5 facts that independent schools should take to heart about marketing

October 27th, 2014

462996881Independent schools (boarding and private schools) are bastions of wealth and privilege, packed to the ancient rafters with the sons and daughters of titans of industry, government and commerce, with long waiting lists of the 1 percent clamoring for entry. And the admission directors’ main job is to say, “no.”  Well, not exactly. This is 2014, and even alumni (many of whom have moved away from the old school) no longer “always” send their kids back. It’s a new world, and independent schools need to wake up about marketing.

What’s happened now is a massive demographic shift, from north and east to south and west, mirroring the wider trends in societies. For example, the state of Ohio, home to four boarding schools and countless private day schools, lost 150,000 households with children under 18 between 2001 and 2010. Who were those people? Young families from the state’s main metro areas, Toledo, Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus, Youngstown and Cincinnati.

In Massachusetts, nearly 31 percent of households had children under 18 in 2000. That figure dropped to 28 percent in 2010, and just 8.6 percent had children under 14… Connecticut:  20 percent of households had children under 14 in 2000. 17.7 percent in 2010. On the surface, these are changes of just a few percentage points, but given the continued trends, and the lower birth rates associated with modern American life, they’re sobering. SSATB’s recent survey noted a 33% decline in domestic boarding students since 2001, and a precipitous decline in inquiries.

How do independent schools need to respond to the shift?

1. Realize you are battling with your peers over a declining market. Differentiating your product is essential — the traditional New England boarding school experience can be had many places, and the cost to value calculation is being conducted more often than you think.  Your brand must differentiate you.

2.  People outside of the I-95 corridor don’t understand boarding schools. That’s why the highest proportion of boarding school attendees come from just six states, according to The Association of Boarding Schools.  Creating new boarding school families is critical, but it’s an expensive proposition that independent schools haven’t budgeted for. By one calculus, a prospect needs to be exposed to messaging 30 times before the product or service has a shot at entering the consideration set, and that’s assuming your targeting is precise enough to find the most likely people to be prospects.

3.  People have good choices other than independent schools. Many cities with challenging public schools not only have great private options, they have charter schools and parochial schools that compete with your school. Even in cities that are struggling, there are people who believe in public schools and want to support them, or who want a religious education, (or who just want to be five minutes closer to school), rather than send their kids to yours.

4.  For boarding schools and private high schools, the kids are driving the decision process, and they aren’t reading your viewbooks and brochures, or your letters. They’re using Instagram and Facebook to find your current students and evaluate your school from that angle. They hit your website looking for multimedia content that’s real, open, honest and focused on them. They find your followers on Twitter and engage on Snapchat. They don’t care about your marketing messages, they care about discovering the real story of your school.  They don’t read long articles. They are harsh judges.

5. Digital marketing is more targeted, more effective and more measurable than analog marketing. It can be efficient, too (ask me for details), but it still takes budget and expertise. It’s more than search engine optimization or buying Google Adwords (which can get spendy very quickly), it’s managing your digital strategy from objectives to creative in concert with your other communications. Public relations, social media, internal communication, parent communications and alumni communications all play crucial roles in the marketing mix. You need experience and talent to manage all of that.

It’s doable. But your school has to let go of the ego-centric conceit that it doesn’t NEED marketing because of its history, its venerable buildings, its location or its alumni base. The world is changing fast, and only the adaptable will survive.

Data retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml , 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry (SSATB)  This post also appeared on LinkedIn. 

 

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Many conferences, many objectives

October 20th, 2014
PRSA's big dance kicks off

PRSA’s big dance kicks off

During the past 12 months, I’ve spoken at six conferences and attended three others. That’s a lot, no? Yes, a lot. Several were communication conferences, Ragan’s measurement conference, IABC’s 2013 Heritage Region and their International Conference, PRSA’s Connect ’14 employee comms conference and just a week ago, it’s big shebang, the International (#PRSAICON).

Plus, I went to Fusion 13, an IT service management conference; the National Association of Independent Schools conference, the SSATB conference for independent schools admission officers and (my favorite) the International PR Research Conference.

