The Trust Fall of Outsourcing School Marketing
Many schools that engage in contemporary marketing eventually conclude they need external partners. Perhaps this sounds familiar. For example, you may want to ramp up your school’s online marketing efforts, navigate a rebranding process, or overhaul your website. You’ve got talented people on your team, but initiatives like these typically require creative and technical capabilities that your school (like most) doesn’t have on staff.
Or perhaps you’re considering bringing in a consultant to evaluate a retention issue, conduct a market analysis, or develop a comprehensive enrollment marketing plan. You’re looking to engage an expert who can advise you on what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.
As you’re having conversations with prospective external partners, you’re looking for the right fit. They need to get who your school is, what makes it unique, and what’s important to your team. And they need to be affordable. You’re willing to make an investment, but you need to be good stewards of your school’s limited resources.
Of course, it’s not just about the money; there’s the opportunity cost to consider, too. Your school has key recruitment and retention windows, and a false start with a vendor learning on your dime can impact an entire year’s budget. You can’t wind back the clock if a campaign fizzles or a project goes sideways.
But the reality is that you won’t know if you’ve chosen the right partner until things are well underway. By nature, marketing is future-oriented. You’re having conversations today about the results you want to see in a few months or even years. And most marketing strategies take time to implement and get traction. That’s why choosing an external marketing partner can feel sort of like a trust fall.
“Okay…close your eyes and lean back…we’ve got you — and your budget.”
Clearly, choosing an outside marketing partner is a high-stakes decision. So how do you determine which firm, freelancer, or consultant is right for your school?
The answer is in what you value.
Ubiquitous Commodity or Unique Contributor?
Every now and then, when we’re having an initial conversation with a school interested in working with us, someone on the school’s team will mention a local marketing firm, a parent of a current student, or an alum who “does this type of work.” It’s a comment that tends to surface early, and we appreciate their candor. They want us to know they have a viable option for getting a specific project done or service delivered, usually for less money by a local firm or freelancer.
On the surface, the logic is intuitive: “All things being equal, we could outsource our school’s marketing projects to a vendor down the street who charges less.” This mindset assumes there is little to no difference in approaches and outcomes — if they do good work, one partner is as good as another.
The “logic of substitution” makes perfect sense when purchasing commodities for a school — janitorial supplies, athletic equipment, computer monitors, etc. A savvy CFO can trade out this box of toilet paper for another that’s a few pennies-per-roll cheaper, and…well, let’s just say the results are comparable in the end. That’s because she’s buying commodities with few distinguishable differences; toilet paper is widely available from lots of vendors and subject to price comparison. It’s a race to the bottom (in more ways than one).
But that’s not the case when evaluating marketing partnerships for school growth. The quality and efficacy of advice and strategic thinking can vary widely among marketers. A local digital marketing firm may be able to run your paid search and paid social campaigns, but an experienced enrollment marketing firm will know what to say and when in those channels. The difference is more than semantics. It’s consequential.
This brings us to an incredibly significant fork in the road when evaluating enrollment marketing partners (think Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”). Because this is where what you value impacts the results you can expect.
Two Camps: the Generalists and Specialists
When exploring potential marketing partners for your school, you’re likely to find that providers organize into two camps: the generalists and the specialists. Both have their appeal. Let’s take a look at the generalists first.
Camp #1: The Generalist
The generalist has a broad portfolio of clients that spans multiple industries: construction, real estate, restaurants, manufacturing, home services, nonprofits, churches, etc. They offer a “wide range of services” and work primarily with local clients. Their website likely features an impressive array of creative work for businesses and nonprofits of all shapes and sizes.
They thrive on variety and would love to work with you. After all, you’re neighbors, and that’s what neighbors do. They appreciate that your school makes the community a better place, and working with a school would be an exciting new challenge for them. Heck, they probably even know some folks at your school!
At first glance, the generalist is appealing for two (compelling) reasons: they’re nearby and tend to charge less. Close and cheap — put them together, and you’ve got a compelling value proposition, right?
Let’s start with local. The premise is that a nearby vendor is better than one far away. They’re just a short drive away. We could get together for coffee. They know our community and may even have direct connections to the school. Perhaps they’re even an alum, a parent, or a board member — or all three in one person! (Yes, this happens.) They might want to be a Booster Club sponsor and have a banner in our gym.
How about low price? Of course, saving money is better than overspending. The generalist may offer a reasonable hourly rate for their services. Why would we pay more for something when we can get the same thing somewhere else cheaper? Online marketing is online marketing. A website is a website. A penny saved is a penny earned … right? So, let’s get several bids and go with the low price.
What’s the Win You’re Looking for?
While close and cheap have a certain appeal, schools that prioritize these value drivers when evaluating marketing partners are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They prioritize proximity, low price, and even curb appeal over outcomes and results. They assume that marketing consultants and firms are generally in the same business, using the same tools and similar approaches. So why not go with the local web developer? The graphic designer at your church? Or the certified storyteller consultant who has a child in kindergarten at your school?
