The Golden Goose of School Marketing? | Dianne Fraser

25 May 2023

Word-of-Mouth (WOM) advertising is one of the oldest and most effective forms of marketing and is renowned for the incredible power it holds in the decision-making process.


During a recent conversation with a Principal from the US, he proudly told me that his school had done away with all forms of traditional advertising, and that the word-of-mouth recommendations of school parents were all they utilised.  With things travelling so well, he had even decided against filling a recent vacancy for the management of their marketing;  ‘We don’t need it anymore’, he drawled.  It sounded like every Principal’s dream outcome – or is it? 

Word-of-Mouth (WOM) advertising is one of the oldest and most effective forms of marketing and is renowned for the incredible power it holds in the decision-making process.  It is where organic discussion about a brand, or in this case, a school, leads to a healthy and positive community view, and ultimately, increased enrolments.  Nielsen is a global leader in collating statistics, data and analytics, and a recent report by them identified that 92% of survey respondents trusted the recommendations of a friend or family member over any alternative marketing tools.   That’s the rationale behind the success of WOM.

Why is this the case? 

Well, finding a voice to trust in this era often requires the investigative skills of Hercule Poirot and the wisdom of Solomon.  When we don’t have those skills or time at our ready disposal, we will trust a friend or family member over the promises of the marketeers.   Advertisers and Marketers are often distrusted with their messaging strategies.  Unfortunately, PR spin techniques have been the root of this growing mistrust.  Famous scenarios such as L’Oréal using the phrase ‘clinically proven’ without actual studies, or Volkswagen actively faking emissions standards show that even reputable organizations can fall into using dodgy marketing tactics.  The volume of scams, false messaging, conspiracy theories and application of social media algorithms also increase the pool of uncertainty and broken trust – and thereby further empower the value of Word-of-Mouth recommendations.

My American friend isn’t the only one who sees WOM as the golden goose in marketing.  

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with an Australian school about their strategies and they advised me that WOM was also their sole vehicle for enrolment growth.  Whilst that sounds rational given the previous points, they also confessed there were no strategies in place to help shepherd the discussions of their community – their hands were off the messaging wheel and the car was making its own way towards marketing outcomes.  The problem with that approach is that by giving total control for any dialogue about your brand to a third-party, means you are relinquishing the ability to control the narrative.   It is also impossible to analyse, quantify and trace.  Whilst it is undeniable that there is potency in WOM advertising, without a measure in place, it is difficult to discern if alternative approaches are required or pivoting is needed.   There is also such a thing as negative word of mouth, which can damage your reputation and counteract the good.

If you leave Word-of-Mouth unchecked, what happens when the marketing car hits a pothole, or gets a flat tyre?  I can assure you that the car won’t stay on course.  Neither will trusting undirected WOM as your sole marketing technique keep your growth goals in place. Successful use of this tool requires more than just letting discussion around a brand develop without intervention.  Not having a voice, or an ability to shape the narrative risks that car breaking down mid journey and you have no other vehicle at your disposal to keep your marketing on the road. It just takes a single scenario, or a few disgruntled parents, and your WOM strategy not only fails to deliver new enrolments but can lead to the loss of existing families too.   For example, a school in the state of California was using the hands-off approach.  One very enthusiastic family who, due to their unique family circumstances, were the recipients of a bursary. They became vocal about the generosity of the school and the opportunities this presented to their family.  What was a good news story, quickly translated into a flood of new enquiries about how to access similar bursaries, as well as complaints from previously satisfied families about why they were exempt from such opportunities. To make matters worse, the school had no traction in positive communication themselves to be able to keep messaging aligned.  They had no regular news updates, they were blasé about their website’s content, and they had no clear messaging tool or strategy.   The result was a nosedive on new enrolments and an increasing trickle of dissatisfaction from existing families.  This grew a culture of complaint which eventually saw departures and loss of goodwill.  

Word-of-Mouth Marketing, like any marketing technique, needs to be carefully considered and directed.  It is incredibly effective but needs to be part of a full marketing strategy.
So what does a healthy campaign involve?  There’s no simple three step process in this domain, but there are key areas that any marketer can implement to help WOM work for the benefit of the school.

Ensure your current cohort feels heard and satisfied.

It seems so simple, but intentional action towards ensuring your current families love the school is critical.  There’re many ways you can ensure you are ahead of problems.  
Focus Groups and surveys can be very useful.   You want honest feedback, and hearing how your current parents and students feel about the school is immensely valuable.  You can’t fix what you don’t know about.  Asking for feedback shows your community that you care about what they think and are open to hearing from them.  Good responses are also useable for marketing communication as well.

With regards to surveys – a personal side note.  General feedback can be done without identifying the source, but if you are inviting expanded critical feedback, ensure that you can approach the writer.  This assists with resolving issues, as well as keeping the approach of conflict aligned with our biblical mandates (Matt 18:15-16, Matt 5:9).  Unhappy people can be unhinged and unfair with their commentary if there is no recourse.  I’ve witnessed firsthand a school community imploding after it distributed anonymous surveys that encouraged brutal commentary to be shared under the cloak of anonymity.  It’s not God’s intention for us to deal with one another in such a way.   

Meet with people, ask for feedback, resolve issues as they arise, be approachable – but always taking a godly approach towards conflict resolution.  Keeping your school community happy is the biggest tool in the WOM belt.

Turn the bad into good.

When musician Dave Carroll witnessed his $3,500 guitar being tossed about by United Airlines baggage handlers, he immediately tried to alert airline staff, but was ignored. He battled for almost a year to be compensated for the damage done to his instrument, without any success.  

