[10 minute long read]

One of the main questions I get asked when supporting cultural organisations like museums, galleries, archives and libraries is ‘how do I market to schools?’. The nub of this question usually refers to the promotional aspect of the marketing mix rather than anything else: the organisation has already developed a product offer and needs to tell schools about it. But to be successful (whatever that means to you) you have to take a few steps back, return to the definition of marketing and go beyond simply communication.

What do we mean by marketing?

The strategic business function that creates value by stimulating, facilitating and fulfilling customer demand.” (Chartered Institute of Marketing)

If you boil down the CIM’s definition of marketing, it’s essentially about satisfying needs and wants. And as marketers we do that through identifying barriers and drivers for our target audience; and by selecting a relevant marketing mix across product, price, place and promotion. Things like schools leaflets, social media and e-news bulletins are just one part of the marketing mix – promotion. But to ‘do’ schools marketing properly (and by that I mean you’re meeting the needs and wants of teachers) you need to think about more than just promotion.

What’s your strategy?

Underpinning everything (and even more vital now) should be the overarching goals and priorities of your organisation – for example if you’re particularly focused on supporting the local community to get back on its feet post-pandemic, that will then inform the decisions you make with your target schools, objectives, strategy, and marketing mix. 

As marketers we would typically conduct audience analysis (in this case teachers and schools) so we get a good handle on who we’re going engage, where they are, and we’d consider their barriers and drivers. Then we look at how we can break those barriers down or exploit their motivations. We consider what types of products are going to be relevant and meet the needs of the target market (rather than shape the products first and keep our fingers crossed); work out the best pricing model for that offer; where we’ll deliver it (including how to make the product inclusive and accessible); and then we’d look at how to promote it to schools: making sure it’s relevant, shared in the right place, and at the right time.

It’s not rocket science, but in reality when there’s only one of you responsible for the schools programme and marketing, as well as lots of other things, this approach can be quite daunting (or you might just not know where to start).

Things to think about

A lot of my work is with independent, smaller organisations who don’t have in-house marketing expertise. But hopefully the following checklist is useful to work through whatever the size your organisation.

With thanks to three Bolton-based primary school teachers who gave their thoughts on this topic. And to those who responded to my call out on twitter, taking the time to share their own experiences – especially: Robin Cantrill-Fenwick (Baker Richards), Naomi Garnett (Learning and Access Manager at the National Justice Museum); Hannah Guthrie (Learning and Engagement Museum of London); Marie Hobson and Dan Wormald (National History Museum); and Simon Addison (The Roman Baths, Bath).

  • Write a plan. It doesn’t have to be long. A one pager will do. Some post-its on the wall, even. But have some kind of plan that outlines who your target schools are and how you’re meeting their needs and wants. In my experience, the main reason why organisations end up having the ‘why aren’t teachers coming to X’ discussion is because they’ve jumped into creating a product and gone down the ‘build it and they will come’ route.
  • Define your overarching goals. These may have changed because of Covid-19. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What’s your aim? And crucially how does that relate to your organisational mission, vision, values and priorities right now?
  • Do your homework. Think about your internal context and the external environment. Conduct a mini audit on your current offer for schools (product), look at your schools data over a period of years – is the visitor trend line down or up? What do you know about where your schools usually come from? What’s your catchment area (look at where 70-80% of your schools come from)? Has this changed because of Covid-19? Who are your best prospects in the market in that area? What do teachers in your defined catchment need and want from you right now? Are there any gaps in provision you can fill? Do schools differ in their needs? What are their barriers and drivers over the next few months? Years? Use your existing teacher contacts, Local Cultural Education Partnership colleagues, regional networks and Teacher Advisory Panels to get a good idea about what they need and want before allocating budget on a product which isn’t going to be fit for purpose. Thank your teachers for participating in consultation by using non-client based incentives i.e. something that’s for them rather than the school, and isn’t related to your programme.
  • Be clear on your objectives and target market. What are your specific SMART objectives? Which schools are you aiming for? Where are they? Has this changed because of Covid-19? For example, if you usually target schools within a 20 minute walking distance of the museum, but you’ve identified an opportunity to extend that reach to your whole region, then your audience (and how you communicate with them) is likely to change. Think about the best way to segment your schools target audience – is it by geography, type of school, or their behaviour/attitude (for example their levels of anxiety/risk like this BVA/BDRC model).
  • Define your strategy. What’s the overall concept that’s going to help you achieve your goals? Is it about targeting the same kind of schools from the same area to encourage them to come back more often to a similar kind of product? Is it about reaching out to different schools to broaden your reach with the same kind of product? Is it going to be more helpful to achieve your goals to develop a new product for the same kinds of schools? Or a new product entirely for a new range of schools that haven’t engaged before? Or a mix of these things? Think about how you’re going to position your offer. What makes it distinctive? Why should teachers choose your offer versus another cultural provider? What makes you so special?

