1. What are the most common mistakes in Christian school marketing?
There are many. For smaller schools, the biggest problem is failing to get help, particularly through a volunteer Marketing Taskforce. For larger schools, the biggest problem is failing to have a comprehensive marketing plan.
Other mistakes we frequently see are:
- Inadequate or non-existent marketing research, particularly related to prospective parents (that is, the outside-the-church or outside-the-school community).
- “Milk toast” differentiation (branding) in comparison to other schools in the community. The solution is more than studying your competitors and simply deciding how your Christian school will be different. First, you ask, “What is God’s unique vision for our school?” Once you discover and implement your core vision and values, you are very likely to be different than your competitors.
- Financial chaos … which translates into poor tuition and financial aid decisions. (Or is it vice versa?) Many Christian schools don’t know their numbers well enough to make realistic, biblical pricing decisions. (We actually felt the pricing chapter of Marketing Christian Schools: The Definitive Guide, was the most important chapter of the entire book. School start-ups, particularly, need to be very careful in initial pricing decisions).
- Failure to proactively work at word of mouth referrals. Today’s marketing universe is abuzz with idea of viral messages and tipping points. GraceWorks translates the most helpful of these principles into practical strategies for Christian schools.
2. Realistically, what else can be done to increase word of mouth referral besides having a high quality program?
Much more can be done! In fact, word of mouth marketing is one of the hottest marketing topics around. Distilling it all, there are two kinds of proactive word of mouth strategies. First, there is internal combustion: reminding, thanking, training, and empowering people who are already making referrals to your school (Promoters). For example, your small, two-fold brochure can have a blank panel which Promoters can use to describe their own experience with your school before they give it to a new prospective family. There are literally dozens of tactics like this, which we make available in our Enrollment Marketing Coaching (eMc) programs. Note that your Promoters are a bigger group than simply current parents. Past parents, donors, volunteers, all make referrals to your school. Plus, Promoters typically make referrals for other reasons besides making money … which is the problem with tuition reimbursement programs many schools offer for successful referrals.Second, there is spontaneous combustion: ways that we encourage current parents to speak positively about the school. This does have a lot to do with program quality, but does not stop there. For example, we can create a culture of referrals. Or we can ask parents for a referral during the re-enrollment process.In addition to being the most cost effective marketing method, word of mouth referrals usually result in the highest quality new parents. This method is motivational to existing parents, for whom a high quality student body is very important.
3. We are struggling to keep our web-site current. How important is it?
The overall problem with today’s technology is not so much the technology itself, but how human beings use it. When it comes to the web, many of us are comfortable buying a part or a software package or a book on-line. A few of us might even trust Dell enough to buy a computer on-line without even once talking to a real, live person. But a Christian school is not like that at all. You are not a computer part, you are not a commodity. (At least, you better not be!)
How many people actually registered on-line without once talking to a real person at your school? If the answer is some number less than 1% — the reality — then why is your registration packet or parent handbook on the public portion of your web-site? Sure, from a technology point of view, it’s easy, easy, easy.
But does it make sense from a human being point-of-view? Dan has a friend who was desperate enough to seek out his wife through an on-line dating service. He used the technology to become aware of potential spouses. Then, he discarded the ones whose profiles did not seem quite right to him … without even contacting them. The ones he liked, he wrote a tentative email to, and tested the waters. Eventually, he called a few of the finalists. The last Dan heard, someone from the southeast was coming to visit ….The point is, how a prospective parent deals with your public web-site presence is much like Dan’s friend and the online dating service. Dozens of compatible spouses gone … with one click of the mouse. All because a lovely lady could just not quite express her real self. Think of it, all those potential lifetimes of wedded bliss … lost forever.The same thing happens with Christian school websites.
With one click, a prospective parent is lost because a Christian school’s website is out-of-date or poorly written. Or because someone hated your uniform policy or your posted and seemingly heavy-handed discipline policy. Or because your third-grade teacher was in a hurry and had a few typos in her last on-line homework assignment.
Should you put your tuition rate and registration fees on your web-site? Imagine if Dan’s friend’s online dating service did that:Wanted, one husband, age 40 to 50. Attractive female with these 23 outstanding characteristics …. Price: I require high maintenance as I am subject to emotional breakdowns from time to time. My love language is “large gifts.” In addition, I expect a large house, three weeks vacation per year to exotic locations, and eating out three times a week, plus a big diamond ring upfront. Should we add … limited financial aid is available! My personal favorite is Christian school web sites that put out their sports team schedule in the public portion of their web-site. That’s great for our parents. And it is also great for prospective parents, who now have a very convenient list of all the other Christian schools in town: your competitors.(The last time we went church-shopping, we stayed at the first church we visited — it’s been over seven years now. Would it hurt if a new move-in to your town did the same thing with your Christian school?)
Here are two realities about web sites: 1.Web-sites have multiple objectives and2.One of those objectives must be to get a prospective parent to pick up the phone and call you.Because of a web-sites’ multiple objectives, you should have an insider’s portion that the general public does not see. That makes it easy for you to expand what you offer to your parents … without worrying about how a potential parent might react to “family business.”Put your handbook, registration materials, alumni blog, etc. in the password-protected portion of your web-site, and focus the public portion on getting a prospective parent to “darken your doorstep.”
Keep in mind, people actually believe they can accurately assess your school based on your web site. While your school’s web site cannot possibly represent your school completely, school shoppers think it is reality. On the other hand, we believe positive word of mouth referrals is the ultimate power in the marketing universe. With all the abuses of the truth on the web, everyone will eventually develop a realistic dose of skepticism about everything web-related. In the end, human beings will continue to trust other human beings the most. Meanwhile, every Christian school must deal with the powerful reality of the web.
4. We are a denominational school with several other denominational schools in our area. Realistically, how can we differentiate our Christian school in any meaningful way?
This is a huge problem, a problem many Christian schools must solve … or they will ultimately die. Many of our sponsoring churches are also struggling, and are less able to help us financially. Right now, you may feel like a little fish in a big pond. You need to reverse that, and become a big fish in a little pond. Building on both what your parents like about you, and what you feel God is calling you to be, upon what niche should you focus? For example, you could be the Roman Catholic school in town that provides a classical education, or the Lutheran school that focuses on math and science — or the fine arts.In many ways, this kind of differentiation helps you attract the wider audience of Christians from other faiths — families that many denominational schools already serve. People outside your denomination are choosing you for distinct reasons — find out those reasons, accentuate them and build on them.
5. In your judgment, what is the most important marketing fundamental that Christian schools must have?
Ultimately, it is asking, “Is God at work here? If so, where?” Then, focus on those areas. A secular way to say to this is: “Differentiate … or die.” However, GraceWorks firmly believes that finding God’s unique purpose is ultimately spiritual. God does have a wonderful plan for your Christian school! GraceWorks consultants help you articulate your mission and translate it into practical, time-tested marketing strategies that attract new students’ parents year-around. In short, you can accelerate when you know where you are going and have a pilot (guide, consultant) to get you there effectively.