The case for using stories in school marketing
This article first appeared in Face to Face magazine, an EducatePlus journal for marketing professional in schools and tertiary institutions.
When you conjure a great storyteller in your mind, from a grand orator in a Roman forum to an Aboriginal elder with the women of her tribe gathered before her, the image is not dissimilar to what we witness each day in our schools.
The act of passing on knowledge, sharing experience and creating meaning – the act of storytelling – is at the heart of what schools do. The new marketing trend for creating meaning for stakeholders, rather than occupying the largest or loudest market presence, allows us to capitalise on our natural strength for storytelling, taking it out of the classroom to a wider audience.
Marketing departments in schools
As businesses in a competitive environment, schools are investing in their business practices and implementing robust and contemporary standards that match those of any other industry. Marketing departments are increasingly commonplace in schools, and school leaders and governing bodies look to them for evidence of tangible results in the form of enrolments, positive press, and a happy and informed parent body. For places that have for decades defined themselves by their humanity – our warmth, our pastoral systems, our duty of care – the focus on targets, and the alienating marketing speak of ‘branding’, ‘touchpoints’ and ‘segmentation’, can seem daunting. The heartening news for us though is that developments in modern marketing practice mean we need not shed that softer side of our organisations. With our strong ethos, clear values and rich history, storytelling is a natural fit for our schools.
Marketing professionals are working in an exciting phase for our profession. We have a range of dynamic social media tools that we own and control, our stakeholders are more connected to us than at any time in our history (even online interactions can be used to facilitate more face to face contact), and we can access our audiences almost anywhere, at any time. We also have a wide range of storytelling tools available to us. Today, a story is not only verbal, it is visual (photographs, student artwork), auditory (podcasts, music), a combination of both (films), or even a single sentence on a platform such as twitter.
What is a ‘story’ in the marketing world?
Many schools already believe they are creating and sharing their stories. In fact, many of us marketing and communications staff may even think we’re already expected to do far too much of it. If you’re managing a school newsletter and a website as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there are days when you feel you’d like rather less content coming across your desk! Take the time to look back over your news this year though, and investigate the nature of those ‘stories’.
Our communications are full of articles and blurbs about things that have happened recently, such as a visit from a guest speaker, the results of the athletics carnival, or a language exchange in another country. However these descriptions of “stuff that happened” are not, perhaps surprisingly, stories (Spendlove, 2016). Stories are “messages that create a connection” (ibid.). It is not enough to describe the latest happenings of your school if you want to make an impact. People skim read such items and they are quickly forgotten in the chaos of content we all wade through each day.
To punch through the noise, and put a fire in your readers’ heart, you must interpret the detail of what happens in your school, in a way that has meaning for them.
The power of a good story
Why is it worth schools taking the time to recast the ‘stuff that happens’ as these meaningful narratives we call stories? Firstly, good stories bring people together. They provide your stakeholders with something to discuss, share and take pride in together. When Strathcona Girls Grammar School’s Maths teacher represented Australia at the Olympics in table tennis after narrowly missing out on the London games, his story rallied the school community around. Parents and girls cheered him on together, even though we all needed to stay up until midnight to catch the game!
Secondly, good stories transfer values. Use your stories to show your values in action, thereby making them tangible to your stakeholders and reinforcing that the school lives out the values it preaches. Thirdly, good stories connect people to something greater. When prospective parents tour a school with student guides, they often tell us afterwards “I chose your school because I want my daughter to grow up like the young woman we met”. Parents choose your school because you offer more than just an education. Find the stories that convey your point of difference and add value beyond that which parents, or other schools, can create for themselves. Finally, good stories create a legacy for the future. Schools are good at keeping archives and records, but it is only by creating, telling and recording our stories that we can ensure our heritage achieves longevity.
How to do storytelling in school marketing
Whilst the value of storytelling is clear, there are few resources available that actually teach marketing professionals how to do it, and even less that do so in a way that fits the school context. It’s an interesting exercise then, to adapt the principles of storytelling from the glamorous worlds of fiction and film to our industry. There are many ingredients that make for a novel or screen-worthy story, but three essential ones that schools can use include knowing your audience, finding your unique voice and developing a cast of characters.
