How not to miss the bus because of a limited marketing budget.

There was once a school that advertised on the side of a big double decker bus. How did it do? We have no idea.
If you have endless money to spend on marketing, you would be wise to get that bus-shaped advert at the ready – or try newspapers or motorway hoardings. If, like most schools and multi-academy trusts, you’re still in recovery mode after the pandemic and you have a small marketing budget, a focus on marketing activities where the results can be measured is advised.

Managing a limited budget to maximise your return on the investments you make in marketing and communications for your school, calls for activities that are low-cost as well as measurable – fortunately, these are often one and the same.

The cheapest marketing trick of all is providing a responsive service that helps you develop a reputation. There’s a lot to be gained from responding to emails and messages in a timely manner with concern and courtesy.

Before you do any of that – hire the bus and paint it in school colours or put on your best telephone voice – start the planning. Schools too often work on communications spasmodically, staring disappointedly at a budget sheet only when a bus-driver (parents of a student) says she can get a good deal on advertising. Like almost everything, marketing is best done according to a thought-out strategy. This involves first determining the results you are looking for. Secondly, decide on the size of your budget: how much can you reasonably designate marketing money? Emerging from the fog of Covid, some businesses are advising allocating more to marketing, to help lift us out of the doldrums, but it is likely simple figures and cash availability are stronger determinants for most.

Once a school knows what it wants to do and how much it has got to do it with, the task of identifying low-cost and demonstrably effective activities begins. The ravages of the pandemic, particularly the curtailing of the usual money-spinners, may make some schools or multi-academy trusts want to withdraw from communications expenditure for a time; yet for many a rise in admission numbers is a primary aim, something that naturally increases income as well as allowing the school to do its job.

Certainly, a limited budget will mean cutting your coat to suit your cloth: don’t look at a new Ferrari if you’ve got £10,000 to purchase a car. Look at vehicles within your budget that will do the job – get you from A to B, save the environment, look really cool. Unless there’s a bus for sale with your school already advertised on its side.

Not every marketing activity is costly, so schools need to look for free opportunities; many of these are hidden amongst you – pupils, teachers, parents, that bus-driver. They can all get talking positively about the school. Digital platforms offer a myriad of opportunities and are easily measurable – hits on a webpage, responses to a Twitter quiz, comments on Facebook. People talk about their concerns on social media (who knew?), sometimes on pages and in groups dedicated to a topic such as which school to send their children to. Can anyone recommend a local primary school? I’m looking for somewhere my special child will settle in – can you help? I’m new to the area and need to find a sixth form quick!  Here’s your chance to respond either directly or by looking at the issues that are capturing people’s time and exchanges.

Thinking about the geographical position of your school can guide you towards questions that parents are asking. Some might be happy for their child to spend two hours either way on a bus (stop it – they won’t even notice the outside of it!)  but most want a school nearby that is part of the community in which they live. It helps not to be too competitive in this respect – if the school down the road is getting more pupils, don’t target those parents or potential parents like them – look for your own tribe, those who will welcome your ideas and share your values. As soon as they know what they are! It will pay to improve your awareness of your own vicinity and what you offer – stand out, be proud, be visible and people will approach you.

An effective method of measuring a school’s output is to go mystery shopping. This means pretending you are, for example, a parent looking for a school – ring up or complete an online enquiry form and see what happens. If your school is doing all it should do and still admissions are declining, why not start asking parents? For example, if a family visits the school to look around, ask them if they are likely to be applying for a place. Because you have been polite, encouraging and you produce happy, achieving kids, they will almost certainly say yes. And if they don’t, you benefit from that enormously useful negative feedback. Look for solutions to a parent’s problems, try to resolve a child’s concerns – if you do this and they still decline then perhaps they weren’t for you anyway and a big bright double-decker bus hoarding wouldn’t have helped.  ​