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Sarah Gordon, Assistant Director of Communications
Choate Rosemary Hall

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  • Independent Schools
[GUEST BLOG] Private School Messaging Strategy: Tips for Getting Your Story Straight
By Meg Tripp, Director of Editorial Strategy, Sametz Blackstone Associates

Creating a storyline is the key to cohesive messaging that shares your story across platforms and markets. Read more in this guest blog by Sametz Blackstone Associates

By Meg Tripp, Director of Editorial Strategy

You’re developing a website that will engage and serve your users well. You’re planning a comprehensive marketing campaign that will integrate multiple channels and speak to diverse audiences. You’re working hard to convey your message to prospective families,  partners, and donors. 

Each effort takes a different toolbox—but one particular tool will be integral across the board: your messaging. 

Before you can craft an exceptional user experience, before you can map out your most critical channels, before you can write a single call to action, you need a messaging structure that will undergird everything you say and do, and tie all of your efforts together. 

So… an elevator pitch? 

Should you stop your elevator at the first floor?

If you’ve worked in marketing for more than a minute, you’ve no doubt heard of the concept of the elevator pitch: a short, easy-to-grasp message that can be covered in the length of a single-floor ride. If your goal is to communicate as much as you can about your school in a limited timeframe, a quick, thoughtful summary will do the trick.

Odds are, however, that you do a lot more talking than that, to many more people… and not just on a trip to Floor 2. 

You need a structure that equips and empowers everyone at your school or district  to speak comfortably and fluently to a variety of different constituencies, across a variety of different venues, for a variety of different purposes. It has to be flexible enough that people feel comfortable putting your messages into their own words, but resonant enough that your vision and values are always on the tip of their tongue. 

Here’s a basic messaging framework to guide your efforts:

storyline

Key audiences:  Who do you speak to most often? Every school invariably must connect with parents and students (both existing and prospective), but don’t forget about your alumni, your donors, and your internal audiences: faculty and staff. 

Elevator pitch / message: This is a foundational statement that says who you are, what you do, and for whom—and why anyone should care. When someone hears your elevator pitch, they might still have questions...but they shouldn’t be confused.

Bement School does a great job sharing their pitch in this unique "Who We Are" section that shares why they're local, global, and exceptional. 

 

Tilts: “Tilts” build out and tailor your main message for different audience segments by focusing on what they care about and value most. 

St. Paul's School for Girls has several programs aimed at different age groups and genders; their "Cradle to College" site section shares different messaging for each group and organizes it an a visually-appealing way on their homepage. 

Storylines: Storylines speak to various aspects of your school, and what you offer to those who matter most to you. They should both support and expand on your high-level messages, and can be marshaled to prove what you say about yourself, and to lend a human dimension to your story.

Episcopal Academy shares the programs and aspects that make their school unique on their homepage. 

Stories: Your stories could be in the form of case studies, testimonials, or quotes, but their job is to bring your messaging and your storylines to life. Parents want to hear from actual parents, students want to hear from actual students, and so on.

Rectory School's "Why Rectory" section shares student stories; Mae's Story is an excerpt from a college essay that shows Rectory's impact on a student's life. 

Facts and figures: Your facts and figures are practical details that prove your messages, such as your matriculation rate, the expansion of your classes over the years, your test score improvements… the list is long. 

Infographics are a fun way to share facts in a digestible format. Germantown Friends fast facts reverses on the site page for a fun viewing experience. 

germantown friends fast facts

The goal is to develop messages to help all those who communicate on behalf of your organization––both formally and informally––to make the best use of opportunities at hand. Talking to a parent is different than interacting with an alumnus; (though those roles may overlap) and communicating with donors is different than speaking to prospective students.

Another consideration: you want to be able to message in two directions: you should be able to move to speaking about your tactical offerings once you’ve established your mission, vision, and meaning, but your main messaging and meaning should also shine through when you start the conversation by talking about your programs and offerings.   

Goal: you want to be able to message from both the “top down” and the “bottom up.”

Building out your Framework

Your first step is to establish everyone your messaging will need to speak to: your audiences. This will be an evolving group, no doubt; you might launch a capital campaign, add additional programs to your array, or expand your student age range—and each one of those shifts could add some new eyes and ears to your list.

Your elevator pitch should be no more than three to four lines that cover the basics about who you are and what you do. Be sure to include:

  • your name (including your full moniker and any acronyms you’ll use later on in your messaging)
  • the type of school you are
  • where you’re located
  • what you offer / provide
  • who you offer it to / who makes up your community
  • what differentiates you from other schools.

There’s more to the story, but now you’ve begun the conversation.

Now that you know your audiences and your main message, it’s time to connect those dots with your tilts. When you’re writing your tilts, consider the answers to the following questions:

  • Which aspects of your message matter most to them?
  • What priorities do they have that you can match up with your own priorities?
  • What objections / concerns do they have that can you address, right off the bat?
  • What values can you express that will resonate with them?

Tilts can also drill down into specifics like signature programs, exceptional facilities, environmental / amenity questions, or your faculty’s qualifications. 

Now, your storylines add color and detail to the messages that precede them, and can be used practically as the basis of everything from your viewbook copy to an Instagram post. These could include concepts / statements like the following:

  • Our athletic programs focus on competition and character, because the way we behave on the field is as important as how we win on the field.
  • We balance academic achievement with self-expression, integrating our core curricula with the visual and performing arts.
  • Every student is welcome on our campus, regardless of their background, culture, or chosen identity.

The final step in our basic messaging framework is the collection of stories and facts and figures / proof points that build on everything that you’ve built thus far. There’s a fair amount of leeway in terms of what could be included in this aspect of your framework, but here are some potential examples:

  • Student testimonials about their time on campus
  • Alumni testimonials about how their time at your school prepared them for what was next in their lives
  • Notable faculty, and their off-campus accolades or achievements
  • Notable alumni, and their off-campus accolades or achievements
  • Colleges your graduates have attended
  • Your class sizes and student-teacher ratios
  • Admission / matriculation rates
  • Number / representative list of extracurricular offerings
  • Athletic championships / medals / recognition
  • Community service efforts.

Each one of these options can be used to prove what you say about yourself to a particular audience, or to provide additional information for a parent, student, or donor who might have a particular question about what you do or offer.

Putting your Framework to Practical Use

Now that you’ve built out a comprehensive, flexible, and compelling messaging framework, it’s time to get everyone who communicates on behalf of your institution comfortable with the tools you’ve created. There are multiple ways to get everyone on board, including a brand messaging guide.

The guide you develop should be in an easy-to-use, accessible, and portable format—anything from an intranet, to a PDF, to a simple text document—to turn to when the time comes to create any sort of content. And when they do create content, encourage them to test it against your framework to ensure they’re making the most of every opportunity to build your brand.

A workshop (or two) can also help your communicators—from your marketing team straight through to your board of trustees—get comfortable with putting your messages into their own words, tilting them for the different audiences they’ll address, and backing them up with stories and proof points. Try giving them different applications for your messaging, including a short donor pitch, a paragraph of web copy designed to speak to prospective parents, or even a photo caption for your alumni magazine. 

Remember: your messages are only useful to you if they get used, so take the time to provide access, and to build comfort and fluency with every aspect of your framework. With a little time and effort, you’ll all end up on the same page.

  • Marketing/Communications
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