For the most part, all of these were, at least, good. I confess that at this time in my career, the comms related conferences are a mixed bag. That’s not a dig at the dais or planners; it’s hard to put these things together. I’ve done it for Heritage Region and for Connect, and you’re serving five different masters. You need content and speakers who will drive registration (the famous or nearly famous, the veteran speakers who have their fans, the striking, surprising people who will make people say, “OK, her I have to see!”)

You also need content for different levels of experience, from newbies to crusty old coots (present company excepted…) That can mean that at any one time, 80 percent of your audience won’t be happy. “Why is HE here again. She’s an idiot! He’s a moron!”  So I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him!

IPRRC is all academic research that boggles my mind in the best way. The Schools and IT conferences are business development opportunities. The Connect conference is my responsibility as Chair of PRSA Employee Communication professional interest section, and the Heritage conference is my comfortable IABC slippers. The internationals are another thing entirely. In some ways, they are merely about being seen among the crowds, though Twitter (and conference apps) give opportunities to stand out (I still didn’t make the top 20 posters in the conference app. Blame my lousy battery!).

IABC was in Toronto, one of my favorite places, and it had been since it was last there that I had been there. With all that has transpired to damage IABC’s brand over the past few years, I felt invested in the organization enough to go.  PRSA I had attended only once before, and as my Section leadership position requires a level of visibility and participation, it was a good thing to be there for Saturday’s general assembly and the many leadership-related meetings that the international conference includes.

Another reason to go is the need to identify speakers who’ll fit in other conferences. Let’s face it, you can’t be a good speaker without seeing good speakers anyway, and since we’ve got PRSA Connect ’15 in May upcoming, why not go see a few and have some firsthand experience of their abilities to go along with the cold paper of their proposals?

Sooooo…. what about the PRSA conference? Hey. 500 words of preamble – it’s a CommAMMO post. Wait for part two.

 

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Indep Schools face challenge of trends

September 18th, 2014

186140619Independent schools have nearly always been a world apart from the scruffy marketing-essential business world, but a series of trends from SSATB Exec Director Heather Hoerle show how the economic pressures are changing how these elite private schools need to market.

First — Pricing negotiations are here. Full-pay families with the ability to pay are demanding discounts. Some schools are even eliminating the “this is the price” from their websites in favor of a scale of discount available by family income.

Second — Markets, after years of fragmentation, are coelescing around two profiles: Value-oriented families who demand discounts and are constantly seeking validation for their thriftiness, and those seeking a new economic order based on authenticity. The latter care deeply about a customized experience, which complicates a marketing process traditionally based on unified messaging.

Third — Demographics. It’s not our imagination. There are fewer full-pay families in our traditional markets, and we need to be aware of that.

Finally — choices! There is unprecedented growth in charter schools, many public schools have significantly improved their offerings, and private and parochial schools continue to compete.

More to follow, no doubt.

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Is it energy, will power or caffeine?

July 30th, 2014

WorldHQI just ran across this list: 61 best social media tools for small business. Good gravy. I know of or have used five (5). This kind of discovery gets repeated frequently at the beautiful World Headquarters of Communication AMMO.  What I’m wondering is how in the world anyone keeps track of this stuff.

Yes, I’m aware of outstanding tools like a pen and paper for such matters, but really. Is my deficit attributable to a lack of high-test coffee? I gave up caffeine some time ago, relegating myself to the wilds of what’s the point Coke and Decaf (Letterman: “It’s what they’re drinking in Hell.”)

Or is it a question of not caring enough to take the time? Maybe my cynicism about social media overcomes my professional desire to be The One Who Knows Everything.  It could be a suffering from comparisons — I’m not as smart as the cool kids who drop these names like elderly debutantes (True story: She: “You’re from Seattle! You must know the Weyerhaeusers!” Me: “We ran in somewhat different circles.”)

