I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing a lot lately. Not for me–although I suppose that would be good–but for our institution.

School Days

One of the things I’m learning about international schools here in Kazakhstan is that there are more and more competitors all the time: American schools, British schools, Turkish schools, multiple types of local government schools that recruit expat teachers. Some schools expand eagerly, while others are obliged to do so by complex local politics. But that isn’t all: we also compete with specialist Russian-language schools, elite boarding schools in Europe and America that welcome Kazakh money, and even homeschooling arrangements between expats.

So it’s been thought-provoking to read Steven Bell’s 2009 article for librarians, called From Gatekeepers to Gate-Openers, in which he argues that the job of librarians is not what we think it is (“opening doors to information”). Instead, he cites Seth Godin to say that we should be creating tribes: offering people the experience of being part of a group that has meaning. Sounds a bit woo-woo, but in the crux of his article, Bell writes:

“Information is available from too many sources, and to the casual user all information is the same in terms of quality. That’s why differentiating the library is a critical part of user-experience design. If users perceive all information sources as the same then it really doesn’t matter where they go for it. Experiences can be created around differentiation” (52).

Got that? He’s saying that info is everywhere; offering the best info doesn’t set libraries apart. Instead, he suggests we need to focus on creating meaningful experiences that connect people to their aspirations for accomplishment, beauty, creation, freedom, enlightenment, etc… That whole, is the Harley company selling motorcycles, or is it selling “the concept of freedom to middle-aged men”? thing.

Similarly, all these schools compete for the best and richest students… but the best education may not be at the heart of what parents are seeking. Especially in this tight market, I think our school needs to do a lot more focusing how to create that experience of certain types of meaning for parents and children alike.

I’ll keep the specifics to myself as I think them through. But I do wonder if we need to stop selling even our nationally-branded education, and instead start highlighting other core meanings that affluent folk are hoping to derive from our school. Question: when you’re looking at a school or workplace, what do you typically find yourself looking for?

Marketing Meaning in International Schools

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