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The medium and the message: 21st century independent school marketing

By Keryn House

Whilst writing this article, I was holidaying with a few friends in a quiet hamlet to escape our working lives in Hillcrest or Durban for a few days.

Some of us were keen to debate issues of global and local relevance and communicate the experiences we were having on social media. I was surprised at the resistance we experienced from our host to this external influence and engagement. I was posting a photograph on Facebook when he became especially disparaging – why share happy experiences online and why check what others are posting while on holiday? Similarly, why go online for an update on the Syrian conflict, to learn more about anti-gender violence campaigns in India, the Boston bombers or the world’s concern for the fragile health of Madiba?

I have experienced an eerily similar attitude from some independent schools’ marketers when it comes to connecting with the world – online – and then making global issues relevant to marketing campaigns. How much of our time do we spend facing inward rather than outward? The marketer’s job should be essentially outward-facing, while the rest of the management team faces predominantly inward, addressing academic, operational, financial and governance issues in the constant pursuit of excellence. But, still today, in many independent schools, the marketer is also just looking inward, focusing only on student numbers rather than the potential contribution the school can make in the context of global and local political, economic and social developments.

Sticky stories

At the 2012 Independent Schools Marketing Association (ISMA) ‘Refresh: Embracing Change – Sustaining Schools’ conference in Cape Town,1 who could possibly forget Ian Calvert’s presentation entitled ‘The New World of Marketing’?2 The barrage of tweets resulting from his talk (posted on the Twitter conference site acknowledged his view that many of the old marketing strategies (such as newspaper, radio and television advertising; telemarketing; direct marketing and e-mail marketing) are fast becoming outmoded. It’s a widely held view, explains an American blogger with the charismatic handle Aimen KB: “The initial idea of marketing was to sell the product, but in the current global scenario, it is to create the need for the product you’re trying to sell, which puts the control in the hands of those who are being dealt with; the consumers.” In the case of independent schools, proliferating in various forms in this country, this means that the school marketer must (a) spend more time understanding the impact of external influences on consumers, and (b) align the school’s marketing message with that impact.

In a globalised, information-saturated environment , authenticity and connectivity are key. Genuine ‘sticky stories’ about your school can quickly ‘go viral’ and make you the destination of choice.

An example of a ‘sticky story’ at Waterfall College in KwaZulu-Natal might be the recent presentation to our school by well-known KwaZulu-Natal private investigator, Brad Nathanson, of Brad Nathanson Investigations, who spontaneously posted on his Facebook page later the same day. He wrote: “I gave a talk this morning to the pupils of Waterfall College. How refreshing to note that the assembly was opened with a reading from the Bible followed by a prayer. Just what our youth needs… spiritual foundation.”4 This resulted in over 1 200 ‘likes’ and 150 comments on Nathanson’s page within 24 hours. A genuine experience grabbed the attention of a large group of people and got them talking about the school. In a country disillusioned by political in-fighting, fraud, corruption and violence, people – including prospective parents – were soothed by a simple positive message – and quickly passed it on.

Instead of relying solely on traditional ‘old style’, formulaic marketing strategies, such as heralding stellar results, alumni endorsements or the promotion of expanded facilities and resources, the new style of marketing requires that a school is in touch with the world the consumer experiences every day across social, political and economic arenas. By way of example: we have a leadership crisis in this country, yet how many independent school leaders are sharing their valuable experience and expertise via social media? How many independent school teachers and leaders are interacting with public schools to find a way to improve the quality of the whole education system in South Africa? What better marketing message could there be than one that gets the news out that you’re an authentic, powerful force for positive change?

Ignite and get out of the way

The medium may be as important as the message. While the majority of independent schools in South Africa still use national and local print media and fund-raising initiatives and events to make themselves visible, anecdotal evidence increasingly suggests that more are getting ‘bang for their marketing budget buck’ by turning to web marketing and other social media opportunities. Global information and measurement company Nielsen Holdings, based in New York,5 suggests that, overwhelmingly, people most trust products and services recommended by word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM). Today, WOMM has been reinvented through social networks. In his bestselling book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, Seth Godin says that the future belongs to the marketers who ignite consumer networks, let them talk and then get out of the way.6 Even a simple website presence should enable schools to optimise networks of community relationships to build brand authenticity, ‘sticky stories’ and a consequent unique personalisation of the education experience for their students, at a relatively low cost.

WOMM in the US

These realisations are also happening in the US, says Rick Newberry of Enrolment Catalyst in Florida, in the US.7 Newberry, who works with schools wishing to boost enrolment, cites anecdotal experience that parents considering independent schools for their children first hear of a school from someone else who has children at that school, or has had a personal experience with that school. Then, a parent will generally conduct online research and thereafter step onto the school campus to check it out in person. Newberry has seen a shift away from newspaper, radio and television advertising of independent schools in the US, since these traditional advertising campaign styles have not been able to show that they are bringing in new students. Social media also reward schools’ inbound marketing campaigns (the process of getting found by customers through content generation and search optimisation on social media), believes Newberry, who says that the marketing of independent schools in the US is often characterised by story-telling. Each school has a story that defines ‘who’ it is, what it values and how it infuses those values into children to equip them for life in the 21st century. Newberry says these stories often appear on blogs, accompanied by online videos.

To cope with a new way of doing business, of connecting discerning consumers with solid values in an uncertain world, many US independent schools are expanding their marketing teams, reports Newberry, adding public relations, development and advancement to the more traditional portfolios of admissions, recruitment and retention. Marketing committees that include board members, trustees or other community stakeholders are also on the rise.

It’s all about conviction

The role of the marketer in independent schools in South Africa may very well need to be reconsidered, given the changing power of the consumer. Marketing professionals, who deal with admissions-related duties, sales promotion activities and public relations responsibilities, should also be initiating strategic conversations about new ways of doing things, relating not only to the competitiveness of the school or its rich heritage, but also its positioning in and relations with the community and the world.

Says Aimen KB, “Social networking basically changed how people experienced communication. Social networking… has provided us with a platform where we follow people, and people follow us. All you have to do is sit back in the middle of this unbelievable network of people, share ideas that matter to you, and get enlightened by the opinions and likings of the hundred or thousand people on your network. “The power is in the hands of the consumers, and consumers have now gained the knowledge of their significance in this entire system. Therefore, a good marketer will never try and manipulate. Instead he will form alliances with this power. It’s never about manipulation, it’s about conviction.”8


1. See, for example,

2. Ian Calvert is the co-founder of Instant Grass, a marketing agency based in Cape Town focusing on consumer collaboration. See

3. Aimen KB (2012) ‘Why old fashioned marketing doesn’t work anymore’. Available at: why-old-fashioned-marketing-doesnt-work-anymore/.

4. See, for example,

5. The Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising Survey was conducted in August/September 2011 and polled more than 28 000 consumers in 56 countries throughout Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and North America. See documents/NielsenTrustinAdvertisingGlobalReportApril2012.pdf.

6. Godin, S. (2009) Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. New York: Penguin.

7. Rick Newberry is the president of Enrolment Catalyst, a company that partners with schools administrators in the US to provide coaching and consulting in enrolment management and marketing systems, strategies and solutions needed to reach their goals. (Source:

8. Aimen KB (2012) op. cit.

Category: Winter 2013

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