Promoting school enrollment through marketing

The mission of schools should be to make productive citizens, not money. When the two are in conflict, the former should take precedence. At the same time, insolvent schools don’t produce anything except jobless teachers, so schools need to have a clear strategic vision to attract and retain students.

Our hallways are emptier now that we’re at 75% of our former enrollment. Photo by WQY.
AISB needs to reach its former, pre-coup enrollment but faces many difficulties in doing so for reasons beyond its control. As one of two American schools in Bamako and the one with the closest ties to the embassy communities it is the default choice for anglophone expatriates, but that community is small because of recent and renewed political challenges. Bamako is a family posting for the US embassy, but that status was conferred after a whole crop of staffers without dependents was hired. It’s still considered a high-risk post by commonwealth countries, so we don’t have the Canadian students who used to comprise a sizeable chunk of our student body. We have thus cornered the market for the usual demographic of international students, and can’t do anything to attract more to come to Bamako.

That leaves us targeting the francophone expatriate and upper-class Malian communities who send their children to the French-system schools (lycees). The goal for these communities is likely to send their children to university in France, and an American education is not an asset for that, but the Bac offered through a lycee is. Switching the school to the IB curriculum would help there, but isn’t financially feasible at the moment. The lycees are also much cheaper than our school – the most expensive one is just half of our tuition, and this is a pattern seen in other francophone West African cities like Abidjan.

At the same time, we do offer a distinctly rewarding educational experience. This past year we’ve had three students come to us from the lycees and both they and their parents are extremely happy with the decision. They like the collaboration, creativity, and individual care of AISB’s learning environment. So how do we spread the word?

Part of our communication plan was to create a promo video for the school to showcase why it’s unique in Bamako. Since one of the audiences was the francophone community, it’s been subtitled in French – see the CC box in the bottom-right once the video starts playing.

More info about that process to come in the next blog post.

The other piece is a grassroots (for a lack of a better word) campaign to promote the school. We’ve outsourced design of business cards to a student in my tech modules class with the idea that our faculty and certain parents can use them to introduce themselves to families we meet at social functions and public events and give them a personal invitation to tour the school. The cards will highlight what we think makes AISB a uniquely valuable educational experience.

But aside from that, we don’t have a well-oiled PR machine. Buying billboards, print, and media advertisements would be one route, but I’m not convinced that they would reach our target audience because expatriates and upper class Malians probably follow international outlets. Buying Google AdWords targeting French expatriates moving here might make a difference. We need a Strategic Committee sponsored by a board member that works with the PTO to find the best way to reach the francophone community. Expatriates who are moving to a new – whether francophone or not – tend to seek out schools more than schools need to be actively reaching out to them. We need to make it as easy as possible for those prospective parents to find us. And for upper class Malians, we need to find a way to reach them on their terms and then provide a compelling reason to try a new avenue of education for their children.

What I haven’t covered here is how programming can differentiate a school. Our academics are already great. Building a pool might be a loss-leader that appears to be an unprofitable investment but tips the scales in favor of sending a child here. More opportunities to participate in WAISAL and other athletic/activities exchanges in the region would also help, as would continuing to strengthen after school activities and going to a 1:1 program. But that’s a whole other topic.

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