SchoolCEO The School Marketing Magazine What we can learn from Michigan Why is social media not working for schools? Stealing social media ideas from the private sector Creating a culture of customer service
The role of school leadership is changing. How are you preparing for the future?
OUR STAFF: Executive Editor: David Allan Art Director: Sebastian Andrei Copy Writers/Researchers: Joy Spence, Rheannon Burnside Data and Policy Analyst: Barrett Goodwin Graphic Designer/Illustrator: Corbin Lawrence Apptegy CEO: Jeston George
Based in Little Rock, Arkansas, Apptegy is an education technology company dedicated to helping school leaders build a powerful identity for their school. Learn more at apptegy.com
Creating a Culture of Customer Service Strategies from Kelly Middleton, a superintendent who is transforming his district by improving key touchpoints in schools.
What Can We Learn from Michigan? Michigan has a long history with school choice. We’ve conducted a market analysis to learn which types of districts are at risk of losing students and what that means for school leaders across the country.
The Disconnect Detailed research on schools’ social media usage shows us the disconnect between how social media is used in the public and private sectors — and how schools can fill the gap.
Stealing Social Media Ideas From the Private Sector Building off “The Disconnect,” we’ll walk you through key social media marketing strategies from the private sector, reimagined for school leaders.
Book Report: Seth Godin’s Purple Cow Godin’s Purple Cow is a classic among marketing professionals. We’ve pulled out Godin’s key strategies as they apply to school marketing.
Vol. 1, No.1 © 2018 by Apptegy, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint or quote excerpts granted by written request only. SchoolCEO™ is published 4 times a year (November, February, May, and August) by Apptegy, Inc., 425 W Capitol Ave. Suite 800 Little Rock, AR 72201. Send address changed to SchoolCEO™, 425 W Capitol Ave. Suite 800 Little Rock, AR 72201. Views and opinions expressed in this publication are not necessarily those of the magazine or Apptegy, Inc. Accordingly, no liability is assumed by the publisher thereof.
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
elcome to the first edition of SchoolCEO, a quarterly magazine presenting research and ideas on how school leaders can build their school’s identity in a competitive K-12 market.
We couldn’t be more excited to launch our first edition after spending many late nights pulling it all together. From my whole team and I, thank you for reading. We hope that the information you find in these pages can help you become a better leader in a time of rapid change in public education. Why are we making a magazine on school marketing? The United States is currently at the receiving end of twenty five years of school choice policies. Charter schools, cyber schools, voucher programs, and a whole host of school choice programs are pulling students from their zoned districts. When a traditional district loses students to these programs, their funding goes with them, putting strain on traditional public schools’ budgets and personnel. In competing with these programs, school leaders are often out-gunned in terms of marketing experience. For-profit education management organizations like K12, Inc. and Connections Academy are heavily marketing to students and parents. Most large charter management companies have entire marketing teams with years of experience in the private sector managing their brand. We hope SchoolCEO can be a resource that levels the playing field for public schools by educating school leaders on simple marketing tactics they can implement today. There is something we want to address right off the bat. We do not come with the perspective of seasoned school administrators. Being a school leader is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and we hope that our advice never comes across as knowing more about how you should run your schools. Most of our team comes from sales and marketing. We believe this outside perspective combined with original research will provide actionable information that can drive real results in your schools. Think of us as your personal research team. Our goal is to bring you the very best marketing ideas and groundbreaking research so that public schools can thrive in a world of school choice. We hope you enjoy.
David Allan Executive Editor, SchoolCEO email@example.com
Creating a Culture of Customer Service How one Kentucky superintendent is transforming his schools
Kelly Middleton, Superintendent Newport Independent Schools FALL 2018
very year, teachers from Newport Independent Schools travel throughout their community, visiting each of their students at home before the first week of school. There are two questions that teachers are trained to ask, “Tell me about your child,” and “What is your favorite thing about your child?” Teachers start the school year seeing their students through parents’ eyes, even gaining a better understanding of students’ home life. If discipline issues arise, parents have already built a rapport with the teacher, making it easier for them to solve problems as a team. In turn, discipline rates have lowered around the district, garnering the home visit program press coverage across Kentucky. “It’s also a competition issue,” Superintendent Kelly Middleton noted about the program on a phone call out of his office in Kentucky. “The more we build
those relationships, the less likely it is that [students] are going to go to another school.” When competition started to increase in the education sector, Middleton’s first instinct was to orient his schools towards customer service principles. He started writing his first book, Who Cares? in 2004, when he could see the landscape changing. Across the country, families were moving their children to charter schools, homeschool programs, even between districts. One year a pastor tried to recruit kids for his private school while volunteering in the school cafeteria. For Middleton, the issue is personal: “You have to lose kids. And then when you lose kids, you have to cut teachers,” he said. “We’re talking about your career, your job, your retirement, your health insurance. All those things.” With a bachelor’s degree in business, Middleton is familiar with the value of customer service. “It’s really a low cost
way to make a difference.” His book, Competing for Kids, provides school leaders with ideas, checklists, and trainings to implement customer service techniques in schools in order to retain and attract students. Middleton has served as a coach, teacher, school principal, and now superintendent with decades of experience in public education. All of his customer service strategies are designed for schools and personally tested in his district. Middleton’s customer service philosophy is gaining steam; he’s brought his training programs around the country and recently won the Public Education Achieves in Kentucky award for his home visit program. Middleton has published three books on school leadership: Who Cares, Simply the Best, and Competing for Kids. In this article, we’ll go over several of Middleton’s key principles for implementing customer service in schools.
Customer service mindset Talking to Middleton, it’s clear that customer service does not mean catering to students’ every whim. Instead, customer service means figuring out creative ways to make a better school experience. It’s product quality, the building’s appearance, the school’s culture and leadership—anything that could affect customer satisfaction. Middleton writes that the best companies define customer service as “an umbrella term for how the company meets the needs of their customers.” How can schools best meet the needs of their students? In researching his second book, Middleton found one consistent finding: students want to feel known, cared for, and universally respected. His training philosophy teaches staff to forge positive relationships at school as a way to ensure that every student feels valued. Building these relationships isn’t just about
enrollment — knowing students helps with discipline, school safety, and even student engagement. “If you really get to know the kids and you give great service to the parents, it’ll teach you so much,” he said.
“Great customer service, I’m not going to lie, is truly culture … It’s treating everyone maybe better than they expect to be treated. And if you do that, you’re gonna have a great culture.” schoolceo.com
Train staff to make a great first impression
At the start of staff trainings, Middleton shares a simple statistic: “80% of people say they give great customer service, but only 8% of people say that the company gives great customer service.”
