||SThe first thing in marketing is to have a great product to sell," asserts Joel Weaver, Director of US-based Intercultural Communications College in Honolulu, HI. "If your widgets are lousy, no one will buy them… But the best widget in the world will stagnate on the shelves if no one knows that it is the best." For any business to succeed from the smallest family enterprise to the biggest multinational corporation it is necessary, first to have a good product to sell, and second, to ensure that as many potential customers as possible are aware of its benefits.
How to ensure the suitability of the product will be considered later. Looking first at spreading the word, this is always a costly matter. It is hard to generalise about how much language schools typically invest in their marketing, since different organisations categorise their spending in different ways, but Nick Tellwright, Group Marketing Director for the international chain, Study Group, estimates a figure of approximately 20-to-25 per cent of total income spent on marketing, if commissions are included.
In the regular Language Travel Magazine Status surveys, the average percentage figure arrived at for marketing spend as a percentage of a school's gross income tends to be between eight per cent and 16 per cent, depending on the market, underlining that a smaller independent business is not able to replicate the same scale of the marketing efforts undertaken by a large global chain.
For many small language schools that are unable to employ specialist staff in this area, marketing can sometimes by a question of trial and error. However, with all businesses, large and small, under constant pressure to contain if not actually reduce costs, the key to a successful marketing strategy is to identify priorities, to keep a firm focus, and to maintain a marketing presence. Many schools have anecdotal reports of restricting their marketing budget in difficult times, only to find it harder than ever to regain the same foothold in their marketplace, once business seems to be bouncing back.
It is useful, first of all, to break down language school marketing into two main strands: student-focused and agent-focused activities. With the broad possibilities for direct marketing opened up by the Internet, it was once mooted that the importance of agents would decline, although that scenario is now certainly redundant. However, some schools are happy to carry out all of their own recruitment, frequently based around the use of the Internet. One such school is the Center for International Programs at the University of Dayton in Dayton, OH, in the USA. According to Tricia Penno, International Communications Co-ordinator, "We have found that students find us on their own. The number of students in our intensive English programme is growing without the help of agents."
Yet, as time goes on, any prediction of general agent decline appears to be far wide of the mark. Indeed, Tellwright quotes research carried out by JWT Education in Australia indicating that agents are featuring more prominently in student decision-making. "There will always be a place for agents who build a proven reputation for high quality advice and support throughout the student's period of study," he says. Recent research by the Association of Language Travel Organisations (Alto) also confirms that enhancing agent relations is a priority for many of its language teaching members (see page 10).
Weaver agrees. "Over 70 per cent of our students come to us through agents, and I know the percentage is higher for some schools." While he admits to bemoaning the 20-to-30 per cent commission that he has to pay to agencies, "In truth, a good and reputable agent working on the school's behalf is key," he points out, "and actually saves money in having to travel and/or have school representatives around the world."
In reflection of this, many schools dedicate a high proportion of their marketing budget to building agent relationships. In the case of Study Group, Tellwright estimates that agent-focused marketing accounts for close to 98 per cent of total spend, while Anatole Bogatski, Director of Student Services and Market Development at AIS St Helens in Auckland, New Zealand, affirms that in this school's case, "Agent-focused marketing is the major priority, with spending double what we would spend on student-focused marketing."
At the London School of English in London, UK, agents are also the key focus of marketing activity. And Sales & Marketing Director, Hauke Tallon, points out, "Much of our marketing communication is as relevant to our course participants and corporate clients as it is to our agents."
For Erin Corcoran of Spanish language school chain, Don Quijote, direct and agent-focused initiatives are neither competitive, nor in any way mutually exclusive. "We have invested over the years in a crack Internet team that spends time both on agency-led and direct [booking] initiatives," she says. Indeed, the two target groups are complementary: " We meet students who have read our website, or even subscribed to our newsletter," notes Corcoran. "Then, when ready to take a course, they have sought out an agent in their country…and booked the course through the agent."
Working on the web
One of the many advantages of the Internet as a marketing tool is its flexibility, and consequently Internet marketing is today regarded as an essential element within the overall strategy of most language schools for both agent and student-focused approaches. As Weaver indicates, "These days, the Internet is, if not a great equaliser, at least a way for independent schools to have somewhat more equal access to the worldwide market for language learners. Devoting time and money to developing a solid website is key," he adds, "for getting the message out about our product."
However, just to set up a basic website and hope that it brings in business is not enough. Many schools now regularly advertise on other websites, while also seeking to maximise the potential of their own sites, and often, they include agent-only pages or links to their agent partners' sites.
One of the problems of the Internet age is how to maximise "visibility" on the web. As Corcoran observes, "It would be a pleasure to Google ‘Spanish in Spain' some day, and see only ourselves and agents representing Don Quijote in the top 10 results." As anyone who has searched for information on the web knows only too well, a good position on search engine rankings is paramount. Seeking that elusive prime position has therefore become a major priority for marketers and that includes language schools both big and small, many of which are using external resources to help them in this area (see box, page 33).
