The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Uncovering Misperceptions in Your Marketplace

You know your school is amazing. And so do your students and families. They get to live the magic you create in the classroom day in and day out. But does the rest of your community see you in the same light? Or are you looking through rose-colored glasses?

Before undertaking any branding or marketing communications project it is important to understand not only what is authentic about your school, but also the ways others perceive you. And trust us, the two are not always the same. For example, we recently finished a branding project for Waynflete where we discovered a big disconnect between the school’s stellar academics and a perception of lacking rigor. Which of course was far from the truth. After all, they boasted the second highest SAT scores in the state of Maine. 

Brand strategy can offer so many helpful tools for combatting these incorrect assumptions. But of course, before we can do this we need to understand what the confusions are. Sometimes schools are aware of lurking misperceptions, like Waynflete was. However, some schools are not so sure. So how do you uncover these in your community? It all starts with listening.

1. Listen to Prospective Parents

Prospective parents are just beginning a relationship with your school, and are thus a great source of information. They are soliciting advice from friends and family and hearing the good, the bad and ugly. The first way to tap into this information is to have tour guides or admissions staff ask about concerns or hesitations. But remember that parents may be more open when not face-to-face. Another option is to create, print and distribute surveys during open houses or other admissions events. Be sure to ask questions targeted specifically at understanding perceptions, such as, “What is our school known for doing very well?” “What is our school known for needing to improve?” and “What makes you most hesitant to send your child to school with us?” Keeping these questions open ended and leaving enough space for respondents to jot down a few thoughts will encourage detailed answers.

2. Listen to the Media

Set a Google alert to notify you anytime an article is published mentioning your school. Take time to read through these articles and pay special attention to the language used to describe you. For example, are reporters calling you an “academic powerhouse,” “alternative education,” “artsy,” or “focused on special-needs?” Ask yourself, are these descriptors both accurate and true to how you want to be seen in the marketplace? If not, you have a disconnect.

3. Listen to Parents Unaffiliated with Your School

Parents at other schools are an even better source of information than current or prospective parents, since they are completely unbiased by direct experiences with you. Unfortunately, they are also the hardest source to reach. One idea is to use your board, staff, and current families to connect you with other members of their networks who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to enroll their kids with you. Outside agencies can also help conduct phone interviews with these individuals to understand their impressions. Using an outside group unaffiliated with the school often elicits more honesty from the respondents since they feel less pressure to sugarcoat their answers.

4. Listen to Students

Students not only contain a wealth of information about misperceptions, but they are usually not afraid to share them. When your students interact with kids from other schools they are undoubtedly exposed to the stereotypes that are being tossed around. Consider holding a student focus group to chat about both what is true about the school, and anything they have heard from friends that isn’t so true.

5. Listen on Social Media 

Do keyword and hashtag searches on social media networks, forums and review sites to uncover conversations about your school. Read through the comments to get a sense of what people really think. Are there comments about how your teachers really aren’t that engaged with students? Or perhaps that you are best suited for helping students with learning differences, but not those who are academically gifted? These are valuable insights that should inform any marketing programs moving forward. 

Once you’ve gathered information from all these various sources, compile them into one list and rank them by most to least insidious. Consider both the most frequently mentioned misperceptions and those that are most dangerous and threatening to your brand when ranking. 

Now that you understand misperceptions in your marketplace, it is time to shape your brand story to overturn them. This includes crafting messaging specifically targeted at changing these incorrect narratives. Don’t shy away from taking these head on through clever and brand-reinforcing tactics. For a list of ways to help shape your brand story, check out It’s not Just Your Story, It’s How you Tell It.


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