Word of Mouth Marketing

96% retention and 15% growth. Sound good? Come see how Covenant Classical School achieved these numbers through a carefully crafted word of mouth marketing campaign.

Eric Cook

Eric Cook is the Headmaster at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth, Texas. He holds an M.A. in Instructional Leadership from Northern Kentucky University and has been an educator for 13 years. Eric also serves on the board of the Society for Classical Learning.

Promoting Our Differences

Professional observers of the living world (Ecologists) agree that members of the same species compete for limited natural resources such as food or shelter materials when they occupy the same physical location. But ecologists have long debated whether members of different species compete with one another for such resources within the same habitat. Whether this “inter-specific” competition exists or not, it is evident that individuals can best coexist in the same habitat if they occupy different niches. So it is with schools.

The stark reality is that the demand of students and parents seeking private education in any area is limited. However, within that limited supply there exists a continuum of educational needs, and each school must clearly understand and clearly articulate its particular niche in order to attract and keep its share of families.

The key to competing successfully in the private school market is not to be unique. This term can frighten families who want the stability of a school that implements best practices learned from similar
schools. Rather, the key is to articulate your differences in terms that are easily shared—student to student and soccer mom to soccer mom. Word of mouth will always be your best marketing, so ll those mouths with expressions that both speakers and hearers can understand and appreciate.

This has been particularly difficult for classical, Christian schools. To say we are “Christian” lumps us into a category of schools whose missions and niche might be very different than ours. To say we are “classical” means something different to everyone. Saying we are “Trivium-based” usually further confuses prospective parents, and few within our schools understand or can explain the method.

It falls to every school to determine what really makes it different and to articulate that difference in the simplest language. Distill your distinctives to a sentence fragment, followed by no more than 8 bullet points. Use the best pictures you can find to illustrate your points on your website and in print.

Schools often forget two important targets in their marketing strategies: the families you already have (internal marketing = retention) and teenagers. The easiest student to enroll is the student you already have, but current families need regular reminders of the great education their child is getting through samplings of what their children are learning and data.

Many schools are terrified of a mass exodus when students reach that age when parents begin to give way to their children’s wishes about school choice. Yet most marketing efforts target parents with pictures of sweet, uniform- clad second graders reading a book with their grandmotherly teacher. Rising high-schoolers form an equally important target audience and the way to a teen’s heart is through a school culture that attracts and holds them.

Relationships are the key to the attractive school culture, especially in the middle and upper grades. It should be clear to every student that their teachers support them and care about their academic and personal success, both in and out of the classroom. Soliciting and responding to student input on school culture issues goes a long way toward building student satisfaction.

These marketing and cultural components don’t happen accidentally. The school that wants to attract and retain students will develop its culture and its marketing strategies intentionally.

Websites that Matter

Your school’s website is the most critical and cost-effective element of your marketing strategy. Properly used, your website will maximize the effectiveness of “word of mouth” marketing, offer more information than printed materials, and present your school to a broader audience. As you create an uplifting, useful website these principles can guide the decisions you’ll make.

Begin with a plan

If you don’t have a comprehensive, strategic marketing plan, you should not be designing websites, printing brochures or spending resources on any marketing initiative. Reactionary marketing based on hunches and anecdotes is a speculative use of precious resources and typically provides little benefit.

Analyze the effectiveness of previous marketing initiatives.

Research the marketplace. Gather data. Then build your website and determine its content based on what you know the need is.

Something for everyone.

We live in an age of sophisticated information consumers, and it’s not just prospective parents that are using your site. Avoid the error of targeting prospective families to the exclusion of other constituent groups who regularly want information about your school—current parents, students, donors, prospective faculty and the community at large.

By keeping your current constituents engaged in your school and up to date on long-term strategic goals and day-to-day events, you give them a reason to visit your website regularly. If parents are proud of your school and its website, referring people to your website will be the most common way they introduce others to your school.

Organization is key

Web usability research suggests that site visitors should be able to find the information they’re seeking within 2 clicks of the home page. Organize content into “portals” or entry points for each constituency. Each portal should contain sub-navigation structure referring to content relevant to their interest.

How a user moves from page to page (“page flow”) is as important as overall navigation. A truly user-friendly, intuitive website is one in which the pages follow a logical presentation of information—much the same as you present your school in a logical method in an oral presentation.

Keep it simple

Statistically, a web user will generally spend no more than 3 to 5 minutes on their initial visit to your site. What do you want to tell users about your school in five minutes? You want to pinpoint their need for your school, tell them how your school meets that need and make it irresistibly simple for them to get more information. Don’t fall into the trap of “overselling” by giving an exhaustive presentation of your school online.

Keep it fresh and relevant with feature-rich content management. Limited, well-organized content for every user group is only valuable if it is relevant and up-to-date. Again, usability research suggests that outdated content is one of the quickest ways to lose visitors. Is the former headmaster’s photo still posted on the site? Are you touting standardized test scores from 3 years ago? Is the September “Back to School Parent Orientation” still listed on the calendar in December?

If your website content is dependent on a time-strapped volunteer or a faculty member who manages the site “on the side,” then you should consider migrating your website to a hosted content management system (CMS). Content management systems give you control over your website content without requiring any experience in web development or HTML (the primary programming language of the internet). This allows you to assign maintenance of site pages to several individuals, so that no one person is responsible for keeping up with the whole site.

Untie the shoestring

When it comes to websites, the adage “you get what you pay for” rings true. Taking full advantage of your website means that you’ve got to fund it. Avoid the tendency to t your website initiative into a pre-defined budget. Instead, build your budget around an honest assessment of the need.

Marketing: Four Phases of Messaging: Following a Dynamic Enrollment Marketing Strategy

Do you have wheelbarrows full of information lined up in your admissions office that you readily dump on prospective parents when they inquire about your school? Do your enrollment materials and website provide an exhaustive explanation of your school, leaving no informational stone unturned? Actually, there’s a more successful way of introducing families to your school. mark Mountan of Peracto Counsulting will introduce you to a simple, 4-step process of presenting your school’s distinctive mission and vision to prospective families. The result is something that every school wants- increased enrollment inquiries and more opportunity to speak with prospective parents face-to face.

Mark Mountan

Mark Mountan is founder of Peracto Consulting and works exclusively with classical Christian schools in implementing comprehensive integrated marketing and communications strategies. He has worked with large and small schools alike. Mark is currently writing a book (scheduled for release in late 2008) designed to help classical Christian schools understand and implement best practices in marketing.

Marketing: Just What Are You Saying Anyway?

Communication isn’t exactly a snazzy topic. Marketing is much more fun and recognizable. that’s why at many schools marketing garners most of the resources while communications gets a cursory nod and is easily brushed to the side – until something bad happens. Truth is, your school’s marketing efforts will only be as successful as its communication strategy. Mark Mountan of Peracto Counsulting will outline best practices in communication and show you how to leverage the critical points where marketing and internal and external communications intersect. Return to your school with a broadened understanding of communication and practical ways to transform your school’s efforts and involve everyone in the process- administrators, faculty, board members, parents, donors, and others.

Mark Mountan

Mark Mountan is founder of Peracto Consulting and works exclusively with classical Christian schools in implementing comprehensive integrated marketing and communications strategies. He has worked with large and small schools alike. Mark is currently writing a book (scheduled for release in late 2008) designed to help classical Christian schools understand and implement best practices in marketing.