With no resolution, Carroll decided to air his frustrations on social media.  He made a YouTube video entitled “United Breaks Guitars.” The video received 22 million views, United Airline’s stock fell by 10% and they lost an estimated $180 million dollars - an unbearable amount of negative WOM. It is now reported that United Airlines uses Carroll’s video in their staff orientation program – they learnt from the fallout, and we can too.  There is a need to respond immediately if a situation arises at your school.  Beat the chatter by communicating quickly and clearly to your community.  Offer apologies.  Be respectful.  Show you have heard and take the matter offline and out of the public sphere to be resolved in private.  Doing this well can turn a negative word of mouth opportunity into a positive advertising resource.

If you have negative feedback on social media, or hear it from the community, be proactive and approachable in meeting face to face (not Facebook to Facebook) with those involved to resolve conflicts.  Hoping it will just go away and fade with time largely doesn’t happen.  Own the story before it owns you.  That’s a Public Relations nugget for free.

Directly ask for satisfied families to provide reviews, leave feedback, or provide shareable quotes you can utilize in marketing.

Word of mouth isn’t just defined by the Sunday lunch conversation a school family has around the BBQ but includes reviews and feedback that can be shared by the school.   70% of people trust reviews and recommendations from strangers (Nielsen).  It’s easy to find key families who are invested and believe in the school to share quotes on your website, social media, or broader advertising.   Filmed testimonials are fantastic for a school’s online presence and blend the power of WOM, with the other powerhouse of marketing – video content.  72% of viewers consume video content over any other format, and 95% of those viewing a message will retain the content versus 10% who read the text.  

The bonus of having testimonials in place, is that they can be integrated into social media, websites, printed materials and more.  
Have those key families also leave a positive review on social media and in google.  Those reviews are part of the research journey a family takes prior to enrolment.

Connect with a worthy cause – Community WOM.

It is one thing for the school to be communicating about the benefits of enrolment at the establishment, but generating broader community goodwill can also bear fruit.  One school I have been involved with partnered with a local nursing home in a cross generational relationship.  The school choir would go and perform for the residents before the students and elderly spent time playing board games together.  The nursing home would bring a bus load of residents to music performances, special afternoon teas and other community events, with special care and recognition provided towards these invited guests.  The feedback from the nursing home, families of residents, and even the local media was nothing but glowing – and it shared the school’s values in a tangible way.  According to IBM research , 40% of consumers will intentionally seek out companies that align with their values.  These kinds of repeated intentional actions are golden with WOM.  

Create Sharable Triggers

Triggers are memorable experiences or feelings that make people want to talk about your school.  What could work for your situation?  Is it how your school reaches out to neighbouring schools or communities in a crisis?  Is it how your students volunteer at large local events, or the team that is rostered weekly at a soup kitchen for the homeless.  These are good opportunities for your school’s community health, student growth in service, and outworking of your school values – but also great for WOM fodder.   Report these moments on social media and the message will be shared on organically.  Include the content within the newsletter and website to ensure that several channels are engaged to reach everyone.  Don’t falsely assume that a simple post on one platform is going to connect with your whole audience.  That’s just not the case.

Emotional Provocation

Tapping into people’s emotions can be an immensely powerful way to generate positive feelings about the school.  This not only enriches current families school pride and satisfaction, but spills over into those exploring your establishment for themselves.

One of the most important decisions a parent makes is choosing a school where their children will be educated.  While much of this decision is based on research, logical analysis and rational thought, you can’t discount the important role emotions play in this selection process.  Dale Carnegie wrote, ‘When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.’  Emotional connection is a superpower in marketing.

Practically speaking, use the power of story.  Showcasing on your website about how student’s lives are being transformed through the education they are receiving at your school is gold.  Embed the power of humanity into your social media posts.  Don’t just relay information, intentionally seek connection.  Reflect on your enrolment processes and consider how you can make the experience one that becomes a pleasurable and positive engagement that can breed further positive WOM discussion.  Every touch point in the journey needs to be honestly reflected on and seen as an opportunity to make the school shine, and your community smile.

Other tools

There’s plenty of other ways to intentionally direct WOM advertising. 

1. Ask people to share their stories, experiences, and thoughts about your school in an interesting way.  Run a hashtag competition on Instagram about a particular topic (Mother’s Day,  school sports day, etc).
2. Start and nurture an engaging community. Provide year groups with a closed Facebook page for interaction and collaboration, overseen by a specifically selected parent who can keep the conversations positive.  Watch the playdates and parent dinners unfold.
3. Create a referral program that rewards those who refer others to the school. 
4. Don’t confuse likes with connection.    Forbes Magazine reports that in recent years, brands have been so caught up with collecting social media fans (likes and followers), that they have neglected the skill of connecting with their community.    Connection is king.  Growth in followers is one thing, but engagement is of far more value.

Word-of-Mouth Marketing is often falsely viewed as a no effort program, that is a reward for having a great school.   In many ways, it is a response to a healthy community.  However, as with anything in life, curve balls come, and unless there are sound practices and processes in place, the negative fallout can be catastrophic.  

A healthy school can further enhance the power of what their community says about them, by providing the content and direction that makes that WOM work so well.  A school must always work to control the narrative as much as possible and provide every opportunity for the right messages to be shared.  

1. Hinde G 2021, The Power of Testimonials, LinkedIn, viewed 24 May 2023, <>
2. Witt, T 2023, Social Media Video Statistics marketers need to know for 2023, Social Sprout, viewed 24 May 2023, <>
3. IBM, 2020, Research Insights: Meet the 2020 consumers driving change, IBM, viewed 24 May 2023, <>

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