Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Limegate!

When I announced to friends over four years ago that I was moving to Canada, I was bullied into joining Facebook, as a way to stay connected (as though Canada were Siberia!) and to share my new adventure with everyone.  Like cellphones, digital cameras, iPads and Garmins, I came late to the game after everyone else was seemingly already on Facebook.  And like all those other technologies, I grew to have an appreciation for their value…once I got there.  And also like all those other technologies, I’m surely underutilizing the power of Facebook.

My Facebook page is pretty tame.  It will never advise you that I’m sitting bored in the Wendy’s drive-thru lane, share with you that I found dress shirts on sale at Thomas Pink, or that I’ve decided to change dry cleaners.  The majority of my Facebook activity centers around sharing great meals and recipes I’ve enjoyed, the many amazing places I’ve been blessed to visit, and inspiring books, newspaper articles, movies and television shows I’ve felt compelled to pass along.   Finally, my Facebook page is full of and for my friends.  There’s nobody on my Facebook that I’ve never met and there’s nobody who is merely a colleague or friend of a friend.  I have tens of friends on Facebook, not hundreds.

So, with my targeted audience of friends and my non-traditional Facebook content, I’m surprised sometimes by the lack of responses I get.  I post what I think is a thought-provoking essay and it seems to provoke no thoughts amongst my friends.  Curious.  I consider the majority of my friends to be rather intelligent, well read, and articulate.  Why don’t they care?  What’s even more surprising, however, are the posts that generate the most response.  They tend to be the more pedestrian, sometimes even ranting, messages that I share.

What I’ve read about social media marketing and specifically about the use of Facebook, is that the metrics you should use to measure success have to do with the number of “likes” and comments any individual post might generate.  How many people are “friends” with your school is not a valid measure of your social media success.  Close attention followed by active engagement is the indicator that you’re successfully capturing your audience.

Imagine my surprise when, in a moment of frustration, I posted something as inane as the fact that my local grocery store was out of limes and that, of all things, went viral among my Facebook friends.  Let’s call it Limegate!  To date, it holds the record for generating the greatest number of responses and comments and engagement.  Really?  Limes?

But it became what my faculty friends call the “teachable moment”.  In that flash I remembered the importance of the marriage of medium and message. The lack of engagement on my Facebook page wasn’t a commentary on my friends.  It was a commentary on me!  People come to Facebook for engagement and entertainment and information, and seek to accomplish all those things quickly and probably on the limited size of their smartphone screen.  They’re not coming to Facebook for essays and book recommendations. 

All that said, I’m not changing my approach to my Facebook page but I do think we need to consider message and medium with our admissions communications.  What might best be delivered by letter or viewbook is probably not right for Facebook.  And what you might tweet about your school probably isn’t worthy of inclusion in a glossy four-color brochure or headmaster’s address.


21st century schools have a lot to say and a lot of media at our disposal to say it.  Like in real life, marry thoughtfully and carefully.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

West Wing


As I have the opportunity to chat, commiserate, compare notes, and engage fellow admissions directors and deans this summer, there has been a growing theme in those communications.  It’s the desire to do “more”.  I don’t mean additional work!  But to take our current work to the next level.  Some, because it’s a necessity: their enrollment isn’t quite where they’d like and they need to be changing things up.  But more often, it’s because a colleague is looking to stretch personally and professionally, trying to find a way to grow without having to leave education or at least our profession.

But change is inherently risky; the unknown and all of that.  The greatest struggle my friends seem to have is a willingness—if not ability—to let some things go and let others on their staff take them over in order to free them up for the “more” they crave.  It means letting others put their own stamp on something you’ve owned and built.  It means allowing for a different path to the same successful outcome, although maybe not the exact path you might have chosen.

In this challenge are some complementary opportunities, if not obligations.  The first is to allow yourself to think on a higher, more strategic level.  Find a blog or buy a book about the power of word-of-mouth or social media marketing in schools and allow yourself to sit in your office and read and think.  It’s okay.  It’s still working on behalf of your school if you’re not at your keyboard or on your phone.  Additionally, allow your staff to take some ownership of the operation and success of the office.  They, too, need “more” and desire to be nurtured and mentored, challenged and encouraged.  By you.

In doing this, you need to create a “safe space” for you and your staff to work differently, to create a new paradigm.  As they venture into new territory and take some work off your desk for you, they need to know you have their back.  Once clear goals, outcomes and expectations are set, they need to try things their own way and they need to be okay not nailing it right each and every time.  Likewise, you need to allow yourself to stumble as you redefine your role and how you prioritize your time.  There’s a relevant, wonderful scene from “The West Wing” that has stayed with me all these years.  I commend it to you as an application for both yourself and for your staff. 

