We all like to talk about distinctives – what makes our school distinct from the local public school, an area independent school or even another Christian school. In fact, we often find different types of Christian schools trying to point out their distinctives from one another; either a lower priced alternative, a classical model or maybe a school with a different theological tradition. To each of these potential competitors, we try to position ourselves as distinct.
Communicating distincitives presents real challenges. It is easy to get off track and talk about things that are not relevant or everyone else is already doing. I’ve blogged about marketing mistakes in the past and think it is critical for schools to spend time and effort in strategizing around market research and sometimes even partnering with experts that can help you avoid those errors. Before spending effort on effectively communicating distinctives, be sure they are tested and pass the “so what?” test. Asking the simple question, “how is what I’m talking about more about opportunity for others than it is about me?” is a good way to avoid this pitfall. Once that is taken care of, you have a potentially bigger challenge—proving it. This is made particularly difficult by the environment in which we operate in most parts of our lives.
The consumer you face is just like you and me so think about your own expectations. I’ve used Yelp to help me make food decisions three times this week already. I serve on boards where I expect to hear reports with real data and I want it to be offered to me without asking. In this era of fake news and fake-fake news, I check claims all the time—and in a university class I occasionally teach, I find my students fact checking me in class. So, when it comes to the claims we make, we need to prove our points as follows: unsolicited, evidence based and humanly.
- Unsolicited. I don’t want to have to ask for data when I am expecting it and neither do parents. Our approach should assume that any informed customer would want to know about many particulars and we come prepared with that information. This is where we have the opportunity to put things in front of prospective families or provide updates to our current families before they ever ask. You can be sure that if a competitor offers proof of their product, your current parent or prospect will wonder why you didn’t.
- Evidence Based. Anecdotes are not evidence. Data—either qualitative or quantitative (but preferably a methodologically sound approach)—is the proof that we all expect. Yes, data can be manipulated. Yes, your competitors can be selective about what data they report. Still, we can’t even get into the contest if we aren’t offering real, accurate and timely data. Delivering current information is very important. Old data is only useful if we use it in conjunction with new data—either to show consistency or change. Using data in our communications also demonstrates a number of other elements that parents care about. Believe it or not, they will equate your use of data with academic rigor. They will conclude that the use of data demonstrates strong and competent leadership and will be less inclined to question decisions when decisions are data driven.
- Human Element. Show how data demonstrates the impact that the school is having on individual students. Tell stories with the data. Help parents see the possibilities for their own children. Help them see that you take your responsibilities serious enough to assess. This is where we give life to the data and add impact. It is a false dichotomy to believe that people don’t want to hear numbers, so we tell them stories instead. They want numbers in the stories. These numbers can show how their child is doing or how their child may do. Through numbers we can help them see what great things are happening at your school.
Parents want proof before they ask for it. We can give parents what they want in usable formats and for the proof to be memorable. They want it delivered by people who are in command of the numbers and have confidence in their reliability and know how to talk about them. Finally, they want them to tell a story—a story of their child or a child that they can identify with—who has or will do things worth reporting.
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.