It may seem counterintuitive, but the firm best qualified to take your school further faster may not even be in your same time zone, and they almost invariably won’t be the lowest bid. They don’t talk about how many hours it will take to do something because they don’t sell time. That’s because they’re in the value creation business. They are enrollment marketing specialists who provide leadership informed by many years of solving similar problems for schools like yours. Let’s take a closer look at what makes the specialist tick.
Camp #2: The Enrollment Marketing Specialist
The enrollment marketing specialist has developed narrow and deep expertise that appeals to schools in a broad geographic market. They rarely attend networking events at their local chamber of commerce, not because they’re anti-social but because that’s not the best use of their time. They have chosen to say “no” to opportunities outside of school world so they can spend their time focusing on helping schools grow.
The result is their client base is comprised of schools that share many of the same challenges. School leaders happily pay for these specialists to come on campus, meet with their teams, give advice, and deliver purpose-built programs and solutions. The specialists know what questions to ask, where to look, what to challenge, and what to affirm. When speaking with an experienced enrollment marketer, school leaders may chuckle and ask, “Have you been reading our emails or eavesdropping on our meetings?”
The Five Differentiators
So, what makes an Enrollment Marketing Specialist…special? Here are five attributes that distinguish specialists from generalists.
Expertise Grounded in Pattern Matching
It takes a Major League Baseball player approximately 0.4 seconds to determine whether or not to swing at a pitch. At this point in his professional career, the batter has seen countless balls come across the plate and has a reflexive understanding of what’s about to happen. He’s seen it all before, and he knows what to let go and what to go for.
It’s called pattern matching, and it’s what makes an expert an expert. They’ve been in similar situations enough to see what’s coming, what’s happening, and the likely outcomes. Their knowledge has real-world value because they can help others understand, organize, and navigate complex situations. In school world, the enrollment marketing specialist has developed models, methods, tools, and solutions that are grounded in real-world experience. These experts give their clients a huge head start because they’re bringing knowledge into the school that was gained elsewhere.
The generalist simply hasn’t had enough experience in enrollment marketing to benefit from pattern matching…because the generalist loves being a generalist. The thought of saying “no” to a new business conversation is painful. They thrive on knowing a little about a lot. They work with restaurants, builders, dentists, startups, landscapers, Realtors, and car dealers. They would love to work with you because you’re local, not necessarily because you’re a school.
If they get the gig, the generalist has a massive learning curve to flatten. They will need to learn not just about your school but also about your customer: the prospective family. And the meter is running.
Thanks to pattern matching, an experienced enrollment marketing professional will start in a different place. They have likely worked with hundreds of schools to help them grow enrollment, which positions them to bring a unique perspective (and hopefully well-founded confidence) to the table that a local generalist simply can’t match. The specialist’s learning curve is much lower; it has more to do with the nuances of your particular school than the broader enrollment marketing category. And you are the beneficiary of the thinking, consulting, writing, and speaking they’ve done to that point.
Insights Grounded in Data
As a soccer guy, it pains me to use another baseball reference, but I’ll take one for the team to illustrate an important concept. The movie Moneyball is a loose retelling of the story of the Oakland A’s 2002 underdog season. In this era, player selections were based primarily on “gut feel” rather than hard data. Which of these whipper snappers can knock it out of the park? Which veteran players still have enough gas to get around the bases?
Then along comes an assistant general manager, Peter Brand, who hypothesizes that to field a winning team, all you need to do is recruit players with a history of getting on base, not necessarily hitting homers. He wasn’t going with his gut; he was using…wait for it…math. And it worked. The Oakland A’s put together a roster of seemingly-average players that the big teams had passed by. The A’s simply wanted to know if a player could get on base consistently. (I’m not going to tell you how the movie ends, but you can probably guess.)
For enrollment marketing specialists, math is also a key advantage. They know their recommendations will likely work because they have years of data to support their suggestions. Just ask them for the numbers; you’ll see what I mean. If they’re worth their salt, you’ll get more than anecdotes.
On the other hand, if you ask a generalist to show you the numbers that support their enrollment growth recommendations, specifically from other schools they’ve worked with, they likely won’t have enough data to form a trendline. That’s okay if you just want to outsource some graphic design work your team doesn’t have time for, but it’s a different conversation entirely if you’re placing a bet on a recruitment campaign.
The Experience to Ask the Right Questions
The generalist asks, “What do you want?” The Enrollment Marketing Specialist asks, “Have you considered…?”
The difference is more than wordplay. In the absence of deep experience in school world, the generalist defaults to a series of broad inquiries that scratch the surface of what’s possible. What keeps you up at night? What are your goals for this project?
However, the marketer specializing in school growth doesn’t assume that the team fully understands what they need. In most cases, the presenting problem is rarely the root problem. The specialist listens to the team’s motivations for seeking outside help and then asks questions to determine the type of help the school needs. They know there are a few key indicators of enrollment health, and before discussing any sort of projects or programs, they hike upstream to understand the dynamics impacting recruitment and retention trends.
Even during the initial conversation, the enrollment marketing specialist delivers value through the questions they ask. As the conversation unfolds, the school’s team isn’t just learning about the potential partner but also about themselves, the decision-making process, and different approaches that have worked for other schools.
