46. Key MarCom Trends for Your Independent School with Rob Norman
In this episode, we are joined by Rob Norman, co-founder of InspirED School Marketers, a free, professional development resource and community for private school marketers worldwide. Rob dives into his 2022 InspirED Private School MarCom Survey Report, assessing current marketing trends and the trajectory that small schools are heading toward in the upcoming year.
About Rob Norman:
Rob is the Best Boy and co-founder of InspirED School Marketers. Rob, and his wife Liza, created after owning a branding and marketing firm for 25 years that specialized in independent schools. For their next chapter, they decided to provide a free, professional development resource and community for private school marketers worldwide.
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Tara: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Claeys.
Aubrey: And I’m Aubrey Bursch. Today we’re joined by Rob Norman. Rob is the best boy and co-founder of InspirED School Marketers. Rob and his wife Liza, created InspirED after owning a branding and marketing firm for 25 years that specialized in independent schools. For their next chapter, they decide to provide a free professional development, resource and community for private schools marketers Worldwide. InspirED is the Home of the Brilliance Awards, the popular e-newsletter, the Daily Jolt, which I subscribe to, and the SparkCast podcast, along with numerous other resources to make school marketers jobs easier, you can visit www.inspiredsm.com to learn more. Welcome, Rob. We’re so excited you’re here today.
Rob: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk to you guys.
Tara: Yeah, we love having you back and we’re really excited to dive into the information that you’re gonna share with us today. But let’s start out just give us a little review on how things are going with inspirEd and um, then we can talk about the, the 2022 marcon report.
Rob: InspirEd is going great. You know what InspirEd was created basically because after 25 years of doing marketing for schools, we realized that there’s ASAP for admissions people and case nace for development people and NBOA for the business people, but nothing for marcon people. And we specifically wanted to set out to create a community, to fill a void that existed and to allow marcon people to share best practices and ideas and thoughts and help each other. The- our tagline, we make your job easier. That’s what our whole goal is. So it’s gone well. I the Brilliance Awards are closed. We’re now in the process of getting the judges to, to do their work as you two know, and we’re excited about seeing the results. The Brilliance Awards are always a great celebration of the work being done for and by schools, so as everything’s gone great.
Tara: That’s really fun. Yeah. So the Brilliance Awards, and then what we’re gonna talk about today, the marcon survey are two great things that you provide to the community. Can you tell us a little bit about how this report came to be? And how, just start, let’s dive into the background of the report and then start talking about what you found out in this year’s report.
Rob: Sure. We started the report a few years after we had started InspirEd because we were really looking to try to understand marcon as it is viewed and operates at private schools, so how is it funded? How does it operate, how does it relate to the other departments within the school? What are the best practices? Where are the opportunities for doing things better? And so we started the first year and we’ve learned a lot ourselves in developing the survey and writing the report. And now that we have four years under our belt, we’re really able to look at trends. We’re able to look how things are changing. And we provide it free to everyone because we want people to take the report, learn from it. We want it to help them. Make their job easier. We wanna make their job easier.That’s what the whole idea behind the report is to try to give people usable information that they can use to make everything at their school better- the relationship with the head and other departments, other schools, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a great report.
Tara: It is. Yeah, I’m looking at it now and there’s so much information here and I think it’s also- people like to see how how they measure up, or how they compare. So it’s really helpful also just as a measuring stick, I think, for schools to use. How many respondents did you have?
Rob: 253 this year. The most we’ve ever had. Which is fabulous. Yep. Each year we usually get around 200. This year was a little higher, 253.
Aubrey: It’s great. And what I love about this report, for those of you definitely go down and go and download it for sure.
Rob: And it’s free on our website.
Aubrey: It’s free on their website and what is so amazing about this report is that it’s the, it’s, this information is really not a, I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Like you have such detailed information about like, especially if you’re a marketer and you’re wanting to know different, like what do people’s jobs do, these, like who does what, who does the annual report? Is there even an annual report? You go so deep into this information and it’s, it can be used, especially marketers, if you’re trying to make a decision or advocate for your role. This data is just fantastic for that. Rob, I’m so excited to dive in. I can’t, if you can tell and I’m gonna hear from you because, you’ve seen this report for many years now. Is there something at this report that’s surprised you? And if you could share some of that with us, that would be great.