For Tallon, the quality of information placed on the web is also of prime importance. "The main objective of the site visitor is to get better information not necessarily to be bombarded with sales messages," he comments. "We try to keep it factual, as most of our clients are likely to be resilient to overt marketing messages."
Understanding those elements that students value highly when choosing a school is an important focus, and not only for Internet-based approaches, according to Yemina Pimienta of Canada's Four Corners Language Institute in Victoria, BC. "These considerations include classroom size, student demographics, and types of activity [provided]," she underlines. At AIS St Helens, all course selection is now done online and, reports Bogatski, the website is in multiple languages. Isabel Hagl, Marketing Manager at Inlingua Sprachschule in Munich, Germany, also highlights the importance of photos in making a website more attractive.
Brochures and other avenues
Although websites today are often highly sophisticated and can include all necessary information about a client's chosen school, it is widely believed that there is still no substitute for the traditional brochure. "People still like to have a printed document in their hands, so there is little prospect of that aspect of our marketing disappearing in the very near future," explains Tallon. Indeed, Sabine Steinacher, Managing Director of German language school, Augsburger Deutschkurse in Augsburg, believes it is possible that the brochure could become even more important in a future where, "everybody feels overwhelmed by millions of data and too much unselected information on the web".
So, although brochure design and print is, as Tallon says, "a significant cost", it is still regarded as essential that this be carried out to the highest possible standard. "School chains can afford the multi-page, glossy brochures that independent schools can only drool over," comments Weaver. But independents can still come up with a useful and idiosyncratic document. His own school uses a much simpler, four-panel brochure, which contains all the most pertinent information and a number of good photos to capture the feel of the school. "A nice brochure is the single most important, and most costly, part of our overall marketing strategy," Weaver sums up.
A web strategy and a brochure are perhaps the two constants that form a part of the marketing mix of most language schools around the world. Then, in terms of targeting students directly, language schools often find that a combination of maintaining a strong web presence, combined with good old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendation, is the most cost-effective approach. In Mexico, Jorge Barroso, President of Academia Falcon in Guanajuato, observes that his school used to advertise in many travel and educational magazines. However, since use of the Internet has become more widespread, it has started to focus less on these channels and more on Internet advertising. Meanwhile, Pimienta in Canada has found both print and Internet advertising ineffective in bringing students to her school, and she is currently looking to set up an overseas office that can interact directly with students. Despite the high costs associated with such a venture, Pimienta believes that this will bring better rewards.
Attending language and education fairs is also a major expense, and one that not all find to be justified. "They don't seem to be as effective as their prices dictate," comments Manya Bredell of Cape Town School of English and Foreign Languages in South Africa. Bogatski too reports having cut down on attendance at fairs because of the expense involved. "[Education fairs] are essentially in support of the national brand, and achieve some institutional brand building," he says in their support, "but they are minimally effective for student enrolments."
Other schools, however, find that having a representative on hand to talk one-to-one with potential students in their home country at an education fair, especially over a sustained period, is good for brand building in a local market. For many schools, however, because of the low tangible success rate of many student-focused approaches, an agent-focused strategy works better for them, especially bearing in mind that, as Tallon points out, many marketing channels can serve for both purposes. Nevertheless, some very specific agent targeting can also pay dividends.
For Don Quijote, probably the most successful marketing initiatives of the past year have been communications aimed at agencies. Although it is not possible to measure accurately the impact of each initiative, "We do see results in agency sales, agency satisfaction and the number of agencies representing us that we can see our agency marketing has brought us," relates Corcoran. "We are sending out more communications to agencies more regularly, producing more marketing pieces they can work with, often in local languages, and working on major improvements to the internet portal we've created just for our agencies, where they can find our news [and] download materials." She adds, "We've seen a couple of nice joint press opportunities for both Don Quijote and an agency this year."
Study Group also places high value on support for its agent partners. Reflecting the economic clout of the group, it has 19 regional offices in key recruitment markets around the world, which exist to provide product training for agency counsellors, to arrange inbound missions for their schools' academic staff and to work to increase student numbers from the local base. "Not only are they a resource for agents," asserts Tellwright, "but [they] also provide ‘grass roots insight' into what parents, students and agents want." This may be by far the group's largest marketing expense, "but we believe this is the right investment to support our agents and ensure that they and their students receive the best possible information and help when they are making decisions," he confirms.
In order both to maintain existing agent relationships and develop new ones, marketing trips overseas are also greatly valued by schools. Under this heading are included attendance at workshops and trips to visit agents in their own offices. For Corcoran, these are probably the most expensive investments, yet, she underlines, it is "worth every penny to go back to old-fashioned face-to-face conversations, to building strong relationships. It also pays off
to have the account managers out… seeing what the market is like and listening to the agencies. All information that we gather helps us improve everything our service, products, marketing materials [and] agency support."
