The following article appears in the January-February issue of “School Leader,” New Jersey School Boards Association’s official magazine.
Cutting Through the Clutter Using “Word of Mouse” – The Future is NOW
By M. Larry Litwin, APR, Fellow PRSA [To comment: larry@larrylitwin]
M. Larry Litwin, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an associate professor of public relations at Rowan University in Glassboro and a former school public information director in Washington Township, Gloucester County. He is the 2006 recipient of the National School Public Relations Association’s Lifetime Professional Achievement Award for “excellence, leadership, contributions to the profession, and advocacy for students and our nation’s public schools.” His two books, The Public Relations Practitioner’s Playbook and The ABCs of Strategic Communications, both published in 2009, have won national acclaim.
In your wildest dreams, as a school district communicator in New Jersey, could you imagine asking voters to approve $60 million in bonds – not for a school – but for a new high school football stadium?
A Texas school district did and won voter approval (May 2009) with a 63 percent yes vote. To set the record straight, voters in the Allen Independent School District, a Dallas suburb, approved a $120 million bond initiative, which included new performing arts and transportation service centers.
Allen and other school districts have adopted strategies and tactics used by the nation’s most successful enterprises – proving that when it comes to communicating with our many audiences, the future is now.
After paving the way with an effective 1:1 (one to one) electronic marketing/communication approach, Allen tested the so-called Aladdin Factor: ask, and the worst thing that can happen is – the wish isn’t granted.
To have its wish granted – or in intellectual terms – its objectives and goal achieved, Allen and its public information director Tim Carroll, a New Jersey product, relied on its well-established 1:1 program, which includes sending its messages to voters and encouraging feedback. That interactive approach helped shape the campaign and many other facets of the district’s on-going two-way communication.
1:1 complements – and in some districts, greatly reduces – the
multi-step communication information flow in which news releases are sent to the media for broadcast or publication. It adds meaning to the term “direct communication” and eliminates a district’s reliance on others to communicate important strategic messages.
“1:1 promises accuracy, speed and dividends on the ‘investment,’“ says Carroll. “It’s an investment because those thousands of dollars once spent on printed publications are now redirected to such online communications as targeted e-mails, newsletters, ‘fliers’ and other strategic messages vital to parents, businesses and other residents.”
Carroll points out that his district “actually spends less now than it did with hard copy publications.” School districts ready to take the plunge must do as major corporations do – develop effective tactics that rely on a
long-term planning strategy, an initial relationship management effort and a
well-maintained (current and error free) mailing list.
“It’s important to remember that brilliant tactics do not overcome a
flawed (business) strategy,” says Ed Ziegler, Wilmington University lecturer and former Rowan University marketing director. “School districts, like businesses, should communicate the value of what they are offering to those who can benefit the most.”
1:1 marketing has been around for years – used primarily by magazines and brand manufacturers who send fliers through regular (U.S.) mail. Once called inkjet printing, such mailers personalize each piece with the recipient’s name. In fact, 1:1 has become so precise that some magazines offer personalized ads within the publication.
Others use “customization,” which includes the recipient’s name (accomplished through a mail merge) – plus other personal information such as, “Your wife, Nancy and teenage children, Julie and Adam, would love a free week at the Marriott here in Hilton Head.”
That is quintessential targeting (with the help of outsourcing), which has made it possible for businesses and school districts to accomplish the same bottom line via e-mail, social media and other technology. Some refer to such programs as 360-degree communication – using as many online and interactive channels as time and knowledge permit.
The 1:1 strategy relies on services provided by ListServ and other mail merge vendors. Many districts already contract vendors to help blast phone messages, texts and e-mails to parents and students particularly on urgent matters (snow closings) or emergencies. Many of these same vendors – for a fee – are willing and able to turn nonpersonal electronic mailings into a product that is almost certain to get the receiver’s attention.
A recent Rowan University study reveals ”the majority of American consumers want organizations to interact with them electronically.” Rosie Braude, who conducted the study, says, “It shows the majority of consumers consider organizations using social (and other online) media as innovative and that the use of social media can improve an organization’s reputation.” Braude, a Rowan program assistant, is past president of the university’s student public relations chapter.
As Carroll and his staff have proven, “It is a cost-effective practice that may not guarantee results, but most certainly will cut through the clutter and get your target audiences’ attention.”
Braude’s study reinforces the premise that audience lists for 1:1 must be current, as evidenced by comments from Southwest Airlines. “Organizations need to define the purpose behind their electronic involvement and establish goals of what they’d like to accomplish,” Braude says. “They will also have to invest a significant amount of time and energy (initially) formatting, editing and updating each social media tool – whether it is direct mail, newsletters, blogs, Twitter or any other tools they use.”
