Recently charter schools in California have gotten some bad press. There's never a good time for wrongdoing, but the timing of some heavily publicized scandals couldn't have been worse. And the unions and anti-charter legislators pounced. Hard to blame them really. But one of the articles I read recently in the San Diego Union Tribune got me thinking, and it wasn't about scandal, charter vs district, politicians, or unions. It was about marketing. And marketing in the public school space in particular.
Charter schools, which are the only free option for families who don't want to be assigned to a school based on geography, are inherently marketing-focused. We have to be. Unlike a school district, which will attract 75-90% of the local market when opening in a given location, we live and die by enrollment. And if enrollment isn't there, we don't change boundaries, lay off staff, close locations, or pursue the sale of bonds. We go out of business. Even if we're doing right by students it doesn't matter. There is no safety net.
There are obviously right and wrong ways to do things, and marketing is no different. I'm not saying we have it all figured out, but from a marketing perspective we focus on marketing channels where we can attract students who we're in the best position to serve. For Method, the top channels are:
Referrals from school districts (biggest channel by far)...teachers and counselors from over 200 Southern California schools have referred students to Method. Not only are referrals our biggest channel, they're the easiest way to see if we're doing a good job or not. People don't refer us to their family, friends, or students if we aren't referral-worthy.
Online marketing (blogs, social media, website chat, online ads). We drive tons of traffic to our website, and from there we use chatbots and live reps to answer questions of current and prospective students and parents. For the past 365 days we're pushing 1.1 million website sessions and 9.1 million visits. We're also using the research from thousands of marketing chatbot sessions to help us introduce bots into our curriculum, which will especially help students who work off hours or who just need a little direction prior to talking to a teacher.
Videos. We do lots and lots of videos. This makes the online experience much more personal. And, it's really shareable too, which helps us get more word-of-mouth traffic. Here's an example:
Events, field trips, social opportunities...these are awesome for current students, families, and their friends. And they're so critical for us because as an online program we need these touch points and in-person opportunities to meet with students and their families.
Research and measure (and continual product refinement from it)...listen, validate, take action where necessary. We use marketing and survey software to track everything about what works, what doesn't, who's happy, who isn't, and why.
Student support: Our service hub (customer service portal) has produced over 2,100 help tickets since we implemented it about 18 months ago. Like holding events, having a sophisticated online support portal is essential for online students. Our online support is available to students and families within their online courses and on our website. See below:
We do very little traditional advertising because it's way too expensive to get any measurable results. So, how much do we spend on marketing? On average, we try to spend no more than $150 per student per year on marketing, which based on doing this for awhile seems realistic and reasonable.
Marketing isn't necessarily a bad word. And when it comes to schools, using it to improve product and experience for our students and families seems like a good use of resources. Questions or comments? Feel free to hit me up (light me up?) in the comments.
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Mark is the co-founder of Method Schools and SmartFox and has been working in the marketing and finance areas of K-12 education for two decades. He holds a B.S. in Business from Utah Valley University and an MBA from Brigham Young University. In his spare time he’s usually on his mountain bike.