Rob: I think there’s not one thing. There’s a lot of things that surprised me. Probably one of the ones that we’ve been watching is the percentage of schools that do or do not have a formal department of marketing communications. I thought Covid was going to change that dramatically. In 2020, 31% of the schools that answered the report, that answered the survey did not have a formal department of marcom. To me, that’s mind blowing. I don’t know how you operate without a formal department of marcom, but okay, and we thought it that covid because of the strain that put on the communications mechanisms at a school, that it would change dramatically. It changed this year, 21% still said they did not have a formal department of marcom. I don’t get it, but I’ve been doing marcom for 30 years, so I guess that’s just the way I view it. Other things that I look at, we’ve talked for years about the marcom department presenting at board meetings at the school. It’s critical. The brand of the school, the way you’re communicating, it’s driving admissions, it’s driving development, it’s driving your retention. Only 35% of the people said that they regularly present at board meetings, how is the leadership of your school gonna understand that critical part? They’ll probably get reports from development and admissions, but not from marcom that supports them both. That’s, I find that very surprising. The one thing that jumps out and when I look at the report, I always look at it as presenting opportunities. That’s the way I look at it. If you read the report, think about how you fit in the context of these questions and what can you learn from it. One of the big ones, we ask how well schools track the results of enrollment marketing. Only it’s now up 50% said they did it very well. What you’re spending time and energy, everybody is spending time and energy and money to market for enrollment and you don’t track your results. It’s an opportunity that is just right there. Track your results. Know what works. Get rid of what doesn’t work. Spend your money on what does work. But the only way you can do that is to track your results. So that’s the, those are a couple of things that just jump out at me when I read the report.
Tara: Yeah, that’s interesting. I also wanna point out, looking at the the size of the schools that have participated, that three quarters of them are under 700 students and majority, the largest percentages in that 300 to 500. Is that fairly consistent with what you’ve seen before and what you think your membership reflects?
Rob: Yeah. What we have seen over the years is that the distribution of school sizes is fairly consistent, but I would also say the vast majority of schools are smaller. That’s just the way it is. And we’ve seen that and it’s been very consistent over the four years we did the report. The breakdown has always been pretty consistent in the size of the school.
Tara: Mm-hmm. what other things remained consistent, or stayed the same from the 2020 report?
Rob: Things that remain consistent. A lot of the more mundane things. The admissions focus- where they, the amount of people in admissions offices. One of the things we’ve tracked really closely is the size of it, of marcom admission development and business offices to try to compare them. And admission development and business offices haven’t changed much. What we’re really glad to see is that this year marcom seems to be getting more FTE’s, more full-time equivalents, more resources in the way of personnel. The other three haven’t changed that much. Marcom has moved up and it looks like schools are investing more there, which I think- we’ve been railing about it. We’ve been talking about it and writing about it for years, that you would have 2 people in marcom, 6 in admissions, and 11 in development. What’s wrong with this picture? Now I was told by someone that some of the Marco functions are easier to outsource than admission and development, and that is a legitimate way to look at it, but, we would see one or two people in marcom. How do you get done what you need to get done? So one of the things that’s remain consistent is the other size of the departments, and marcom is now moving up a little.
Aubrey: Yeah, I would I’m glad to see that happen. I think especially, we can all say that Covid certainly amplified this, but the amount of responsibility for that department is, has grown significantly and will continue to grow. I’m pretty certain that’s happening with where we are at with digital, where we are at with communications and how marcom, I always talk about how marcom’s role with retention is huge too. People don’t think about that, but it is absolutely the truth. So thank you. I appreciate you bringing that to the forefront, ’cause that’s an important conversation to have and for people to think about and heads and board members as you’re planning out your school. Definitely something you consider. I am curious, as we’re looking into 2023, like now we have this data and you’ve probably seen trends and stuff like that, but what do you think this says about where we’re headed, marcom is headed in the next year?
