More so than many other nations around the globe, Americans have options. From restaurants to shoes to tire shops and everything in between, brands compete for our business. Increasingly, so do schools. With an eighth grader on the precipice of high school, I recently witnessed this first-hand as we “shopped” three possibilities for where he will attend next Fall. Here is my take on how these three institutions courted us as prospective customers.
I’ll refrain from naming the specific schools but, to be transparent, I will say two are public (in two different school districts) and one is private.
I’ll start with the private school and will summarize by saying, in the words of one Tommy Callahan, “Holy Schnikes.” This was impressive. These people have it together—very together. The experience isn’t a single day or time slot but actually a series of events. My son first attended a shadow day where he spent a regular school day there accompanied by a current freshman. The decision of who he would shadow was even customized based on my son’s academic and extracurricular interests. My son received a free t-shirt and sure enough, a thank-you note came a couple days later. A few weeks later, our whole family attended a two-hour weekend open house. This tour was a well-oiled machine. There were some thoughtful introductory remarks in the chapel from the school leadership team, then you were divided into small groups where you were led by a current senior student who could have been a professional tour guide. For a 17-year old, our guide carried himself well and generally had a level of poise I don’t feel is the norm. Oh and from the time of our initial inquiry, we’ve been receiving a steady stream of email newsletters, along with well-produced mailed materials that absolutely fit the brand.
The next public school was easily the most underwhelming, starting with the terribly vague flyer for the “future freshman night.” The flyer indicated a timeframe of 5:30pm to 7:00pm. My son had a practice that night which would have ended at 5:30pm several miles away. So I pulled him out of practice early and had him change clothes in the car so we would be there on time. This was ultimately quite unnecessary. There was no formal program, no overview of the school’s philosophy or approach, no remarks from the leadership team. The whole night was essentially an activities fair where we—the customers—could walk around and visit various tables for swim team, theater, yearbook, etc. Amazingly, very few of the tables had anything to do with academics. No math teacher. No AP History teacher. No ELA curriculum overview. We were done in I think 17 minutes. No follow-up, no asking us to give information, really no anything.
The final public school clearly had a marketing orientation. Maybe because their numbers are down or maybe because they simply know the new status quo requires competition, but in any event, this was an integrated campaign. A billboard location on a major street near the campus touts the school district’s credentials. Mailers with the same branding have arrived at our home. Early in the season, the nearby junior high that feeds into this school had arranged to have one of its basketball games take place at the high school, which clearly seemed to be a guise to get you to campus. Then there was the future freshman night itself. Again, they coordinated with the junior high (which is part of a different school district by the way) to switch up the junior high athletic schedule to ensure students would be able to attend the freshman night, which was a well-orchestrated production. Families convened in the auditorium at a designated time and were given a numbered folder with materials. You took your seat and the band played the national anthem. The cheer squad did a routine on stage. The student council president talked, as did the principal and a member of the parent booster club. The dance ensemble performed. You were then dismissed and your folder number corresponded to a tour group where a guide, carrying a sign with that same number, escorted you as you visited classrooms, met faculty, saw science students performing experiments, saw culinary students making food (free samples too), and so forth. The night ended in the gym where you could visit tables not only for sports and activities but also teachers of various subjects. For a public school, it was incredibly well done.
To my knowledge, schools up until recently have not traditionally been marketing-minded organizations, but this paradigm is changing quickly. These three schools all took a different approach and it was fascinating to absorb. As for my son, he’s still mulling it over!