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Specialty Segment Marketing - Private and Prep Schools

Updated on April 24, 2012
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Ed has been an entrepreneur and business owner/start-up generator for 15 years. He has also been a shotgun coach!

Remember Who You Are Marketing To

There are a few assumptions I'm going to make going into this discussion. My first assumption is you have a handle on basic marketing concepts and the role marketing professionals play within their respective organizations. The area of marketing preparatory schools and private schools is, in particular, a great exercise in defining marketing as opposed to sales and advertising. Anyone who has had to tackle this objective knows it can be a real challenge. So, as always, lets break it down into identifiabl our e parts and then complete the task like a champ.

Who is Our Market?

Normally the question might be "what" is our market, but being a school and thoroughly related to people, we can direct our intentions to the question of "who." This is a pretty complicated question because there are going to be several answers. We need to think through all of the individuals at different levels with different inputs and requirements that are going to impact our efforts. Once each of these requirements are identified we can begin the process of confirming how they are fulfilled.

The marketing professional knows that they are involved in the entire continuum. To many times managers believe "marketing" is limited to either sales or advertising or a combination of both. If the marketing director doesn't know what is available to offer, they may over promote. If they aren't involved in plans for expansion, they may under-promote for the future. If the marketer is not kept aware of changes in curriculum they may well spend money on explaining how great a certain area of training is offered and yet that was to be pulled from the classroom. I hope this is becoming more clear as to the depth of the need for the understanding and information a good marketing person requires.

Non-Residential vs. Residential Schools

This may seem obvious on the surface, but beyond the needs for supervision and bed sheets, are there a lot of serious differences between these two options? In the classroom, no, but there is the whole of transportation and all of the residential applications that must be addressed. The concerns of a parent sending their child to a residential school are also very different from the concerns of the child. Then there are the educators and supervisors at the schools and each have their own requirements.

Looking at what is in common, the interests of the children can either be focused if a school has a targeted offering with emphasis on something like Information Technology, Math or Science or maybe more like the Arts. The kids will still receive training in general areas of instruction but all elective time is spent in the targeted field. Of course you may think that residential students may have more seat time overall to learn a specific program of instruction. State laws generally limit these times so even residential schools may not gain much over non-residential.

Extra-curricular activities are very important to both schools. It may not always be football, but it is an opportunity for the population to get involved in something and show some school spirit. I know, not too many cheerleaders at a nerd competition. School pride is still often on the line. If the school has a very strong football program it may be easier to do competitive analysis than if they are known to graduate some of the best math algorithm competitors. I can assure you there is still some serious chest thumping among the algorithm competitors, even though it may cause some broken ribs if they do it too hard. Parents also want to know how involved their kids are going to be in these extra-curricular activities. Of course, they always believe their child is the best first seat cellist, and depending on how much money they are dumping into the coffers, you may well want to think about that too.

Recruiting Begins with Marketing

Keeping the seats filled falls on the shoulder of the marketing professional within the organization. How many seats are there? Are all the seats needing to be filled during each class period. Are there days that are different than other days with regard to class time? Is the school cutting back or expanding? Does the school desire more students or the same number as last year? Is anything happening in the community that may affect the population of students? Who is most likely a contact within the community that could provide a heads up when a new family is moving into the area that would be a great candidate for the school? Don't just think about realtors in this role - think about ministers, Scout leaders, hair dressers, chamber of commerce members, or civic organization leaders. People moving into a new area want to become associated and a part of the community. If these same people want the best for their kids, maybe they will be seeking you out and you can be sure to pave the way to your school.

Getting around to as many of the influencers mentioned above with brochures or handouts can increase awareness of why your school exists to begin with. Being involved in the community it serves gives the marketing person first dibs on prime candidates. Sometimes there is an opportunity to reach out to established families in the area that have already chosen to send their kid to a competitor - or maybe they are attending the local public school. Do some homework prior to attempting to put on the salesman hat and move in for the win. If you do it will pay dividends. Finding out the person just went through bankruptcy is a good clue to back off pursuing someone for your $32,000 a year grade school. It may not be totally evident on the surface but you don't want to force the issue to find out. Show them a little respect and if their tide turns they may be knocking on the door sooner than you expect.

