Outside-Inside Marketing

Addressing public perceptions using surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews by Susan Rovezzi Carroll and David Carroll

While many public schools are attempting to develop relationships with their communities, they tend to practice what is termed "inside-outside" marketing. This means the school district has prepared brochures, videotapes, newsletters, logos and Web sites to present what school leaders think the community either needs or wants to know.

Unfortunately, these items are created inside the schoolhouse without community input. More important, program and budget decisions that have great consequences for the community are often made in the isolation of the board room. Decision making remains an insular process, occasionally interrupted by poorly attended public hearings. Although decisions are well intended with the goal of developing relationships with the community, the approach is school-driven, not community-driven. It fails to place the outside community into the marketing equation.

Public schools need to begin to practice "outside-inside" marketing where strategic planning and then action comes from the marketplace—in this case the community—to the school. According to long-time marketing expert Philip Kotler, who coined the phrase, schools need to systematically study customers needs, wants, perceptions, preferences and satisfaction using marketing techniques such as surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviewing. Using such strategies builds long-lasting, meaningful relationships with the community and fosters a loyalty to the public school. Relationship building is the key to getting and keeping community support and to do this, public schools must start "outside" with their communities.

Three distinctive methods can bring the community inside the schoolhouse door. Surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews allow schools to listen intently to the community. However, the particular method should be considered secondary to what schools need to find out. In other words, the information needs must be specified first through brainstorming in strategic planning sessions. Then, the method that most appropriately, expeditiously and cost effectively meets those information needs can be matched to it.

Survey Research

The survey, an excellent market research method, depends on a questionnaire for data collection. Schools can use an already existing tool or custom design one to cover specific information. Either way it should clearly reflect the information needs developed in strategic planning sessions.

Survey research has several advantages. First, it is a highly quantitative method. Although there may be some open-ended (write-in) questions, most survey research generates numbers as responses. These data can be statistically computed and analyzed. Because results are numeric, they can stand up to public scrutiny and can present a reliable and valid picture of what stakeholders like and dislike about your school or district or what they value and expect.

Also, the data serve as a baseline for benchmarking. You might want to track community satisfaction with your school this year and compare it to last year and to the next year. A note of caution is in order. If internal or external expertise is available, use it. It might save you the embarrassment of making a statistical error or a research blunder at a school board meeting with the news media present.

When carried out by mail, surveys afford stakeholders the opportunity to respond at their convenience and in private. These surveys can be conducted with a host of community segments such as new parents, government officials, business groups, real estate agents and others.

One important segment to listen to are senior citizens, soon to be composed of well-educated Baby Boomers. As the latter group ages, most will not have children in your schools. Their priorities will be saving for retirement and repaying the college loans of their kids. Yet they will have time to vote on your budgets. Read their minds.

A particularly affluent Connecticut town with repeated budget rejections thought it would be wise to do exactly that.

The School Support Survey, which our organization conducted, asked seniors to give the school system a grade (from A to F) on 50 different items. Although most issued grades of B, pockets of discontent emerged in two areas: fiscal management and sharing of school facilities with seniors. Administrators expected the budgetary process to be misunderstood, but the sharing of the school facilities had not surfaced previously as important enough to discuss—a case of inside-outside marketing.

To remedy the problem, the business manager personally delivered several presentations to the senior center to explain the budget process, answer questions and showcase ways that the school saved taxpayers' money. School facilities were opened so the community could use the district's athletic facilities and check out books at the library. Seniors were invited to school concerts and encouraged to help in the classrooms. Tracking with the annually administered School Support Survey showed higher grades the following years among senior citizens.

Focus Groups

The focus group is an excellent vehicle to bring the opinion of the community into the school. The purpose of a focus group is to direct discussion on specific topics to gain a sense of public perception. The issues again are determined by strategic planning, a priori. Although focus groups have been used for many years in the private sector, only recently have they been employed in public education.

While the survey is largely a quantitative method, the focus group is qualitative. It relies on words versus numbers to generate information. And unlike the survey, which may require professional expertise, many schools have internal leaders who can moderate a focus group.
Usually, focus groups consist of 12 to 15 participants who have similar backgrounds. More than one focus group is recommended to corroborate the results. Since focus groups are based upon the opinions of a few people, the results are not generalizable to the large population. The results are considered to be "soft data," making them more vulnerable to public scrutiny.