(You had to be living under a rock at the start of the 21st century if you never saw “The West Wing”.  It was on for seven seasons and won a record 26 Emmy awards.  I mean, really!)

Leo McGarry, the Chief of Staff, is trying to convince President Bartlett to allocate funds for a missile defense system.  Needless to say, it’s an expensive missile defense system and it needs some investment to perfect it.  The hesitant president, fearful of a bad investment and not inclined towards defense spending, interrogates McGarry asking why he should spend so much money on something that is not guaranteed to ever work as promised.  Why?  Why?!  

Because, McGarry passionately notes, there’s been a time in the evolution of everything that works, when it didn’t work.

Indeed.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Human Interaction

Living in Canada for almost four years, it’s been a while since I stepped foot in a CVS.  I did so for the first time recently while back in the USA on holiday. 

My process was downright efficient: Enter store.  Select items.  Pay the machine.  Self-serve bag.  Leave.  I managed the entire transaction without a single human interaction.  Not only that, I managed my entire visit to the store without a single human interaction.  I suppose that is the point of such newfangled self-serve registers: no human interaction means no need for humans.  And like schools and most everywhere else, the cost of labor is the largest expense in almost all organizations.

This is not new.  Think ATM’s.  I had my first ATM card in high school.  Who needed those pesky tellers and their passport savings books?  (Let’s not put a year on that, shall we?!)  This is from where we got EZPass in 1991.  If you could drive through the lanes and pay your own toll, who needed expensive toll takers?  Think printing your own online boarding pass for the airlines and the success of Amazon.com: the world’s largest bookstore without one…yup…store.

So, what is the loss?  First, possibly money.  Have you ever shopped at a Wegman’s grocery store?  What are the first two things every cashier is trained to ask you: “How are you?” and “Did you find everything today?”  Those seemingly lazy employees just milling around the registers are actually there to leap into action and go fetch exactly what you couldn't find before it’s time to pay the cashier, thereby providing marginal additional income to the store.  But multiply that marginal income by the number of customers each day times the number of stores.  Ka-ching!  I can tell you at CVS that nobody cared if I found everything and if I hadn't, nobody was seemingly available to help me do so, thereby facilitating me spending more money.

I praise the efficiency, the cost savings, and the spirit of independence it gives the consumer.  But, I am cautious about letting them run around—or worst, running out—on their own.  So, how does this look in schools?  Online report card viewing, web-based applications for admission, internet textbook shopping, and third vendor credit card payments for tuition are just a few examples.  When they work, they work.  But when they don’t, you better have an easily found FAQ, email link for assistance, or a phone number to call.

Let’s not make it hard for our families paying a lot of money to be served.  And let’s not make it a hurdle for them to possibly spend more.  After all, is it us or them who are craving the absence of human interaction?


“How are you?  Did you find everything today?”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Board Reports


Spring sports, AP exams, flowering trees, and the final Board of Trustees meeting: the close of the school year is rapidly approaching.  What do you report; what do you share?  There are many factors, including the leadership and goals of your head, the culture of your board, and the health of your enrollment.  There is no simple formula but there are several things to consider.

Let’s start with Stephen Covey’s famous quote from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind.”  When training tour guides, we talk about the goal for the tour before it even starts.  What do we want the family to walk away with?  What are the key messages we want a family to receive?  And then plan the tour accordingly.  You should be thinking similarly about your board report.  This might even be a good question for your head as you prepare, “When I walk out of the Board meeting, what do want me to have accomplished, what message should I have delivered?”

For me, my “end in mind” for any board meeting can be summed up in one word: confidence.  When I leave the room, I want my board to feel confident that the enrollment of our school is safe in my hands.  And then when I might need something from them or have a crazy idea for consideration or even—gasp—stumble, they will embrace it all because I have given them confidence in me, my staff, my direction, and my strategy.  What and how I present is all decided based on leaving them confident in the school’s admissions operation.  And by doing so, I take one more possible headache off the desk of my head and hopefully make him look good and feel proud.  After all, I work for him but he works for them.

