You only have to board a train during rush hour or walk along a busy street to realise that very large numbers of people are totally oblivious to the on-board announcement or the thunder of passing traffic. Instead, they are plugged into earphones (or AirPods) and filling their heads with the sound of something much more interesting.
In the past, we would have assumed they were indulging in the best of Abba or some classical music, but these days around a quarter of the population are engaging with podcasts. They are particularly popular to listen to whilst at home, during housework and walking, according to Ofcom’s 2021 Podcast Survey.
A podcast, as you’ll know, is a spoken-word episode which can focus on any topic under the sun. Comedy, true crime, business and sport are top of the podcast pops, but wherever there is an interest, there is a podcast.
So perhaps it was inevitable that independent school marketers would soon pick up the mic, with the aim of bringing real-life stories from their schools direct to the ears of a potentially worldwide audience of current and prospective parents and pupils.
“Schools recognise the importance of authentic marketing more than ever today, and podcasts are ideal for that,” believes Simon Jones, founder of The Bonjour Agency, who works with schools to make their podcasts happen. “Podcasts connect with people at a deeper level than websites or prospectuses ever could, and present the opportunity to tell a real-life story in the words of the person who has experienced it.”
School marketing consultant, and award-winning podcaster, Juliet Corbett agrees. “Storytelling through audio is incredibly powerful,” she says. “Authentic voices from across a school’s community can easily be captured and shared, with content curated to showcase various elements of school life.”
The method Corbett has chosen to advocate podcasting for schools is through her own podcast for school leaders, The Independent School Podcast. She launched the podcast in 2020 to help senior leaders in independent schools think and act more strategically. Fifty-three episodes on, Corbett’s mixture of interviews with school leaders and single handers attracts around 80 listens per week.
“The great thing about podcasts is that they can be listened to from anywhere around the world,” she says. “As a podcast’s popularity grows, listeners start to make a regular spot for your content in their week – whether it’s during a commute, a dog walk or doing the washing-up. Podcasts are food for the brain while the hands are busy.”
As we know, the parents of school-age children are eminently busy people, so being able to shoehorn a podcast into the day makes it easier for them to keep up with the goings-on at their child’s school or to find out more about schools they might choose in future. The opportunity to access a podcast from anywhere in the world can also help non UK-based families in particular to feel a lot closer.
“Our school’s podcast series allows us to reach parents internationally as well as nationally,” says Jack Dougherty, director of marketing at Felsted School, which last year launched its FelsTED Talks series of interview-style podcasts.
“The 15 episodes so far have focused on members of the school community, as well as past pupils and staff, who are quizzed by the head of Felsted or the head of Felsted Prep,” explains Dougherty.
“The aim is to show how our subjects have made a difference in the world and what has made a significant impact in their lives. It keys into the strand of our school ethos summarised by the strapline ‘Developing Character, Making a Difference’.”
Although originally an initiative of the marketing department, the podcasts have really taken off and are now a school-wide collaborative project. “The senior leadership team and Old Felstedians liaison office became involved in choosing the right people to feature. The head’s interview with sports promoter Eddie Hearn, who is a Felsted parent, has been the most downloaded episode to date.
“We have also realised the potential to showcase some inspiring and thought-provoking stories from the school’s staff, and have recently started to offer current students the opportunity to tell their own Felsted stories via our podcast series too,” says Dougherty.
Giving members of the school community a voice was the spur for Joanne Sammers, head of marketing at Berkhamsted Schools Group, to launch the school’s weekly podcast, In the Spotlight.
Evidencing the impact is longer term because podcasting is long-form marketing, not a quick-return approach like a Facebook Ads campaign. I only recommend schools progress to podcasting if their basic marketing is in check
“Our podcast series provides a real insight into the various aspects of a Berkhamsted education in the words of those who are currently experiencing it: the pupils and parents,” says Sammers.
“Our listeners tell us they really enjoy the series and have discovered things about the school they were not aware of. Everyone at the school has been supportive – we are never short of volunteers to take part!”
Topics are decided a term or two ahead to make sure they cover all ages and are timely. One popular episode focused on moving up from year 6 at the prep school to the senior school, with the medium proving to be an ideal way for pupils to express their feelings. Another explained the vision for the future of the school and new developments.
So far, 18 episodes have been produced and each one is downloaded up to 200 times.
“The audience mainly consists of our current families wanting to hear a little more about the daily life at the school, but we know prospective families listen too,” says Sammers, who recommends that schools planning to use podcasting for marketing purposes should make sure they carefully curate the content to fit the audience.
“If your priority is to attract potential parents then you may focus on interviewing teaching staff about your school’s unique approach to education and on showcasing pupils who can talk positively about their experience. Alternatively, you may want to engage the alumni and current parent community, in which case you could have pupils asking alumni about the world of work and vice versa about school today.
“Audiences want content to be varied, so you need to be willing to mix it up a bit as you go along, but clarity on your podcast’s purpose will provide you with a golden thread that runs through all the episodes.”
Plunge into podcasting
In common with other methods of marketing and communication, before plunging into podcasting it’s important to settle on the tone, style and content of the series.
“Be light, positive and enthusiastic,” suggests Corbett. “I’ve found a huge correlation between the episodes I had most fun recording and those that listeners enjoyed most.”
Planning the topics is, of course, essential. There is always so much going on in schools it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with potential podcast content, so focusing on a running theme or aspect of the school’s ethos can help rationalise it for listeners and build the momentum to keep them coming back for the next episode.
The technical side of podcasting can be more of a challenge. Corbett started out recording on Zoom and editing the episodes herself using Descript, but later teamed up with a professional editor to help out. Many schools outsource the entire production of their podcasts to an expert, which costs anything from £300 to £750 per episode. Either way, professional sound quality is important.
“If the audio quality isn’t good then someone driving around the M25 listening to an episode will struggle to enjoy it,” points out Jones, who also recommends making the podcast available to download from the platforms people go to for the other podcasts they listen to regularly, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.
Jones says: “I find that when schools produce their own podcasts, they often put it only on the school website, but the audience is unlikely to go there to listen to it. It has to be where they’d listen to a BBC podcast, a comedy show or a history podcast.”
Understanding how many people have heard your podcast is not easy – many platforms only offer statistics on the number of downloads, rather than listens. “Evidencing the impact is longer term because podcasting is long-form marketing, not a quick-return approach like a Facebook Ads campaign,” says Jones. “I only recommend schools progress to podcasting if their basic marketing is in check.”
Says Sammers: “At Berkhamsted, we’ve noticed that we’ve started to receive more questions from prospective parents around the topics covered in the podcast series, which highlights the fact that many families are taking a keen interest.”
With such a wealth of stories to be told, it seems that podcasting is a way for independent schools to engage parents and pupils like never before.
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