Many information needs can be addressed by schools from using focus groups. If a subject is complex, controversial, largely unknown or misunderstood, a focus group is ideal for getting a pulse on what the community thinks.

One school system conducted a focus group involving employers in a largely industrial, middle-class community. The labor supply and demand for jobs was the singular focus of the research. The school system was confident that it was doing a good job; most students were able to find employment after graduation. There seemed to be no gap in supply and demand.

The questions used to stimulate discussion embodied three simple themes:
* What strengths do our graduates have?
* What are their shortcomings?
* What could we change or improve to make our graduates more marketable?

There were four focus groups, segmented by employers from the areas of health care, manufacturing, retail and nonprofits. The school was correct about supply and demand; there was a match. However, a surprising common complaint among the four job sectors was that graduates were coming to interviews unprepared. Their attire, demeanor, verbal skills, job application skills and overall presentation skills were sorely in need of improvement.

As a result of this discovery, the school district conducted a series of workshops to teach skills for successful job interviews. These programs were offered to all graduates, both college bound and those going straight to work.

In-Depth Interviews

Bringing the voice of the community into the school is executed intimately through in-depth interviews. This market research technique requires independent interviews of 10 to 15 individuals with the type of questions a focus group uses—a small number that are focused and broad. In fact, the in-depth interview is much like the focus group, but it has a few advantages. First, it provides more discrete data points. While a focus group yields one data point per group, 10 to 15 interviews are 10 to 15 data points, independent of each other.

Second, the group dynamics, where one person might dominate, are eliminated. Sensitive topics are more confidential in a one-on-one interview than when others are sitting around you. The amount of data accumulated is extensive and detailed. The major downside is that in-depth interviewing requires a great deal of time—to schedule, conduct and summarize findings. As with focus groups, a building leader or even the superintendent can conduct these interviews. Or an outside consultant can assist the school system with an independent ear.

This method is particularly ideal to use with influential community members when assessing your image. These leaders might include heads of the local government, public agencies, hospitals, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, newspapers, businesses, corporations and others—anyone who shapes the community's thinking. What they say about the school system carries weight. Word of mouth is a powerful image builder.

In-depth interviews were conducted with influents in a large city. Each interview added new insights about the school's declining image. Reasons offered included economic disparities, in-migration, heavy handedness of teachers' unions, lack of school board leadership, emergence of gangs and a host of other problems. The results seemed to present insurmountable barriers to recapture a positive image. Yet the school system felt it could make a dent in the armor. Using team building, the staff brainstormed ways to communicate the actual good news. On the local cable TV, through presentations at community meetings, over the radio, on the Web and in school newsletters and brochures, the strengths and achievements of the school were highlighted over and over.

The key influents were placed on all mailing lists and were brought in for roundtable discussions four times a year with the superintendent and building leaders. This allowed information dissemination as well as an opportunity to keep the communication channel open. Although image is hard to build and easy to destroy, you cannot manage your image until you find out what it is—from the outside.

Fortified Data

Currently, many leaders in public school settings are espousing the value of data-driven decision making. They are using data from achievement tests, dropout percentages, college placement rates, attendance, SAT performance, discipline referrals and other statistics to make strategic decisions about their school systems. This is an excellent development. However, the majority of these data are generated inside the schoolhouse walls.

If the philosophy of outside-inside marketing is implemented in public schools, the data from inside will be fortified and enriched by data from the marketplace, the community. The benefit to your school system will be tremendous. It will capture and retain the support of important stakeholders—members of the community.

When you ask those in the marketplace through surveys, focus groups or in-depth interviews what they think about something and then follow up what they say through action, you will have taken a significant step in building support for and public confidence in your school system.

Susan and David Carroll manage a research consulting firm, Words & Numbers Research, P.O. Box 1373, Torrington, Conn. 06790. E-mail: wordsnum@snet.net. They are co-authors of EdMarketing: How Smart Schools Get and Keep Community Support.