The future means going beyond the 7 Ps and 4 Es of traditional marketing planningIndependent schools need a new way of looking at marketing. If applied correctly, it will revolutionise your admissions process.
Abstract: Over the past 30 years, the wants, needs, and aspirations of independent school pupils and parents, and the schools themselves, have changed immeasurably. However, marketing concepts and theories formed decades ago are still being applied today to diminishing effect. We now need a new perspective; The independent school marketing focus requires a comprehensive understanding of a school's unique strengths, targeting, segmentation, the competitive landscape, emergent technology, and a deep commitment to ethical and effective marketing practices. School marketing teams need to comprehend the determinants of independent school choice and embrace a new way of thinking that encompasses all aspects of customer service and digital technology in order to meet the needs of a new generation of parents and pupils.
Download the 8 Pillars of Independent School Marketing poster (PDF).
As briefly stated in Definitions of Marketing, the traditional tactical functions of marketing, such as product, price and place, might not be managed, in certain organisations, by the marketing department. Where this is the case, they probably just about manage promotion (advertising, PR etc.). This is especially true in independent education, where certain functions (service, place, processes and people) might seem wildly outside of the remit of marketing due to several factors, including the rigid legislative and regulatory boundaries surrounding them. So in order to understand and apply a reimagined marketing model for independent schools, or indeed any educational institution, it is important to grasp the fundamentals of where education sits in the marketplace. Education is seen as a ‘pure’ service, and these tend to be more intangible than products and cannot be marketed in the same way. As first proposed by Shostack (1977), education resides at the far right of the tangibility spectrum:
Shostack’s Continuum (amended from Shostack 1977, p.75)
When involved in strategic marketing planning and tactical execution, providers of educational services at this spectral extremity, who wish to enhance customer service and by extension, improve their marketing capability should focus their attention on both their customers (parents), consumers (pupils) and just as importantly their employees. This is not new but is often overlooked. When planning strategically, this is an important distinction to make as each will have their own individual needs. Marketing excellence in education requires detailed planning in three broad areas: external, internal, and interactive marketing (Kotler et al 2020).
Service Marketing (Kotler et al 2020)
Using this simple model as a basis for planning, an educational institution is able to strategically differentiate itself by employing the ‘service-dominant logic’ idea proposed by Vargo and Lusch (2004), and therefore plan to deliver a consistently higher level of customer service than its competitors are able to provide.
Remember - What you deliver is education; your business is customer service.
Determinants of School Choice
It is a common myth that those families with the financial resources to privately educate their children will almost always do so. Green et al. (2017) reveal that from those families in the top decile of the income distribution, only a fraction attend private school. Anders et al. (2020) conducted research using a rich, longitudinal birth cohort dataset which revealed that some families with particular values would not choose private education for their children, even when finance is not a binding constraint. Moreover, this research revealed evidence that the geographical availability of qualified substitutes can be a factor, i.e. for schools rated as 'Outstanding' by OFSTED, reduced home-to-school travel time is associated with lower rates of private schooling.
The reasons why families choose a particular independent school are often difficult to quantify. Research by the Independent Schools Council (2016) has shown that areas such as reputation, catering for a child’s individual needs and the ability to prepare pupils to fulfil their potential are some of the key drivers, and these intangibles can be leveraged through establishing a high level of customer service. 86% of respondents cited visits to the school as a valuable source of information, followed by word-of-mouth from other parents (40%) and friends and relatives (40%). A visit to the school, however, is more often than not simply a validation of the decision that they have already arrived at. Hindmarsh (2017) states that there are now numerous different types of parents across the independent school sector, and all handle the school research and selection process very differently.
According to the findings of the survey of parents for the Ten Trends publication, overseen by Spires (2017), research indicates that just under half of parents (49%) think about their child attending an independent school after a recommendation from someone they know (25%), so, therefore, word-of-mouth (WOM) or from their own understanding of the school by reputation (24%). Further to this, research by the McCarthy Group has discovered that 84% of the economically emergent generation, millennials, do not trust advertising.
