How to Create a Marketing Plan for Your School

Everything you need to know

Marketing illustration
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Many private institutions are finding that they need to engage in strong marketing tactics to thrive in today's market. That means more schools than ever are looking at developing marketing plans to guide them, and for schools who don't already have strong strategies in place, it can be overwhelming to get started. Here are some tips to help you get on the right track. 

Why Do I Need a Marketing Plan?

Marketing plans are the roadmap to success for your office.

They keep you on track so you can navigate your way through the year, and ideally next several years, without getting side-tracked. It helps remind you, and your community, of your end goals and how you’re going to get there, reducing the number of detours along the way. This is especially important for your admission office in recruiting students and for your development office in building alumni relationships and soliciting donations

These guides help you set a plan by streamlining what you do and why you’re doing it. The why is a crucial part of your marketing, as it explains the reasoning for your actions. Validating important decisions with this “why” component is important for gaining support for the plan and ensuring that you continue to move forward with positive progress. 

It’s so easy to find great inspiration at any time. But, even the greatest of ideas can derail your progress if they don't align with the messaging, goals and themes that you have for the year.

Your marketing plan is what helps you reason with individuals who get excited about new ideas and remind them of the clear plan that was agreed upon going into the year. However, it’s important to still keep track of this great inspiration for future projects and plans!

What Should My Marketing Plan Look Like?

Do a quick Google search for marketing plan examples and you get around 12 million results.

Try another search, this time for marketing plans for schools and you will find about 30 million results. Good luck sorting through all of those! It can be daunting to even consider creating a marketing plan, especially if you’re not sure what to do. In fact, I hate marketing plans that are formal and complex. They can be time-consuming and confusing.

I was always taught that a traditional marketing plan outline is as follows:

  • Executive Summary

  • The Mission

  • Differentiators/Value Proposition

  • Institutional Vision

  • Target Audience

  • Situation Analysis

    • Institution, Customer, Competitor, Collaborator, Climate

    • SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis

  • Marketing Segmentation

    • Segment 1: Descriptions, sales reports, goals and outcomes, product usage, resource requirements, outreach plan, pricing

    • Segment 2: Descriptions, sales reports, goals and outcomes, product usage, resource requirements, outreach plan, pricing

  • Selected Marketing Strategies (Action Items)

    • Why these strategies were chosen, including product, price, place, promotion, and how they will be completed. Discuss decision variables: brand, quality, scope, warranty, packaging, price, discounts, bundling, payment terms, distribution challenges, logistics, motivating the channel, advertising, PR, budget, projected results.

  • Alternative Marketing Strategies

    • The strategies you aren’t planning to use, but were considered

  • Short & Long Term Projections

    • Goals & outcomes: The immediate effects of the proposed strategies, expected long-term results, and special actions required to achieve them.

  • Analysis Strategies (How will you assess success)

  • Appendix

    • Calculations and data used to support the information above, reports from previous years

    • Industry reports and marketplace projections

I’m exhausted after just reading that. It’s a lot of work to complete all these steps, and it often feels like the more time you spend on a marketing plan, the less you use it. If you’re like me, you try to get around this by finding another plan to work off of, but I never can find one that fits my needs. Why is that? 

That’s because no two companies are the same, no two schools are the same; they all have different goals and needs.

That’s why the same marketing plan structure will not work for every school or company. Every organization needs something that works best for them, whatever it may be. It’s my opinion that a marketing plan doesn’t have to follow an exact template or structure. I say, change your perception of a marketing plan: forget about what you think it should be, and think about what you need it to be.

What you DO NOT need out of your marketing plan:

  • A long, complex, formal plan that addresses every problem that has ever surfaced at your school.

  • A document that takes so long to create that you never finish it.

  • A document that is so complex that it's not a useful tool.

  • Analysis for the sake of analysis

What you DO need out of your marketing plan:

  • Specific and realistic problems to solve.

  • Achievable goals.

  • An easily executable roadmap.

  • Potential challenges and solutions.

  • A way to track success.

How do you develop a marketing plan?

The first thing I do is determine the institutional goals that are tasked to my marketing department. You can pull from a strategic plan or a marketing analysis to give you guidance. 

Let's say your school needs to Improve Marketplace Position. How would you do this? Chances are, you'll want to ensure that you have cohesive branding and messaging, and make sure that the entire school is in support of that messaging. Then, you will create focused publications and digital presence in support of that branding and messaging. You might find a more specific goal of increasing annual fund dollars for the development office, which is one way that the marketing office can be called upon to assist.

Using these institutional goals, you can outline the various projects, goals, and action items for each department. It looks something like this for a fundraising example:

  • CLIENT: Development Office
  • PROJECT: Annual Fund
  • GOALS: (3-4 main objectives for the year)
    • Increase participation overall (# of donors)
    • Increase donations (dollars raised)
    • Increase online donations (dollars raised via online giving forms)
    • Reconnect with alumni
  • ACTION ITEMS: (2-4 marketing methods to achieve the goals)
    • Create a branded annual fund marketing program
      • Overall Messaging
      • Digital Strategy: Email marketing, giving form improvements, and social media outreach
      • Print Strategy: annual appeals, postcards, brochures
      • Talking Points: language that development officers can use to promote continuity of messaging.