Think about walking into a school office that’s cluttered, with dim lighting. Students are nursing wounds after a fight, waiting to speak to the principal. The administrative assistant is busy, and when she is available, she barks at you to take a seat. While nothing in the office is indicative of the level of instruction in the school, a bad office experience can set a negative tone for new families. After an unfriendly interaction with a secretary, one mother screamed at Middleton that she hated his schools. He thinks these kinds of heated situations can be avoided with simple behavior changes. Middleton argues that a lot of the disconnect comes down to training; the majority of people working in public schools haven’t been trained in either customer service or in figuring out ways to meet the needs of customers. Middleton mentioned a colleague who was close to firing his assistant for not screening his calls. In reality, the superintendent had never taken the time to show her which calls to put through and which to dismiss. After a short coaching session, the issue disappeared. When secretaries first sit down to start their front office training, Middleton asks them to define great customer service. Usually, they come up with some of his own policies: respond between 24–48 hours, welcome anyone who comes through the door, and answer the phone in 2–3 rings. Once they have brainstormed their own tactics for implementing great service, the group goes through Middleton’s principles, creating a checklist of standards to be kept in the front office. After the training, Middleton makes sure that these standards are enforced. He’ll often call the school anonymously, recording the conversation, to make sure that each customer service policy is upheld.
Middleton shares research from Scandinavian Airlines in his most recent book. The company surveyed 60,000 customers on how well they thought the engine would run—before the plane even took off. What they didn’t mention was that they had planted a coffee stain on the tray table of a single row of seats. Every customer gave the company high marks, except for the row of customers whose tray table was stained. They judged the engine off of the cleanliness of their table. The school office is a “touchpoint” or a moment when the audience makes a decision about the school based off of a single impression. Some of the strongest touchpoints take place in spaces where families are first introduced to the school: the front office, the school bus, even around the school grounds. He applies some of the same customer service training tactics with bus drivers as with office staff. “The kids want you to know them. They want you to smile at them. They want you to tell them hello and goodbye.” Part of the training includes learning how to make students feel comfortable on the bus: making a seating chart, taking a photo of the students to help drivers learn names, and figuring out something special about each bus rider. The more welcome students feel on the bus, the more welcome they’ll feel at school. Throughout the interview, Middleton kept repeating this mantra: “Just treat people better than they expect to be treated — it’s pretty cheap.”
Bring customer service into leadership Middleton applies his ideas to the highest level of leadership. As a part of training superintendents and school boards from other districts, Middleton will ask board members, “What would great customer service look like from the superintendent to the school board?” He’ll then repeat the question back to the superintendent, “What would great customer service look like from a board member to the superintendent?” Usually, board members and superintendents come up with similar answers: “No surprises. Don’t embarrass each other. Keep backstage, backstage.” Middleton talked about the idea, “keep backstage, backstage” frequently. “We’ll even argue behind closed doors, but we don’t do it in front of the media because that only hurts our school district.” Getting the board to support a push for customer service policies was surprisingly easy. “The school board members probably get this better than anybody,” Middleton said. Most of the members have a business background and thus understand the importance of customer service.
When getting feedback from his board, Middleton reported that they only had one complaint: there wasn’t much for them to do. When the administration took the time to think through parents’ and students’ experiences on the front end, the board had less problems to work through in meetings. Providing great customer service from school leaders to teachers to students spreads a mentality of service throughout the district. “You want that all the way up and down your system,” he said. “You can’t expect your people to give great customer service if the leaders don’t give it to the people.” If a teacher is out for two or three days, Middleton will expect the principal to check in with the teacher or even visit them at home. Middleton will do the same for his direct reports. “Giving up nights and weekends for employees’ funerals and weddings is the price you pay for being a leader.” Middleton has cooked chicken soup for his teachers, taken staff out to lunch, and personally greeted staff members every day for years.
Putting students first “Great customer service, I’m not going to lie, is truly culture … It’s treating everyone maybe better than they expect to be treated. And if you do that, you’re gonna have a great culture.” Creating a culture of service sometimes means literally walking in the shoes of the students. When first starting out as a superintendent, Middleton got a call from a grandmother asking if a school bus could pick up her granddaughter. Because the family lived close to the school, it was expected that the second grader would walk or ride a bike. After getting the call, Middleton went to their house to look at the path himself. What he found was a series of busy streets, abandoned buildings, and finally, an unmanned crosswalk that would have
been terrifying for a second grader to navigate on her own. Middleton is known for his ability to “put the moose on the table” or to address issues at their heart. He immediately gathered his leadership team. To his surprise, they defended the policy. It wasn’t until he made every member of the group take the second grader’s walk themselves that they changed their minds, some “visibly upset with themselves” for not taking action sooner. Middleton also emphasized the importance of listening to students’ concerns. “Kelly’s Kids,” a focus group made up of students from all areas of the school, helped Superintendent Kelly Middleton learn the ins and outs
of the building. In one session, the students complained about the school cafeterias. Middleton visited the lunchroom himself and found it in a chaotic state. Younger students couldn’t see the food options, backing up the lunch line to the dismay of frustrated staffers. Whenever it got too loud, staff would click the lights off and on —“It was like trying to eat at a dance club!” Middleton returned to his office, ready to figure out a more efficient system. Experiencing issues in schools firsthand allowed him to address student concerns with empathy. To Middleton, a key aspect of the superintendency is taking the time to examine issues from a first-hand perspective.
Building a great identity A culture of service is present throughout Middleton’s district. Just as teachers and staff go the extra mile for students, Middleton has built a process for encouraging his team in a way that’s personalized, to say, “I see you.” On a freezing night after a football game, he saw one of his janitors change a woman’s car tire; she was even from the opposing team. During a staff breakfast, he diverted from the day’s agenda to tell the story of this man’s commitment to service, handing the man Middleton’s signature stuffed moose to show his appreciation. When the janitor left the table to go get more coffee, he took the moose with him, not wanting to leave it for even a minute. Providing great customer service requires a commitment to students. It may seem trivial to focus on changing out a sign or reorganizing the office, but the reality is that building a strong, positive identity can transform the culture of a school. Talking to Middleton, it’s clear that customer service isn’t
about creating a friendly facade, it’s about making a product that meets students’ deepest needs. Having a teacher who has met your pet gerbil, a bus driver who knows how much you like basketball, and a superintendent that you see making changes around the school can craft a positive school culture. Doing a little extra can change the environment of the school. One of Middleton’s most impactful stories involves a home visit with some of the schools’ most disruptive students. The teacher walked up a steep hill to the house, only to find the boys racing down the hill on tricycles and crashing into rocks at the bottom of the hill. When the boys asked her to join, she reluctantly accepted. It was scary, but while rushing down the hill, the teacher won the boys’ trust. Knowing that you are cared for can make all the difference.
Letâ€™s build a brain trust on school leadership. The roles of superintendents and administrators are changing; no one knows that better than you.
Head to schoolceo.com/survey to answer five short questions on how you are navigating a transforming K-12 landscape. Weâ€™ll share the results with you in the next edition.
What can we learn from Michigan? A state with well-established school choice programs has a lot to teach us about the future of K-12 education.
n February 2017, if you turned on your TV to any news station or scrolled through your Facebook newsfeed, you saw the polarizing appointment of Betsy DeVos as the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education. For many K-12 leaders, this nomination was alarming.
