School marketing is hard, but it’s possible—and important. We live in an age of choice, where people and organizations are continuously vying for attention and attendance. This is especially true when it comes to schools, enrollment and standing out from the pack. No matter the title, it has become essential for all school faculty members to ask “what makes our school different?” and “how can we portray care and competency to new audiences?” The process of school marketing is not straightforward, and it never truly ends. That’s where design thinking comes in.

Design thinking enables teams to address problems with lasting solutions through a human-centered and strategic framework. The design thinking framework, as defined by Stanford’s d.school is as follows:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

This is an iterative process where all phases continue to inform each other. In this series, we will explore how each phase of the framework can impact the planning of a school marketing initiative. We encourage you to read out of order, think non-linearly, or implement this strategic frame in whatever manner makes the most sense to your community or project.

Empathize With Your Community

Design thinking is a unique framework due to its emphasis on two phases that many other frameworks/mindsets don’t address: empathize and define. When these steps are overlooked, leaders often end up missing the core problem due to poorly diagnosing the needs of their intended audience. When your audience/community is different from place-to-place, as is the case within the education space, a “one size fits all” approach is likely to fall short. As micro-schools and personalized learning continue to grow and school districts shift to fit the modern age, it has become more urgent than ever to immerse yourself and tailor your strategic marketing plan to the specific community that you are trying to serve.

Empathizing means walking in the shoes of another to gain an understanding of their feelings and perceptions. Applying this to the marketing of schools, it comes down to understanding the potential of your community as well as putting in the legwork to see opportunity the way they encounter it on a daily basis. Leading with empathy oftentimes indicates having a “design mindset” which combines an understanding of the customer/community with the agility and problem-solving know-how of practiced design thinkers.

It is important to note that there must be an underlying understanding of your community before launching an effective community-building initiative. The desire to figuratively tear down walls and make the community the classroom is exciting and well-intentioned, however, it can be misguided when not well-informed about the people you are trying to reach and serve. Initially, asking yourself some questions may not only serve as a valid litmus test for how well you understand your community but may also spark some campaign ideas as well:

  1. Where are prominent places in your community where people go?
  2. Are you a part of these places? How might you be more involved?
  3. How might we better engage with our local businesses?
  4. How might we take students into the community?
  5. Are there opportunities for breaking bread with the community?
  6. How might we re-imagine our communication methods to encourage more contributions from the community?
  7. How might we empower new leaders and advocates within our community?

If getting to know your community starts with an event or a campaign, be sure you are capturing contact information! Once you have a good database of contacts, don’t be afraid to strategically send out a survey or hone in on local concerns and trends to figure out the questions that are being asked. It is important to remember that the impact can be varied, and many “solutions” are a first step in unraveling some of the more difficult problems. A framework from the Reform Support Network identifies how it is possible to move up the ranks from Inform, to Inquire, to Involve, to Inspire. Inspiring and positioning as a catalyst for growth is the true goal of all great educating and community building.

Some communities are fortunate enough to have passionate community builders already committed to breaking down the perceived barriers between schools and the community. Should your town be fortunate enough to have a pre-existing program or organization, talk to them! Some compelling and effective examples of these that we’ve seen are DC Pave, Kindred and Valley High School.

The empathy phase doesn’t stop, and like the rest of the design thinking framework, it requires consistent diligence and iteration. Developing a good understanding of the underlying concerns, habits and successes of your school community is essential to differentiating, driving enrollment and maintaining school satisfaction in the age of choice.

For more, see:

This is the first post in a series on marketing your school with design thinking.

Interested in working with an experienced communications team at the forefront of innovations in learning? Email Taylor to learn more about how we can best support you on your journey.


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