We get stuff all the time and it just tends to pile up in the office.” (Teacher)

  • Create your tactical marketing mix. Once you’ve decided on a strategy, which is the best marketing mix that will break down barriers and help you achieve your strategy? Think about:

Product: which product is going to meet their needs and want of your target schools? Is there a demand for what you want to offer? Don’t get obsessed by technology – think about the output first and then consider how it might best be delivered. You may need to meet varying needs – some schools are currently very risk averse whereas others aren’t at all. How are you going to create a relevant product?

“It needs to be curriculum driven.” (Teacher)

Price: Will your programme be free or charged for? Your organisational goals and priorities are key here. What kind of pricing structure will you use? Have you conducted a competitor analysis to see where your prices sit against other similar product offerings? Would variable pricing motivate your teachers to make a booking? (Thanks to Robin Cantrill-Fenwick from Baker Richards for suggesting The Roman Baths and ZSL London Zoo for inspiration on how this works with other types of audiences – could this particular pricing model work equally as well for the schools market?). Can you test any new pricing ideas out with teachers first?

“We’d book the session at the start of the school year but your financial year doesn’t run the same as your academic year. You’re usually pushing to spend if you’ve not already spent in March, and allocate it for the following September.” (Teacher)

Promotion: Communicating with teachers is difficult if you’re firing in the dark. You’re competing against a lack of time, lack of awareness, heavy fatigue and curriculum pressures to name just a few barriers (taken directly from the teachers I spoke to). There’s no magic bullet and what works for one organisation doesn’t always work for the next. What has your research with your target schools pointed towards? Focus on the 3 R’s: When is going to be the best time to communicate the offer to them? At the start of the school year? Each term? How often do they want and expect information from you? Test your messaging with teachers. Does it sell the benefits as well as the features of your offer? Is it the right kind of message? Is it relevant to them? Although some organisations I work with still choose to send printed communication to schools in advance of the academic year, their data shows these don’t guarantee bookings – but developing and maintaining teacher relationships do. The key is to find out what works best for your teachers and don’t be afraid to throw out the rule book. Think about how you can utilise your existing partner or visitor networks, including cross-selling via your other existing visitors (for example Hannah Guthrie at the Museum of London mentioned that families have recommended their schools offer to teachers). Use social media to good effect i.e. targeted advertising to teachers, posting twilight training events on Facebook as events so that teachers have to click ‘interested in’. How can you start building relationships with teachers and those who work with them? What networks might you need to build to do this? Do you need to start a teacher e-mail list? Do you need to think about improving your local partnerships with other education providers or your local education partnership? Do you need to be more visible in local education meet-ups? Who else could help you build relationships with your target audience? Do you need to improve your search marketing? How easy is it for teachers to find the information they need on your website when they do find you? Have you done any user testing with teachers to evaluate your website (for example the user experience of your online product, general navigation to make a booking, or whether the copy is persuasive)? How much ‘work’ do teachers need to do to make a booking? Can you test your booking systems out? What do you want them to do at each stage of the journey from awareness through to conversion? Think AIDA.

“We just throw out anything that comes in the post. Although to be honest I probably don’t see much of it anyway as it gets binned before I even get to see it!” (Teacher)

“I won’t respond to phone calls or emails from people selling me stuff. It’d be mainly Facebook.” (Teacher)

“Facebook and Instagram are your best bet. A lot of teachers use Pinterest. Anything promoted via Facebook which I picked up on my personal account- I’ve done a couple of training sessions and there’s been 50 or 60 there on a night. Don’t offer the training in the daytime as its pointless because teachers are out of class. 6 or 7pm are generally when those sessions are.” (Teacher)

Place: What kind of experience are you creating and where is it going to be? What’s the welcome going to be like for the pupils and teaching team? How will you make it inclusive and accessible? If you’re presenting a digital offer how are you going to onboard the participants and make the digital experience as good as you would in real life? Will you send materials and packs out in advance to use during the session? What safeguarding measures do you need to put in place during Covid-19? How might these differ than pre-pandemic? How will you create safe online or in-person environments?

We can’t take school visits for granted

I’ve mentored several museums over the last few months who told me that pre-Covid they’d not invested much time, energy or budget into their ‘schools marketing’ because they’ve never had to. Teachers always visited as part of their annual planned trips and it was always ‘a given’. Unfortunately, the events of this past year have shown that we can’t take anything for granted, and those organisations are now concerned that school visits are no longer cash cows.

Remember that schools will be at different stages in terms of their risk levels, they’ll have different challenges and varying needs right now. Teachers are also human beings who are experiencing their own personal and professional challenges. We need to be innovative, adaptable and flexible so we can meet them where they’re at. But most importantly – we need to have some kind of responsive plan so we’re not simply flying by the seat of our pants. Our plans might change, but having a plan is better than no plan.

“Unless it’s free and it’s coherently written so it can be offered quickly as an online lesson don’t bother. It’s harsh and brutal but we are on our knees. Unless it turns up as a meaningful lesson that can be sent out across assorted platforms easily than we’re not going to do it.” (Teacher)

Further inspiration, reading and resources

The Audience Agency Learning Diaries

AIM Success Guide to Marketing

Arts Marketing Association