Let's look at an admission example now:

  • CLIENT: Admission Office
  • PROJECT: Recruiting - increase inquiries
  • GOALS:
    • Improve online user experience (make things easier to find)
    • Increase the number of new qualified leads
    • Generate a new, expanded target audience (long range goal)
  • ACTION ITEMS:
    • Redesign Website
    • Email marketing strategy
    • SEO campaign
    • Inbound marketing strategy 

Developing these mini-outlines helps you prioritize your goals and objectives for the year. It helps you keep your focus on the things that you can realistically accomplish in a given time period, and, as you saw in the admission goals, look at those goals that need more time to complete but need to get started now. You might actually have seven or eight goals for each department, but you'll never get anything accomplished if you try to tackle everything at once. Pick the two-to-four things that either need the most urgent attention or will have the greatest impact on your outcomes. Just make sure you can realistically address the items in your given timeframe, which is often one academic year.

Making these priorities is also helpful when you get those requests for small projects from departments other than your top clients. It gives you validity when you say, we can't accommodate this project right now, and explain why. It doesn't mean everyone will be happy with your response, but it helps you make it possible for them to understand your reasoning.  

How will you carry out your marketing plan?

The next step is to start thinking about the tools you have at your disposal and how you'll use them. Think about marketing like giving someone a gift.

  • The gift is the outcome of the marketing strategy: achieving your goals is the gift.
  • The box is the tools you'll use to carry out your strategy: email, social media, print, etc.
  • The wrapping paper and bow is the concept you'll use: the message and design

This is where you get to start having some fun. Brainstorm some ideas for how to tell your story. Check out this article on the Annual Fund Marketing Program created at Cheshire Academy that we called, One Word. One Gift. The strategy involved reconnecting with alumni by asking them to pick one word to describe their Cheshire Academy experience, and then make one gift to the annual fund in honor of that word. It was such a success that the program helped us not only reach our goals but also exceed them. The One Word. One Gift. program even won two awards: the silver award for Annual Giving Programs in the CASE Excellence Awards for District I and another silver award in the 2016 CASE Circle of Excellence for Annual Giving Programs.

For each of your clients (as we outlined above), you want to clearly illustrate your timeline, concept, and tools that you will use. The more you can explain why you're doing what you're doing, the better. Let's look at what this might look like for the Academy's Development Annual Fund project:

CONCEPT: This branded Annual Fund endeavor combines print marketing with email, digital, and social media marketing, as well as development outreach to reconnect with current and past constituents. Designed to engage constituents in a two-part interaction with the school, this endeavor asks donors to remember what they love about Cheshire Academy by choosing one word to represent their experiences, and to then make one gift to the annual fund in honor of that word. A particular emphasis will be made on encouraging online donations.

A lot of hard work goes into developing these plans, which are unique to each institution. Guidelines are awesome to share, but your details are yours. That said, let me share a little more of my details than most ...

  1. The first thing I do is make sure I understand the institutional goals tasked to marketing
  2. I also make sure that I clearly outline and understand the institutional goals related to marketing. Meaning, I may not be the department directly charged with these, but my team and I will support them and work closely with them.
  3. I make sure I know which departments and goals are the highest marketing priorities for the year. It's helpful to have support from your head of school and other departments to agree with these determinations of priorities. I've seen some schools go so far as to have signed contracts with key stakeholders to guarantee adherence to the priorities and directions.
  4. Then I work to outline my timeline, concept, and tools for each of my top department priorities. This is important to avoid scope creep, getting off track from your intended projects. This is your reality check when people start getting lots of great ideas that may not align with the overall strategies. Not every great idea can be used at once, and it's ok to say no to even the most amazing idea; just make sure you save it for later use. This is where you break down what you're doing, when, and through which channels. 
  5. I always make sure that I clearly explain why I've developed the timeline and concept. Here's a glimpse into the print marketing strategy for my annual fund. 
  6. Share the complementary efforts you're planning to do, also. Some of these marketing initiatives don't need to be spelled out step by step, but a quick explanation of why can go a long way.
  7. Share your indicators of success for the aspects of your project. We knew we would assess the Annual Fund using these four quantitative factors
  8. Evaluate your success. After the first year of our annual fund marketing program, we assessed what worked well and what did not. It helped us look at our work and celebrate the things we nailed and figure out how to improve in other areas.

I make several of these simple marketing plan outlines to use annually. Each one provides me just enough information to point me in the right direction and doesn't take me days or weeks to create. I like to use Google docs so that I can collaborate with my team easily, and share our expertise. 

I'd love to know what you think of this approach to marketing plans, and what works for you. Tweet me @stacyjago or comment on Facebook