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Why Public School Marketing Isn’t a Dirty Word
Stephanie Wilson

There are a number of words that everyone knows you should never say in a school setting. Unfortunately, in many public school districts, the word "marketing" has made it onto that list of forbidden phrases. Quite frankly, that's a #@$! shame. 
 
Prior to the pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the percentage of students enrolled in their assigned public schools dropped by 6%. In comparison, the percentage of students who enrolled in chosen public schools and homeschools increased by 19% and 3%, respectively.

So how do we turn the tide and encourage more students to attend our public schools, which will bring more money into the system for continued improvements and create a positive cycle? 

Furthermore, how do you prevent this cycle if you are fortunate enough to be in a district without a declining enrollment? The same way businesses do —  through marketing! 

But what’s changed? We haven’t always had to market our school districts, right?

The Need to Market Your School District

Marketing your district is an idea that’s in stark contrast to when I was growing up (and I’m not that old!). When you turned five, your parents enrolled you at the neighborhood school, and you got on the big yellow school bus, and that was that. There really wasn't a need to "market" public schools back then.

But times have changed. Public school districts are facing stiff competition against private and charter schools and even homeschooling options, as everyone seems to be fighting over a dwindling student population.

In my home state of North Carolina, the majority of public school districts have seen an enrollment decrease over the past five years, while nearly 110,000 students now attend 184 charter schools — that's an enrollment increase of almost 200 percent. Nationally, charter school enrollment has tripled since 2005-06. In my home district of Catawba County Schools alone, nearly 2,500 students are educated in a home school setting.

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The Financial Impact of Not Marketing

While we don't want to think about students in terms of monetization, the harsh reality is that every student represents a dollar amount to school districts, and the downward trend in public school enrollment is costly. Every student lost represents reduced funding for your district. If enough students leave, so do teaching positions. So quite literally, marketing your school district can help save jobs. 

Additionally, those are funds that could have been used to empower your school to engage and inspire students, give them the resources they need, attract great teachers, and so much more.

It's Not Bragging – It's Marketing!

Let's face it – marketing is often looked at as a dirty word in schools. Marketing can sometimes move us out of our comfort zones, and that's why we’re hesitant to toot our own horns – we don't want to come across as being obnoxious braggarts, especially not in the office. 

At the same time, teachers and administrators often think of education as a vocation, as something they are called to do to improve students' lives. Looking at education in terms of a business seems to belittle the importance of the vocational call and puts what they do in uncomfortable terms. 
 
It can be challenging to break these molds and speak out about how outstanding our schools are, yet that's precisely what you need to do to attract more students. Your district has a unique story to tell about the many ways your schools provide an outstanding experience in educating the whole child. Equally important are the stories you tell about how your district provides an empowering place to work for all faculty and staff.  I propose that it's your obligation to tell that story in a manner that attracts more students, which in turn allows you to dedicate even more resources to your community. 

When you look at it from this perspective, sharing how wonderful you are with local families isn't really bragging, it's helping them get the best education for their children. 

How do you market your public school district?

Tell your Story and Empower Your People

Particularly in these times of tight budgets, it’s also important to note that marketing doesn’t necessarily equate to spending money. Marketing is also about empowering your people — students, teachers, staff, and community members with the information they need to be your brand evangelists. If you give them the tools, they will be more than willing to share your story in the wider community.

More and more, families turn to social media to check out an area and school district before considering their real estate options. 

A recent study shows that Americans spent an average of just over 1,300 hours a year on social media with Facebook leading the way at an astonishing average of 58 minutes a day (or 325 hours a year ) on Facebook! That's a lot of time they could spend engaging with your content. 

If your parents, teachers, and administrators are active on those groups and pages, they can act as your “evangelists” and quickly jump into those conversations and be cheerleaders for you. They can tell your story in ways and places you can't. However, for them to do that effectively, you have to give them a story to tell. 

Families are also reading reviews on a variety of online sources like Google and Niche with Niche being one of the largest and most comprehensive of all K-12 review sites. Niche grades schools and districts on a variety of factors, one of which is the user reviews. To increase the number of positive reviews on Niche, ask your “friendlies” to write reviews for you, which is especially important because schools and districts with fewer than five reviews are not eligible to be graded.

