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A Tough Sell? How to Introduce Professional Marketing

By Marc Morian

Every school does marketing. But not every school hires professionals to do the job. Often, tasks such as social media and press inquiries are handled by other staff members on the side. This might be enough to at least cover some of the basics. However, it will not be enough to make your school stand out among its numerous competitors, many of which already have their marketing flags hoisted and flying in the wind.
So if your Athletics Director still manages your Facebook account and if your HR Manager still designs your job advertisements, it is time to introduce professional marketing. By that I mean structured, results-driven, and long-term-oriented marketing conducted by qualified individuals exclusively dedicated to their fields of expertise. The alternative—i.e. fragmenting marketing across your school’s workforce—is not recommended, for numerous reasons.
From the perspective of business economics, it is an illusion to think you can save money by not hiring a dedicated marketing manager. After all, there are marketing tasks that need to be done come what may. If they are assigned to someone with a lower pay grade, such as an administrative assistant, someone else will have to supervise, make the tough decisions, allocate money from a budget and keep an eye on the big picture. The result: two unofficial part-time marketers on your payroll. If your directors, principals, or even your head of school handle these tasks instead, you have effectively turned them into marketers, and overpaid ones at that. Still, you would be amazed how many heads of school spend sizable portions of their work days dealing with marketing minutiae.
Cost effectiveness aside, handing over marketing responsibilities to any non-marketing staff contradicts the principle of specialization originally put forward by Plato and made popular by Adam Smith. Until the long-lasting debate on its benefits and drawbacks is settled, I recommend you adopt the credo of “specialization increases productivity” as a working theory and move on.
If you are still in doubt at this point, I suggest you benchmark schools that seem to do everything right. We all know at least one of those. I am willing to bet that they all have specialized marketing departments – and for very good reasons. Do not spend your precious time re-inventing the wheel.
You might still argue that your budget is too low for hiring marketing staff. However, good marketing generates more profit than cost. Hence it should be viewed as an investment, not as an expense. If your school would bankrupt itself by making that investment, it obviously shouldn’t. In all other cases, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks.
As for the right timing, there is a high time (when you desperately need more students) and a perfect time (when you still have sufficient resources to finance a professional marketing department and give it time to properly establish itself). In my experience, it takes at least 12 months before marketing generates attributable results, and about 24 until it is in full swing. The problem with the perfect time for introducing professional marketing is that it also looks like the perfect time for NOT introducing it. After all, why go through additional pains when new students keep coming in on their own?
My answers are:
• Because the overall demand will be even higher with marketing than without.
• Because sooner or later, organic demand will subside. And when that happens, you better have countermeasures ready.
Once you have decided to introduce professional marketing, you need to generate acceptance for it. Marketing’s strategic role is to support your school’s growth strategy. Because any excess demand can be mitigated through waiting lists, chances are your school follows a “the more applications the better” approach.
Unfortunately, growth is rather unpopular in school communities. While staff members typically worry about increased workloads, parents fear that their children will not receive the same attention as before. Both sides will see marketing as the root of the problem. Yet, marketing depends on parents and staff as key contributors of the content it needs to do its job. Which ultimately leaves it to rely on the goodwill of its harshest critics.
In my opinion, the best way to create acceptance for professional marketing is to continue justifying it. For instance, if you pursue growth in order to spread costs for a better academic offering across a larger customer base, your community needs to hear this clearly and repeatedly.
Likewise, I recommend developing a standard formulation for justifying the existence of marketing (aside from creating growth), such as: “Marketing communicates the achievements of the students and the efforts of the teachers to the outside world, so that both parties get the appreciation they deserve.” It is a great justification, simply because it is true.
Marc Morian is an independent Marketing Consultant & Interim Manager for international schools and can be reached at [email protected].

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