Seven marketing tips for start ups

Attending the BETT Show last week got me thinking – as a small start up, how do you cut through the noise and get noticed? Here are seven suggestions.

Last week I spent a day at the excellent BETT Show in London, one of the biggest education technology trade shows in Europe.

While the exhibition hall was dominated by the big edtech companies – Microsoft, Capita, Smart Board, Lego (yes, really) – what interested me most were the 100-plus start up companies attending. Many were founded by teachers (ex- and current) whose inventions were often born by turning frustrations into opportunities.

It got me thinking: as a small start up business in a crowded market, how do you stand out and get the attention of your target audience? Here are seven ideas I jotted down on the way home.

Offer a referral incentive. Recommendation and word of mouth are important in any industry, and teachers and school leaders especially seem to depend on colleague feedback. Why not offer current customers an incentive to recommend your product? For every new customer they send your way, your cliennt gets 10% off their next order, or a free upgrade, for example. If they value what you do, they should be happy to help spread the word.

Give a free trial in exchange for testimonials. Testimonials on your website and in your promotional material lend credibility. When starting out, it’s worth asking teachers and schools you know to try your product for service for free in exchange for an honest review. If it’s positive, you can use it to promote your product or service. If it’s not as glowing as you hoped, it’s valuable feedback on how to improve your offering.

Utilise influencers, especially on Twitter. Getting the word out can be a challenge in a crowded marketplace. Of all the social media channels, school leaders seem to be most active on Twitter. If you’re targeting a different industry, LinkedIn or Facebook may be where your audience spends the most time. Regardless of the channel, once you set up an account for your business, research who are the influencers in your field, follow them and join the conversation. If what you say and do resonates, they should help spread the word to their followers.

Enter award competitions. Awards build credibility and provide exposure. The BETT Awards for education is an obvious one, but there are many others. Even if you don’t win, the awards dinner and ceremony can be a good place to mingle and make new contacts.

Seek out opportunities to exhibit at education conferences. It can be hard to get heads’ and business managers’ attention when they’re in school. They’re likely to be out dealing with a million and one issues, rather than sitting in an office. Conference exhibitions give you a chance to talk to school leaders when they are less distracted and more receptive. One caveat: To make the most of your exhibition investment, make sure you have in place a marketing plan that makes the most of opportunities leading up to, during, and after the event.

Make sure your branding looks the part, including your website, logo and business cards. Your visual branding says a lot about your company. When done well, it reassures potential customers that you are professional, credible and dependable. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but it’s worth finding a graphic designer who will take the time to understand your business, your audience, and what you want to achieve. I know several who have experience in the sector.

Have a marketing plan and review progress regularly. The risk of not having a marketing plan is that you end up spending time on marketing activity you enjoy or that is most comfortable, but isn’t necessarily the most effective. It’s worth enlisting the support a professional marketing consultant who understands the education market and can help you put in place an objective, realistic, and achievable marketing plan that delivers results.

If you’d like to find out how we can work together to create and deliver a marketing plan for you that will increase revenue, please email me. I’d love to find out more about your business and chat about your ambitions.

Creating an effective marketing strategy Part 1

Nearly all not-for-profit organisations need to undertake some degree of marketing activity to achieve their goals. Creating an effective marketing strategy helps to ensure that this activity is targeted, effective and value for money.

First, let’s look at the difference between a marketing strategy and a communications strategy, as both are important.

In business terms, a marketing strategy is about promoting and selling products or services. It includes the full marketing mix, including deciding where to sell (in person or online) and to whom (targeting by socio-economic group or geographical area).

A communications strategy focuses on getting the right information and messages to engage important groups of people, including current and potential customers and other stakeholders. Its aim is often raising awareness and building a positive reputation. 

Many organisations (especially not-for-profits, including schools) adopt a hybrid of the two – a marketing communications (or marcomms) strategy; the communications activity needed to effectively promote your product or service to your target market.

Preparing to Write Your Strategy

Before writing your strategy, take some time to analyse your starting point – what you have done previously and the external factors that may impact on what you decide to do. You don’t need to spend hours on your analysis, but a basic understanding of your starting point will help you to write a more effective strategy.

Existing materials

A good place to start is reviewing your existing marketing material, including your website, social media channels, prospectus, newsletters, staff recruitment materials, your logo and even the signage and banners outside your building. This is the face you are presenting to the world.

Do the materials have a common visual theme, linked through colours, photos and the tone of language? This help create a strong identity. Do they look professional? This instils confidence in the organisation and its leaders. Do they reflect your ethos and mission?

