The Art of Storytelling:  Transforming School Marketing | Dianne Fraser

10 April 2024

 

People don’t remember data or speeds and feeds; it’s stories that transcend time, people and cultures. And for marketing to cut through all the noise and thrive, it should infuse storytelling in everything. Otherwise, you may be stuck on the hamster wheel of spending more and more money to stand still.’  (Hattar, 2022). 

 

Several years ago, I ran an item on a school website and newsletter that was a playful retelling of a science class that sought to solve a mystery of ‘who had stolen the cheese’ from the staffroom fridge.  By using forensic techniques, the science teacher had a series of activities set up with visiting professionals, that considered things such as fingerprinting, interview techniques and footprint analysis.  In relaying the event to the school community, it was light-heartedly reported as a crime story.

 

The local paper picked up on the item, asked to publish it, and due to the subsequent popularity of the article, asked for a follow-up the following week where the resolution of the ‘crime’ could be reported.   It ended up becoming a mirthful whole of school event – that delighted families and students, and to my delight as a marketer, reached the entire community.

 

Several years later, whilst taking a prospective young family on a school tour, I asked them what had brought them to consider this particular school.  The husband said ‘cheese theft’.  After unpacking that further, it was the story we had run two years earlier that had caught his attention.  As a family, they had decided that the fun approach of the teacher, the strong community spirit relayed in the story, and evidence of creative learning were exactly what his family were after – and so two years on, they came with that memory in place.

 

 

Back in the 60s, Professor Gordon Bower and Michael Clark from Stanford tested the impact that story has on brand recollection, with findings indicating that attaching a narrative enhances memory 7 times over (Bower, Clark 1969).  Emotional connection via a narrative has repeatedly been proven to deliver great outcomes.  Harvard Business Review reports that when companies connect with customers’ emotions, the payoff can be huge (Magids, et al, 2015).   Whilst the emotions generated by a spoof crime story in a local paper will never be considered momentous, for this family their small memorable experience of playfulness and joy was enough to hold one small regional school in their mind for their own children years down the track.

 

In today's competitive educational landscape, schools are constantly seeking innovative ways to stand out and attract students. While traditional tactics like flyers and advertisments still play a role, there's a growing recognition of the power of storytelling in school marketing. Stories have a unique ability to captivate audiences, evoke emotions, and create lasting connections. By incorporating storytelling into their marketing strategies, schools can effectively convey their values, mission, and unique offerings to prospective students and parents. In this blog, we'll explore the art of storytelling and how it can be harnessed to transform school marketing. 

 


Understanding the Power of Storytelling

 

At its core, storytelling is about engaging audiences on an emotional level. Whether it's through a compelling narrative, relatable characters, or vivid imagery, stories have the power to capture attention and leave a lasting impression. In the context of school marketing, storytelling allows educational institutions to communicate their identity and ethos in a way that resonates with their target audience.   It becomes more than just stating the facts of the programs that are offered, and steps into the sphere of personalising and humanising that material so that it appeals emotionally.

 

Maria Hattar speaks of how there is a challenge to cut through the content tsunami that hits each of us every day.  She is a firm advocate that marketing needs to be reorientated around story telling.  ‘This is because I’ve found that people don’t remember data or speeds and feeds; it’s stories that transcend time, people and cultures. And for marketing to cut through all the noise and thrive, it should infuse storytelling in everything. Otherwise, you may be stuck on the hamster wheel of spending more and more money to stand still.’  (Forbes, 2022).

 


 

Crafting Compelling Narratives

 

Every school has a story to tell – from its founding principles to its unique programs and achievements. By crafting compelling narratives, schools can bring their stories to life and create a sense of authenticity that resonates with prospective students and parents. These narratives can highlight the school's history, values, and vision for the future, providing insight into what sets it apart from others.

 

For example, a school with a strong emphasis on community service might share stories of students who have made a difference in their local community through volunteer work. Similarly, a school with a focus on innovation and technology could showcase the achievements of its students in science fairs or robotics competitions. 

 

By weaving these narratives into their marketing materials, schools can showcase their strengths and create a sense of excitement and intrigue.   The good news is that stories are everywhere.  I am a firm believer that every marketer needs to allocate a portion of their day in exploring their schools and uncovering the nuggets of storytelling gold right under their nose.  To not invest the time to unpacking the stories in the school is a tragedy –  those stories have the capacity to lift the profile of staff and students, build a community of celebration, and share the heart of your school with future families.  But you need to intentionally work towards unpacking what gems exist.  Storytelling rarely happens consistently and continuously without an intentional approach.