1 Segment your Audience
Without an audience, you have no story: a good story demands to be told and retold. In order to find your audience as a school, some traditional marketing groundwork needs to be laid.
Start with simple audience segmentation: prospective parents, current parents, students, staff and alumni. Then break these groups down to the next level; for example, current parents could be split into Junior and Senior School parents.
For a deeper understanding of these groups, segment your audience further by considering demographics (age, earnings, social class), psychographic factors (personalities, interests, likes, lifestyles), and behaviours (knowledge of your school, how and where they interact with your school).
Take time to work on understanding your stakeholders. In order to engage your audience with your stories, you need to truly understand who they are and what they want and need from you. The wrong kind of stories risk being lost, boring your audience, or worse, alienating people, while the right kind will have them asking for more!
2 Find a unique voice
All new writers seek the elusive ‘voice’ agents and publishers always say they are looking for. Voice can be difficult to find but strengthens over time and with experience, and comes from knowing and being true to your personality.
We are often tempted to copy the style of others when we choose our subject matter and write our stories. Yet despite teaching the same subjects, offering similar co-curricular activities and all striving to bring out the best in students, schools are unique. A school finds its voice when it capitalises on its history, values and people to create an authentic tone that reflects these elements.
Choose words matched to your brand which can be repeated across stories, and find a tone that conveys the essence of your School. Always stay flexible though, and adapt your style to the platform on which your story is told. On Strathcona’s website the tone is professional, informed and accessible, whilst on Facebook it’s informal, playful and relatable. The voice, no matter what the platform, is always down-to-earth in line with the school’s ethos.
3 Gather your cast of characters
Finally, stories rely on a cast of characters, and ours surround us each day. As schools, we are lucky to have a loyal (and captive) customer base of current students, parents and ideally past students, to work with. Consider how and when your cast of characters will feature in your stories.
Perhaps you will choose to feature your students most often. Stories about staff might be told during a recruitment drive, when you seek to attract professionals whose values align with the school’s. Consider how to show your cast of characters expressing their needs, wants, dreams, goals and achievements, and align this to the desires of your audience. As a final check for each story, ask yourself – can my audience find themselves in this story? When the answer is yes, you will have created the connection between school and audience that is the goal of every story.
4 Be selective to stay sane
One of the unintended benefits of storytelling is that you, the school communications professional and designated Chief Story Teller, will no longer need to recount all the stuff that happens each term. Being a storyteller means having the power to select which stories will be told, casting aside the lesser items to choose the tales that will ultimately strengthen your brand. For busy school marketers, the power to be selective, and therefore released from the pressure of keeping up with every single interesting thing that happens in the school, is a welcome relief! It also gives you time to upskill and improve your storytelling techniques!
5 Value word of mouth
Ultimately it’s important to remember that even in the 21st century, the ancient art of verbal storytelling is still the most powerful. Your most influential marketing tool is word of mouth. Your stories – those you’ve created and disseminated, and those other people invent based on their personal experience interacting with you – will be shared in conversation between friends, family, colleagues, or a parent from another school at that Saturday sports match!
To maintain a positive reputation in the community, schools need to stay in control of their message by generating a range of regular and varied stories aligned to their brand. This doesn’t mean that every story has to be upbeat. Stories of facing and overcoming adversity or sad stories that highlight how your community rallied around, are equally valid.
As your school’s Chief Story Teller, you the marketing professional have great responsibility, but also a unique opportunity, to capture and share your school’s stories and create a lasting legacy for the future.
Michelle Newell was the Marketing Manager of Strathcona Girls Grammar School when this article was first published.
Spendlove, M. (2016), Storytelling: The Interactive Board Game, https://spendloveandlamb.com/
Jiwa, B. (2016), The Story of Telling, http://thestoryoftelling.com/blog/