Rob: Well, there’s several trends that we’ve seen over the past few years. One of the ones that, that again, we feel really good about is the num- we ask people where they were, where they worked before the job they’re in now. Most of the people answering this are directors of marcom. There’s a tremendous influx into marcom at private schools from outside of academia. That’s a really positive trend and we’ve seen it over the years growing, so I think that’s great. I think that definitely is a positive trend for marcom. And the other part of that is we’ve been asking about salaries and the percentage of people making, of directors of marcom making over $90,000. That is getting into the area where they’re being paid somewhat commensurately with admission and development, and business office has grown tremendously. So the trends that I see are schools bringing more resources to marcom, understanding the value of that department and backing it up with more people, higher salaries, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s, that’s a really strong trend. I hope continues because as I said, if Covid didn’t teach you that you need a more, a strong marcom department. I don’t know what would.
Tara: Yeah, that’s interesting to hear about people coming from the private sector into schools. I wonder what’s driving that? What’s motivating that if it’s a quality of life issue or maybe a focus more on on putting their own children into these schools. What do you think that is driving that?
Rob: I think I think what’s driving it is school’s commitment to marcom and looking for qualified, experienced people to run the marcom department. Honestly, 5, 8, 10 years ago, there weren’t enough to go around. There wasn’t enough experience to go around for all, for everyone who wanted experienced people, and I think it is the people- certainly as a quality of life, working for a school is a very different thing than working in corporate world or working for hospitals or government. I think it’s a real positive and it’s positive for the people. They can come, they can work in a more relaxed atmosphere. We’ve talked to a lot of people about people who come into the director of marcom from outside of academia and how they can fit culturally because that is a culture shock for some of them. If you are working in a corporate environment and the next thing you know you’re working at a private school, it’s a different culture. And I have seen people flame out, not be able to adapt to the academic culture, and I’ve seen people just absolutely love it and say they’re never leaving because like you say, quality of life, there’s a, there’s a comradery helpfulness amongst everyone at a school pulling the same direction that maybe you don’t get in corporate world. So I think that’s just all good stuff.
Aubrey: I also, so yes, it is. And I also would love to dive into kind of print versus digital with you a little bit. Cause this is a question that comes up so often with schools. Do we print it or are we doing a hybrid? Or, are we just going digital? And so I love that you included a lot of this in the report. Do you wanna speak a little bit on what you’ve noticed in this report and kind of just some print verse digital things that you’ve noticed that would be great.
Rob: We’ve been really watching that. The one that, that we’ve watched is printed view books. Let’s see, so this year for the first time, the percentage of respondents who said they produce a printed view book drop below 50%, it’s 41%. That blew my mind, and we’ve watched it drop every year. In the report, you can find a chart that shows the years enrollment marketing. It was in 2017, 72% of respondents said they produced a printed view book. This year it was 41% and similarly, not as big a drop annual reports have dropped from 63% in 2017. This year it was 55. Now, interestingly in 2020 it was 43, so this year more people are producing a printed annual report. Not sure if that’s a trend or an anomaly, but the View books less than 50%. Viewbooks used to be the end all and be all for enrollment marketing.
Tara: Well, and you look at the virtual tour, there, that, that’s where it’s going. The number of virtual tours has gone up so much as the book has gone down.
Rob: Yeah, we’ve just started tracking virtual tours because it wasn’t something that was particularly popular, but we thought that Covid, again, would really bump that number, and it did this year, 64% said they had a virtual tour, 64%. I was trying to find the number. Let’s see, in the past virtual tour, 2018, 15%. And this year, 64%.
Tara: Yeah. That really speaks to the digital, the digital emphasis and the impact that Covid had. And think it, it costs money to produce a virtual tour video, but I imagine it’s compared to printing thousands of view books it’s probably a less expensive endeavor.
