Open Days:

A Market Perspective...

 Linda Vining

 

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Open Days are extremely labour intensive and expensive to stage. For a return on your investment an Open Day must be more than a showcase of your pupil's best efforts. If well designed and targeted to the right audience it can be a valuable marketing tool that can generate enrolments and strengthen your position in the education marketplace.

To benefit fully from your huge investment of time and resources the following questions must be on your agenda:

Why are we holding an Open Day?

Who do we want to attract?

What works best for our audience?

How can we influence our target market?

To most teachers, Open Day means displaying books, pinning up projects, staging a play and firing up the canteen. While this provides an educationally sound presentation, it falls far short of the real potential of an Open Day to inspire and motivate present families as well as potential parties.

Viewed from a marketing perspective an Open Day provides an enormous number of untapped opportunities. A marketing approach calls for a new look at Open Day priorities and planning. To benefit fully from your huge investment of time and resources the following questions must be on your agenda.

Why hold an Open Day?

Families are driven to change schools for many reasons but these days it's not enough just to say here we are. A school must distinguish itself from other schools who are also striving to attract new enrolments. An Open Day is a first class opportunity to 'sell' your school.

One encounter is not usually powerful enough to take a family from awareness to a commitment to buy, but an Open Day can cement an impression, dissolve a negative perception and entice families to return for a deeper look. An Open Day is also valuable to reassure existing parents that they made the right decision. In marketing terms, this is called 'reaffirming the choice' and it is an essential ingredient in a school's ongoing marketing plan.

When to hold an Open Day

Time of year and time of day will depend on your location, type of school, parent mix, school calendar and the activities of the other schools/organisations in your area. Ring around other schools and the local council to avoid a conflict of times and tell them your plans.

Determine the best times for your audience taking into consideration working parents and boarder's or overseas parents. When are they making their decisions? Open Day does not have to be during the day. It can start after lunch and extend into the evening. Mornings at Maryville extended over a week from 9am to noon each day. A weekend may work best for your target audience.

A boarding school held their Open Day on the Monday of a long week-end in order to capture boarding families and members of the holidaying public.

Rather than a mass display with broad appeal you may prefer to invite people to inspect the school in small groups on a working day.

It's advisable not to link Open Day to another function such as a fete or art show. It dilutes your message when you are trying to focus on your educational offering to a specific audience. Mixed events present parents and staff with a conflict over activities and it overtaxes your resources. You run the risk of being swamped by a huge crowd of casual lookers and loosing track of the dedicated shoppers.

Who do we want to attract?

When you open your gates you will attract all sorts of people&emdash;including your competitors. Your job is to be sure that you target, attract and focus on the people you really want to influence. A well designed advertisement, fliers and banners are effective at drawing a crowd, but perhaps your best advertisement is your present school community.

To do the job well, parents, staff, council members and pupils must have information and material to work with so send the Open Day program home a month prior to the event; not the night before. Have your program in circulation well before the event.

Prepare an appealing program. Arrange for recognised identities to speak on education issues and child development at different times throughout the day. Think up some interactive demonstrations for visitors&emdash;a judo lesson, cooking with free samples&emdash;and invite people to use your facilities&emdash;come and try our climbing wall! Offer child care for young children so parents can concentrate on educational matters. Send notices to child care centres and pre-schools.

There are many people in the local community who can recommend your school if they appreciate your work: real estate agents, the municipal librarian, professionals who run special programs such as music, maths coaching and sports instructors. Educational consultants are a must for your mailing list. Send these people a personal invitation from the principal.

Depending on your student intake, target specialist audiences such as community organisations that work with youth, rotary exchange students, staff from English language colleges and agencies that place overseas students.

You may wish to send a personally addressed invitation to influential community members such as the mayor, members of parliament and president of the chamber of commerce. Make sure you tell them what's in it for them.

How to influence your audience

An Open Day is a PR event. Staff can easily miss this point. They can become consumed with putting on a good show and rely on the displays and performances to do the work. They don't.

Make sure that staff are not so busy staging the show that they lose sight of the PR priority. Displays of books, projects, science experiments and class performances are Open Day cliches. They provide pleasant decoration, but in a competitive environment much more is needed to convince parents that your school is right for them. So what makes your school different?

Schools need to understand the decision making process for choosing a school and recognise that children as young as five can be influential in the choice. What are you going to offer the young people at your Open Day?

Australian research reveals that parents consistently look for caring and committed staff who relate to the special needs of their individual children. Teachers who take an active role in demonstrating their professional skills can convey such an image, even in the space of a few minutes, but it may call for a different approach.

For example, instead of every child in the class reciting a poem (as entertainment for the visitors), there is greater impact if the recital is short and selective, and the teacher talks to the audience (or one-to-one) about how the poem fits into the curriculum, what skills are developed in learning a poem at this age, what excursion was used to develop this topic, how is it integrated with other subjects, what happens with fast learners/slow learners in the class. In other words, don't send your observers away with just a poem or a child centred presentation. Tell them what an education at your school can do for their child.