Second, it’s important to remember the role of the board.  It serves a strategic, long-term function, not a day-to-day, management function.  As noted in NAIS’s Trustee Handbook, trustees, “…plan for the future of the school for which you care.”  Our role, as Leo Marshall of the Webb Schools wrote on this ALC blog last month, is to provide, “information that will help them make important strategic decisions.”  If all we are doing this month is giving a historical report of the past with a pile of statistics, then we are failing to fulfill our responsibility.  As Tommy Adams, Assistant Head of School for Enrollment at Mercersburg Academy says, “In order to be sustainable over the long haul, we must be strategic.”  What you should do with your historical data, is use it to inform trends and thinking that you should be engaging with your board.  Use what has happened in the past to help you understand what might happen in the future.  You best serve your board and your head if you can address where your admission is headed and where it should be headed. (Admittedly, not always the same thing!)

Finally, in considering your board report and presentation, consider your audience.  A good resource for this (and for all our work in admissions, actually) is Michael Thompson’s Understanding Independent School Parents.  While many on your board may not be current parents, in my experience many of them will nonetheless have the same profile: highly successful, well-educated, wealthy, and others often defer or report to them.  Thompson offers some great insights and some great suggestions.  It’s a good read.  This isn’t addressing the faculty or an open house group.  This isn’t speaking with your staff or meeting with your administrative colleagues.  Know and understand your audience and plan your presentation and messaging accordingly.

Your final board report of the year is your opportunity to tell the admissions narrative of the year just finishing and to show your expertise and competence in helping the board think strategically about your school’s enrollment, appreciate your and your department’s accomplishments, and understand the importance of your work.  Engage them professionally and thoughtfully and you will be valued and taken seriously.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Last Step


Two whole comments: my last post on where to put the communications/marketing office took off!  Actually, I had several calls, a few emails, and it was picked up in the weekly newsletter from AISAP, The Funnel.  I’m actually quite honored—and have since subscribed to their newsletter.  But all this has had me engaged in some interesting conversations and thinking more on this topic.  (And ducking my advancement colleagues—someone ratted me out to them!)

Once upon a time and early in my career, there was no internet.  GASP—imagine that my younger readers!  There was, therefore, no Facebook or Google or Kayak.com.  Our marketing consisted of print advertising, paying for a listing in printed publications such as Peterson’s (yes, it was a book before it was a website!), and a lot of direct mail and postcards.  Word of mouth was still key, if not more so, because families had such fewer other resources for information.

So, what did a prospective family do for more thorough information?  They called us!

The admissions office was close to the first step in the school inquiry process and our friendly office receptionists performed magic on the phone and we followed up with our mailings and newsletters.  We had a communications strategy, beautiful printed materials, a calendar of contact points throughout the process, and calling campaigns with coaches, faculty, and student and parent volunteers.  We had Avery labels and bulk mail by zipcode, and banks of phones staffed by student callers stuffed with pizza and soda.  Ah, the good old days…

Today the admissions office is the last step in the process.  If a family wants information about your school, they will turn to friends, your website, and depositories of information such as Rate My Teacher and Boarding School Review.  They will Google you long before they ever call or email you.  Your communication strategies and viewbooks are the last step in the process and you only actually get to engage with a prospective student once they’ve completed all the other steps and still found you desirable.

So, you better have strong communications and marketing.  You better have an awesome website (fully coded for SEO), updated and current social media, and accurate data on the various school search engines.  You better be advertising in all the appropriate spots, sponsoring the right events, attending all the fairs, and building the best network possible.  Your marketing and communications and recruitment efforts are of paramount importance to families actually and finally contacting your admissions office for information.

Accordingly, you better have all the necessary communications and marketing resources you need from your school and your head.  After all, the admissions office is now actually the last step in the process.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Communications and Marketing


Shhhh…don’t tell any of your advancement and development colleagues about this.

I’ve been prompted recently to think about the role of communications/marketing offices (herein “c/m office”) in our work, and their proper placement in a school’s organizational chart. 

To start, there are two schools of thought (no pun intended!) on where in an organization to place this office.  Historically—and I think still the case at the vast majority of independent schools—the c/m office is seen as a support function to other offices.  In some cases this office stands alone but often it is a branch of the development/advancement office.  In a very limited number of schools, I have seen it elevated to the level of administration, with the director of communications (or some such title) at the big table.  But that’s still uncommon.

For now, I’m not inclined to think outside the box and look at the less conventional model and, instead, am giving thought to the support function model.  But within that model, I’d like to propose the idea of moving the c/m office out from under the development/advancement office and into an independent office of its own or as a branch of the admissions office.  I have two rationales and hopefully they might help facilitate or further some conversations you have had with your head of school.