Rob: I would think. I mean, we haven’t done view books. For, it’s five or six years since we were doing that work, but even back then they were 75 to $150,000. The beauty of a virtual tour is if you need to fix it or change something, just go change it. The viewbook, yeah that’s not gonna happen very easily. Yeah, so I think. We’re seeing them go in opposite directions. Less people are producing a print of view book. More people are doing a virtual tour. What I hope is that people are looking at their virtual tours with their brand in mind. And finding ways to brand the virtual tour so that it’s not just a tour of the school. It is a brand statement and it talks about the school and that school’s culture. Its strengths, its differentiating factors. I’m really hoping that people do that in the virtual tour cause that’s-
Aubrey: Absolutely. I think you’re spot on with that, virtual tours. It’s not just giving the tour of the school , it’s sharing so much more. And I think it’s understanding that cuz video is so powerful and has the ability to. Connect and impact and connect emotionally with people who are visiting the site. So it is important to, to understand that and as you’re looking at your virtual tour and how you’re presenting it to definitely look at that. I was surprised though, when we’re talking print versus digital that the magazines went up. Which is intriguing, maybe because they’re trying to connect with, do you have any thoughts on that?
I was thinking maybe connect with certain audiences that aren’t necessarily checking their emails and stuff
Rob: like that. Certainly magazines are a great way to communicate a wide range of information to a wide range of. Because you could pick up the magazine and leaf through it and read something that you find interesting. Certainly the lead articles should be talking a lot about or at least referring to the brand of the school. And I think communicating with some older alums, some older donors parents, I think that’s a way they like to communicate. I think that’s part of the reason that we saw a little bump in annual reports also, which surprised me cuz I thought that was gonna continue to drop because in my experience, schools hate producing them because it’s nerve-wracking and difficult and it’s a lot of information. But I think the magazines have seem to have some staying power. And I will also say because of the brilliance awards I get to. Yeah. 30, 40 magazines. The work being done is really good. Yeah. Really good. I would tell people go and look at, even from last year’s Brilliance awards, go and look at the winners of the magazines.
They’re gorgeous. Yeah. And they’re well written and they’re just fabulous documents that represent the school well. They’re expensive. Evidently schools still see a value in them. Yeah.
Tara: Yeah. That’s good information.
Rob: One, one of the things that I would also say that we, one of the questions we ask, and I don’t know if I have the answer right here, we ask, do you do a readership survey? And it’s a very small percentage that actually do the readership survey. Here it is, 39% said they do a readership survey. That is such an opportunity to do what you do better. Find out what people like about your magazine. Find out what they don’t find as valuable. Make that magazine work even harder by asking people how often do you want to get it? What articles do you read? What information is important to you? Go find out. Ask them. They’ll tell you, but you have to do that survey. At least every couple of years. So the question is, how often do you do it? Have you done one in the last 24 months? The last two years, only 39% said, yes.
Tara: And surveys in general. Yeah, surveys in general of the current families. But that number is also really low. We did a, Aubrey and I talked about surveys a couple of weeks ago on the podcast and how valuable they are. So I’m looking at the results there and annually, only 21% of schools say they do a survey of their current families. So surveys are something that are definitely not on the list.
Rob: It’s an opportunity. And one of the things that I would suggest is if you do a survey like that, share the results with everybody so that they know, number one, what the results are, but also that you find that information valuable and they know how you’re gonna act on it.
Next time you do a survey, it may help, it may spur them to participate if they didn’t participate the last time.
Tara: Yeah. Yeah. Perfect. Rob, you’ve shared so much information with us. I’m really excited to have all this sort of in our pocket and I’m looking at the report. It’s also gorgeously done. Liza did a great job. It looks great.
Rob: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, she does a great job with that. Yeah. She thinks she needs the upper report game. I thought it was. I thought it was good.
Tara: It looks great.
Rob: It’s a lot of information to, to get out there in a readable, digestible fashion. I really please go to our website, it’s free, download a copy and email me if you have thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you.
Tara: Great. That’s what I was gonna ask you is if there were any last takeaways and where people can get this?
Rob: Yep. Just go to our website. You download it right from the website and you can contact me through the website. I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything in the report.
Tara: Thank you so much.
Aubrey: Sure. Thank you Rob and Liza for- let’s give her a shout out too.
Rob: Oh yeah.
Aubrey: For being here to talk about it. And also Rob and Liza, you did an amazing job putting this report together and it’s such a valuable resource for independent schools. So please go out, get the report, it’s free and read it. And then email, Rob if you have takeaway or questions.
Rob: That’d be great.
Tara: Thank you so much. Have a great day. Thank you, Rob.
Rob: Thanks guys.
Tara: Bye. Bye.