Says Philadelphia advertising executive Barry Magarick: “For a message to be effective, you first must get someone’s attention.” If you don’t, you are wasting your time and money.
As school district employees, responsible for keeping parents and all other taxpayers informed, we should be communicating 365 days a year (sound familiar?) – not just prior to budget and bond issue votes. That’s where 1:1 could help.
“Today, more and more effective marketing communications programs rely on an integration of various media including personalized direct mail that can be offered with e-mail and other integrated products,” says Dean Pugh, account manager with the global firm, CRW Graphic in Pennsauken (Camden County). “Consumers rely on a mix of print and non-print media (to get their information) as evidenced by the fact that 51 percent of consumers indicate that traditional mail is still their preferred method of contact.”
“That,” according to Ziegler, “is why schools, like businesses, should link all their communication (marketing) activities together to achieve a single goal. Their communication efforts should tie together a consistent look, feel, tone, and message that support their mission.”
Many districts blast a weekly communication to school families and other subscribers (called RSS feeds – Real Simple Syndication). Some include a newsletter in the e-mail while others offer a link.
With proper planning and minimal effort, that e-mail could open with: Hello Mr. and Mrs. Litwin, this week’s District e-News includes a summary of elementary school awards, this week’s school board meeting and the district’s search for a new superientendent. The Litwin family might be interested in reading about proposals to refirbish the auditorium at High School North. That introductory paragraph is referred to as an infosnack. A recipient simply clicks on the infosnack and up comes the entire story, video, “poster,” etc.
As Allen’s Tim Carroll notes: “Electronic communication has become an expectation from our parents and is a part of almost all parent interactions. What began as electronic newsletters has become a comprehensive and interactive communications effort aimed at parents – 360 degree.
“In our suburban school district of 19,000 students,” says Carroll, “we produce e-announcements at the district level monthly and at the campus (local) level weekly. All of our back to school registration materials and handbook acknowledgements are now done online. All payments for school lunches, textbook fees, student organization fees, etc., are all done online.”
His parents and others were early adopters because, according to Carroll, “Emergency communications from the district can reach parents at home, at work and on their cell phones within seconds if necessary.”
Many New Jersey districts are finding out what Allen discovered several years ago – parents like checking their child’s attendance and viewing real-time grading books online. As they become more comfortable with the process, parents and those they talk to, come to rely on and trust school district messages. It was that credibility (trust) and believability (truth) that helped persuade voters to take the $120 million plunge.
Carroll, Pugh and others agree, a key to electronic 1:1 communication is brevity. “Parents are more attuned to e-communications and therefore are less tolerant of lengthy or time consuming emails from school districts.” (Keep in mind, some elementary school parents are products of the MTV generation – accustom to short, pithy messages. They are texters and Facebookers.)
It is interesting to note that while parents and others like those short, to the point, communications, tweeting has not yet caught on. However, one thing is certain, says Carroll, “Turning print materials into pdf files and posting them no longer gets attention.”
Here are some suggestions as your district explores 1:1:
- Create a well-maintained electronic data base with as many key fields as you believe are necessary to help you effectively communicate targeted messages with parents and others in your district – especially key communicators and municipal and state officials.
- Research vendors (talk with other districts) to find out how they can partner with your district in an on-going 1:1 money-saving communication plan. Two vendors who come to mind are eChalk, School Messenger,
- The importance of a well-maintained list cannot be stressed enough. Last Father’s Day an inline attachment from a large local car dealership wished Nancy a Happy Father’s Day, rather than Larry. Credibility was immediately damaged.
- A good start would be establishing a weekly school blog (if you don’t have one) as a conditioning tool. Distribute it via an RSS feed and audiences will come to rely on it. Creating a school (district) blog as the centerpiece of a 1:1 social media strategy is a strategic investment in stakeholder longevity.
School blogs help build those online communities around issues of interest to parents, students, employees, taxpayers and other stakeholders.
In today’s “word of mouse” world, schools (districts) are discussed online, whether or not the schools participate in the conversation. To maintain credibility and support their “brand,” schools must interact with their audiences – online. Blogs and 1:1 are vivid examples of 21st century credibility using a 21st century tactic:
- Blogging allows a school to benefit from stakeholders’ praise to the
- Schools can win over readers’ testimonials that satisfy their need to
demonstrate they are making a difference.
- As people share their experiences with others, it builds a sense of
community that links value with your blog and brand.
- School communicators would be party to the positives and, more importantly, the negatives and become “rapid responders>’
Like Allen, Texas, New Jersey school districts that plan and execute effective 1:1 programs using “word of mouse” to cut through the clutter, will soon view themselves as brand champions.