 

You need to intentionally work towards unpacking what gems exist.  Storytelling rarely happens consistently and continuously without an intentional approach.

 


Personalising the Experience

 

One of the key advantages of storytelling in school marketing is its ability to personalize the experience for prospective students and parents. By sharing stories of current students, alumni, and faculty members, schools can provide insights into what life is like within their community. These personal anecdotes humanize the institution, making it more relatable and inviting.

 

For instance, featuring testimonials from alumni who have gone on to achieve success in their careers can inspire confidence in the school's ability to prepare students for the future. Likewise, sharing stories of teachers who go above and beyond to support their students can demonstrate the school's commitment to academic excellence and student well-being. By showcasing the individuals who make up the school community, storytelling creates a sense of connection and belonging that resonates with prospective families.

 

By showcasing the individuals who make up the school community,
storytelling creates a sense of connection and belonging that resonates with prospective families.

 

 

Around 10 years ago, I worked with a school that ran an in-school cadets’ program that was the first of its kind in the country.  That was articulated at every opportunity as a key point of difference, but after a while, it became apparent that we needed to put a human face on the program, and for its significance to emotionally connect with our market audience.  At the time, the program was running students through their bronze medallion qualifications, and into the frame stepped a young lady with an unusual backstory.  Meseret was Ethiopian – an orphan who had been adopted by a local family.  Prior to her commencement at the school, she had never seen a large body of water, let alone learnt to swim.  Within one year she went from stage one, through to Bronze Medallion in her swimming.  The story hit the press, and it wasn’t just a feel-good story about a local girl who had accomplished something remarkable, but about the school program that delivered that outcome for her.  Storytelling gold.  

 


Leveraging Multiple Platforms

 

In today's digital age, storytelling can be amplified through a variety of platforms, including social media, websites, blogs, and video content. Schools can leverage these platforms to meaningfully reach a wider audience and engage with prospective students and parents.

 

For example, a school might create a series of blog posts or newsletter articles highlighting different aspects of campus life, such as academics, extracurricular activities, and student achievements. These posts could feature interviews with students and faculty members, behind-the-scenes looks at campus events, and firsthand accounts of memorable experiences.  Creating accompanying videos broadens the reach further.  By sharing these stories across social media channels, schools can amplify their reach and foster community engagement.

 

To add even more personalisation to the narrative, offering opportunities for students to participate in the story telling adventure is highly engaging.  For instance, a school could roster different classes to showcase an event, share a story of something remarkable that has happened, or relay the details about a creative learning opportunity that has unfolded.  Get a Year 2 class in charge of your social media for a day you will have impressive engagement levels accomplished.  

 

Amelia Veale states:  ‘In the modern world, impactful brand storytelling is about how to look your audience in the eye, digitally’ (Veale, 2024)  Finding ways to use the wholesome and visionary narratives unfolding every day within your campus, and genuinely connecting with the community are goals for a school marketer.

 

 ‘In the modern world, impactful brand storytelling is about how to look your audience in the eye, digitally’ (Veale, 2024)
 

See ... Really See

 

I will say it again…. I believe that a storytelling approach needs to be intentional.   I’ve discovered that there is a need to shift our approach.  We need to move from being breathlessly busy simply undertaking the work that hits our desk, and instead, carve out some time in each day to prioritise bathing in the essence of our school and see what is worth sharing beyond the classroom door.   We need to pause, to quieten our spirits, and really SEE.  We need to prayerfully walk the corridors, and ask God to open up our eyes  – and celebrate more than just what is blindingly obvious.  One example I have unpacked was with the College cleaners.

 

I had noted that each morning, when arriving at school, that the toilet paper throughout the College would be neatly folded, and seal pressed as you would find at a five-star hotel.  That intrigued me, so I left my desk and tracked down these hard-working night owls, and unpacked some of their story.  What they told me was gold!  They had the belief that their service for God and his school, was worthy of the five-star treatment.  Not only that, but as they cleaned down every desk, and worked through every classroom, they would pray over the class, each student at every desk, and for the teacher of that room.  They were intentional in their approach to their humble work and saw that everything they did was in service to God himself and deserved their absolute best - they understood that they had a critical part to play in the prayerful undergirding of the College. 

