- Independent Schools
Finalsite UK's Marketing Manager, Olivia Malaure met with with Philippa Scudds, Director of Marketing and Communications at Canford School, Dorset, to talk about her role as a school marketer and learn more about Philippa's challenges and her triumphs!
When, where and how did your journey into education marketing begin?
I've spent the past 15 years working in education marketing. I suppose in schools marketing terms that classes me as rather a dinosaur given the huge growth in the industry in the past decade or so!
My working life started in the early 1990s in the City, initially in equity sales for a US investment bank before a move into financial PR. I gained my CIM qualifications at this time.
A family move to Hampshire with two boys under 3 coincided with a part time consultancy opportunity in an independent school to reassess its entire marketing strategy. There were virtually no qualified marketing professionals working in schools at that time, so the expertise I was able to transfer from the corporate marketing world provided valuable new insights and ideas hitherto not really used in the education sector. At this time I established Cathcart Communications, providing consultancy services on education marketing.
How has school marketing changed?
Education Marketing has changed beyond all recognition since the millennium. Marketing in schools was not really taken very seriously when I started working in the industry. The Head's wife or secretary ran the occasional black and white advert in the local press publicising an event or Open Day, and that was about it. Now you can even take a qualification in Schools Marketing!
Schools relied heavily on word of mouth for their marketing and parents tended to choose schools with which they had a family link or were within reach geographically. There was far less research by parents, and so in some ways pupil recruitment was a much simpler process.
The internet was a real game changer. It is hard to imagine now, but in the early 2000s hardly any schools had a website, and if they had been forward thinking enough to develop one, it was very basic. Fast forward 18 years and most schools marketers today are increasingly focused on digital. School Websites have enabled families to research a much broader range of education options for the children online, which in turn has allowed them to make more informed choices. Today's customer is more aware of more options, and much more likely to be a 'first time buyer' wanting to see demonstrable value for money.
What are your proudest career moments?
Three marketing initiatives over the past 15 years stand out.
- Increasing the school roll at an all-boys prep school by 30% following a successful marketing campaign during its move to co-education. It was very exciting, and so rewarding for all the staff involved to see the numbers increase as more and more families saw what we already were convinced of – that the school offered a first class education.
- A change in senior leadership can be a real challenge for marketing teams, and when that change involves a successful retiring head of some 21 years, it's even more stressful! This happened three years into my job at Canford, and while I obviously had a good understanding of the school's ethos, personalities come into play. It's very important to ensure that the new Head is given the marketing opportunities to put their own stamp on their leadership. It says something about Ben Vessey's success, I'd like to think helped a little by some useful marketing support, that despite an ongoing difficult economic period, Canford today has the highest school roll in its history.
- We've been quite innovative over the years in our marketing at Canford in both publications and also our school website design. We've pushed the boundaries and spent time thinking outside the box and looking to the corporate world for ideas rather than just the world of schools. I think we've appreciated a shift in the market and produced literature which is clear and transparent, for a new generation of parents who want to see at a glance the value and demonstrable outcomes for their child in return for parting with large sums of money in fees. Similarly our school website menu is quite unusual among schools, with three distinct entry points, yet we believe much clearer and simpler for the visitor. Our digital marketing work led to two nominations, one regional and one national, for the high quality of our communications. To be shortlisted alongside EE and Talk Talk was quite a heady moment for the Canford marketing team!
What are the main challenges your school faces and how has the marketing department helped to overcome these?
With rising fees and maintenance costs, I think every school in the country is under a degree of pressure to fill the rolls, without looking overseas for a high percentage of pupils, which can have benefits but also disadvantages. So schools marketing has become even more crucial to get right and now plays a pivotal role in recruiting families but also in maintaining good communications with prospective, current and former parents and pupils.
Internally any schools marketer's challenge is to work successfully with staff across all departments. Teachers are busy people, and in a boarding school like Canford they are not only classroom teachers, but also often house tutors and sports coaches, running enrichment activities in the evenings and at weekends, planning trips – the list goes on. Without good teachers, the school simply won't thrive and as marketers we need to have good relationships with them so that we can promote their departments, champion their successes and also ask for their help.
Getting the message across of the importance of marketing and communications is no easy task – particularly if your school has a healthy roll - but I have found that understanding on both sides can result in a very positive working relationship between marketing and academic staff. This can be done through presentations at insets, but is often most effective through face to face communication day to day. I'd like to think that at Canford all the staff know and respect what we do, and the part that this plays in the success of the school.
It's also important that all staff recognise that they all have a part to play in marketing the school – from cleaners to grounds staff, from the Bursary to security. They can all help to create a positive impression in their dealings with current parents, local visitors to the sports centre or theatre, or by ensuring that the signage, grounds and buildings are clean and tidy. We are very lucky to have such a fantastic team of support staff at the school – and through all my dealings with them I hope they know how valued they are to the marketing effort.
Many school marketers work in small teams, how do you go about prioritising your workload?
I am very fortunate to have built a dedicated and hard working team who bring different marketing skills to the table. On a Monday morning we have a team meeting where I decide on priorities for the coming week, but we all share ideas on how to gain the best possible outcomes for the school from every project. Inevitably new work comes in with so many school events each week, but at least with a base point of a plan we can have main areas of work covered – and at least feel a semblance of organisation! Within the team we have digital expertise, first class design skills and a photographer/videographer alongside my strategic marketing and PR experience, and I believe it is the pooling of all our talents which makes the marketing team at Canford so successful. I think you can always learn from others, and hopefully I create a dynamic working environment when everyone's ideas are considered and where everyone feels valued.
What is the key to a healthy working relationship with your school's Head?
If the Head is not on board with marketing, life for a school marketer is a lot more difficult! Fortunately our Head is fully aware of the need for marketing and of the benefits it offers. Heads are busy people, so it's important to set an agenda for any meeting and follow it. It's rare to catch a Head who has time to chat about wider issues during hectic term time life, so keep it to the essential points you need to raise and get advice or sign off on. Outside of term time is the better opportunity for more strategic discussions.
Make sure the Head is aware of your successes too – I always copy in the Head on any new press coverage received, or relevant social media activity. Heads like to know what is going on, but haven't the time to do their own research. It's important your Head knows what people are saying about the school too, and also any latest changes or developments in the market. By keeping him/her in the marketing loop, you have the chance to also demonstrate marketing value.
What are the essential qualities of a great school marketer?
- Champion your school – if you don't truly believe in your product, look for another job.
- Build relationships – with staff, with journalists, with feeder schools, with families, with the local community, with colleagues. They can all provide valuable insights which in turn can develop your marketing.
- Say thank you – it costs nothing and is always appreciated. You'll need the help and support of every member of staff at your school at some stage.
- Do your homework – knowledge of the market your school operates in, and your competitors, is vital.
- Be passionate about what you do – and trust your instincts on making your school stand out from crowd. You know it better than anyone, so don't be tempted to just follow the herd!
Philippa Scudds also provides consultancy services on education marketing. Please visit www.cathcomms.co.uk for more information.
- School Success Stories