Past activity

Then note down the activities you have carried out in the past 12 to 24 months. How do your target audiences find out about you? How do you communicate with them? This might include supporters, customers, stakeholders, staff, the community, volunteers, service users, pupils and parents.

Do a quick assessment of what activities or communication channels worked well and which didn’t. Are there activities you should do more of? Or less? If the honest answer is that you don’t know, consider what metrics or feedback you could have used to judge effectiveness. You can feed these into your new strategy.

Competitor analysis

Next, have a quick look at what other similar organisations are doing to promote themselves. Do they advertise? Where? How does their website or prospectus compare to yours? What image are they using? How are they working with other providers – or feeder schools?

You shouldn’t start doing something just because others are – there’s no guarantee it works for them – but an understanding their approach should inform your own.    

SWOT analysis

Most leaders will have used a SWOT analysis at some point – outlining strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats. For informing your marketing communication strategy, you don’t need huge amounts of detail; it should act as a reminder of those factors that may have a bearing on your recruitment.

Your marketing communications strategy should then capitalise on the strengths and opportunities and minimise the threats and risks.

What makes you different

Whether your aim is to improve staff or student recruitment or increase fundraising, you will need to give people a reason to choose you.

Businesses talk about their ‘unique selling point’ (USP), what makes them different from their competitors. This is true for not-for-profits and schools as well – there will be elements that set you apart. It might be your ethos, the range of opportunities or services you offer, or the partnerships you have access to.

Be clear about those elements that, combined, make you different, and make this the focus of your marketing messages. It will help you to stand out and give people a reason to choose you. 


Finally, determine how much budget and staff time you have to put towards your marketing activity. You will need to make some commitment of both money and time, but be realistic in what you can do.

There is no point putting together a wildly ambitious marketing communications strategy if you don’t have the resource to make it happen. It is better to focus on a few key things and do them well, than to embark on lots of activity that either falls by the wayside or doesn’t have a positive impact.

If budgets are tight and you don’t have someone with marketing expertise on your staff, investing in a few hours’ time from an external marketing and communications consultant to develop your marcomms strategy can be an effective use of resources in the long run.

Creating an effective marketing strategy Part 2

Now that you’ve done the research and analysis into creating your marketing strategy as outlined in part 1, you’re ready to write your marketing strategy.

Writing your strategy

Most leaders are well versed in strategic planning and understand the difference between a strategy and a plan. Your marketing strategy, or marcomms (marketing and communications) strategy, should not just be a list of activities and deadlines – that comes later.

Your strategy will most likely have the following headings:

  • Vision

Your vision should be well known to your community and your stakeholders. It may be your strapline or a statement on your website.  Your marcomms strategy should align to your vision, so start there.

  • Objectives

The starting point for your marketing strategy is to be clear about what you want to achieve. Your objectives should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) but also within the control of your communications activity. Objectives that are too broad will be influenced by other factors and hard to evaluate.

For example, ‘Improve communication with volunteers’ is hard to measure. Better would be: “70% of volunteers feel communication is good or better, as measured by survey results”. Or for schools, ‘attract an additional 10 pupils into Reception’ will be subject to a variety of factors. ‘Increasing enquiries from parents about nursery provision by 25%’ is better.

  • Key audiences

Next, note down who specifically you need to reach in order to achieve your objectives.  You may want to split them into primary audiences, whether that’s prospective parents, service users or donors; and secondary audiences, or influencers, who will help you achieve your objectives. This may be partner organisations, referral agencies, or feeder schools.

  • Messages

Ideally you will have identified three or four key messages that you want to get across to each audience. Your messages should relate back to your vision and what makes your organisation unique. Having clarity around the messages for each audience helps to keep your communication sharp, succinct and memorable. If you try to include everything, you will sound like everyone else and you won’t stand out.

  • Channels 

The next step is to consider the most appropriate communication channels to reach each audience. How do they prefer to receive information? What channels are they most likely to respond to? For instance, while many teachers use Twitter as a communication medium in their professional lives, potential parents are more likely to gravitate to Facebook and Instagram. Equally, putting up posters in feeder schools, rather than an email campaign, may work best for inviting prospective parents to open evenings.

Combined matrix

Once you are clear about your audiences, messages and communication channels, plotting these into a grid is a useful way of sharing the information with others who are involved in actioning your marcomms strategy and plan. It also is a useful tool to refer to when writing your plan.

