No matter what you are trying to sell, whether its a vocational program, a new technology centre, the hire of your hall, an invitation to an open day or a positive image to attract enrolments, you need a strategic marketing plan.
In today's competitive environment the question of how to successfully market yourself on a shoe-string budget without specialised knowledge is a key consideration. Below is a case study to provide an action plan to get you started.
Amanda O'Shea, principal of Clare High School attended my marketing workshop on Managing Your School Image in Adelaide where she learned new skills that helped her develop a strategic marketing plan. Amanda's marketing plan will be used as a case study to guide you through the six steps to developing your own strategic marketing plan.
A feature of Clare High School is its strong vocational education program for year 11 and 12 students. Amanda judged the program to be highly beneficial to the students and to the employers but she was very concerned at the perception that "kids who work with their hands are dumb and follow a second rate curriculum." Her aim was to "sell" vocational education by demonstrating that the school was equipping local youth for a working future and thereby meeting a primary need of the community.
Step 1: identify your target audience
The first rule of marketing is to define the people to whom you wish to talk. Sort them into groups so that you can relate to their specific needs and deliver a message that is relevant to them. This is called segmenting your market. Amanda O'Shea identified the following target groups whose perceptions she wanted to change:
· Internal audience: Students, teachers and parents
· External audience: The business community
Step 2: define your goals
Start with the end in mind. Why are you doing this? What do your hope to achieve? Write down your objectives at the beginning of the marketing plan.
Amanda's marketing objectives for Clare High School were threefold. The principal wanted the target audiences to value and respect the skills and opportunities that vocational education provided. She wanted to build links between the school and the business community and attract more employers to the program who would offer placements and provide sponsorship, and she wanted to convince the community that "young people are good."
Step 3: select your channels of communication
Clients will not simply walk through your door. They will not automatically believe what you say. In a market environment you must drive your message through illustration, make yourself known, make it easy for people to find you and easy for people to deal with you.
Schools are fortunate to have access to many channels of communication, such as newsletters, media promotion, direct mail and person to person contact that can be used to reach internal and external audiences. Amanda planned to use the newsletter to reach her internal target group. While this is a cost-effective communication channel it falls well short of reaching all target audiences. However, it is a good place to start and it can be followed up with person to person talk at staff meetings, parent functions etc.
The next approach would be through the print media which is an effective way to reach an external audience. In line with the marketing advice received at the seminar, Amanda planned to spread her media publicity over several months and several outlets, rather than burning her budget with one big bang. She would use the local media to profile individual students at work in various industries - at the local motor mechanics, at the country club, the boutique, the toy shop, hospitals etc. The school would interview the employers and use their positive testimonial quotations to add validity and interest to each media story. By using individual examples the school would illustrate repeatedly that young people are responsible and good at what they do and that students in service industries are valuable members of the community.
Direct mail would provide another means of reaching the business community. A flier or a brochure would be prepared with details of the program, an outline of the benefits to the employer and the people to contact. The brochure would be sent by post. In-house desktop publishing would be used to produce the brochures on a small budget (see Looking Good In Print in Choice, Customers and Competition in Schools by Linda Vining)
Amanda regarded the students themselves as powerful advertisements for the vocational education program. Participating students would be trained to speak in public about their positive experiences. They would do so in the school's assembly to students and teachers and at meetings of parents and business members. Rotary and other service organisations would be informed that the students would be happy to talk at their meetings (person to person contact).
Step 4: plan a budget
When you are on a shoe-string budget talk to the local paper and find ways to squeeze the greatest mileage out of your advertising dollar. Look for sponsorship. Do not spend all your marketing dollars on one big promotion. Marketing works best if you provide a little bit often so allocate your funds over a span of time. Under Amanda O'Shea's marketing plan employers will pay a small fee to join the vocational education program. They will be asked for further sponsorship/support to print brochures, put up posters and pay for advertising. All employer will be placed on a database so that they can be acknowledged and thanked regularly.
Step 5: draw up a yearly plan
Marketing wisdom tells us that people rarely respond to a new idea on the first encounter. It takes at least three prompts to stir a person to action. Prompts from you may come in the form of an advertisement, a letter (direct mail) and finally a telephone follow-up. Never be disappointed if your first marketing attempts produce slow results. Work at building awareness and painting an image of your product that lingers in the mind. Many organisations and individuals will place interesting information on file. For these reasons strategic marketing should be spread over a period of time.
Step 6: evaluation
Finally, you must evaluate your marketing methods. If you have quantifiable goals, such as the number of tickets you want to sell to a concert, your marketing strategies will be relatively easy to measure. On the other hand, if your marketing goal is to advance the image of your school or a particular program as in the case study, your evaluation will be more difficult, but it can be done. Consider this: Your goal is to build awareness of a vocational program to business people within a within a 20 km radius of the school over a two year period. This is possible to monitor. It is built on baseline data, it is quantifiable, it describes a target audience, it defines geography and it follows a timeline. If you ask each new employer who joins the vocational education program where they heard about it and you put the information on a database you will be gathering the data you need to evaluate your marketing methods.
A strategic marketing plan will ensure that you manage your marketing effort by spreading your message across your target audiences over a period of time in a systematic way. The document becomes a call to action with a detailed map of what will be done, by whom and when. It will direct the research you need to do in order to get the best value for your marketing dollar and it will help you keep control of a tight budget.
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.
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