Professional observers of the living world (Ecologists) agree that members of the same species compete for limited natural resources such as food or shelter materials when they occupy the same physical location. But ecologists have long debated whether members of different species compete with one another for such resources within the same habitat. Whether this “inter-specific” competition exists or not, it is evident that individuals can best coexist in the same habitat if they occupy different niches. So it is with schools.
The stark reality is that the demand of students and parents seeking private education in any area is limited. However, within that limited supply there exists a continuum of educational needs, and each school must clearly understand and clearly articulate its particular niche in order to attract and keep its share of families.
The key to competing successfully in the private school market is not to be unique. This term can frighten families who want the stability of a school that implements best practices learned from similar
schools. Rather, the key is to articulate your differences in terms that are easily shared—student to student and soccer mom to soccer mom. Word of mouth will always be your best marketing, so ll those mouths with expressions that both speakers and hearers can understand and appreciate.
This has been particularly difficult for classical, Christian schools. To say we are “Christian” lumps us into a category of schools whose missions and niche might be very different than ours. To say we are “classical” means something different to everyone. Saying we are “Trivium-based” usually further confuses prospective parents, and few within our schools understand or can explain the method.
It falls to every school to determine what really makes it different and to articulate that difference in the simplest language. Distill your distinctives to a sentence fragment, followed by no more than 8 bullet points. Use the best pictures you can find to illustrate your points on your website and in print.
Schools often forget two important targets in their marketing strategies: the families you already have (internal marketing = retention) and teenagers. The easiest student to enroll is the student you already have, but current families need regular reminders of the great education their child is getting through samplings of what their children are learning and data.
Many schools are terrified of a mass exodus when students reach that age when parents begin to give way to their children’s wishes about school choice. Yet most marketing efforts target parents with pictures of sweet, uniform- clad second graders reading a book with their grandmotherly teacher. Rising high-schoolers form an equally important target audience and the way to a teen’s heart is through a school culture that attracts and holds them.
Relationships are the key to the attractive school culture, especially in the middle and upper grades. It should be clear to every student that their teachers support them and care about their academic and personal success, both in and out of the classroom. Soliciting and responding to student input on school culture issues goes a long way toward building student satisfaction.
These marketing and cultural components don’t happen accidentally. The school that wants to attract and retain students will develop its culture and its marketing strategies intentionally.