It could also be a deficit of energy — I’m busy with clients and now with research for my thesis and shortly with writing the darn thing and defending it. I also have friends, family, home, cats and books to read, movies to watch and music to play and listen to. I don’t have the energy to “live social,” darn it. I like to sleep and do offline things (see above.)

So Mr. Google (and Mrs.Twitter, Ms. Facebook, Monsieur LinkedIn and the occasional Herr Pinterest) will have to do.  I just have to wean myself off the idea that I can be the font of all wisdom in that space. Instead, I’ll keep pushing for quality over quantity, for probity and wisdom over transience and faddism, for support and positivity instead of snark and self-aggrandizement.

How about you?

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Employee comms planning requires research

July 25th, 2014

186140619We shouldn’t need to say it. As internal communicators, we’re one of the few in an organization who can take the pulse of the firm. Even in our editorial roles, we talk to people all the time. We (hopefully) know the business, its goals, challenges, strengths. We understand leadership’s priorities and how communication can help move them forward. We’re the experts.

We need to make decisions based on facts and data, not conjecture and conventional wisdom. That takes research.

I’m not saying it all has to be quantitative, academically bullet-proof (though that doesn’t hurt), but we’re the only ones who can bring employee intelligence forward to the leadership. We need to find the balance between just executing and doing proper outreach, judging the effectiveness of our messaging, channels, tools and techniques.

Imagine a conversation with your boss like this:

B – What’s happening with our employees?

U – We got 400 hits on our strategy story last week!

B – So?

U – Uhhhhhh.

Been there?  It should be more like this:

B – What’s happening with our employees?

U – We got a lot of comments on the strategy story. Most were OK, but a couple of them make me think we need to test some other ways of explaining the strategy to make it more relevant to more people.  I followed up with a couple of calls to some people, and I have some ideas about what to do differently.

B – Tell me more!

That’s a different dynamic.  We need more research up front, more evaluation during our communication activities, and more measurement afterward to connect with business objectives.  I know internal commsters are totally slammed, but this is about being a serious business person. No other department gets away with ignoring this vital discipline.

How about it? What prevents you from using research in your work? What holds you back?

 

 

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What’s the point of the IABC World Conference?

July 18th, 2014
Chuck Gose holds court ably at IABC '14

Chuck Gose holds court ably at IABC ’14

It costs a lot of money, involves travel including a spendy hotel, and features 1,300 attendees. Why did I go?

Once upon a time in my career, I was trying to fill in many professional blanks — better understand media relations, gain management knowledge, be a better writer, move up in my organization and make more money.  I went to Conference first in ’95, then again in ’97, and the second time it wasn’t as valuable. Many of the same presenters on hand, and not as much new overall.

Still, I recommended the conference to others, particularly my contemporaries looking to learn.  Then I got busy with career, and started looking for other things to attend — the Institute for PR Summit on Measurement, Joe Williams’ Dialogue in the DesertRagan.  Next, I presented at some smaller conferences and started thinking about the big kahuna again. I went in 2010, and though I met a few people, it was tough — I stayed at a bed and breakfast, brought my wife along and had friends meet us there. I went to sessions, but missed out on dine-a-round and the usual camaraderie, and thus, walked away wondering why I’d gone.

This year, with the conference back in Toronto, I went again. Two dinners with great people I’d never met before. My wife attended the conference rather than waiting for me to be done. We stayed at the conference hotel. It was fun!

Invariably, when I get back from a conference I ask what business value (apart from learning) I received. For these large conferences, I’m often disappointed. My expectations are out of line — I have to treat these things as long-term investments in branding and general awareness. Through that prism, IABC14 was a smash – I live tweeted several portions, and wound up with new Twitter followers and some impressive tweet stats. Whether that means anything at all, I haven’t a clue. And I’m a measurement guy!

Perhaps I’m too much of a capitalist — I want ROI on this, not merely outtakes and outputs. Yet, I know that in the strictest sense, I’ve only been running my own show for five years — others have been at it much longer.  Add to the mix the recent issues IABC has suffered (annus horriblus, definitely), and I need to do a better job of staying in the moment and not expecting the phone to ring straightaway.

