Marketing trends have prompted a change in the role responsibilities of school leadership.

Headteachers have always been involved in marketing the school. After all, marketing is an indispensable management function in any organisation.

In writing this blog, I have discovered a treasure trove of excellent sources on the Headteacher’s role in marketing to which I will refer for additional reading on this great subject.

“Because of the pressure that so many independent schools are facing right now, especially with enrolment and attrition – 45% of independent schools have lost enrolment in the last five years [in the USA] – the Head can no longer just delegate enrolment management to the Director of Enrolment Management or the Director of Admissions.” Tom Olverson, Inspired podcast.

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From doubtful beginnings to an everyday activity for headteachers

Historically, there appears to have been some initial wariness by management and staff of schools towards the marketing function, exacerbated by a lack of understanding of marketing as a discipline.

This is evident in a fascinating research paper written by Izhar Oplatka in 2007. Oplatka’s findings show that the discomfort of Headteachers and other academic staff towards marketing was related to the lack of authenticity in marketing, and the traditional reputation of marketers as image-builders or spin-doctors.

I have personally experienced this in my consulting work with schools over the years. Building trust between marketing and the rest of the school is a key success factor, because a marketer cannot operate in a silo.

Of course, a lot has changed in the last decade.

Transparency and authenticity in marketing is a best practice. Marketing of schools has become the norm, and most private schools have well-established marketing departments, with support from the Headteacher.

However, marketing’s role in the school is moving beyond that. We are seeing a trend of increasing strategic and tactical involvement by Headteachers in marketing the school, to the point where the Head is leading the marketing effort, in partnership with the Marketing and Admissions team (and increasingly, Development is included in this team). But not all Heads are embracing this trend.

In the points that follow, when Marketing is mentioned, it assumes the involvement of Admissions and Development (also known as Fundraising).

Three factors are driving the increasing role of the Headteacher in the marketing effort.

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#1 Everyone in the school is a school marketer

In the past, the Marketer could work with more of an arms-length relationship to the head as the market was less interactive, in a less digital world. So, there was less need for every staff member to be an integral part of delivering the brand promise and generating engaging content that resonated with the target market.

But, as the classic McKinsey article is so aptly titled, ‘We’re all marketers now’. The key role of a headteacher is empowering the marketing team to do their job well. 

The buyer-seller marketing monologue shifted to dialogue years ago, but some schools are not yet able to optimise this trend. Because of the importance of engagement with your customer (current and prospective), the buy-in of Board, management and staff is vital. In my experience, this lack of buy-in is the Achilles heel for many school marketers.

Word of mouth is known to be the most powerful marketing tool, and yet it often remains elusive to the schools where marketing is operating separately, generating most of its own content and not optimising the full school experience.

A Headteacher can make or break this by actively leading the charge in allocating marketing resources, motivating and building capacity, getting buy-in from the academic staff by integrating Marketing into the wider school operations (including performance management of all staff), and being visible and present in the community as a Headteacher.  

What marketers say:

At Epworth School, the importance of the headteachers role in the marketing effort is explained as follows:

“The marketing of a school should not be confined to the Marketing department. It is imperative for everyone, including staff, pupils and alumni, to take on the role of brand ambassador and to “wear” the marketing hat. The Head of a school is the custodian of the brand and should work hand in hand with the members of the Marketing and Admission team.” – Vicky Crookes, Head of Marketing, Epworth School & Chairperson of ISMA KZN

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#2 Effective school marketing calls for one clear voice

In order to market effectively, one clear overall voice is required.

Who are we and what do we stand for? What is our identity and our brand? What are we going to be the known for in our target market? What are we going to choose NOT to do?

These questions demand marketing strategy based on independent research, both internal and external. Rather than relying on common perceptions, snap surveys, stories about the school or complaints received from parents, the Head requires unbiased in-depth information on which to base future strategic decisions regarding growth or sustainability.

This is challenging work, and it is the work of a Headteacher.

“Helping a school choose an identity is hard work. There are no painless short-term solutions. The process will test a Head’s stamina and their belief that they are doing the right thing. The Head of school will have to lead, not the Board of trustees (though trustees will be important partners), and that leadership will involve hard choices that will alienate some stakeholders.” Tom Olverson, blog RG175.