The Traditional Marketing Mix
According to Chernev (2020), the tactical aspects of an offer — also known as the 4-Ps or marketing mix that McCarthy initially identified in 1960- included four elements: Price, Product, Promotion and Place. The 4-P framework has several stark limitations. Firstly, it does not distinguish between the product and service aspects of an offering. Secondly, it does not define the brand as a separate aspect. For the marketing of services, it is far too broad in its scope and requires significant modification. The extended marketing mix for services was again redefined for education, in the seminal work by Kotler and Fox (1995, p.8). They asserted that the 7-Ps of the educational marketing mix should be:
Programs, Price, Place (physical location and delivery systems), Promotion (advertising, public relations, personal contact and other activities), Processes, Physical Facilities and People
Kotler and Keller (2020) later suggested that the 4-Ps concept takes a seller’s view, and advise that they might be better explained as four As: Product (Acceptability), Price (Affordability), Place (Accessibility), Promotion (Awareness). These four As are more relevant to the marketing of independent education, as they define ‘fit’, a family’s financial capability, whether the family are able to access the school (day/boarding model) and if they are aware of its ethos and offering. Price is an interesting aspect; choosing an independent school is like buying a house, considering the amount of research and investment involved.
A Modern Marketing Approach
There have been numerous attempts over the past 20 years to modernise traditional marketing models. Several years ago Brian Fetherstonhaugh from Ogilvy & Mather introduced a new marketing mix framework a few years ago; he advised to throw away the Four Ps and welcome the Four Es: Product to EXPERIENCE, Place to EVERYPLACE, Price to EXCHANGE, and Promotion to EVANGELISM. Ogilvy generally promoted what they called the 'Big Ideal' - an emotional centre and place of energy, passion and the theme of what a brand stands for. It's what the brand is good at and makes them tick, connected to the cultural truth in society at large. Schools need to take time out and analyse their internal micro, and macro environments, and crucially, find out exactly who they are and what they stand for. Then their advocates will shout about it. Do you know why you do what you do?
The Big Ideal (Ogilvy)
The Modern Marketing Model (M3), which was initially proposed by Econsultancy (2017), now provides a new framework for implementing this way of thinking within organisations. The Modern Marketing Model is a unifier that combines digital and traditional marketing into a single framework for the future. This informs marketing's mandate, requisite skills, and organisational structure.
The Modern Marketing Model (M3) - Econsultancy
The initial step for schools seeking to use M3 is to map the various tasks and responsibilities inside the organisation to the model's 10 basic components. The mapping example below can help schools to comprehend the critical considerations and determine who is accountable for the delivery of marketing operations. Importantly, it identifies redundant jobs or responsibilities and capability gaps. Once roles and responsibilities have been mapped, schools will have a clear understanding of the work necessary to develop a more connected, efficient system of work.
|What are the critical considerations?
|How is marketing going to help deliver on the vision and strategy of the school?
|Is the school adequately aligned and capable of success in this market?
|Who are the families and what are their needs and expectations?
|Brand and Value
|What is your vision and what are your values? What unique value does the school provide?
|Segmentation & Targeting
|What are the family groups within your market and which ones will you target?
|How will you communicate your position in the competitive marketplace and would that differ by segment or family?
|Customer Experience & Content
|What does the family journey look like, how can that be improved and with what?
|How will the school be found, both online and offline?
|How will you effectively get your marketing messages in front of the right families?
|Data and Measurement
|What data is required to support marketing, and how do you measure and optimise performance?
Once this has been absorbed, schools should then move to map organisational ownership and to identify issues and opportunities for each individual element.
The 8 Pillars of Modern Independent School's Marketing
Schools and the way education is delivered have evolved significantly over the past 30 years, and these pillars are influenced by the idea of the 4Es, and pay tribute to, but effectively absorb the traditional models and the Kotler and Fox 'processes, physical facilities and people'. These are not to be treated in isolation but are very much complementary to the Modern Marketing Model. The pillars are listed below.