Website? Of Course!

Does your school have a website? What is the theme? Is it your best marketing tool? Think this through completely. If you were looking at schools for your own child, and you went to a website that was boring, or looked cheap or canned, and you were going to be dropping tens of thousands of dollars into that school? Really?

Two groups of great importance look at your website. Prospective students and current parents. Sure, students look or go through it as well, but these two groups mean a lot of money for the school so the website is designed for them and them alone. How hard is it to negotiate to a page that shows the mission statement? How hard is it to negotiate to the page showing either how much it will cost or how to ask for more information? Who gets the email from a prospective parent and how do they respond and with what information in what form? Who gets complaints from the website and how do they respond?

Does your school also have a Facebook presence? Who monitors it for content constantly? Who is allowed to manage it? Are there other social media being utilized by the school or its students and faculty such as a blog site?

Brochures and Handouts

Old school brochures, handouts and even newspaper advertising - STILL WORKS. We have not moved past that yet. Magazine articles written by your marketing person and offered out freely get published are an amazingly strong way to get the word out more broadly if you are a residential school.

Revisit logos and address things like uniforms and dress codes. Too often, things are just accepted as is. Tradition may trump many of your attempts to improve on the past, but if something is just wrong, act to fix it. An all girls school that is now coed with the same old logo may not bring in the new students you were hoping for.

Dress codes and uniforms should be discussed in all literature and do use sharp looking students for these pictures. The trend to try to use more "average" looking students sends a subliminal message of average being good enough. Aspiration to look sharp and the message that if you put on the St. Goodkid uniform will make you special works. Having a student body that looks sharp and stands out will only encourage the faculty to do the same and it will make a difference with prospective new parents.

Pricing to the Market

Review your pricing and see if there is anyone in the whole administration that can tell you how they came up with the number. Assuming they want to stay in business past one year, pricing the tuition is based on value received in the market. You are competing, after all, for the parent's education dollars. What makes the choice your school instead of someone else's school or even public school is your job as marketing manager to figure out.

If your school is k-12 and has 400 students, roughly two 15 student classes per grade level, along with a curriculum director, a couple of vice principals and a headmaster, throw in a secretary or two and a janitor. Employees total around 35 people with an average income over all of $50,000 plus benefits. You have a facility, let's say it is paid for but has annual maintenance and utilities costs of $24,000. Sporting events costs, because no matter how you cut it, girls volleyball doesn't pay its own bills, you have coaches expenses and team costs of $100,000 annually. In order to just break even, costs to be covered come in around $2,400,000 annually. Since you keep around 400 students, it is easy math to see the tuition must be $6,000 per student just to break even. Breaking even isn't a good idea, ever. Calculate in at least a 20% fudge factor and charge $7,500 which also allows for the children of the teachers who will want to get some benefit from teaching at this school so their kids come free.

Look around the market now and see where $7,500 makes you fit. If you can compete but be close to others in town at this cost, great. Don't be the highest just to be the highest UNLESS that is in the core of the marketing of the school. "We are the highest cost school in the area because we are worth it." If you want to do more for the kids, particularly older kids, like travel oversees, or other expensive add-ons, keep this in the budget and charge for it.

If you find you are in a situation where there is the opportunity to charge significantly more than is required and you can still fill the seats, do it. Push to the edge but don't go over. Put the money into things like locker rooms, field houses, new chess boards, technology, whatever is prevailing, and put some money back into an endowment for the future. It will be needed one day.

If, however, you find yourself in the situation where you can barely cover costs, and maybe not quite do that, at the $6,000 level you have a new challenge. Fund raising within the organization is part of the practice. Find the biggest money person associated with the school. It may be a parent - but it may also be an uncle or aunt or grandparent. Don't be shy about going to that person and asking for what is needed. Go for the big money knowing they have it and how much it will be appreciated by the school. Give them whatever recognition they want - which often enough is NONE. They don't want anyone else coming and asking for more money.

I hope this dialog has been helpful. We'll explore some other focused marketing programs in the future.

The Inventurist


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