When Marketing Fails in Schools

There are many ways marketing in schools can fail.

Banana skin

Marketing is one of the few business disciplines that can do as much in the future for a school as it does in the present.  Successful schools are aware that ‘planting seeds and tending to the crops’ will reap rewards down the line.  But, at the same time, those involved or leading marketing in schools can also bridge the gap of the ‘now-until-then’ and provide immediate benefit. That is when schools really win.  Too many long term activities with no short term view will cause failure.  The flip side is that if there is too much of a focus on the ‘now’, schools tend to wobble into the future with uncertainty.

So, what’s the right balance?  How do you know if you’re getting it right?

We’ve all seen it.  Sales’ driven schools like to pull marketing into what becomes frequently known as ‘sales-support’ (pupil registration or the proverbial ‘bums on seats’). With marketing attached to the hip of the sales team (admissions/registrars), they can provide great assistance with proposals, research, audio-visual presentations, and more equally riveting immediate activities.  If this becomes all consuming, then marketing becomes highly tactical however this can lead to strategic oversight on all sorts of critically important activities:  messaging, branding and positioning within the market.

Marketing that is only future-driven will lose perspective over what’s actually resonating with current forecasts. Currently independent education is going through massive peaks and troughs due to many economic uncertainties. Consequently they can miss out on critical input that can hone in on positioning and target numbers.  What’s more, and maybe more importantly, is that the admissions organisation and marketing tend to lose sight of each other.  Marketing within schools is often seen as out of touch and irrelevant to business generation (you just have to look at the relative lack of social media use in schools currently – by Heads, Governors and so forth). Those involved with marketing in this scenario are often confused because they are bringing in the leads – but sometimes many, many months too late.

Like all successful business functions, solid marketing teams put together marketing plans that specifically address both dynamics.  Their plans highlight the intended rewards and challenges.  They scope out resources and expectations.  They also identify Service Level Agreements for the business.  Nothing makes a Head happier than knowing ‘how’, ‘when’ and at ‘what speed’ they can rely on marketing.  Nothing makes a marketing team member happier knowing that they can do their “day job” and not be expected to drop everything on a penny to support pupil recruitment on an impulsive notion.

Marketing is a balancing act.  It takes strong leadership that can see the need to invest in marketing when times are hard (the last thing you do is ‘cut back’ when your chips are down…); rally the troops and enthuse when required; say “no” when needed; and have real courage of conviction.

The long term view of what marketing does for a school requires some internal fortitude to know that any bets placed will become realised.  The short view of marketing requires crystal clear expectations and the strength to pull away, or add more, at the right time.  Marketing departments fail when any one of these is not accomplished.  They also fail when the balance is not effectively achieved.

I have failed.  And, that’s the last thing.  Those successfully involved in marketing (and other disciplines associated with schools) have failed as often as they have succeeded.  I have learned to embrace my failures; learn from them, review and go forward armed with that experience to hopefully avoid further pitfalls where possible. Have you?

Finest Somerset Rhubarb Fool….made with Rhubarb from Somerset no doubt….

Image…Or not?

Well, to be honest I am not too sure. This one seems to have Polish Rhubarb in it and to all intensive purposes is manufactured (packaged?) in Manchester according to the information on the package. Rather delicious though 🙂


Confused about the origin of the contents? Me too.

Marketing vs. Advertising – Doing it Right in Schools…


It is often the case that schools know too much about their product (education) and not enough about their customers (the parents).

There is a monumental difference between why you think someone should invest in your school and why someone does not invest.

This gap between the two is bridged by what we can refer to commonly as ‘marketing’.


So what are we really talking about here?

If your first thought is advertising – ‘getting the word out’ and letting people know you exist/what you can offer them, then you may well be missing the most important point.

Let me give you an example of a School Head who was able to multiply their return on their efforts with parents by shifting that initial focus from advertising to marketing.

Paddling Without A Paddle


My client, let us refer to him as ‘James’, is a colleague of longstanding who had recently taken over the Headship of a small prep school that offers a unique and diverse curriculum. He emailed me a copy of a promotional flyer he was working on. He asked for my feedback.

“So, what did you think?”  He asked.

“To be honest, I haven’t a clue.” I said.

Although a tad perturbed by my response I then asked him two critical questions:

  1. Who, exactly, are you trying to reach with this flyer?
  2. Why do you think that the main bullet points on the flyer are what your customers want to know?

James admitted that although he had a general idea of the ‘type’ of parent he was trying to reach, he didn’t have a clear answer to the second question.  His mistake is a common one.

He had made the assumption that what was important to him was also important to his clients – the parents.