Once the marketing strategy is clear, the Headteacher leads the school in living the identity and brand of the school, every day, everywhere. Never has this been as evident.

The focus on mission and values is what links the Headteacher to marketing. Choice of school is based on more than facilities and features. Softer aspects of culture, tolerance, kindness, character and beliefs are important factors too.

What marketers say:

At Waterfall Schools, the importance of the role of the Head in the marketing effort is explained as follows:

“As the public face of school leadership and, therefore, a representation of the culture, the Head plays a vital role in promoting key marketing messages. Collaboration between Marketing and Heads is crucial to ensure that the story being told about the school matches the pupil and parent experience. Any ambivalence will detract from the authenticity of marketing efforts and, ultimately, reduce its effectiveness in attracting and retaining students.” – Hayley Dennyson, Marketing and Communications Manager, Waterfall Schools.

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#3 Executive authority is needed for credibility of the marketing message

There are some things only a Headteacher can achieve due to his or her executive position.

Marketing is now about the customer experience. The traditional P of product in the marketing mix has now become E for experience. I believe the role of the Head in customer experience is especially critical for the retention of pupils.

“Heads have the unique potential to ensure that faculty and staff members are motivated to deliver remarkable experiences for students and parents.” Blackbaud.

The experience of the school by existing and prospective parents and children must be equal to what is being marketed. The customer has a voice to positively or negatively affirm the marketing message. Customers believe reviews and testimonials of other customers more than content generated by the school.

However, the Marketing department’s impact can be optimised by a Headteacher who, while giving autonomy to the Marketing team, also motivates them and backs them up, by taking a strong stand to keep the school clearly on track in its strategic market positioning.

“Heads must help hold a mirror up and ask, ‘How good are we really?’” – Tom Olverson, Inspired podcast. Schools are now referring to ‘service levels’, a measurement previously only reserved for commercial businesses.

So, the Head plays a role in guiding the staff to apply a service delivery approach, which cannot be driven from the Marketing department. The service levels experienced by customers will determine the success of marketing and ultimately the school’s complete brand experience from all perspectives. 

What marketers say: 

At Michaelhouse, the importance of the role of the Head in the marketing effort is explained as follows:

“Our school’s brands and the excellence they promise the market are the grand sum total of our traditional values, historical ethos, our facilities and current track record; our staff, pupils, parents and alumni. In short, our brand’s critical mass far outweighs any individual. This concept though has no email address, no telephone number… no face. The buck for delivering these key messages stops at the desk of our school heads; they literally breathe life into the promise, and they stand as a very tangible guarantee for delivery.” – Murray Witherspoon, Marketing Manager, Michaelhouse

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In conclusion, a health check on marketing role responsibilities

The role of the Headteacher in marketing the school is changing, driven by three factors:

  •       Everyone in the school is now a marketer
  •       The need for one clear voice to the target market
  •       The demand for executive authority in marketing the school

Lebogang Montjane, the CEO of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA) explains the importance of the role of the Head in the marketing effort of a school as follows:

“The Head plays a key supportive function in recognising the important role and contribution made by the marketing staff and by giving them structured opportunities to discuss and implement an effective marketing strategy. Furthermore, the Head is optimally positioned, as the key spokesperson for the school, to seize opportunities to promote the school actively in their interactions with key stakeholders, including prospective, present and former pupils, staff, parents, the media and the broader community.”

What is the next step?

This presents a new opportunity for a leadership discussion regarding role allocation in your school in the area of marketing, based on your marketing strategy. Ask Headteachers how they see their role in the marketing effort, how this has changed, and how it might change in the future.

A Headteacher plays a critical role in leading the school’s growth and pupil retention. This role will continue to change as marketing trends continue to engage the customer, require clarity of brand identity and demand excellence in service levels.

Thanks so much to Keryn House, Owner and Founder of Houseway Consulting, for contributing to the Ambleglow blog. We hope you’ve all enjoyed reading this as much as we have.

Mo – Mailers

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