Tallon likewise reports a focus on developing contacts with agents in key markets. However, this type of effort is not for short-term gain. "Frankly," he confides, "it takes time to see results… but we're in this for the long-term. It's all about building partnerships, rather than expecting to walk away with a fistful of bookings."
Responsive marketing and promotion
Although the arrival of the Internet has added an important new dimension to the basic marketing mix, making it easier and cheaper to reach a wider audience, approaches do not otherwise alter greatly. What does change more frequently is that new or different markets are targeted or language schools launch new products in response to changing demand being responsive to altering "climates" is in itself an important strategy.
Right now, for Corcoran, this means honing in on China and on Brazil, where Spanish has become newly important in the education system. The new European Union members have also "come of age" this year, she notes, for some of Don Quijote's products for example, its Study and Work in Spain programme. Meanwhile, the school has responded to the needs of Europeans studying Spanish in their own country as well as those either looking for a unique city break or wanting a taste of the school, before taking a full course, by launching a new weekend course in Barcelona. As Corcoran observes, students can have very different motivations for learning a language, depending on their country of origin. Therefore, it is also important to target various products, marketing materials and special offers to the current motivation of students from particular countries.
It all comes back to the importance of having the right products to sell in the marketplace, since it is this critical awareness of what students want that offers the best chance of gaining the most highly valued and least costly form of "marketing" word-of-mouth recommendation from past students.
Benefits of outsourcing
While the largest players among the world's language schools are able to fund whole departments dedicated solely to marketing, many are not so lucky. For many independent schools, the reality is that marketing functions are shared among staff who may also have responsibilities in another areas. This can work well for some, especially when, as at Intercultural Communications College in Honolulu, HI in the USA, they can call on the services of employees with a background in marketing. However, others may confidentially admit to shortcomings in their handling of this important function.
Because of this, it seems that language schools of any size are turning in increasing numbers to professional PR and marketing organisations to take on, or assist in, either some or all of these tasks. Tamara Al-Na'ama of UK-based PR and marketing company, JE Consulting, says that Ceran Lingua International, based in Belgium but with schools in a number of countries, uses its services to fulfil a wide range of marketing functions, including direct mailing, client surveys, client mailings, producing a CD brochure, designing artwork for banners and posters, and an electronic newswire for clients and prospective clients, as well as web advertising.
Meanwhile, Scarlet Communications in the UK works on primary media relations, feature tracking, pitching articles, handling media enquiries and investigating and fulfilling other routes for media coverage on behalf of another language school client.
Al-Na'ama at JE Consulting explains, "By outsourcing this [marketing and PR] service, [Ceran's] own staff can focus on their core competencies, consequently saving time, improving efficiency, productivity and, therefore, ultimately, profitability." Furthermore, she points out, JE Consulting brings Ceran access to specialist information, databases and contacts that would be too costly for the school to fund for itself. Caroline King of Scarlet Communications observes, "PR and marketing require a particular skill set that many companies, not just in the language school sector, do not have. As the pressure grows on companies to stand out from their competitors," she adds, "more look to external support for these functions."
The Don Quijote language schools in Spain are, perhaps, slightly unusual in that their outsourced marketing help is provided by someone who was, until recently, also employed by the chain. "Since June , I have handled press and communications and some English language copywriting and marketing strategy from outside," relates Erin Corcoran. "I think the advantage we've seen, particularly in press work, is focus and time. Outside [of the company], I have time to do press work that I never had time or the established relationships to pursue from inside. And clearly, outsourcing allows the company to have me play roles PR, for example, and communications work that Don Quijote has never dedicated a full-time position to."
Among today's biggest marketing challenges is how to obtain good rankings via Internet search engines in other words, to optimise a business's visibility on the web and this is one of the most commonly outsourced marketing functions. Even some very small language schools find it worth their while to pay for external help in this area. One such company is K2 International in Cadiz, Spain. "[The company we use] are trying to put our website in better positions, and we also contract online advertisements in specific websites," comments Director, Angeles Castro Sánchez.
Another such school is Augsburger Deutschkurse in Augsburg, Germany. A family business, it handles all its own marketing, except for Internet marketing (including web rankings) and brochure layout. For these, it pays for specialist help. Meanwhile, the London School of English in the UK employs an external agency to handle PR as well as website development and company literature design, since, according to Hauke Tallon, "These are jobs that need to be done professionally. Doing much of this work internally is not realistic for a business of our size."
Certainly, there is evidence that an increasing number of language schools are willing to try new avenues to improve their marketing coverage. Anatole Bogatski at AIS St Helens in Auckland, New Zealand, notes that the school is looking at outsourcing some of its domestic marketing that calls for specialist skills. "Students here are very network-oriented," he claims, "and we have an option of accessing these networks by [working with] an outside agency."
The indications are that such a move can be of great value. Having worked with an external marketing company for two years now, K2 International would ideally like to be able to outsource a wider range of its marketing functions. Given a competitive price for the service, many others would doubtless be happy to do so too.