Usually, these appointments fly under the political radar. However, due to DeVos’s lack of education experience and pro-school-choice work in Michigan, she was faced with a barrage of heated questions in her confirmation hearing. When asked if she was committed to protecting public schools, she said: “Not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them … We can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them." The message was clear. A major priority for the DeVos Department of Education would be to spread school choice across the country. It’s no surprise that Michigan, DeVos’s home state, has a history of school choice. DeVos and other wealthy donors have donated millions of dollars to influencing policymakers and voters to support vouchers, charter schools, cyber schools, and district transfers. Michigan became one of the first states to allow charter schools in 1994, only a year after Minnesota passed the first charter school law. In 1996, the state created a district transfer program in which students could transfer between districts without interference from their zoned school. In 2011, a DeVos-backed bill removed a cap on the number of charter schools, allowing for rapid growth in the charter sector. The state has also jumped at the opportunity to roll out cyber schools, with mostly for-profit companies taking on students.
past few decades. For example, Illinois, a state that was largely protected from choice programs, just launched a new scholarship program earlier this year that will provide public money for private school tuition. In the private sector, we use a competitive market analysis to understand what risks a company faces from other players in the market. It educates leaders about their competition, and helps marketers craft a focused message for consumers who might choose another firm. In this report, we give a detailed market analysis of choice programs in Michigan to inform leaders across the country how they might market themselves against their competition. Michigan is an ideal state to conduct this type of analysis. The state’s well-established school choice programs allow us to see the effects of choice policies over several decades. Michigan has a wide variety of districts, from major cities to small rural communities. To conduct this research, we first looked to the Michigan Department of Education. They collect detailed records of how each school district is gaining and losing students to choice programs. We combined this data with demographic information from the U.S. Census, as well as school funding data from the Michigan Department of Education. We then ran a regression analysis on these data points to determine what characteristics, if any, stand out for districts that lost or gained students from these programs.
School choice programs in Michigan: Schools of Choice - a school transfer system
Public School Academies - public charter schools
The goal of these reforms, whether stated publicly or not, is to increase competition in the education sector so that school systems operate more like a market. The best schools win the most students as well as the funding that goes with them, and the worst schools are not able to support their operation and gradually close down. This dance of supply and demand is supposed to dramatically improve the quality of education. Whether you agree with this theory or not, the reality is that many states have rolled out market-based reforms in the
Cyber schools - full-time online schools
While this research is immediately relevant to school leaders in Michigan, the basic mechanics hold true across state lines. School choice is a reality across the country, and knowing the programs that put each district at risk can help school leaders build a marketing strategy that highlights their schools’ strengths against the competition. schoolceo.com
State of school choice laws in 2017
School Choice Laws 2018 Charters
Private School Choice
Student Enrollment by School Type
6% 8 %
Non Local Public
Schools of Choice: Public School Transfers WHAT IT IS: A school transfer program that allows students to transfer either to other schools in the district or between neighboring districts.
HOW IT WORKS: Each district has the option to accept transfer students from other districts. This includes both interdistrict transfers within an Intermediate School District or intradistrict transfers from one ISD to another contiguous ISD.
NUMBER OF STUDENTS: Roughly 11% of students attended school in a non-resident district during the 2016-17 school year.
WHO CAN USE IT: Any student may transfer to a district that has announced it will take transfer students, subject to capacity. Under this program, a student’s resident district does not have to approve the transfer.
Schools of Choice is the most commonly used choice program in Michigan — even above the state’s charter program. Around 11% of students utilized the Schools of Choice framework during the 2016-17 school year. The program allows students to transfer to other public schools either in their district or outside of their district, what is referred to as either intradistrict or interdistrict transfers. In Michigan’s system, districts can decide whether or not they would like to accept students, but families do not need to alert their zoned district if they choose to enroll in another public school. Michigan isn’t alone in providing parents with the option to transfer schools. While students stay within the traditional public school system with Schools of Choice, the intention of the program is to increase parental choice as well as to introduce more competition in schools. The option to transfer schools, whether interdistrict or intradistrict, is available in almost every state. Schools of Choice is used by families across the state, but the effects of the program vary based on the location of each district. While urban districts are seeing the most dramatic losses in students, with large urban districts like Detroit losing thousands of students to school transfers, rural districts are losing a higher proportion of students across the state. Nearly 19% of students in rural areas took advantage of the Schools of Choice program in the 20162017 school year. Urban districts lost a lower percentage of students to the program with only 15.6% of students taking advantage of school transfers. Still, more students in urban areas are using the Schools of Choice program than are enrolling in charters.
ORIGIN: Section 105 and Section 105c of the State, amendments to the School Aid Act of 1979, allowed the first transfers in 1996.
Interdistrict: a student transfers outside their resident district Intradistrict: a student transfers within their resident district 12
Michigan Radio conducted an interview with Dr. Gary Miron, professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University. Miron has followed Michigan's education system for decades, and mentioned the special strain placed on urban districts:“Suburban Detroit schools are doing better because they can still fill their places through the Schools of Choice program, pulling students out of the urban areas, but our urban schools are suffering.” In rural and suburban areas across Michigan, high-performing schools are attracting students from neighboring districts. We looked into one district in West Michigan, Zeeland Public Schools, that was gaining hundreds of students from school transfers. Data from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information put Zeeland in Michigan’s top 15% of districts in terms of attracting Schools of Choice students. schoolceo.com
A graduate of the district said that some students—“and they weren’t rare” — drove for over an hour to get to school. Zeeland is larger than most of the rural districts that surround it. That means great sports teams, a gamut of AP classes, and excellent after-school activities like dance and theatre. As the former student mentioned, “Zeeland had the dollars.” Upper Peninsula or Lower Peninsula, rural or urban, the impact of the Schools of Choice framework is felt around the state. We found two factors that were statistically significant when it came to district transfers: poverty and high local funding. As poverty increased in a district, more students transferred out. As local funding increased in a district, more students left as well. Generally, we don’t see students transferring into high-poverty areas. But with high levels of local funding, usually associated with wealth in the district, it seems counterintuitive for students to be transferring out. However, higher income families are more able to take advantage of school transfers. They have more time to research programs as well as to transport their students to neighboring districts. These families have more flexibility, allowing them to take advantage of school transfers.
The Takeaway Schools that serve the highest or lowest income populations can expect families to consider surrounding districts. A student’s zoned school, however, has an advantage over any neighboring districts — the student is ingrained in their community. Marketing the connection between the community and their schools can highlight a zoned school's unique value as compared to neighboring districts.
School Transfer Laws by State in 2018 Interdistrict
Net Change in Enrollment from Transfers 2016-2017 Transfer students comprised nearly 30% of Pickford Public Schools enrollment. Marquette
A lower-income district, Atlanta Community Schools, saw the equivalent of a quarter of its enrollment transfer to other schools.
Port Huron Area Schools is a lower-income district that had over 700 resident students transfer to surrounding districts.
A district in suburban Grand Rapids, Zeeland was able to attract over 10% of its enrollment from its less-aďŹ„uent neighbors.
Despite having a high level of local funding, Covert Public Schools saw nearly 250 resident students enroll in schools outside the district.
A rural district with more local funding than most, River Valley School District nevertheless lost over half of its resident students to other districts.
Enrollment Change From Transfers >-500 -500
Loss in Enrollment from Charters 2016-2017 Despite being a more rural district, Sault Ste. Marie Area Schools still lost nearly a quarter of its enrollment to charter Marquette
Escanaba Saginaw City School District saw almost 30% of its enrollment attend charter schools in 2017. Traverse City
Detroit had the 6th highest number of charter school students in the country, with over 50,000 attending a charter in the city.
