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Posted by Nick Salloway on 07 June 2016

We explore the reasons why schools need to start taking their digital marketing seriously

Astonishingly it’s almost 30 years since the Education Reform Act 1988 was given royal assent, introducing market forces into state education. A central focus of the act was to expand parents’ choice over where their children go to school and promote competition among schools, and, by doing so, improve school outcomes and standards in education overall.

More recent government policies have further increased competition among schools, and opening up the management of schools to new providers, and new types of school, is intended to build greater diversity and capacity, and therefore more choice into the system.

The purpose of the post is not to debate whether or not the ERA has indeed resulted in increased choice for parents, and improved educational standards. What I’m interested in is, how, in a system where diversity and surplus capacity is becoming the norm, there is now considerable competitive pressure on schools to fill empty spaces.

If you work in education, you’ll know schools funding is calculated largely on a per-pupil basis. A reduction in enrolment will mean a reduction in funding, often putting significant pressure on a school’s finances, and ultimately its viability. The number of school choices available to families obviously differs depending on where they live, on average, apart from their chosen school, every child has one to two schools they could have gone to instead.

Where in the past, students would invariably attend their local school, greater choice is now forcing those schools to behave more like businesses, and adopt the kind of marketing strategies to recruit students that would be familiar to many corporate brands. Failing to do so risks leaving a school that operates consistently under capacity vulnerable to market forces.

Over the past few years we have been working with a group of schools and academy trusts in the UK. We also work extensively within the private school sector, including for Nord Anglia Education, the largest international schools group in the world.

Our work has taught us that schools need to successfully differentiate themselves to stand out.

Whether it’s outstanding academic achievements, a forte for the arts, a science-focused curriculum, or the way they use technology to deliver personalised learning for students, such points of difference are the defining characteristics of a school, and therefore the essence of its brand. In a competitive market, branding is as important for a school as it is for a business. Schools that find interesting ways to communicate what it is that makes them exceptional to parents will perform better than their competitors when seeking to attract students. Of course, understanding what makes a school special is only the start. Schools also need to communicate with parents through a consistent, well-planned marketing and communications strategy.

Most schools focus on their website as their primary marketing tool for student recruitment but in our experience, a website on its own is rarely enough. Just like businesses, schools also need to think about how they will increase the visibility of their brand online to drive traffic to their websites.

Success here requires an integrated digital marketing strategy targeted at parents looking for a school for their child. The strategy must be built on an understanding of parental and student needs when selecting a school, and it must take into account the specific purpose of each tactical element of the strategy, whether that be a website, a mobile app, or an email marketing campaign.

Once you have an understanding of your audience, an effective integrated digital strategy will bring together the school’s website with high-quality content, social media and SEO strategies to increase online visibility, raise awareness of a school, and nurture a favourable reputation.

It’s also worth considering how schools can use digital technologies post enrolment. Parents expectations are growing; they expect to receive regular updates from the school about what’s going on and how their child is progressing.

Parents also expect schools to be highly responsive to their enquiries, just like any other service provider they use. Digital technologies can play a considerable part in delivering such an experience, potentially offering a school another significant point of differentiation.

So, I think the answer to my question: “Do Schools need digital marketing?” is a resounding yes!

I think intake targets and greater competition for places means schools must work harder to identify what it is about them that will appeal to parents, and then work to communicate that consistently through relevant marketing and digital channels.

Importantly, schools must also recognise the need to allocate appropriate resources to digital marketing. Just as a growing business must invest in marketing to win customers, schools must invest if they are to compete successfully for students. I use the word ‘invest’ deliberately because digital marketing can, and should, be considered an investment. If your school spends £x on digital, it should expect that investment to generate a return of £y. In this context, the value of y is simply the amount of additional funding obtained by filling a place at the school.

Digital is not like traditional marketing channels such as print, radio and TV where it can often be difficult to measure the return on investment. With digital, everything is trackable, right down to the cost of acquiring a new student. If you need to fill a certain number of places in your school, it’s possible to project the level of investment required to achieve this.

So what do you think? Are you a marketing professional working in a school that is setting the pace when it comes to digital marketing? Why not tell us your story and please feel free to subscribe to our blog where we’ll continue to share updates on our work in the school sector.

If you’d like to chat to us about how we’ve helped other schools improve their digital marketing strategy, please drop us a line.


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