Marketing The Digital School – A Whole of Community Approach to School Marketing

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by Mal Lee and Roger Broadie

The digital evolution of your school and the shift from the traditional, insular, paper-based operational mode to one that is digital and socially networked obliges the school to rethink its traditional marketing strategy and adopt one apposite for an increasingly integrated, higher order, socially networked, market driven, 24/7/365 mode of schooling.

The continuous flow of information and images to parents and community that digitally evolved schools create, presents a day-by-day picture of the school’s educational philosophy and approach. If this image is in conflict with the high-sounding statements promoted in the school’s brochure and website a lack of belief will be generated.

The change that has to occur is from advertising to showcasing. It is possible in advertising to put a gloss on the reality of what happens in the school. Showcasing has to be based on the reality, enabling parents to rapidly see through any advertising ‘gloss’.

In tracking the evolution of the mature digital school globally, observing the changes that have taken place and also noting the digital transformation of marketing in business, the authors have identified a suite of developments that point strongly to the type of marketing that digital schools are likely to employ, and the implications which flow.

Not surprisingly virtually all of the developments are consonant with and critical to the wider digital evolution and growth of the schools.

What is also becoming increasingly apparent is that the marketing of a digital school, of a socially networked school community ‘owned’ by it, is likely to be significantly different to the marketing of products. While conscious that the marketing of products is also evolving, shifting from the venerated silo-like single channels model to an omni-channel mode (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnichannel), the trend line with schools is pointing very strongly to empowered total school communities – largely unwittingly – being assisted by the school leadership to use social networks and word-of-mouth to market the school.

The implication of this is that all involved in the socially networked communications – including pupils and parents as well as teachers – contribute to the overall image of the school. If these diverge it will be rapidly noticed. If they are all ‘on-message’ the impact will be hugely powerful.

Within the traditional paper-based school, with its strong division of labour, silo-like organisational structure and insularity, if school marketing was done at all it was:

  • invariably handled by a designated person or unit responsible for all the school promotion, with the school seeking to unilaterally control every aspect
  • broadcast in nature – distributed at perceived key points in the school year
  • purpose specific
  • similar year on year
  • largely impersonal
  • strongly paper-based
  • carefully conceived and highly polished with the desired Pepsodent smiles and spin to present the desired image.

Many of the larger schools for years have had a significant marketing budget, often employing specialist marketing and/or public relations professionals.

In brief, the schools used an advertising model very similar to commercial advertising. The ‘product benefits’ are identified and put into words and images as a ‘value-proposition’ that is promoted. Showcasing on the other hand is based not on expected and hoped-for benefits, but on the real benefits that are realised from the use of the product – in the school’s case the real learning benefits that result from the culture, curriculum and teaching ‘product’ that the school provides.

In shifting to a digital operational mode, the authors (Lee and Broadie 2016) have noted the following trends in marketing emerging in the pathfinders, with the schools:

  • adopting an ever more integrated, multifaceted, whole of school community approach
  • integrating the marketing into their daily operations
  • having the total staff understand the part they play in their teaching and support in marketing the school and its culture
  • willing to reveal their natural workings, opening much of their daily teaching to public viewing, allowing current and prospective clients to scrutinise the school’s thinking and work, any time they wish
  • empowering and genuinely collaborating with their students, parents and wider community to distribute the marketing of the school
  • ensuring the total school community understands the school’s shaping educational vision and the school’s macro workings, able to speak with authority on those operations
  • moving almost entirely to digital communication and administration
  • employing an omni-channel approach
  • capitalising upon the everyday tools of the socially networked society and personalising the ‘marketing’
  • reducing their marketing expenditure as they distribute the marketing and make extensive use of inexpensive, highly efficient digital facilities
  • being highly agile, willing to take risks and try new approaches when the opportunity arises
  • using most programs/operations simultaneously for multiple purposes, not least of which is marketing
  • ‘orchestrating’ the school community’s social networking.