 

Their attitude towards service and the evidence of their godly character was worth sharing.  As a result of relaying their story, parents gave feedback about how much of a blessing it was to know that their children were being cared for wholistically by staff across the entire organisation.  Students witnessed an example of servanthood in action.  The cleaners felt seen and encouraged.  Students and staff built a connection with the cleaning team and cohesion developed.  A healthy community builds a platform for internal and word of mouth marketing to launch from.  A simple conversation unpacked a whole facet of school life previously unseen.  

 

 

It takes a little bit of effort to unpack these gems. Have the time to look a little deeper and discover the heartbeat of your school.  Celebrate staff and volunteers at every level – it’s good for the whole community.  

 


Implement the Storytelling

 

How do you start this approach to marketing?

 

1. Identify Your Unique Stories: Begin by uncovering the distinct stories within your school. These could be success stories of students, inspiring journeys of faculty or staff members, or the history and mission of your institution. These narratives should resonate with your Christian values and mission.

2. Craft Compelling Narratives: Develop these stories into compelling narratives. Use the classic storytelling structure with characters, conflict, and resolution. Show the transformation that occurs within your school community.

3. Incorporate Faith and Values: Integrate Christian faith and values into your stories. Highlight how your school fosters spiritual growth, moral character, and service to the community. This demonstrates the faith-centered education you offer….(Remind existing families, and pique the interest of future families).

4. Leverage Multiple Platforms: Share these stories through various marketing channels. Use your school website, social media, newsletters, and events to reach a wide audience. Incorporate visuals, including images and videos, to enhance engagement.

5. Engage the Community: Involve parents, alumni, and current students in sharing their stories. Create a sense of belonging and a community that reinforces your school's mission.

6. Measure and Adjust: Utilize analytics and gather feedback to measure the impact of your storytelling efforts. Adjust your approach based on what works best for your audience (Google, Hootsuite, platform analytics).  It’s encouraging and motivating to do!

7. Consistency and Authenticity: Maintain consistency in your storytelling, ensuring your brand's tone, voice, and values shine through. Be authentic and transparent to build trust with your audience.

 

 


Fostering Emotional Connections

 

At its heart, storytelling is about fostering emotional connections. By tapping into the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of their audience, schools can create narratives that resonate on a deeply personal level. Whether it's the excitement of starting a new chapter in life or the pride of seeing a child succeed, storytelling has the power to evoke a range of emotions that can influence decision-making.

 

Storytelling can be done in all manner of ways.  It’s creative, fluid, and doesn’t follow a set process.  For example, a school might create a video montage showcasing the journey of a graduating senior, from their first day of school to their graduation ceremony. By capturing the highs and lows of this journey, the video can evoke feelings of nostalgia, pride, and anticipation, resonating with both current and prospective families. Similarly, a series of testimonials from parents expressing gratitude for the impact the school has had on their child's life can reinforce the emotional connection and inspire trust and loyalty.  Let your imagination run wild – but you need to uncover the stories first and then work through the most effective ways to share the news.

 

Storytelling has the power to evoke a range of emotions that can influence decision-making

 

Conclusion

 

In an increasingly competitive educational landscape, storytelling has emerged as a powerful tool for school marketing. By crafting compelling narratives, personalizing the experience, leveraging multiple platforms, and fostering emotional connections, schools can effectively communicate their values, mission, and unique offerings to prospective students and parents. Whether it's through written testimonials, video stories, or social media posts, storytelling allows schools to create engaging content that resonates on a deeply personal level. In doing so, they can differentiate themselves from competitors, attract the right students and families, and build a strong and vibrant community for years to come.

 

 

 

 

References

Bower G, and Clark M, 1969, Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning, Psychonomic Science 14: 181–182. 

Hattar M, 2022, Why Storytelling Wins in Marketing, Forbes, viewed 10 April 2024, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2022/06/09/why-storytelling-wins-in-marketing/?sh=988543773a7a>

Magids S, Zorfas A, Leemon D, 2015, The New Science of Customer Emotions, Harvard Business Review, viewed 10 April 2024, < https://hbr.org/2015/11/the-new-science-of-customer-emotions

Veale A, 2023, LinkedIn, viewed 10 April 2024, < https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ameliaveale_storytelling-activity-7114228316848455680-uuaS/?trk=public_profile_share_view>

 

 

 

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