James’s boat was bobbing in the turbulent waters of the marketplace, but he only had one paddle in the water – the “advertising” paddle. As a consequence he was simply going around in circles and was in desperate need of that second paddle to even things up. We will call this the “marketing” paddle.

Marketing is that essential area of management attention that is determined through on-going observation, research, and analysis to answer key questions, questions such as:

  • Who are your customers (parents)?
  • How do they think?
  • Where are they located?
  • How do they choose which school to invest their money in?

In short, your marketing efforts drive your lead generation (advertising) by revealing what is most important to your best customers.

An Important Announcement, which carries No Value.

Consider, if you will, the idea of an audacious banner spanning the front page of the school website (or indeed hanging on the school gates…) proudly announcing that the school is “Under New Management


To a new Head, fulfilling a lifelong dream, this is an exciting and important message.

However, to a passer-by, that banner says nothing more than that there has probably been trouble in the past, an unsteady ship.  Think about it.

To a previously unsatisfied parent, that sign may deter them even more. “What? Same uncreative curriculum, delivered differently? New teachers teaching the same old stuff?”

Had more time been spent in marketing, you might have discovered that your customers are extremely interested in your expansion to ‘embrace a GCSE curriculum, your investment in new staff to cater for additional languages, the new sports hall proposals to cement stronger links with the local community…‘ and you could have more effectively used that web banner/front gate banner space to proclaim your developments.

There really is no ‘target market’ for “Under New Management.”

Clichés are exactly that; cliché

As we analysed James’s flyer, he began to see that he had created the equivalent of the “Under New Management” banner.  He had listed significant-sounding clichés that seemed to offer important benefits:  “Conveniently located,” “knowledgeable, friendly staff,” “competitive fees,” and “wide intake selection.

When we further considered where his customers were coming from, he understood that he was actually only conveniently located to some – and to others who might be his customers, he was on the wrong side of a constantly congested transport infrastructure.   And given that the alternative to “knowledgeable, friendly staff” is “unfriendly and clueless,” should his customers expect anything less?

‘Competitive fees’ might be important to his target market, but if James understands that his best customers come to him because of his ‘hard-to-find specialty curriculum in Design and Art’ or ‘excellent sporting facilities’, all things being equal fee pricing may not be of primary concern.

A key attraction to those parents looking at his school might be James’ ability to provide ‘products and services’ that are unavailable from his competitors. This is important.

  • Marketing is a collection of activities that go on internally, within your school.
  • Marketing is your on-going effort to question, observe, and understand your parents and their genuine attraction to your school.

In the rush to advertise, James ignored the most important key to effective lead generation:

Taking the time to understand what your parents care about, and how to most effectively communicate to them that you KNOW them.  

Marketing vs. Advertising

  • The marketing paddle is your understanding of who your parents are.
  • The advertising paddle is about clearly articulating the promises your school makes to them.

Effective lead generation comes from remaining hyper-aware of the balance between the two and maintaining that connection at every point of contact between you and your customers (your parents)

With proper marketing, advertising becomes a matter of broadcasting the fact that you know what your parents want and are ready to provide it.   It has to be based on what they are thinking, not what you are thinking.

Effective marketing efforts make your advertising decisions informed and strategic rather than solely based on your personal preference, happenstance, or what you see everyone else doing.  

The System of Marketing

Social media communication concept

As with any area of your school, you need a system for gathering data about your market.

There are plenty of methods out there that work; you just have to find the one that’s right for your school. Here are some examples:

  • Using appropriate social media to inform and involve your clientele is vital. For example, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are currently amongst the most obvious, important and widely used. This will open channels of communication with your parents in addition to phone calls and email (see below).
  • Create and establish a website presence, electronic newsletters, blogs or physical brochures with relevant and informative content that your parents can subscribe and respond to. This will also help to open channels of communication with your parents.
  • Conduct simple surveys. There are many great resources for creating electronic surveys out there such as http://www.surveymonkey.com.
  • Install email marketing software such as http://www.newsweaver.com or http://www.littlegreenplane.com for reaching your clients. These services allow you to analyse and filter the results of your advertising efforts so you can immediately see what your clients respond to and what they don’t.

However you decide to gather this relevant data, there are some essential key questions that do need to be addressed:

  1. Who is it you are trying to attract? Why?
  2. Who are your ‘favourite’ parents currently – the ones you would like to clone?
  3. What characteristics do they all have in common?  Age, income level, geographic clusters, family status, etc.
  4. What are their lives like and how do you fit in to what appeals to them?
  5. What problems is your school and its provision going to solve for them?
  6. What is the most important message for your parents to hear from you as a Head? How will you emotionally appeal to them?

Once you ask the right questions of your parents, you’ll start getting the right answers. These answers will tell you what your parents need to hear from you in order to feel connected to you and your school.