Assume that every parent is asking, 'Do I want to put my child into the hands of these people? Will the school meet my special needs?' It's your job to sell yourself, advertise your expertise and promote your school; to make the answer an unequivocal 'Yes'.

Teachers often argue that their job is teaching, not selling. However, in today's competitive environment part of the team effort involves promotion. Your school's survival may depend on it.

Planning

Allow six to eight months to plan. Never go external until your internal position is ready. Float the idea early and build up to the event. Involve everybody in the school including the secretary, the gardener and the bus driver. Ask them what they would like to do for Open Day. Who will be the co-ordinator? What is the budget? The principal needs to talk with every member of the school team to develop a customer approach and a sense of shared purpose.

Parents are shopping around and their first impression can easily be their last. Carefully plan your lead up to the event. Repair work may be needed and a new coat of paint. Don't forget the gardens and surrounding areas. Freshen up the notice boards. Make every point-of-contact work for you.

Promotional material has to be designed: brochures, carry bags and other give-aways that carry your message. This may be the time to make a school video. Clear direction signs (in different languages) are essential.

The lead time for advertisements and publicity must be determined. Who is going to provide refreshments? What about parking arrangements and direction signs? Do you need to hire a canopy in case of wet weather or hot sun? Book it well ahead. Make sure there are seats everywhere for elderly and weary visitors to take a rest. Think hard about how you can demonstrate customer concern in little ways.

If pupils will be the guides they need instruction and practice on the route, the history of the school, greeting and parting words, the information they may be called to give, and safety considerations when dealing with strangers.

Gauging success

Often staff gather the following day, agree it was a colourful affair with a good crowd and declare the Open Day a great success. However, the success of an Open Day cannot be judged so quickly as the return on your investment may not be realised for several years. The real measure of success lies in the number of people that you touched and impressed and the number of people you entered onto your database of potential customers

All visitors who are not presently on the school's database should be entered and for the next twelve months they should receive a copy of appropriate school publications. It may be the periodical magazine, invitations to functions, the annual report, the school newsletter or a new prospectus.

As with any marketing exercise follow-up is essential. It is perfectly legitimate to make further contact with people who have responded to your invitation to attend your Open Day.

What market research are you going to do to determine if the Open Day was beneficial or a waste of resources? If you rely on congratulatory comments it's likely you'll only hear from your dedicated followers.

Collect the data that justifies the whole exercise. Have a colourful information booth to catch visitors as they arrive. Distribute the day's program, map and goodies from there and have profile sheets and pens ready to give to each family. Ask all-comers to fill in a simple form asking their name, address, and a tick-a-box to indicate if they are a present parent, visitor, friend of the school, member of council or neighbour, how many children do they have? Ages? Where did they hear about the Open Day?

Another approach is to invite the public to book a place for a small-group, personalised tour of your school. All the details can be gathered over the phone at the time of booking. Any enquiry by phone should be fully detailed.

As teachers speak to families they can hand them a school business card and ask for theirs in return. This common business practice can work effectively in some school situations. You may offer to send additional information such as a prospectus or an article or an invitation and so request address, phone and fax data.

By way of follow-up, one registrar sent a hand written photo card of the school to families identified as prospective enrolments. She invited them to contact her if they wanted more information or another look at the school. A little later she rang offering a newly published school calendar. In this way she gauged their level of interest and maintained person-to-person contact. Her follow up success rate was phenomenal.

A personal touch, a focus on customer needs, a team effort, good follow-up and an enthusiasm for the education process expressed at every level of the school will ensure that your Open Day provides a valuable return for the time, energy and funds invested in it.

Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.

Here are some marketing skills that you can use to make your Open Day a success.

Approach the selling challenge as a confident member of a well organised team. Have clear objectives for the event. Be proud of your product. Wear your best clothes; relegate internal disharmony to the background; focus on the customer; talk about their needs; think and act generously and speak with assurance and knowledge about your profession and its products. Have your products around you and relate to them. Don't use jargon. Keep the message simple.

Let the customers tell you what they want then adapt your offerings to match their specific needs. Provide a map, a program of activities, fees sheet, subject information brochures, scholarship availability and a master plan to show future development. If your budget can stretch further provide a free embossed pen, a mug, a ruler, or a school diary, all bearing the school name and crest. Design a paper or plastic carry bag with the school crest and phone number to carry collectables. It's surprising how long these items sit as a reminder on a student's desk at home long after the event.

All teachers should have big, clear name badges indicating their area of involvement. Similarly children can have name badges with their areas of interest. Give visitors a handle to grasp, a starting point for enquiries. Make your place people friendly and customer focused.

 

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