To be clear, it’s not that the specialist has all the answers in the moment, but they understand the process for pursuing clarity — where to focus, what to pivot, and what to ignore.
The Courage to Challenge and Grow Your Team
Impactful consulting involves a measure of risk. Business author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni calls this “stepping into the danger.” It’s that moment in a conversation when you pick up on a thread that needs a tugging.
In school world, it could be a well-intended but misguided promotional strategy, a team alignment challenge, a leap in logic, or a report that feels off. An enrollment marketing consultant who has sat in enough meetings with Heads of School, Marketing Directors, and Admissions Directors can sense when something needs to be surfaced. Having seen similar situations before, she’s okay with being a little uncomfortable for a few minutes to get the team to a better place. It’s not about calling someone out; it’s about gaining clarity and alignment to get traction.
And that’s perhaps one of the most significant advantages of working with an outside partner who focuses on school growth. Over time, your internal team gets stronger because they learn how to think strategically, not just how to get more stuff done.
Consistent Contributions to the Collective Thinking on School Growth
A firm that focuses exclusively on enrollment marketing is always thinking about growth-oriented topics that matter to Heads of School, Marketing Directors, and Admissions Directors. In fact, year after year, these firms contribute to the collective body of knowledge through writing, speaking, and networking. They see it as more than a way to generate new business; they see it as contributing to the profession.
If you want to know if a marketer has street cred, check out what they’ve written, topics they’ve spoken on at independent school conferences, and webinars they’ve hosted. You should be able to infer how they think, how they view your marketplace, and how long they’ve been in the enrollment marketing space. Engaging with them makes your school’s experience part of the larger conversation among independent and faith-based schools. Your experience can shape how other schools think and act.
Helping Outside Experts Help You
One of the best ways to determine which external partners could help your school go further faster is to frame your needs and wants in terms of priorities. This is one of North Star’s mantras: “Priorities over projects.” It helps us and our clients ensure we’re looking through the right end of the telescope to see what’s possible. Priorities focus on desired outcomes and a clearly defined envisioned future, not hours and inputs.
Before you hop on a call with a prospective marketing partner, huddle up with your team and write your priorities. Consider these examples:
- We need to generate more inquiries from right-fit elementary school families.
- We want to improve the quality and consistency of our messaging to convey our value proposition.
- We need to increase retention from middle school to high school.
- We want more current families to share their positive experiences at our school among their networks.
- We need to increase the effectiveness of our online marketing efforts.
- We need a better way to articulate our educational model.
Notice that none of these statements focuses on projects or tactics. They focus on the envisioned future. When having a conversation with a potential marketing partner, framing your interests in terms of priorities will help you understand what’s possible…and which calls to cut short.
Making the Call on Outside Marketing Partnerships
A Place for the Generalist
It may seem like I’ve been pretty hard on generalist freelancers and firms, but I’m actually a huge fan. They are creative problem-solvers who play an important role in the economy; we need thousands of them to help businesses and nonprofits advance their missions. And generalists can undoubtedly be a big help to your team by taking on overflow during a busy season. But they don’t wake up every morning thinking about “school world.”
A Place for the Enrollment Marketing Specialist
Regardless of where your school is now — lots of room to grow, a few spaces to fill, or waitlists in every Age-and-Stage™ — an experienced enrollment marketing specialist can add value. It’s not just about increasing your team’s capacity. A consultant or firm focusing on school growth will strengthen your team, help you prioritize effectively, and increase the return on your marketing investment.
You may need help for a season (i.e., developing an enrollment marketing plan), or there may be some functions you choose to outsource for the long-haul (i.e., managing digital marketing campaigns). You may realize that you need more than one marketing partner to work on different aspects of your strategy. Strike up a conversation with an open mind and see where it takes you.
And, of course, a Place for Your Team
If you partner with an outside firm, your role is vital. You must convey your school’s culture, current reality, and areas where you’re seeking help. You help shape the scope and scale of the engagement. You work the process and provide support along the way. And you play a vital role in championing marketing initiatives among internal stakeholders.
Think of a partnership in terms of who does what best. Your team has strengths in certain areas, and the right partner will help you leverage those capabilities more effectively. In turn, they will bring to the conversation a set of insights and approaches that create clarity and generate traction. You’re coming together around shared goals, and the progress should be evident to all involved.
Take a Deep Breath…and Fall Back
Sometimes when we’re hiring for a new position at North Star Marketing, I’ll ask one of my current team members, “If you were spending your own money, would you hire this person?” Their response in that moment is telling.
As you consider the criteria for engaging with outside firms, imagine you’re spending your own money. Think about the results you want to see. Who has a track record of success with other schools? Who will take you further faster? Where do you turn when you don’t know what you don’t know? Which partner will make your team better?
Enrollment marketing has no guarantees because no one can predict how the market will respond. But partnering with a specialist can greatly reduce your risk and significantly increase your likelihood of success.
Of course, North Star Marketing isn’t the only firm specializing in the enrollment marketing space. There are several highly credible experts with well-defined niches in school world. If you want to go deeper, I invite you to join us out here on the ends of the bell curve. We’ll be hanging out with the rest of the geeks who love enrollment marketing. I think you’ll feel right at home.