The experience component highlights the significance of developing a memorable and positive journey for prospective pupils and their families. This process starts with the initial awareness of the school and carries on through the admissions process, culminating in a successful enrolment experience. Analyse and map out the family journey with your own school – from initial contact, through the admissions funnel and beyond. Measure this; ask specific questions about experience and track this on a regular basis. There are a number of metrics you may wish to consider. Are they consistently obtaining a good customer experience? Are you giving them the knowledge and focus they require in a manner that gives them the value they seek? Are you anywhere a parent could look for assistance and direction?
The everyplace pillar stresses the importance of utilising multiple channels to reach prospective families in today's digital age. By implementing an omnichannel marketing strategy, schools can leverage various online and offline platforms, such as social media, search engines, events, and referrals, to amplify their message and increase brand visibility. You now have the ability to reach families like never before. Enhance your understanding of digital channels and their audiences so you know how to be the most effective. Appraise your entire promotional portfolio with a view to reducing spending on the unmeasurable, traditional methods, in favour of digital. Ditching print, and moving on from school fairs and pop-up stands you have an omnichannel smorgasbord as your playground. You now have the tools at your disposal to put your brand messages literally in the hands of those in your target segments. Why would you not?
The exchange pillar emphasises the necessity of effectively communicating the value proposition of the independent school to potential pupils and their families, and schools must showcase the benefits and unique qualities that set them apart from their competitors. Calculate the value of your families – and what their attention, engagement and permission are worth and make sure that at every stage they have some sense of reward. There is a surging demand from all families, and especially from millennials for a genuine ‘value exchange’ between themselves and schools. You could begin by clarifying your value proposition on your admissions pages or offering an authoritative whitepaper. For some sanity, calculate the lifetime value of a pupil's place at your school.
Evangelism, as a marketing pillar, is all about empowering current pupils, families, staff, and alumni to become brand advocates for your school. By nurturing a strong sense of community and belonging, schools can encourage these stakeholders to share their positive experiences and success stories through word-of-mouth marketing, online reviews, and testimonials. Find the passion and emotion surrounding your school and inspire your parents, pupils and employees to speak on your behalf with passion. Parents do not trust advertising, and they do not believe what you say. But they do care about what other people say. Evangelism melds the oldest form of recommendation, word-of-mouth (WOM), with today's technology. There is an emerging field of research behind WOM and electronic word-of-mouth (EWOM) and it is time and time again highlighting both the levels of mistrust in conventional advertising and the explicit trust in recommendations from others.
Engagement focuses on building and maintaining meaningful relationships with both prospective and current families, as well as the wider community. Independent schools should actively participate in conversations across various platforms, including social media, email campaigns, and events, to foster a sense of connection and trust. The fundamental problem with traditional marketing approaches originates in the manner in which schools have historically communicated: by forcing themselves in front of parents, attempting to convince them by rolling out the red carpet on tired and formulaic open days or by aggressively selling. This polarising dynamic is ineffective, and people expect schools to value their time and intellect. They want interaction, affirmation, and connection and they do not want any interruption. They desire engagement throughout the customer journey, asserts Kotler et al (2021), which leads to retention, especially if you are measuring your customer experience. Engagement is not just a tactic for those in the sales funnel, it is the bedrock of customer experience and if delivered effectively and regularly throughout the family's journey, it will create loyal advocates.
The exclusivity pillar taps into the core of positioning and perception. By showcasing the distinct advantages that set them apart from competitors, such as specialised programmes, cutting-edge facilities, or renowned faculty, schools can create a sense of prestige. Whether it's the fear of missing out or the intrinsic urge to belong, exclusivity hits at the core of human need (Kintz 2020). Exclusivity encourages the perception of rarity, but this decays when a brand or product becomes too accessible or commonplace (Upshaw et al 2019). Creating a sense of exclusivity generates momentum and customer loyalty. Key components of exclusivity include developing waiting lists, having school leadership personally invite families to key events, setting deadlines for admissions applications, exclusive communication channels, and limiting numbers.