I’m also a little late to the game here — and my incipient entry into the second half of my fifth decade has me a little spooked.  The thing is, IABC has been very good to me. I’ve built a great professional network and made good friends. I’ve learned a lot and had the opportunity to teach others what I’ve learned. I’ve been to interesting places and sharpened my saw.

Will I go every year? Have to see. I’m leading PRSA’s employee communication section this year, so will have to go to the PRSA conference this fall (and meanwhile, my expenses are through the roof!), and there are industries whose conferences I should attend as well. (Hello, SSATB, NAIS, WBSA?) I love the IPRRC, and Connect.

I need more clients, obviously! :-)

 

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The perils of pricing

May 27th, 2014

I don’t know about you other #solopr folks, but trying to figure out pricing is tough. When I started Communication AMMO five years ago (holy mackerel!), I set pricing based on the agency SVP/Partner model. Some friends at a couple of agencies reviewed my CV and said that would be where they would bill me, were I working there.

The squishy thing was, a) there was a wicked huge recession on, and b) the whole “hourly” billing didn’t really apply to the initial project work. I did some math (one day planning session and $X, plus Y hours of writing the plan and Z hours of back-and-forth) and realized to make anything close to a living, I’d need a lot of planning sessions.

So I started thinking about value, the value of more than just the time, but of the years of experience. I looked back at when I’d worked for Joe Williams and what he billed for my time, and billed accordingly.  Then, when I started teaching, I learned my value was about $0.30 an hour (but I love it and am grateful for it!)

Ha-HA!

So, now there’s a chance I’ll be teaching a couple of days of master classes, and trying to figure out that billing has twisted my little grey cells into a knot. I want to do it, it’s a not for profit sponsoring it…

Thoughts? Thanks!

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Join our conversation on PRConversations

April 9th, 2014

Over on the sine qua non of public relations blogs, PRConversations, I’ve inveighed against the provincialism of the idea that we PRs are engaged in some sort of war with marketing over turf and assets. Sure, I still believe that all marketing is communication, but not all communication is marketing, and certainly the measurement challenges are more on our side than on that of our marketing cousins, but that’s no cause to think it’s a binary choice for organizations.  Have a gander — especially at the comment stream — and weigh in.

Many thanks to Judy Gombita and Heather Yaxley for their offer of space for my screed…

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Skills for PR need revision, research finds

March 28th, 2014
Prof. Michele Ewing presents as Dr. Dean Krueckeberg (R) and Dr. Vince Hazelton (L) listen.

Prof. Michele Ewing presents as Dr. Dean Krueckeberg (R) and Dr. Vince Hazelton (L) and others listen.

Public relations educators might need to re-examine the core curriculum to keep newly minuted pros relevant in the current market, according to research by Kent State University’s Prof. Michele Ewing.  A qualitative study of the required skills and knowledge for entry-level advertising and PR majors finds that planning, writing, multimedia and business knowledge are among the most urgently needed competencies.

Professor Ewing conducted interviews with 31 pros ranging from CEOs to mid-level professionals across agency, corporate and not-for-profit organizations, and the results were presented at the 17th International PR Research Conference, March 6-10, 2014.

The findings:

Strategic communications planning: Understanding of research and comms strategy is the foundation of PR education. Students must have critical thinking skills and grasp the basics of planning and measurement.

Writing across multiple platforms: Telling stories appropriately for the medium, including content intended to go directly from organization to stakeholder. Yes, we do need people who know the difference between writing a post-length piece versus a feature versus an objective piece.

Multimedia storytelling: Social, mobile, online — they all depend on imagery, audio, video, text, infographics… Visual storytelling is a great phrase, and knowing the power of graphics and imagery and how to lever them appropriately is essential. So is knowing your Adobe suite.

Interpersonal communication: You’ve got to be able to speak, present, engage, persuade, face to face, online and in print.

Digital: Social media and data analytics, including the strategic understanding of engaging audiences through these new tools, but that engagement is only the beginning. Community management, multimedia for social, online and mobile, and the ability to use data analytics to both develop strategy and measure its effect.  More important, it’s the ability to make sense of the data as applied to business issues and problems to facilitate decision-making.