Over 50% of all public school students in Flint attended a charter school, the 2nd highest charter attendance rate in the country after New Orleans.
Nearly 6,500 Grand Rapids Public Schoolsâ€™ resident students attended a charter school, equal to over a third of its enrollment.
Benton Harbor Area Schools, a district with some of the highest poverty levels in the state, lost over 1,000 students to charter schools.
Enrollment Loss from Charters 50,000
Public School Academies: Charter Schools WHAT THEY ARE: Michiganâ€™s classification for charter schools that can operate under the authority of authorizing bodies, such as a state university, a local education agency, or an intermediate school district.
HOW THEY WORK: A student has to apply to a charter school, but cannot be denied entry on any basis other than capacity. There are three subcategories of charter schools in Michigan: 1. Schools of Excellence - This category applies to either replications of a high-performing charter school, a cyber school, or the conversion of a regular charter based on a strong academic record. These schools may not be located in districts with a graduation rate of 75 % or higher during the previous three years. 2. Urban High School Academies - These schools can only be authorized by public state universities, with the goal of increasing high school graduation rates. There are currently 3 Urban High School Academies, all in Detroit. 3. Strict Discipline Academies -These types of charter schools serve suspended, expelled, or incarcerated young people. Michigan currently has seven Strict Discipline Academies across the state.
NUMBER OF STUDENTS: An estimated 146,100 students attended a charter school in 2016-17, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
WHO CAN USE THEM: Under Michigan law, charter schools are open to any student.
SCOPE: Statewide, although charter schools are much more common in urban areas
Michigan has one of the highest charter concentrations in the country. According to a National Alliance for Public Charter Schools report, over half of Flint and Detroitâ€™s students are enrolled in charters, placing the two cities behind New Orleans in terms of highest charter enrollment in the country. In total, Michigan enrolls a little more than 8% of their students in charter schools. Once authorized in the mid-90s, the number of charter schools in Michigan skyrocketed, increasing to more than 300 charter schools in just two decades. Unlike district transfers, charter programs are largely concentrated in Michiganâ€™s larger cities. According to data from the 2016-2017 school year, urban areas enrolled 10% of their students in charters while rural districts only enrolled around 4% of students. There are a lot of questions about whether or not charter schools improve student outcomes. Studies in cities where the majority of students are enrolled in charter schools, like Detroit, are inconsistent when reporting on the benefits in student achievement. Traditional schools have not done a good job of drawing attention to the negative aspects of transferring to a charter school. Along with the innovation that charters promise comes a risk of failure, especially with newer programs. Our analysis showed that, as poverty and federal funding increase, the number of students lost to charters follows suit. Because federal funding is largely distributed based on poverty levels, these two factors go hand in hand. Urban districts are more likely to lose students to charters than rural districts because of their concentration in cities.
Part 6A of the Revised School Code was passed in 1993, authorizing the first Public School Academies in 1994.
Michigan Charter Schools 1995-2017
100,000 150 100
Students Enrolled in Charter School
Total Charter Schools
School Choice Usage for Urban Vs. Rural Average District Enrollment Ratio 5%
Transfer Charter Private
The Takeaway Schools in low-income and urban areas are more at risk of losing students to Public School Academies. Charter schools are often seen as more innovative, so publicizing the innovation in your own schools can help show people the great options in their local district. While we donâ€™t recommend focusing solely on other programsâ€™ negative qualities in marketing, knowing the potential risks and benefits of the charters in your district can be helpful when planning your messaging. FALL 2018
Number of Charter Schools
Cyber Charters WHAT THEY ARE: Full-time online charter schools that may or may not enroll students statewide.
HOW THEY WORK: There are both nonprofit and for-profit cyber schools in Michigan, with the for-profit schools operated by national education management organizations, or EMOs, like K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. Statewide cyber schools can only be authorized in Michigan by state public universities or Bay Mills Community College.
NUMBER OF STUDENTS: Around 9,500 students attended a cyber school in the fall of 2017. There is a cap in place both in terms of statewide enrollment (2% of Michigan’s statewide K-12 enrollment) and in individual schools' enrollment (2,500 in the school’s first year, 5,000 the second, 10,000 the third).
WHO CAN USE THEM: The enrollment process in a cyber school is generally the same as other charter schools in Michigan.
ORIGIN: Cyber schools in Michigan were established in 2009 under Part 6E of the Revised School Code.
Cyber schools are some of the fastest growing programs in the school choice movement, enrolling nearly 300,000 students nationwide. Michigan Virtual Charter Academy and Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy have the highest enrollment numbers of any charter school in Michigan. Both schools are powered by K12 Inc., the biggest player in for-profit cyber education management. Secretary DeVos was an early investor in the company, which provides a state-funded online school option for students from kindergarten through high school.
The appeal of full-time virtual schools is understandable. The option to work from home provides students with chronic illness or disability greater flexibility in their education, which might not be an option in a traditional school building. Many of the programs were originally designed to provide curriculum support to homeschool families, who could join an online program with no additional cost for materials. As the companies have grown, they’ve expanded their audience to target a wide variety of students enrolled in traditional public schools, from Olympic athletes to students seeking asylum from bullying in class. While online schools are certainly meeting a need for flexible education, full-time virtual schools have a negative reputation in the press. The New York Times, Edweek, MLive, The Washington Post, and USA Today have all shed light on issues with for-profit cyber schools, citing companies using the cyber school model to siphon money from the state, research on schools’ effectiveness, and several companies’ outrageous advertising tactics. One 2015 study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes reported that students in cyber schools lost about 180 days in math over the course of a year — it was as if students hadn’t attended school at all. If these schools are getting so much bad press, how are they continuing to expand? There’s a growing consensus that the companies’ heavy sales and advertising campaigns are attracting students. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy both advertise on television, radio, website banners, and social media. A study from USA Today revealed that K12 Inc. has historically targeted children by buying ads on television networks like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. As a means to compete, districts are opening their own cyber schools. The National Education Policy Center reported that the schools “have typically been small, with limited enrollment.” However, there’s no question that districts around the country are adapting to meet the needs of students enrolling in cyber charters. schoolceo.com
Districts that serve high poverty areas are more likely to lose students to cyber charters. Online schools are marketing their flexibility and free programming, but they lack proof of academic performance. Traditional public schools can market their extracurriculars, studentsâ€™ academic achievements, student-teacher relationships, and school traditions as a means to highlight their strengths in comparison with cyber schoolsâ€™ weaknesses.
2017 Michigan Cyber Charter Enrollment by Education Management Organization
Connections Academy 25%
K12 Inc. 66%
Growth in Michigan Cyber Schools Over Time
Year FALL 2018
The Big Picture At the end of the day, the numbers that really matter are how many students a district gains or loses in total. A family who chooses to enroll their kindergartener in cyber schools for the entirety of their elementary education means the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in funding for the district. During the 2016-2017 school year in Michigan, the average number of students lost per district was around 269 students, skewed by some of the larger districts’ losses. The median Michigan district lost 23 students to school choice. In many cases, such heavy drops in enrollment meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding. When comparing the total change in enrollment with a variety of demographic and funding statistics, our analysis returned two seemingly conflicting results. Districts with a high concentration of poverty as well as districts with high levels of local funding are more likely to lose students to choice programs.