Emotion plays a crucial role in the decision-making process, especially when it comes to selecting an independent school. By appealing to the emotions of prospective families, schools can create a strong emotional connection and foster a sense of affinity towards your school. People do not remember what you say to them; rather, they remember how you made them feel. Over time, suggests Rajamannar (2021), marketers came to a profound realisation: individuals make decisions emotionally, not rationally or logically. In many instances, completely emotionally. Schools can tap into these emotions to build a strong following through digital storytelling (video), imagery, testimonials and most importantly, authenticity. Share the transformational successes of your pupils, and what being a pupil at your school has meant for them and their families, show the human side of your staff members by telling their compelling stories, and videos of your school raising money for charity or giving back to the community. Attention is a scarce resource. If you can give someone goosebumps or even create a tear in their eye when they watch your headline school film, you have done your job.
Lastly, the empathy pillar emphasises the importance of understanding and addressing the needs, concerns, and expectations of prospective families. By adopting a customer-centric approach and actively listening to the unique perspectives of their target audience, independent schools can tailor their messaging and offerings to address specific pain points and desires. Demonstrating empathy not only helps in building trust and rapport with prospective families but also enables schools to create more effective and targeted marketing campaigns. Godin (2018) suggests that empathy is at the heart of marketing. People don’t believe what you believe, know what you know or want what you want. While authenticity and honesty are equally crucial in marketing, the fact that they are owned by the business is a major differentiator. Empathy, as opposed to being something, is something that is given. But unlike sympathy, which is a third-party emotion of compassion, empathy involves placing oneself in the shoes of another and connecting with their circumstance (Gilliland 2017). Show an understanding of your potential parent body and work hard to see your school the way that they do on a daily basis. Be relevant and incredibly helpful in the early stages. Give families time, and show a deep interest in their hopes, dreams and fears. Tangible compassion will help the story of your school resonate.
Utilising the Kano Model in Marketing Planning
We can, by extension, use the Kano Model to identify essential factors surrounding educational choice and retention of pupils. Strong exam performance, sports facilities, and indeed small class sizes are all expected 'must-be' factors for independent schools. Why would you even waste your time trying to sell such simple expectations? Moreover, a school that does not offer certain key sports could be seen as a reverse feature - with the power to impact satisfaction levels. The mere presence of a sports provision is again a must-be feature. However, the often intangibles, such as a high level of customer service, unrivalled pastoral provision, wrap-around care and all-inclusive fees, could be interpreted as both performance (desired) and attractive (cause excitement) features. Do not overlook these in favour of the more apparent low-hanging fruit. This may seem like a trivial exercise (“isn’t it obvious what our pupils and parents want?”), but if based on intuition or guesswork alone, it can be misleadingly perilous. Perceptions change over time and the bedrock of all this is detailed engagement with pupils and parents.
The importance of utilising modern marketing techniques for independent schools to stay competitive and attract prospective pupils and families in today's digital age has never been more critical. The key strategies that independent schools can use to modernise their marketing efforts include website optimisation, social media, email marketing campaigns, and search engine optimisation (SEO). Personalised content and video marketing are also important to effectively engage with prospective students and communicate the school's mission and values.
Several successful examples exist of modern marketing strategies implemented by independent schools, such as virtual tours, online open houses, and personalised content. These strategies have been found to increase enrollment and build stronger relationships with prospective students and families. By utilising digital marketing strategies and data-driven marketing techniques, independent schools can increase their visibility, build stronger relationships with prospective students and families, and ultimately, boost enrollment and retention. As the competition for students grows increasingly fierce, independent schools must invest in modern marketing techniques to remain competitive and relevant in today's digital landscape.
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