6 Steps to a Successful School Marketing Plan

Team working to develop school marketing plans over a table of graphs and charts and a tablet

By Stacy Jagodowski

Times have changed, and many schools are finding that they need to engage in strong marketing tactics to thrive in today’s market. That means more schools than ever are looking to develop marketing plans to guide them. Unfortunately, for those institutions building a school marketing plan for the first time, it can be overwhelming to get started.

Marketing plans are the roadmap to success for your school, keeping you on track with your initiatives throughout the year and, ideally, the next several years. It’s easy to get side tracked when great ideas pop up, but like on a road trip you’ll never reach your destination if you keep adding new stops along the way. School marketing plans streamline what you do and outline why you’re doing it. Validating these important decisions is important for gaining support for the plan and ensuring that you continue to move forward with positive progress.

The traditional marketing plan format can be daunting, but building a “modified” school marketing plan can be super simple. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small private school, a school with multiple campuses and grade levels, or an entire school district, you can create a strategic school marketing plan that meets your needs.

1) Identify Goals

If you have a strategic plan, accreditation self-study or marketing analysis, you can pull from those documents. If not, the administration likely knows where the school(s) needs improvement, and you can dig into your databases to get benchmarking information on how these initiatives have performed in the past such as:

  • Enrollment
  • Donations
  • Event attendance
  • After school programs
  • Communication with parents

Having actual quantifiable goals for the different parts of your school marketing plan will be helpful in determining whether or not your initiatives are successful. Some examples include:

  • Increase enrollment by 5 percent
  • Increase donor gifts by 5 percent; increase donor participation by 10 percent
  • Improve holiday program attendance by 20 percent
  • Introduce a new after school program: enroll a minimum of 15 students
  • Improve communications with parents
  • Develop a newsletter with 40 percent  readership
  • Improve newsletter readership by 15 percent

Best practice tip: Make a table to outline and organize your goals.

a table titled "institutional goals to accomplish," as an example of an organizational technique useful in school marketing plans

2) Prioritize

Don’t try to do everything at once. As you begin to make a list of goals, it often can become excessive or overwhelming, especially for multi-level schools, schools with multiple campuses and school districts, which may have significantly different goals throughout the community. This is where it becomes crucial to prioritize goals and be realistic about what you can accomplish in one year versus three or five years.

Some initiatives can easily be accomplished in one year, others may take two or three years. The viability of accomplishing each goal will depend on your school community and the resources available to you, and many overarching goals will have sub-sets of goals that work towards accomplishing the larger goal.

For example, while enrollment may be a top priority, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll double it in one year. Instead, find a smaller goal that will help you reach that larger objective, like increase inquiries by 10 percent.

Pick the top three or four things that either need the most urgent attention or will have the greatest impact on your community in one year, and be realistic about your expectations.

Table titled "prioritize your main clients, projects, goal, and concepts," with matching column for those for things

Best Practice Tip: It’s helpful to have support from your administration and other departments to agree with your set priorities for the year and for the long-term. Some schools go so far as to have signed contracts with key stakeholders to guarantee adherence to the priorities and directions.

3) Assess Needs and Required Resources

Start thinking about the resources that are available to you. A budget is an obvious one, but don’t forget time, talent and tools. It’s one thing to say you want to redesign your holiday event program and include an online registration, but if you don’t have access to a graphic designer, writer or online registration software, then you’ll need to build them into your list of required resources.

Other resources you might need include social media, email marketing, print marketing and website improvements. These tools also require design and strong messaging. You may need to consider purchasing new products or outsourcing work to a professional. It’s important to not sacrifice quality when pursuing a new project.

In addition, don’t forget the time it will take for you to research and assess the right tools for the job. Tools are an investment and the right tools will make your efforts more efficient and effective. Some of the tools I like to use for building and managing a marketing plan include the school’s Strategic Plan to determine the school’s biggest goals and objectives, statistics from databases like Raiser’s Edge for assessing outreach efforts and engagement levels, and Google Analytics for determining online behavior.

Best Practice Tip: Figure out what you can use for resources this year, and work with your business office to find additional funds in the next year to accomplish the larger goals of your school marketing plan.

4) Brainstorm and Refine Ideas to Build a Strategy

Too often, this step is left out of the marketing plan process. One of the most fun parts of building a marketing plan is when you brainstorm how you’re going to accomplish your goals. This is your chance to write down every idea you’ve ever had when it comes to marketing your school, and start picking out the ones that can best work together to achieve your goals. As you continue to build your school marketing plan, you’ll revisit and adjust your ideas regularly. Just because it’s a great idea now, doesn’t mean it will make the final cut.

Refining ideas means carefully choosing a strategy that will work for your school. If you’re not skilled in building marketing strategies, you might consider asking a consultant for help [Editor’s Note: we here at Getting Smart offer Getting Smart Services to help with just this sort of work], or carefully studying other schools’ strategies for inspiration. Check out this case study for an annual fund marketing program developed for Cheshire Academy. It talks about how a failed marketing attempt led to a successful initiative and what went into building it.

Best Practice Tip: Build a step-by-step plan for each project to outline the initiatives that support it to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. Here’s an example of the print strategy we outlined for an annual fund marketing program.

A table labelled "Why You're Doing What You're Doing," another useful step for developing plans for marketing schools

5) Implement a School Marketing Plan

For each of your goals, you want to clearly illustrate your timeline, concept, and the tools that you will use. The more you can explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, the better. Making these plans is also helpful when you get those requests for small projects from departments other than your top clients. It gives you validity when you say “we can’t accommodate this project right now,” and explain why. It doesn’t mean everyone will be happy with your response, but it can help you make them understand your reasoning.

For example, if in part of your plan you decide that you can reasonably create three print publications and send five targeted emails to constituents on a set schedule with set concepts for each, it will give you the authority to nix alternate ideas that pop up during the year.

In addition to the major efforts, such as print, you might want to outline the complementary efforts you’re planning to make as well. While not every detail of your school initiative needs to be explained, a quick explanation of why you’re doing what you’re doing can go a long way.

A table listing complimentary strategies on the left column and how the techniques will work together in the right column

Best Practice Tip: Keep it brief. Your marketing plan doesn’t have to be a lengthy narrative. Opt for using simple tables (like the ones I’ve shared) that outline marketing initiatives overall and for each department.

6) Assess Success

It’s not enough to build a school marketing plan and carry it out. You also need to measure results. This is where those quantitative goals come in handy. The images below is an example of how Cheshire Academy assessed the success of its annual fund marketing program.

A table labelled "outline indicators of success" with three columns for "indicator," "how assessed", and "results," which are useful for measuring the success of a school marketing plan

Table labelles "Recognize Challenges & Make Recommendations," with one column for each

The best thing you can do is pay attention to the areas that did well and celebrate them, but also focus on the areas that didn’t perform well. You can continue the successful components of your school marketing plan and delve into those unsuccessful initiatives to learn how to improve efforts next year.

For more, see:

Stacy Jagodowski is the director of strategic marketing and communications at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut. Follow her on Twitter: @stacyjago

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