Ask Silver Bullet

Issue 16

I've read with interest your answers to some complex questions ranging from Re-branding to Public Relations, but mine's fairly simple - I want to increase pupil numbers at our school - how do I attract them with a limited budget?

Whether we’re talking about a state school or a private school here, in essence, the challenge and possible solutions are the same. The private sector has long realised that they have to market their services in a fiercely competitive market but with the changes in the education system, including the growth of Academies and Free Schools, both of which receive public finance but are independent of Local Authority control, state schools now realise too they are in a competitive market place where their funding depends on pupil numbers.

It’s all about influencing the decision makers so the first question to answer is who exactly are these Ð the pupil, the parents, the wider family and friends or the peer group? In the majority of cases, it’s a mix. Whilst we have in the past written about the need for content consistency in marketing messages, it’s important to realise here that the emphasis on the messages to different groups needs to change Ð parents may give priority to location, safety, exam results etc, but pupils and their peers may have different preferences including facilities and how the school is viewed by their peers.

In addition, the various groups are susceptible to different media. Schools are only now coming to terms with the power and potential dangers of social media Ð pupils and parents have realised these for much longer. Whilst traditional advertising in printed media may reach parents and extended families, it’s unlikely to have a large younger audience who will be more influenced by social media and broadcast channels.

Of course, there are some marketing tools that span all target groups with PR, direct mail and outdoor media coming particular to mind. Positive messages about school pupils, staff and facilities, whether these be exam, sports or community success, are incredibly powerful influencers, so my first advice would be for a pro-active PR campaign to publicise the school through traditional and digital media. However, this would also include a Crisis Management strategy ready for any negative publicity which could damage the school’s reputation Ð hopefully, it will never be required, but best be preparedÉ

Part of the PR would be Events and Community Involvement. Looking back to school days of yesteryear, you realise how pathetic the Open Days/Evenings really were Ð bored teachers with tired displays – now I’d be looking to really make them something special to show off the school’s facilities and abilities, be these climbing walls, football matches, fashion shows, gymnastic displays, dance and drama etc Ð anything that differentiates your school from others.

Involving and interacting with the local community and then publicising this results in another set of positive influencers while also giving pupils a taste of real life. You need your local community more than they need you so take the time to get to know how you can help them and they will reciprocate as brand ambassadors.

The much derided direct mail is another tool I’d certainly consider and don’t just aim it at parents Ð remember, mail is a novelty to many of the younger generation as they never receive any Ð invest in design and creative content to make it distinctive, original and attention grabbing.

Outdoor media is seen by all groups Ð public transport advertising, banners across school gates, posters in shop windows etc are cost-effective ways to get your message across with a consistent content that reflects messages on your other marketing channels.

You also need to carefully consider the timing of your campaigns to coincide with the ‘Choice’ periods in which parents choose schools for their children at different stages of their education, including 6th form provision. Your Open Events will be already timed for these periods so make sure your marketing investment backs them up.

But, possibly of more importance than anything else is your own marketing collateral Ð your website, your prospectus, your newsletters and anything else that the school puts out into the public domain. Do they really reflect the values of your brand or are they tired and produced at the last minute by staff who have other jobs to do Ð if it’s the latter, then maybe think about sourcing some external assistance.

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