First, it’s about money, plain and simple.  90% or more of the operating budget at most any independent school comes from tuition revenue.  No doubt the work done by advancement is critical to a school’s long-term survival, especially around the growth of an endowment and ability to raise funds for construction of facilities.  The operating budget will never be able to pay for such things. 

But in the year-by-year operation of a school, all schools are tuition-dependent.  So, if you’re a day school charging about $25K in upper school tuition, how much easier (relatively speaking!) is it for the admissions office to enroll four more students for an additional $100K in revenue than it is for the advancement office to find an additional $100K in donations?  And we shouldn’t forget that the $100K in tuition revenue repeats itself for the next four years, assuming the child stays through graduation.  If advancement can find an additional $100K in donations, what are the chances they can repeat that the next four years?  So, essentially, if a school is looking to increase revenue for the annual operating budget, they are going to turn to admissions, not fundraising.  Accordingly, the c/m office has to at least be equally available to the admissions office, if not part of the admissions office.

Second, the fundraising people are working with those who already know about the school or with organizations/foundations that are interested in education.  They are tapping alumni, parents of alumni, current parents and grandparents, etc. etc. etc.  They are not expecting or hoping that perfect strangers who may know nothing or very little of your school are going donate money.  However, that’s exactly what the admissions office is doing!  We are hoping that through our communications and marketing efforts (and outreach and recruitment and travel and networking) that we will convince total strangers with no affiliation with the school that they should give over both their child and their money to us. 

We are engaging in a very steep, uphill battle.  Accordingly, we need to commandeer and muster as much communications and marketing resources as we possibly can.  “You don’t know much about us but we’d like you to trust us with your child and pay us a lot of money to do so” is a bigger challenge than, “You know us and love us, and we’re asking you to give back and support us.” Our work is disproportionately dependent on communications and marking whereby advancement capitalizes on and depends more on a potential donor's existing ties to the school and personal relationships.

Again, relatively speaking! 

I’m not saying it’s easy to raise money from friends.  I’m just saying that it is a bit easier.  So, let’s make sure the admissions office has at least equal access to and priority within the marketing and communications resources of our schools.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Gay Marriage

 
As the national debate has hit a penultimate moment this week with two cases regarding gay marriage being argued in front of the United States Supreme Court, it seemed an opportune moment for me to write about the LGBT community, my experience, and independent school admissions. 

When I worked in a day school in Philadelphia, we had great success in this market, after a lot of work and a bit of stumbling about.  But, as soon as one LGBT family arrived and was willing to be the pioneer, many more followed.  From these dad/dad and mom/mom families, I learned a number of things, a few of which I’ll share here:

1.     This is a close-knit community.  Initial success will quickly lead to greater success.  If a family is happy at your school, they will tell everyone in their circle about it.  The LGBT community is very steadfast and when they feel valued and safe, they will reward you with their support and business.
2.     These parents are happy to educate and help, especially the early arrivers, and are not there to judge.  When we asked them to let us know how they can be made more comfortable or to tell us where we were being ignorant in a practice, they welcomed the request to provide feedback and offered it kindly and without criticism.  (Does your application still ask for mother and father or does it ask for Parent 1 and Parent 2?)
3.     Parents are seeking a safe, welcoming community not only for their child but for themselves.  It’s important their child feel safe and not be the subject of bullying but the parents are also seeking a place where they feel safe and where they can comfortably be themselves and take part in all aspects of what it means to be an independent school parent.  Together.
4.     LGBT parents are proudly LGBT and welcome marketing and communication targeted to their particular profile.  They want to see their community and causes supported and they want to find you where they are, not have to migrate over to where you can usually be found with your marketing.  While the rest of us are exhausted over being targeted and identified in some way, this community welcomes it.  (Must Google slam with me travel ads because I visited Kayak.com?)

So, why am I telling you this?  Why should this be a target market worth your effort and consideration?  I’ll give you some information I have learned over time although a quick search on Google and you will find more quantifiable statistics for yourself.

1.     This community is wealthy.  The vast majority (more than 75%) earn above the national average.
2.     Similarly, this community has above the national average for college graduates.
3.     This community has a higher percentage of homeowners.
4.     This community is highly employed, and well employed (see #1).
5.     This community is very philanthropic and supportive, and give willingly of their time, talent and treasure.

Finally, this community is fiercely loyal.  They are loyal to each other and they are loyal to institutions that support them and where they feel not just welcomed in but feel they are on the inside.  In referring to my school, one sets of moms exclaimed to me, “We found it!”  And then they told everyone and they became champions on our parent volunteer admission committee.

Who wouldn’t want more parents who fit this profile?