6 ways districts can embrace marketing as an enrollment strategy

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Public schools across the country are dealing with concerns about declining student enrollment, and therefore funding, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It used to be that if you live in the neighborhood, you come to your local school. That’s not the case anymore,” said Mellissa Braham, associate director for the National School Public Relations Association. “Today, schools have so much more competition from private and charter schools, as well as virtual and home schools.”

From fall 2019 to fall 2020, total public elementary and secondary school enrollment dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students, a 3% decline that erased a decade of steady growth, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

By fall 2030, nine states are projected to have higher public school enrollment than in fall 2020, while 28 states are expected to have lower enrollment in that timeframe. The remaining 13 states and the District of Columbia are forecast to have lower enrollment in pre-K through 8th grades, but increased high school enrollments.

As competition with alternatives grows, what can public schools do to stop losing students? Here are six strategies from marketing and PR experts.

Find your value proposition

School districts must think in terms of “value proposition,” meaning the specific and unique value they bring to their consumers, or students and families, Braham said. 

“You have to think of ways to differentiate yourself,” she said. “What is it that you uniquely offer as a school or school district that would appeal to families as they make their choice?”

To figure that out, schools can conduct research through focus groups with current families and surveys of families who have left — the latter being especially helpful in addressing gaps or needs, Braham said. “That’s really going to help you clarify your value proposition.”

A school’s value proposition might include special programs or services, but fundamentally hinges on the overall experience of students and families, said Morgan Delack, vice president of communications for Finalsite, a company that provides website design and content management for schools.

Delack advocated documenting and sharing the myriad warm, special stories that happen every day within school walls. “Go to the building that you serve, observe, look around, look into the classrooms — you will find stories everywhere,” she said.

Schools also can ask staff members and parents to send in stories and photos that chronicle positive school experiences, Delack said. “That’s potentially thousands of storytellers and marketers on your team — you just have to let them know what to do.”

Engage in effective marketing

Most school districts have an employee — usually an administrator or a public relations specialist — who focuses on communications, but typically that person doesn’t have specialized marketing knowledge, Braham said.

“Marketing is different than PR and communication,” she said. “Schools have to start thinking of themselves as a product. It’s more of a corporate mindset. You have to think about what value is it that we are delivering, and why would that appeal to someone.”

In the absence of employees with marketing knowledge, schools can hire consultants to conduct research and identify strategies, Braham said. Once that’s done, schools typically can tackle implementation on their own, she said.

Districts should also ensure all marketing messaging across individual schools and departments is aligned, and evaluate the effectiveness of their school logos and taglines, Braham said.

“Spend time thinking about what are people’s emotional reactions to your logo and your taglines. When they look at it and hear it, what do they think and feel?” she said. “If you’re not eliciting an emotional reaction, you’re not properly marketing yourself.”

Los Angeles Unified School District has focused on marketing for about a decade, doing things like ensuring all district websites are aligned in messaging and providing all schools with marketing toolkits, said Derrick Chau, senior executive director for strategy and innovation at LAUSD.

This article originally appeared in www.k12dive.com

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