Make Marketing Interesting!

 "You cannot bore people into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it."
 - David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy was an iconic adman who was famous for (among other things) making marketing interesting. He believed that you first had to have an amazing product (that's your school or district) and then tell people an interesting – and true – story about it to attract and keep their attention. In the 1950s, that was accomplished through print and broadcast advertisements. Today, we do the same thing online, both on our websites and through social media.

Visual Brand Unity

As a school or a district, you have a brand. That brand is your identity; it's the concept and the construct that people identify with and usually take pride in. Having a strong brand gives you a focus and a sense of purpose; it unites your stakeholders. When you take the time to invest in creating a solid brand, everyone wins. You'll attract better teachers, it'll help you retain students, and increase your community's awareness of you in a positive light.

screenshot of Tacoma's whole educator page

When we think of a district with a great visual brand identity, Tacoma Public Schools in Tacoma, Washington, always comes up. Look anywhere on their website and you’ll see their logo, colors, graphics, and consistent photography and videography all carried through.

Start with their home page and navigate easily to their staff page describing the “Whole Educator,” and even to the family engagement page. Their communication team carries their visual branding throughout their social media channels, too. Take a quick scroll through their social feeds (all linked in the footer of each page) and you’ll see what we mean.

Catawba County Schools Homepage

Drive around my home district of Catawba County Schools and you’ll see car magnets and bumper stickers on cars and trucks across the county. You’ll even see logo apparel in local stores … and not just for the high schools. It’s a visual brand that unites!

What's more, your individual school brand should be tied to your district's look, feel, and messaging. Along with Tacoma Public Schools, Issaquah School District does this well. Issaquah beautifully reworked a myriad of school logos to incorporate the circular motif the district uses.

This visual consistency allowed each school (like Issaquah High, Issaquah Middle, and Issaquah Valley Elementary) to have its own distinct brand image inside the circle that still tied in with that of the district. This helps your schools build on community strengths, and it makes it easier for students and parents to move up and grow into new schools within the district as students naturally move from elementary school to middle school and up through high school.

Give Your Brand a Voice

When this visual identity is maintained throughout websites and social media, it helps create an identity for your district and its schools, yet the words you use are equally important. Consistency of messaging, both in expressing mission and vision and in the tone and voice that you share them in, will help you connect with parents and students. Expressing a consistent brand promise, which tells the world why you do what you do, is one way to do that.

issaquah school district homepage

Issaquah School District did a great job with this well and developed a simple brand statement: Every Student. Every Day. That allowed everyone who saw that messaging to connect with the district's values and for their team to easily create messaging that resonates.

Tell Your District’s Story with Your Website

Remember that no matter what you say or how you say it, someone is always listening. That's why it's critical that you tell your story often and that you tell it well. Sharing your successes helps attract new families and potential teachers, and it also reinforces why current students are there. 

Good stories create an emotional connection within your schools, build trust, and inspire pride. 
When you control the narrative by releasing a continual stream of positive content with a solid visual identity in a consistent tone, your content will achieve its desired effect. It will tell your school's story in the manner you want, and it will help to attract new families.

screenshot of spring lake homepage

Spring Lake Park Schools in Minnesota redesigned their website in order to have an easy-to-use platform to share a continuous stream of positive information on their website and also push it out to social media as well. Rowan Salisbury Schools in North Carolina did the same. You’ll notice in both examples, it’s not just “flyer-type” information being shared, but actual stories about actual people!

Key Takeaway

In an era of increasing competition for students, marketing is essential. However, marketing does not always mean spending money; it encompasses creating a positive brand, effectively messaging that brand image to key stakeholders, and having them become evangelists for your district and its schools. When you give them the tools they need, they can help tell your story and encourage others to become a part of your school community.

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stephanie wilson

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephanie Wilson is an accomplished sales and marketing consultant and strategist who brings more than 20 years of experience to her work connecting school communities. She loves exploring and celebrating all the tremendous things that schools are doing to educate the next generation of learners.


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