Concentrated Poverty It’s not surprising that concentrated poverty correlates with students leaving a district. Research on academic performance shows a direct connection between poverty and low school performance. At the risk of simplifying a complicated issue, children in poverty often need more resources from the school, which can put a strain on the district’s budget. As a result, parents in these areas make heavy use of choice programs. We spoke to a teacher from a suburb of Flint about her experience with Michigan’s choice programs. She noted the same idea, “We did see an exodus of the ‘better families’ in our district.” If public schools are perceived as low-performing, and parents have another option, they’ll take it. Whether this is the best move for the child — or for the neighborhood’s schools — is a harder question to answer.
Craft Your Story High Local Funding On the other end of the spectrum, districts with more local funding are also losing students to choice programs. Local funding can be a measure of the area’s wealth as it is most often derived from local property values. At first, this idea seems counterintuitive. Why would students leave schools with higher funding? While schools in the area might not have as significant of academic problems or budgetary strain as schools with high poverty levels, they face a different competition concern: parents who are willing and able to utilize school choice programs to their fullest extent. Upper middle class parents have more flexibility to pull their child out of public schools if they think there is a better option for their education. They have the resources to travel to a school miles away, to enroll in a private school, or to stay at home to monitor their student’s cyber education. If your community has more high-income families, it’s more likely that you could lose students to choice programs. FALL 2018
The reality is that, once competition is introduced into a market, it is hard to remove. If school choice programs haven’t spread through your state, it’s likely that those days are coming sooner rather than later. Schools who want to succeed in a world of school choice need to find ways to respond to the specific concerns of their local community. This means understanding why families are leaving their zoned schools and what they are seeking in other options. The first step in any marketing effort is clearly articulating your unique value proposition. How can your schools meet students’ needs in a way that others cannot? Forming a clear and focused message about your district’s unique value, then continually spreading that message across communication channels, can shift perceptions of your district, ultimately helping your schools thrive in a competitive K-12 market.
The Disconnect: Schools arenâ€™t getting results from social media, which could be an opportunity for you.
ocial media is often described as a silver bullet for community engagement. The narrative painted for school administrators in conferences, news articles, blog posts, and professional development sessions is that social media can build a schoolâ€™s brand and transform their relationship with the community. The reality is that school leaders were hired to run schools, not social media accounts. Making the transition onto Twitter and Facebook can be awkward at best, especially when running a Facebook page pulls administrators away from time in schools. As marketers from the private sector, we see how businesses across industries are using social media to win and retain customers. New companies that scale quickly often do so by leveraging social media platforms to their advantage; itâ€™s one of the most affordable ways to engage with a large audience. It seemed obvious that schools that are savvy enough to be on social would also be good at marketing themselves to parents. We set out to see just how big of an impact social media is making in school districts.
Does having a social media presence boost enrollment? To answer this question empirically, we analyzed two states: California and Michigan. Both states are known for having a wide array of school choice programs, meaning that their schools are familiar with competition. Each state's Department of Education also share detailed records of how districts are gaining or losing students to school choice programs. We recorded whether or not each district had an account on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, expecting to find that schools who were on social media would be attracting more students than those that were not. As it turned out, there was no statistically significant connection. In sifting through hundreds of school profiles, we noticed that many schools only posted a few times a year. We wanted to see if this trend held true across the board, so we calculated the number of posts per district, then compared those numbers with the district’s gains in students. The result was the same: no significant correlation.
Brands in the private sector are using social media to grow into billion-dollar companies. What is the difference between how social media is used in schools versus private sector companies? Does the old saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” apply to schools and social media? To find out, we expanded our research to 1,000 schools from across the country. After accumulating data on the types of platforms each district used in 2017, we focused specifically on the way each school was using each platform: where were they posting, when were they posting, and what were they saying? What we found is that industry best-practices that drive results in the private sector marketing world are not being applied in schools. There are a few basic adjustments that schools can make to their online presence to improve their marketing efforts. We’ll go through three key disconnects — and explain how schools can fill those gaps.
Disconnect #1: Schools don’t show up. Before looking at the ways in which districts are using social media, we wanted to find out which platforms schools are using most frequently to communicate. What we found surprised us: one in five districts did not have a social media presence at all, let alone consistent usage. We’ll go through the three main social networks, examining the usage on each one.
Percentage of Districts on Each Platform
Facebook Approximately 32% of schools didn't have a Facebook page in 2017. When you consider the number of adults — families, teachers, parents, and community members — who are logging onto Facebook every day, it comes as a surprise that almost a third of schools aren’t utilizing the most common social media platform. The Pew Research Center reported that 68% of American adults are on Facebook, and three-quarters of them check the platform every day. As a reference, around 100 million Americans watched the Super Bowl in 2018, which boils down to about one in three Americans. It’s as if the Super Bowl were happening twice a day on your community's phones, but almost a third of schools aren’t even joining the conversation. Facebook is a great community building tool, but we weren’t noticing much interaction on the vast majority of school pages. That being said, schools use Facebook more than any other social network. The company has even started to gear their networking site towards schools specifically; they’ve built page and group templates that are designed to meet the unique needs of educational organizations. Districts have an opportunity to utilize these resources not just for marketing, but as educational tools in the classroom.
Twitter School districts use Twitter less frequently than Facebook; only 53% of schools had a Twitter account. Twitter has a significantly smaller audience base than Facebook overall. Pew Research reports that 24% of U.S. adults used Twitter in 2018, which is less than half of the adults on Facebook. Looking at these numbers, Twitter might not seem as valuable as
Facebook simply because there are fewer people logging on. However, the two platforms are used in fundamentally different ways.As we have seen in recent years (just think of the 2016 election) Twitter can be hugely important in shaping political and media narratives. Journalists, politicians, and everyday community members are logging onto Twitter to post about trends and hot topics, especially as they relate to political activity. Every member of the U.S. Senate and 98% of the House of Representatives have Twitter accounts. A survey from MuckRack, a journalism analytics company, showed that 70% of journalists actively use Twitter. Ignoring the platform means missing out on a critical networking space. When rolling out new policies, sharing press releases, and thanking community volunteers, Twitter becomes a high-value platform for professional communication.
Instagram Instagram ranks dead last in terms of school districts’ usage. Less than 10% of districts are on the platform. This is probably due to the fact that Instagram’s user demographics slant towards millenials and teenagers, while most schools are run by the young at heart and wealthy in age. The problem with ignoring the platform is that it’s widely used by a younger demographic — your students, parents, and teachers. Pew’s research finds that 64% of 18–29 year-olds are Instagram users. A study by the Associated Press found that 76% of 13–17 year-olds are active users. All the while, Facebook usage is shrinking in these groups.
company culture on Instagram as a recruiting tool. Instagram gives candidates a window into the workplace environment; companies celebrate their employees, show off their quirks, and highlight the best parts of the job. For schools, this is especially relevant because teachers are posting about their curriculum, their classrooms, even their new Jupiter-shaped earrings on Instagram. The platform has become an informal professional community, a great place for teachers to learn from one another. This creates an opportunity for schools to directly engage with the best teachers in their area. At the same time, parents who are about to enroll their five-year-olds are in the core demographic of Instagram users. Posting about your most innovative teachers, spirit week, handwritten notes from students — anything that uniquely showcases the experience of working at and attending your school — can make a great first impression. In this article, we won’t be focusing on Snapchat or LinkedIn. While they do have larger user bases, they aren’t really appropriate for school messages. Snapchat’s messages disappear after 24 hours, making the platform less useful for schools. LinkedIn is built for professionals, and is not seen as a major news source like Facebook or Twitter. While they can be powerful ways to connect, they are not a core platform that schools would be expected to use.
