customers” have in mind when they come to our school.

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Number Two of Five Marketing Ideas for Private School

This is the second in a series of five brief articles each with a piece of marketing counsel for clients in the private, independent education sector. Idea #1 was in the previous post.

Idea 2: Marketing is Counter-Productive if there are Real Quality or Service Issues

“If only people understood what we do well they wouldn’t care so much about the small stuff.” Right. Good luck with that, because problems in “small stuff” (and some of what heads of school call small seems pretty big to us) erode confidence in the big stuff. Problems in middle school science are a drag on the upper school’s reputation, even if the upper school kills it in STEM. A slipshod sports program (scheduling mistakes, bad coaching, poor equipment) makes parents wonder what other details you aren’t attending to.

Harry Beckwith, in Selling the Invisible, makes the point that marketing cannot overcome problems in quality. Fix the problems first, then look at marketing. It was true when Beckwith first wrote about it in 1997, and it is even truer today (the paperback edition was copyrighted in 2012).

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Five Marketing Ideas for Private Schools

This is the first in a series of five brief articles each with a piece of marketing counsel for clients in the private, independent education sector.

Idea 1: Marketing is about transformation, not transaction.

Most schools get this backward. Their approach to marketing is to use a features-and-benefits to sell parents on the value of buying an education at their school. Inevitably these pitches say, “In exchange for your tuition money, we promise to deliver something to your child.”

Ok, in as far as it goes, but it loses the essential purpose of education—to transform individuals. A transactional approach to marketing your school is a sure-fire way to commodify what you offer. Transforming students into their best selves is the very essence of both value creation and education. Marketing schools is not about making sales; rather, it is about helping students transform into their best selves, maybe even selves that their parents didn’t think possible.

Transaction or transformational? Your call.

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It’s Always the Human Factors!

Fascinating new data analysis (see report here) from CB Insights on the most common causes of start-up failure as revealed through 101 post-mortem investigations. What struck us was how many of the top 12 or so factors are preventable (the totals do not add to 100% because multiple items were at play in most failures). It is common knowledge that under-capitalization is a major factor, yet “running out of money” was among the most common precipitants to failure. This tells us that entrepreneurs regularly discount the risk this poses to their start-up’s likelihood of success. Same with “no market need.” And then we get to the human relationship issues like “not the right team” or “disharmony among team/investors.”

As with most problems we encounter, the devil in the details is about humans and their inability to think clearly and get along with each other.

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The Most Important Thing in Search

The most important line in the article, The Five Key Capabilities of Effective Leadership, from INSEAD is not about the five capabilities per se. It is the tag line, “Don’t try to find them all in one single hero.” Wise advice for search committees everywhere–avoid the urge to find God on a good day.

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When Rankings Are An Illusion

Parents (and many board members) crave a ranking system for independent and (especially) international schools. That there is no standardized and agreed-upon system or clearinghouse for such rankings frustrates parents and convinces many board members that the avoidance of such things is self-serving for heads of school. This item, about rating schemes for physicians, reveals the problem that lurks within almost every ratings framework: how can one trust that the rankings are both truthful and objective?

This article from the CBC in Canada reveals a major weakness in one set of seemingly objective ratings of doctors. A physician who had just received a negative review on one common web site was offered to have the comments removed … for a fee! If one can pay to block negative reviews, then how credible and useful are the ratings in the first place?

At the same time, we understand the craving for accurate, third-party information. Private school can be both the biggest financial investment a family can make (US$400K and up per child) and can have the most potential risk (will our children be ok in the long run?). Against that risk, one can understand the desire for ratings and rankings.

The problem, of course, is that education is an industry that runs on trust, and there is little in modern life to suggest such trust is well founded. Since “trust me” is dead, how else do we have honest conversations about schools and students?


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