Converged media: Owned, earned and paid work together, and pros need to know how to apply each in service to wider goals. Paid or sponsored social content was an area of emphasis noted.

Business knowledge: Understanding how businesses work, including entrepreneurship, business development, profit margin and bottom line, distribution and purchasing, basic economics… Yes, we still need to address our aversion to numbers as a profession and be business people who happen to lever communication skills.

Exposure to key practice areas: Internal communications, media relations, public affairs, issues and reputation management — but also industry sectors, B2B, healthcare, crisis, energy and technology communications are growth areas in our practice.  But, specializing as an expert in one or more of these is seen as preferable to the generalist approach.

Congrats to Michele on a terrific presentation of a very important topic.  What would you add in the way of advice to improve the curriculum?

 

 

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Threats to PR practice, or not?

March 20th, 2014

iStock_000009739238SmallContent marketing. Brand journalism. Native advertising. Promoted user endorsements. OK, so is this paragraph just linkbait, or what? No, it’s the subject of research from Kirk Hallahan of Colorado State University exploring whether these trends — some of which have been the provenance of public relations — are eroding the power and influence of PR in organizational communication.

kirkhallahan

Dr. Kirk Hallahan, Colorado State University

Dr. Hallahan presented the early research at the 17th annual International PR Research Conference, March 6-9. He identified five reasons for concern that PR might take the rise of these disciplines with trepidation.

Encroachment and marginalization: Marketers have seized upon all of these activities as traditional advertising has seen issues in connecting with publics. PR’s seeking of third-party endorsement doesn’t guarantee placement for organizational messages, whereas if these elements are part of a paid strategy, do. Ads permeate commercial communications, including TV, radio, and print, and consumers are increasingly turning to media that excludes advertising, including pay-cable TV, satellite radio and internet content that uses less intrusive ad strategies.  It’s an attractive proposition to simply pay for play.

Undermining professionalism in both journalism and PR: Whether it’s former journalists enlisted to produce branded copy (that often still looks like editorial) or marketers writing pithy, short copy reminiscent of advertising but presented differently, paid content could erode the perception of value of journalism and call into question whether organizations are earning coverage or not. Traditional PR could be hurt as expectations rise among organizations that merely buying “eyeballs” is enough.

Devaluation of relationship-building: The “relations” part of PR and the ideal vision of the practice calls for two-way, symmetrical relationships between organizations and publics. There are myriad examples of how strong relationships have helped organizations during times of stress, as well as how the PR/Journalist symbiosis serves the common good in a democracy.  Turning that relationship into a mere financial transaction, and corrupting the concept of user endorsements could be a threat from which the practice might not recover.

Challenges to transparency: All types of branded content are designed to appear as though they are happenstance; this is a deceitful practice that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission hopes to discourage through disclosure rules, but there are powerful inducements to keep such matters opaque from the public. Dr. Hallahan worries that social media users might not realize how “likes” might not represent an honest endorsement from their friends, but the result of a purchase transaction, and that would foster distrust in an age sorely lacking in trust at all.

Confounding of measurement and evaluation: The idea that an objective third party — an editor — might decide to cover an organization’s news and therefore be relied upon to assess that organization’s claims, factually, is fairly essential to the concept of news media. If the lines are sufficiently blurred between paid and unpaid content, how can value be accurately measured outside of the financial result? Perhaps this is the point, that is, to reduce all communication activity to sales, and ignore all other tactics entirely. How do we measure effectiveness beyond the output level?

Dr. Hallahan’s thought-provoking research permits only deep questions — not answers. I’m grateful to have had the chance to hear it and discuss it.  Is this a threat? The marketers will say that if it is, it’s because PRs haven’t done a good enough job leveraging it in service of dollars and cents.

The biggest threat I see is that this all continues a reductivist argument that makes all communication into marketing. That’s what I see as the ultimate threat.

Thoughts?

 

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