Stories and strategy: marketing independent schools in 2021

How can independent schools drive pupil admissions in a post-Covid environment, and in an increasingly digital world?

‘A changing landscape’, ‘an evolving picture’, ‘new challenges’ are all just different ways of saying the same thing, that the world and everything in it is in a constant state of flux. This is why we can never stop talking about marketing – just as the context around us changes, so do our tools, our consumers and their motives, and our direction.

All schools must adapt with each new wave of modernity in order to stay relevant, a process which happens from the inside out, starting with the heart of the school and what it stands for, and ending with a well-constructed marketing strategy that clearly communicates an authentic voice.

For more established independent schools, it can be tempting to rest comfortably on marketing laurels, especially when old (or no) techniques seem to be driving pupil admissions well enough, but the schools that had already welcomed previous change with enthusiastically, if a little apprehensively, open arms will have found it slightly easier to adapt to the unique challenges of the last 15 months.

As we will see, refreshing a school’s communications approach does not have to mean a total ripping out of foundations, so that nothing of the original structure remains – schools with long or interesting histories can use them as unique features and storytelling devices to draw families in with humanity and warmth.

 

York House School used informal Instagram posts to maintain a community feel during lockdown last year

 

The situation

Molly Entrican, assistant head (pre-prep) at York House School, Hertfordshire, outlines how the pandemic is affecting education: “The impact on schools has been immense, with some established and thriving independent schools suddenly finding their numbers decreasing, while other schools have abruptly found themselves inundated with interest.”

Both families and schools have struggled financially this year, with the ISC 2021 Census reporting its first dip in pupil numbers since 2011’s post-recession low, and thanks to a lockdown-caused ‘baby bust’, independent schools are looking at a diminished market in the near future.

Some families have welcomed hardship funds and fee-freezing at a time when incomes took a hit – the census shows that pupils receiving means-tested fee assistance benefited from an increase of 5.2% compared with 2019.

However, other families had it easier. Analysis by the Bank of England found that across the UK, 8% of households experienced increased incomes and 65% were unchanged during lockdown, with many households cutting spending, even if incomes did not fall. Restrictions on travel, hospitality and entertainment gave fewer opportunities to spend.

Parents and guardians of children currently being educated in state schools have seen how adeptly many independent schools moved to online remote learning during lockdown, with cutting-edge technology to support and enhance lessons, and the means to pack timetables full. Families in comfortable financial situations post-Covid may now be more motivated than ever to spend money to ensure a high standard of education.

Young people are very well read on specific issues and they want to align with, or buy from, brands that align with their value – Ben Weston-Conway, Interactive Schools

Modern society tends to have a ‘distrust’ of traditional advertising, and instead relies heavily on social proof, from social media or word of mouth, in order to believe an organisation. But there will be families who are already mostly convinced of the benefits of independent education, whether from watching from the outside, or experiencing it first-hand – a good marketing strategy is simply icing on the cake.

Emily Richards, founder of Stickman Consultancy, says characteristics of the ‘post-Covid environment’ (increased mobility between schools, fiercer competition, reduced face-to-face interactions and a more ‘digital first’ approach) are here to stay and must be “adopted as a long-term outlook” in order for schools to have the best chance of surviving, and thriving, in the circumstances.

Even before the pandemic, the world was changing. Parents of older children, or young adults, now don’t have a monopoly over the decision of where a child is educated.

Ben Weston-Conway, global marketing manager and strategy lead at Interactive Schools (and former marketing manager at Manchester High School for Girls) expects this to filter down to the younger years too: “Universities and sixth form colleges used to be decided by parents more, whereas now it’s actually the young person themselves deciding. I think even 10–11-year-olds will start to have a bigger say in the next five to 10 years.”

The pupils themselves are changing too – Weston-Conway calls them “activist consumers” – and now expect their school to be well-informed and ready to have discussions about matters such as inclusion and discrimination. He says: “Young people are very well read on specific issues and they want to align with, or buy from, brands that align with their values.”

 

Simple statements are tantalising – they draw the prospective consumer in. Pictured: Clifton College’s website

 

The solution(s)

The right marketing strategy can improve reputation, leading to higher parent satisfaction, better-quality staff recruitment, healthier school finances and improved resources for schools, and therefore better results, ultimately driving pupil admissions. But how?

“Figure out what the school would say if it had a voice. What is its personality?” says Weston-Conway.

Entrican explains how this can look in practice: “Our previous marketing manager spent many months conversing with professional teams to ensure that our website was appealing but also demonstrated our ethos. The team that completed our website were invited into school so that they could witness our day-to-day life themselves; this was vital for them to truly understand the York House character.”

Figure out what the school would say if it had a voice. What is its personality? – Ben Weston-Conway, Interactive Schools

Conversely, Weston-Conway suggests doing away with a designated marketing department, if it’s not absolutely necessary, in favour of a less fixed approach – the idea being that a school’s brand can be strong enough to speak for itself, and its staff and pupils become in-house marketers. As he puts it: “It’s everybody’s job to market the school. You could have a great website, a great Twitter account, whatever it might be, but that could be papering over the cracks.”

Listening to staff, pupils and parents (through surveys and focus groups) is key to developing a good marketing strategy, as is listening to conversations happening in society at large.

“As a sector we’re very good at celebrating our achievements and telling people how great we are. I think if we’d have spent a lot more time listening over the last five years, we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems that schools have faced around societal issues like racism,” says Weston-Conway.

As activist consumers, pupils are looking for more than lessons, they want their schools to be plugged in to the world around them and willing to move with the times, but a school cannot create a brand message to reflect this without doing the work first. In order to be believed, schools must first “believe in what they are doing”.

Pictures speak louder than words: good images negate the need for word-heavy marketing. Pictured: Reading Blue Coat School’s website

 

Brand hero vs brand guardian

Used well, social media and video can help build brand awareness, allow schools to reach specific audiences and develop a less corporate voice. Of course, there is the double-edged sword of virality to be aware of – both good and bad messages can spread like wildfire.

Whilst schools must know the potential pitfalls of viral content and online reputations, they must avoid becoming passive ‘brand guardians’. Instead of merely protecting the brand from harm, schools should actively tell the stories that make the institution unique and form its character.

Weston-Conway explains: “We need brand heroes, who are doing more proactive things to share and showcase the school’s values. If the only time we try and indicate what the school’s values are is when things go wrong, then that’s not good marketing communication. If we’re looking for positive ways to shape people’s opinions about what our school values are, we’re going to get more success.”

 

Holme Grange School uses Facebook posts with photos and hashtags to communicate values

 

Power of three

We can distil all of these elements down to a three-part solution. This will give you a good start and an easy base to return to, should the strategy at times run away with itself.

Authenticity – look inwards and find what your school stands for, what its story and message is. This could be its history, or it could be a certain value made central to the school’s ethos, but either way it must be true in order to work as a marketing tool.

Humanity – however this ‘story’ is communicated, a human touch will often mean more than a formal, corporate attitude, but this can be done in shades without compromising existing messages or tone. Look at how your school is using social media to speak directly to your families.

Curiosity – be willing to embrace change, both in the DNA of your school’s branding and how it is communicated, in order to not be left behind in an increasingly environment. Ask whether your institution is doing enough listening, in the right way, to the right voices.


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