Design Thinking For School Marketing: Defining the Challenge

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 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.

Defining the Challenge

Once you’ve explored the empathize phase and think you have a grasp on what makes your community tick, the next step is to define the challenge/solution at hand. It’s important to keep a broad enough mind that you don’t miss the real cause, but be specific enough that you are able to adequately ideate solutions in the next phase.

Examples of how understanding your community can inform the define phase:

  • It enables you to leverage a multi-media campaign to better appeal to a community with mixed-age groups, literacy proficiencies, and touchpoints.
  • It helps to know how the story of the school is being received pre-marketing campaign so that you can have an optimal impact with your efforts.
  • It helps identify the location of the current challenge: is it students and community, parents and school, businesses and school? Perhaps it is something outside of the walls of the school altogether.
  • It enables you to latch on to the momentum of other community efforts and become more of a catalyst for change than an inventor of it.

During the define phase you can also assess any pre-existing data that you may have: website analytics, the number of students enrolled year over year, social media engagement, newsletter participation, demographics, etc. Using this information you will be able to better figure out if your current communication avenues are working or if, perhaps, they could be re-imagined during a design session. This is a great place to reflect on the way your school is perceived in the community and to see if your school’s story is being accurately portrayed. It will also help you to know channels that need to be optimized or dropped to most efficiently and effectively spread how awesome your school is.

The defining of the challenge can be dependent on a number of factors: perhaps this challenge stands out because it affects the most people, or maybe it is the challenge that you think you will be able to most effectively solve. The important part here is to keep your school/team on the same page. For Marketing Directors and anyone in charge of the community-facing channels of the school, this can be the hardest part. Getting your team and faculty to recognize the strategy and difficulty in doing something as nuanced as boosting enrollment is not an easy ask—with that said, it’s amazing how much easier a Marketing Director’s job becomes once everyone is on the same page. Similar to the empathize phase, asking questions is a great way to begin to stumble upon the root of the problem. A question as simple as “why?” when asked with dedication and vigor can peel away many of the surface level gripes and perceived obstacles to get at what the true challenge is.

Once this initial challenge has been crafted into a concise and intentional challenge statement, you can think about moving forward with ideation. You can begin to focus on telling the updated story of your brand and truly engaging the community that your school desires to serve.

This is the second post in a series on marketing your school with design thinking. For more in the series:

For more, see:

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Mason Pashia

Mason is the Creative Director at Getting Smart. He is an advocate for arts education, strategy, design thinking and poetry.

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