Collectively these developments combine to communicate a consistent narrative about the schools, where the macro image of each school is in harmony with its micro everyday workings. The hype has been replaced by a very real insight into the school, its thinking and values.

Where in the traditional school the marketing person/unit would carefully polish all communiques before release, within the digital school with an open website and comprehensive digital communications suite the ‘marketing’ is being done by all the school, virtually every day. Yes, care is taken with every publication emanating from the school but few of the communiques receive the special PR spin. Prospective clients can inspect the reality, mess and all. Where the traditional school works behind closed doors revealing only carefully selected snippets of information digital schools open most of their workings to public scrutiny. Of note were the school principals who commented on the number of ‘out of area’ enrolments that flowed from prospective parents being able to readily scrutinise the school via its working website.

The trend, consonant with the wider digital evolution and transformation of the schools, is to shift from silo-like to distributed marketing where rather than the one person, the school brings into play its total community. A similar shift is evidenced in business with growing calls for organisations to abandon the traditional silo-like marketing cell, with its strong channels focus, and adopt an omni-channel, whole of organisation model (Gupta, 2016). Ted Rubin, the marketing evangelist has suggested:

To deliver a truly omni-channel, integrated experience, you have to connect the dots internally as well — which means connecting your employees so they can collaboratively deliver that seamless experience.

The important difference between the marketing of digital businesses and schools is that in addition to involving all the employees the schools are also able to ‘activate’ the immense power of their socially networked community. Where traditional school marketing focussed on ‘selling’ the school on limited, specific occasions each year a networked school community supportive of the school is ‘selling’ the school with likely hundreds, possibly thousands of social media communiques every day. A school of three hundred students could for example see its parent community retransmitting school-generated digital material, with positive comment, daily to a thousand or more folk via various social media.

The key word here is ‘supportive’. If, like the pathfinders, the schools have, over time successfully collaborated with, empowered and got their community to ‘own’ the school the support proffered by word of mouth and social networks can be immense. If, however, that ‘ownership’ has not been secured, and the school’s networked community is not impressed by the school, even minor blemishes can see social networking cause major damage.

The reality, as every school and business can attest, is that if the ‘product’ being marketed is sub-standard no amount of money and marketing expertise will overcome that shortcoming and the inevitable poor word-of-mouth ‘marketing’. In an increasingly socially networked society where the clients not only talk at dinner parties and car parks but also through social media the lack of support for the school or outright criticism can be highly deleterious.

It is thus vital that from the outset school leaders factor into the digital evolution of the school the understanding that the school will rely increasingly on its total community to market the school and attract clientele. The school needs to ready its community to play that role. The experience of the mature digital schools strongly suggests that if the school grows its ecosystem successfully the marketing power will grow concomitantly, and largely naturally without significant extra effort from the school.

The obvious corollary is that if schools do not ready themselves, create the desired digital communications suite and ecosystem, and secure school community ownership it will be folly to try and employ the distributed model. It is a warning education systems and governments should heed.

In going digital, schools are availed a plethora of immensely powerful and inexpensive marketing opportunities but all are contingent on schools operating within a digital and socially networked operational paradigm, continually providing its clients the desired totality and having a tightly integrated, digitally-based school ecosystem that does deliver each child an apposite holistic education and which meets the client’s rising expectations.

It takes schools years to reach that position, and time also for the school marketers to grasp the digital transformation underway in marketing and to reshape their thinking and marketing model accordingly.

All the while this is happening the ‘digital masters’ are continuing to evolve at pace, strengthening their social networks, becoming increasingly attractive and making it that much more challenging for later adopter schools to compete.

The sooner schools can successfully adopt a distributed mode of school marketing the sooner they will put themselves back in the game. n

For a full list of references, email info@interactivemediasolutions.com.au

Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

Roger Broadie has wide experience helping schools get the maximum impact on learning from technology. He is the Naace Lead for the 3rd Millennium Learning Award. In his 30-plus years of working at the forefront of technology in education, he has worked with a huge range of leading schools, education organisations and policymakers in the UK and Europe.

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