A tactic used by many technology companies is to post about their schoolceo.com
Disconnect #2: Schools aren’t consistent. The problem with the way most districts are using social media is a lack of consistency. The majority of districts aren't posting at all, many are sharing with seemingly little rhyme or reason, and a few are overwhelming their audience with minute-by-minute updates. A personal note from the editor about consistency: For three years, I lived in downtown Little Rock. Down the street from me was a local brewery that would frequently host different food trucks on their patio. This was great for me; it was like having a different restaurant opening up down the street from me every night. They would post which food truck would be on the patio to their Twitter page in the afternoon, and every evening I would pull out my phone to see what was for dinner. In a way, they trained me like a puppy. I wanted some information, they told me where it was, so I learned to check the communication channel they presented. Enough about my eating habits.
Instead of training customers to look to their social media for information, many school leaders act reactively to social media. They think that they have to bend to the world. The reality is that you can bend the world to you by consistently sharing information that’s relevant to your followers through the channels where you feel the most in control. To understand the frequency of school social media posts, we focused on Twitter, which provides rich data about the timing and quantity of users’ posts. The standard in private sector marketing is to post to Twitter 3-5 times a day for large brands, and 2-3 times a day for smaller brands. This would mean that a school that is properly using the platform is Tweeting between 730 and 1,095 times a year. We found that only a small fraction of schools, about 8%, hit these targets. Most were nowhere close.
Our other major finding on consistency is that schools’ Twitter usage corresponds directly with the school year. We see districts full of energy at the beginning of the year, taking a break around Thanksgiving, posting sporadically during the spring, and ignoring their Twitter page during summer break. It makes sense that districts would post less when students aren’t on campus. Unfortunately, the times when schools go on break are often the same times that parents are making choices about where to enroll their child. Schools need to find a way to maintain their social presence when school is not in session. This can be as simple as saving certain photos and stories to post in the future, creating a bank of posts available throughout the year.
Districts' Twitter Usage in 2017
59% No Usage
33% Underuse <1% Overuse FALL 2018
Average Tweets by Week in 2017
Tweets were sent in the second week of September.
Tweets were analyzed to help us understand how districts around the country are communicating on Twitter.
Disconnect #3: Schools miss opportunities to build their brands. In the private sector, every post is crafted to spread the company’s brand. Think of Nike — each photo or poster is paired with #justdoit. When schools are posting, on the other hand, they’re not doing it in a way that spreads their messaging. To better understand schools’ social usage, we again looked to Twitter. We reviewed the posts of 1,000 school districts across the country. After downloading 127,447 Tweets from 2017, we pulled out a sample set and then coded each Tweet by category.
In some ways, the results are encouraging. When we coded the Tweets to find positive posts (stories of student achievement, event invitations, and congratulatory messages), neutral posts (administrative updates), and negative posts(posts responding to a negative event or engaging in confrontation), we found that 78% of the posts were positive. We further broke the Tweets down into categories based on similar themes.The largest category of posts were stories of the great things happening in each school, which is an excellent use of the platform. It’s clear that school districts see the power of sharing student stories. However, we see that schools aren’t being strategic about linking stories to the school’s brand. We found that only 6.5% schoolceo.com
of the Tweets linked to a statement about the school’s messaging.
Tweets by Content Category
For example, let’s say your school’s motto is “learning through grit.” An unbranded story would be, “100% of students in Mr. Steven’s AP biology classes scored a 4 or 5 on the AP test this year. Congrats!” A branded Tweet would be, “100% of students in Mr. Steven’s AP biology classes scored a 4 or 5 on the AP test this year. This is how Cougars learn through grit.”
tweets by category
Branded Posts Congratulations Positive School Stories School Business Sports
Responses to a Negative Event That last part, “Cougars learn through grit,” Events shares the school’s messaging, which ultimately communicates the ways in Announcements which the district is unique. The biggest goal of any branding campaign is to Misc. differentiate your product. By linking 30 0 40 20 10 student stories to the school’s brand, your Gratitude % of tweets audience gets a clearer picture of the unique experience of attending the disBranded Posts tricts’ schools. If you want social media to make an impact, it’s critical to write posts Congratulations Number of Tweets by Sentiment that tie your school district to a set of ideas you’re hoping to impressPositive School Stories upon your community.
78% 19% 3%
Sports Responses to a Negative Event
Their loss canEvents be your gain. Announcements Misc. In any marketing effort, your goal is to differentiate yourself 0 education market is so far 40 from30 20else. Because 10 everyone the behind % other sectors in social media, it’s easy for schools to of tweets get a leg up on the competition. Getting started with social media marketing doesn’t have to mean devoting hours to finding the best photos and statuses to post about the school. Making the effort to plan in advance and share stories on the go—taking a little bit of time to focus on your school’s reputation—can transform your district’s online presence. Many superintendents take the plunge into social by capturing great stories in their FALL 2018
district right when they see them. Whether a student is helping a friend with their homework or breaking a record in the swimming pool, taking note of a positive moment and sharing it online builds rapport with your community. The key to developing a great reputation online is finding the positivity in your schools and sharing those stories. A small effort can go a long way on social media. The more the community can get to know your schools, the stronger your schools’ relationship with the community. From seeing how effective social media can be in the private sector, we know that social platforms can be a major tool to build your school’s identity. SchoolCEO
Stealing Social Media Ideas From The Private Sector Simple strategies to get results for your schools on social
ocial media has changed the way people consume information. People choose products partially based off of the companyâ€™s reputation online, making social platforms valuable tools in sales and marketing. The platforms provide companies the ability to connect with their audience in ways that were impossible twenty years ago; the fact that marketers have tracked their audiences onto the platforms is no surprise. As a result, many small companies have grown exponentially in the past decade by figuring out the mechanics of marketing online. Letâ€™s take a look at what strategies schools can steal from these companies that will drive results in your schoolâ€™s marketing practice.
#1 Tell small stories that support your larger story Airbnb is rethinking travel. The company has grown at a breakneck pace, bringing its value to over $31 billion today. One of their strongest marketing strategies is to share many small stories that build up a larger narrative about adventure and excitement. Instead of posting about value, security, and special offers, they post about people trying things for the first time, forging friendships, and witnessing incredible views. When their audience continuously sees these stories, it strengthens their overall narrative of their brand: Airbnb is an affordable way to find adventure, connections, and experiences.
People respond well to personal stories. The more specific details you can share, the better.
In this photo, Airbnb doesn't market a house, they sell an experience.
