Remember Your Audience

On May 2, 2009, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC moved into a brand new hospital – that doesn’t look like a hospital. Big, open spaces, bold, vibrant colors, service wings named after animals. Designers knew their audience. Window washers recently dressed like Superheroes (Spiderman, Batman, etc.) to say “Hello” to the children as they were working on the outside walls of the building.  Check it out at http://www.chp.edu/CHP/new_campus.  By the way – this page has a virtual tour video.  If your school’s Web site doesn’t have one of these, you’ve just experienced today’s learning.

Lots of us think that when we talk about K-12 tuition-charging, faith-based schools, our primary audience is also the children. Teachers are trained to teach children, and our educational system is designed so that one needs to be a teacher before they can be a school administrator. Consequently, that focus on the children can continue as a professional teacher progresses into administrative leadership.

The lament of most administrators today is “I wasn’t trained for this” when it comes to the aspects of advancement (Development, Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management and Marketing).  But there’s a reason we all need to be life-long learners.  There are lots of things that most of us aren’t “trained for.”  From the “other duties as assigned” clause in a job description to the birth of a new addition to the married couple that hasn’t celebrated their first anniversary yet, there are many things in our lives that we are called to do, but feel that we are not equipped to handle.  When we feel this way, and especially become overwhelmed with the challenges of it all, we tend to focus attention on the things we know well. As for the successful school, children are important, since you must have a quality school before you have a quality faith-based school, but you also have to balance the educational quality with the financial responsibility.

Most importantly, if we are of the “I can’t do this” mindset when it comes to the challenges of school administration, then we are not following the sentiment expressed in Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”

But back to the audience. As a principal or advancement professional, if we think our primary audience is the children, we are only partially correct. If you’re a teacher, your primary audience is the children. If you’re in an administrative position, however, your primary audience is the parent/guardian community.  Part of the presentations I do regarding marketing point to one fact that tends to bring attendees to an “aha” moment (what I like to call ephiphanicity) when we talk about who parents are, since one of the primary rules of marketing is to “Know Your Audience.” I like the word “audience” better than the usual phrase, “Know Your Market,” especially since it’s the word “market” that begs the question, “What do you mean by that?”

With that in mind, I created a text that breaks marketing into a 12-step process, providing the background necessary to put together a marketing plan specifically for your school. As a bit of key pre-knowledge, you need to come to the realization that your primary audience consists of parents of young children that are members of Generation X – the ME Generation. Succinctly, they want to know what’s in it for THEM…NOT necessarily for their children. It’s one of the primary reasons why most parents rely on the school to provide so many services rather than the home providing them.  That’s changing, as you read this, for elementary schools.  The next generation, the Millennials, are seeking to enroll their children in schools.  While they have more of a community orientation that GeneXers do, and want to know “What’s in it for us?” they are also more savvy in the ways of technology and many have college degrees.  They’re also very aware of the customization and immediacy provided by technology today.  What does this mean?  If your school doesn’t make them go “Whoa,” they may very well home school their children and use, or even create, the technology necessary to do so.

These are the parents you are trying to attract to your school. Those parents that are very involved with their children may instinctively gravitate toward your school. Therefore, while it’s good to have information in your brochure and literature to appeal to both types of parents, the majority of people you are trying to attract are more concerned with how your policies, procedures, governance, and pedagogy will affect them, rather than just their children.

So, when you say your school will provide a caring atmosphere for your child, that’s good – because good parents do that for their children. But when you say your child will excel, you’d best be careful – since your definition of excel and the parents’ definition of excel may be drastically different. If you say that a Catholic or Christian school education will equip their child to be a future leader in the faith, it may not spur many parents to enroll their child. Granted, it sounds good to pastors, boards and benefactors, but if there are no children in the school because you can’t reach the heart (notice I didn’t say the mind – this is an emotional decision…not a logical one) of your potential parents, your mission has not been fulfilled.

The good news is that the tide is starting to turn.  The bad news is that it’s a completely new direction that no one’s ever been down before.  To paraphrase an opening line from a famous TV series, we are called “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”  And God doesn’t call the equipped…he equips the called.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2009-2014 (Original Publication Date – 20090504)