Thereâ€™s no mention of an apartment to rent here. Itâ€™s all about adventure. The image focuses on people in action, not just the place itself.
The detail about a "120 year-old legacy" plays into the idea of unique, rare experiences. Multiple photos allows for a richer experience of an event.
Repeatedly share small, personal stories that relate to a larger narrative about what makes your school special. Keep sharing new content with the same core message. Use action images as a storytelling tool.
#2 Repeat yourself again and again Nike uses their tagline, #justdoit, in post after post to drive home their branding. Companies in the private sector understand that getting your message across means repeating yourself again and again. Each post is an opportunity to paint the company’s vision. Nike attaches the same messaging, #justdoit, to inspiring athletes’ stories, keeping their content fresh while
maintaining their brand. Depending on the sports season, Nike shares updates about different athletes’ games and races as they correspond with the company’s messaging. Nike crafts posts that are meant to inspire, which fits into their branding narrative. The company inspires athletes to dream big, then provides them with the technology to meet those goals.
Nike lets the picture speak for itself. Sometimes a shorter caption can be more powerful.
Nike tells longer stories over time by posting about different races, letting the audience get to know their athletes.
Breaking stories into pieces makes athletes' victories more exciting.
Only a fraction of your audience will see each post, so repeat yourself to spread the message to every user. Continually link each post to the school's vision; Nike accomplishes this goal with #justdoit. Just as Nike shares stories about different sports, post student stories from a diversity of interests, relating those stories back to your school's values.
#3 Spotlight staff Google frequently shares thought pieces from executive staff members. Each post focuses on something the “Googler” specializes in, allowing the staffer to put their best foot forward on social platforms. In turn, the company gains credibility in association with the staff
member's knowledge. Oftentimes their posts will be shared across social platforms, even contributing to larger conversations on the topic. Allowing employees to share their expertise is a small way to highlight their excellence, improving employee engagement.
Spotlighting staff members' outside interests builds a culture that celebrates learning.
Let your audience get to know the team.
Build up your school’s reputation by highlighting employees' accomplishments.
Portrait photos put a face to your brand. Celebrating an employee's talent can boost moral.
Get to know your teamsâ€™ passions and interests, or identify elements of their classroom that are truly exceptional. Give your team a platform to share their expertise, like creating a schedule for blog posts. Include a headshot that highlights their personality, putting a face to their name.
#4 Redirect to a private channel To avoid a messy argument, most companies publicly provide users with the option to address the issue on a private platform. Apple is a great example; they generally request that customers send them a direct message on Twitter; itâ€™s one of their most consistent customer service tactics.
While this works well for large companies, a superintendent that we spoke to in Illinois emphasized the importance of getting people into your office. People are willing to say all kinds of horrible things online that they would not mention in person. Speaking face-to-face can deescalate the situation by humanizing both parties.
Apple moves an angry conversation, to a private direct message (DM). They politely ask for a rational explanation to an emotional post.
Apple keeps the tone light while focusing on a solution.
Repeating the userâ€™s concerns shows that they were heard.
Studies show that when people get angry at a company, they have a stronger connection to the company if the issue is properly resolved than if they had no issue at all.
Apple responds to a passive aggressive post with an earnest offer to help.
The userâ€™s frustration stems from feeling powerless, so they give them something to do.
For schools: How to use in schools:
Avoid addressing the userâ€™s issue in the comment field or in public messages. Provide users with all of the information they need to move the conversation into a private forum. Get them on the phone or in your office to address concerns.
#5 Respond quickly, with empathy When users become upset on social media, it’s easy for them to forget that they’re interacting with human beings instead of a computer screen. Because of this phenomenon, anonymous users are somewhat dehumanized. Responding to a concern with empathy, however, shows the customer that you care. A word of understanding can stifle frustration in understanding customers.
Spotify is known for their online customer service; the company doesn’t even own a call line to address customers’ complaints. Instead, they address concerns with SpotifyCares. SpotifyCares is a model public relations page. The group consistently takes the time to listen to their customers, addressing issues from the customer’s perspective in order to find the most thoughtful course of action.
Asking for more ways to help out makes it hard for the user to stay angry.
When mistakes are made, apologizing quickly can defuse the situation. Spotify’s greeting contains less than ten words and still communicates empathy.
Humor is another way to break tension and humanize the brand.
Spotify treats every concern as though it were highly important, showing empathy for the customerâ€™s needs.
Even if Spotify can't solve the issue, they still provide the user with a way to move forward.
Responding to suggestions rewards users who are engaging with your brand.
For schools: How to use in schools:
Respond quickly and politely to respectful concerns. Show empathy to usersâ€™ complaints. Emphasize that you care about helping them.
#6 Know when to hide, block, or report Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all give page administrators the power to manage malicious or dishonest comments on posts. When people see your page, they can also see the comments on every post, so tactically using these techniques will improve your brand image. Marketers in the private sector are quick to remove posts that are not constructive to the conversation.
Be advised that overusing these tools can make it seem like you are censoring your audience. We recommend only using them only when someone is intentionally malicious or dishonest. Responding to respectful criticism lets your audience see answers to questions they may have for themselves, similar to the way that Spotify responds to their customersâ€™ concerns.
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User guidelines How to use in schools: Given the news about widespread abuse on social networks, each platform has released a detailed user guide on what types of posts are not allowed. Anyone running a school website should read through these guidelines:
You can swipe left on any comment on an Instagram post and delete or report the comment.
Facebook: www.facebook.com/policies Twitter: www.help.twitter.com/en/ rules-and-policies/twitter-rules Instagram: (we suggest searching â€œInstagram Community Guidelines) www.help.instagram. com/477434105621119/
Book Report: Seth Godin’s Purple Cow In each edition of SchoolCEO, we’ll be analyzing a marketing book from the private sector and pulling out insights that apply to school marketing. You’ll get the main takeaways from each book as well as strategies specifically built to help schools craft their identity. Seth Godin is a marketing guru. He speaks at conferences around the world about marketing to customers in the Information Age and has authored eighteen books in total. His most popular book, Purple Cow, is all about making brands stand out. He presents the idea that the old-school ways of marketing — advertisements, commercials, and magazines—are no longer effective in a world that’s overwhelmed by a constant flood of information. While we think Godin over-exaggerates in saying that traditional marketing is a thing of the past, his book offers a unique perspective on how brands can stand out in a competitive online market. In the section, "Why You Need The Purple Cow," Godin states that, "There are so many alternatives now that people can no longer be easily reached by mass media."Instead of focusing on print ads or commercials, Godin argues that successful companies put their marketing efforts into building a sensational product—what he refers to as a “purple cow.” Imagine you’re driving on the interstate and you pass a group of cows grazing in a field. Most of them are brown; some are mostly white with brown spots. Nothing remarkable, right? But imagine seeing a purple cow. A cow that’s purple all over and grazing with the same group of cows mentioned before. There is absolutely no question that you are going to pay attention to that cow.
Following Godin’s advice means focusing more on making your product—educational programs and services—so exceptional that people talk about them on their own, without the help of traditional advertising strategies.
How does this relate to school leaders? There’s often a misunderstanding about what marketing means. What most people think of — advertising and public relations — are only small portions of the overarching goal of school marketing, which is to influence how people think and feel about the school’s brand. While commercials and billboards can be great for spreading a school’s brand, the best way to influence your audience is by having a great product.
A Purple Cow is an idea or product so uniquely wonderful that it advertises itself. Seth Godin’s marketing strategy focuses on creating an interesting, unique product that markets your organization by grabbing people’s attention. For school leaders, this means developing innovative or creative programs instead
of putting ads in the newspaper. Most school leaders understand this intricacy; the problem comes in learning how to create and share these remarkable programs in order to capitalize on the marketing benefits.
A purple cow strategy in schools means identifying or developing programs within your school organization that set you apart. Think of Kelly Middleton’s home visit program from Page 3 where he sends teachers to every student’s house before classes start. Creating a new, interesting initiative like the home visit program, ended up gaining the district widespread press. Godin argues, “In exchange for taking the risk, the creator of the purple cow gets a huge upside when they get it right.” Middleton didn’t create the program just to cause a stir; he saw a need in the community and found a creative way to meet that need. By looking around the school for areas to meet students’ needs in innovative ways, school leaders can market their schools in conjunction with improving the student experience; the two go hand in hand. They’re so fantastic and unique that they market themselves. In this article, we’ll explain how school leaders have identified purple cows in their schools, how to get started on creating your own purple cow, and how to use customer service as a purple cow strategy.
Identifying a Purple Cow You Already Have In speaking with thousands of school leaders from across the country, we’ve learned that most have programs in their district that they are proud to offer students, things they desperately wish people would praise at board meetings or share in the press. In these cases, applying the purple cow strategy is more about identifying your purple cow and amplifying the program rather than developing a brand new initiative. School leaders can start by narrowing down potential purple cows that are already in their schools. Think about your programs, teachers, and staff. What makes your school uniquely capable of meeting your communities’ needs? In what areas has your school grown in the last couple of years? What extracurriculars show innovation? Purple cows don’t need to be complicated, just filling a need in your community.
What do you do now? Once you’ve identified your purple cow, pinpoint how you can grow the program. Consider the program’s strengths, then organize resources to amplify its positive impacts. Can you include more students, find volunteers in the community to support the program, or redirect funding out of a waning initiative?
If schools don’t have the resources to physically strengthen the cow, then developing strategies to share the program can be a great place to start. Highlight the purple cow in nearly every interaction between the district and the public. You may feel like you’re repeating yourself, but reinforcing the idea shows the power of the program. Talk about the purple cow in your newsletter, press releases, public statements, and social media posts. Share stories of the students who have been impacted by the initiative. Describe what needs were met and the growth that resulted. Keeping this program relevant in the community’s mind helps you get the most out of your investment. However, when you are doing something special, it’s likely that it won’t be special for very long. The benefits of having a unique program only last until the crowd catches up to you. While reaping the benefits from your initial program, invest time and energy in developing a new purple cow. If you can build an organization where people are rewarded for trying new ideas, you can consistently create new programs that capture your community’s attention. Leaders can explore several innovative ideas, then release the strongest into the pasture. Godin suggests that you “milk the cow for all its worth, and create an environment where you’re likely to invent a brand new purple cow in time to replace your first one.”
Developing a New Purple Cow If you are struggling to find your purple cow, you can make a priority of developing a new, attention-grabbing program. When planning for the long-term, consider programs that could become purple cows in the future to help guide decision making. For example, if a district nearby is building a fancy new football stadium, and your district decides to follow suit, your schools will merely be catching up. Purple cows are, by nature, unique. Instead, your district might devote resources into creating an outstanding swimming facility — a feature that will make your district stand out. Your district will then be able to target families who have an interest in swimming or develop programs around the new facilities, perhaps training students in lifeguarding. A school district in the South that focuses on swimming rather than football? Now, that’s a purple cow. Maine Township High School District in Park Ridge, Illinois used a technology investment as their purple cow. They were one of the first school districts in the state to hand out Chromebooks to each student, provide wireless hotspots for students in need of internet, and move over half of their textbook resources to online platforms. While other schools were still working towards high speed internet, Maine Township was getting attention for their Chromebook program. Thinking of new initiatives as a way to improve student outcomes in addition to marketing your schools pushes your team to meet student needs in creative ways. Greg Jouriles and Susan Bedford, English and Social Studies teachers at Hillsdale High School in California, created a purple cow when they asked themselves, “What if we could design an academic experience that was as memorable as prom?” In 1989 they created “The Trial of Human Nature” project, where sophomores at the school prepare a court case every year in which they defend or prosecute William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies. The students play different roles, i.e. judge, witness, or attorney, and travel to an actual courtroom to conduct the trial. This project has continued since 1989 and has become a significant moment in each student's time at the school. By asking themselves how they could impact students’ lives, Jouriles and Bedford created a purple cow that has students excited to learn, creating free press for the school district.
Customer Service as Your Purple Cow When budgets are tight, plans that involve large capital or personnel investments might be off the table. In these cases, a purple cow can be as simple as providing exceptional customer service.
He also placed a suggestion box at the front of the store. If a customer submitted a suggestion, or feedback about their experience in the store, Stew would write a personalized response to their concern.
Godin uses the example of a grocery store that he used to frequent that built its customer base around amazing service. In this case, the store’s purple cow involved real cows.
An amazing level of customer service could be a school leader’s purple cow whether or not a purple cow has been developed before in the district. Customer service always distinguishes a competitor from its competition, and school leaders could apply this same mentality to their district.
Stew’s was founded by Stew Leonard in 1969. Instead of opting for the usual “ordinary” dairy shop, Stew embraced the cow. He added a petting zoo to the front of his grocery store, featured unique or unusual products, sold items for reduced prices, and filled his store with robotic mooing cows and a violin-playing chicken. While the petting zoo was eye-catching, it was the store’s customer service that built their brand. According to Stew’s website, this was all inspired by a run-in with an unhappy customer. A woman once accused Stew of selling sour eggnog, which Stew vehemently denied. After getting her refund on the eggnog, she turned away and exclaimed, “I’m never coming back to this store again!” When Stew got home, he told his wife about the incident, to which she replied, “I don’t blame her at all, you didn’t listen to her.” This incident made him realize that he could have a fantastic store, but poor customer service would make him lose customers. From then on, Stew made it a priority to treat every customer with respect. His customer service policy was so important to him that he had it carved in a 6,000 pound block of granite at the front of the store. The policy read:
Rule #1 - The Customer is Always Right
Rule #2 - If the Customer is Ever Wrong, Re-Read Rule #1
Stew firmly believed that “customer service cannot be a sometimes thing. It must be earned and re-earned every day.”
Major takeaways: Identify a unique aspect of your district that markets itself to current and prospective families. Keep producing services and techniques so useful, interesting, outrageous, and noteworthy that your community will want to seek them out. Create an environment where you’re likely to invent a brand new purple cow in time to replace your first one. Customer service can be an affordable purple cow.
Don’t forget! We’re collecting ideas from school leaders across the country about the changing role of school leadership.
Head to schoolceo.com/survey to answer five short questions. We’ll share the results with you in the next edition.