Your plan

Finally, you are ready to create your plan. Under each objective, you should list the actions, timeline, and person responsible for making it happen. Your review of existing materials and past activity, SWOT and competitor analyses, USP and resources (see preparing to write your strategy) should give you a good indication of where to start and what to include. Be realistic about what you can achieve – include fewer actions but commit to doing them thoroughly and consistently. You can scale up activity as you see what works and what doesn’t. Which brings us to the final point…

Measuring impact

As with many things, it can be a challenge to measure the true impact of your marcoms strategy because of other factors that come into play.

However there are indicators you can use to help evaluate the impact of marketing activity:

•          Attendance at events

•          Enquiries from potential customers, service users or volunteers

•          Donations

•          Positive engagement on social media

•          Positive mentions in the local press

•          Visits to the website, measured through Google analytics

With online communication channels – text message, apps, email and your website – you should be able to access data on how many people have opened, downloaded, clicked and responded. If you’re unsure, check with your technology provider.

The important thing is to review regularly and tweak your plan based on what works and what doesn’t. 

When budgets are tight, spending time and resources on marketing can seem like a luxury. However, if the plan is focused and targeted, and helps to achieve your organisational objectives, it is an investment well worth making. 

Free tools for creating and managing social media content

If you’re doing social media on a budget, there are lots of free tools to help make the process easier. The list below will help to get you started; it’s by no means exhaustive. I don’t endorse any of the products (or get paid for mentioning them!); there will be many other tools out there. It’s a case of finding what works for you.

Many of the social media tools below are subscription-based, but all have a ‘light’ version that is available for free. Under each category, many of the products have similar functionality, with slightly different features and benefits, so it’s worth testing a few to see which one feels most comfortable.

Creating graphics

You don’t need to be a graphic designer to create basic, smart social media graphics. These online programmes give you hundreds of templates to choose from, which can be customised with your own wording, font, colours and images.

Canva All around design tool. Has layout templates for social media posts, A4 documents, invitations, presentations, and more.

Stencil Similar to Canva, with lots of different templates, let you create up to 10 images for free a month.

Piktochart Great for creating infographics.

Adobe Spark Also has basic video editing software.

Free stock photos

These websites curate photos from hundreds of amateur photographers around the world, which are then free for anyone to download and use. Some encourage you to credit the originator or to give a small donation, but it’s optional.




Photo manipulation

If you’re looking for a free, ‘light’ version of photoshop to manipulate images, here are a few to get you started. All of these three have interfaces and tools that look similar to Photoshop.

GIMP Standard interface is somewhat different from Photoshop, but there is a version that looks similar. Requires software download to your computer.

Pixlr Web-based tool. Only available for Windows. Requires software download to your computer.

Social media monitoring

These online tools let you organise your social media accounts and schedule posts so that they go out automatically at the time you choose. Some also have basic analytic tools in their free version.

Tweetdeck The original social media dashboard, now owned by Twitter. Good for Twitter but doesn’t work across other social media platforms.

Hootsuite A dashboard that lets you manage multiple social media accounts including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+.

Buffer Automatically send tweets throughout the day – no need to schedule individual tweets.

Stacker Lets you publish and reply across multiple social media accounts at one time.

URL Shortener

When you’re short of space in a social media post, or any other communication for that matter, these tools let you create a short web link (or URL) that automatically directs readers to the correct page on your website. Both let you customise your web link to something more memorable, though with Bitly you need to create a free account to do so.



Step-by-step guide to developing a social media strategy

This step-by-step guide to developing a social media strategy is aimed specifically at schools and colleges, but it applies equally to all organisations trying to raise their profile with social media.

As an inexpensive and effective means of communication and profile raising, social media is hard to beat. But it also takes commitment and consistency.

Developing your strategy

Social media should not be an end in itself. It is a tool, in the same way press releases, advertising or open evenings are tools to achieve a particular aim. Having a strategy will help everyone to be clear about what you want to achieve with your social media activity and how you make it happen. This step-by-step process takes you through developing and implementing a social media strategy.

1) Be clear about image you want to present. Is it a story of academic success, or of your school’s place at the heart of the community? This will most likely align to your vision and values. While in practice, social media posts will feature a range of activities and accomplishments, the overall thread should present a narrative that supports the story you want to tell.

2) Decide who your most important audiences are. Is it current parents, prospective parents, prospective staff, the local community? Different audiences will be interested in different kinds of content, so being clear about who you want to speak to will make it easier when deciding what content to post.

3) Agree how much resource you can afford to devote to social media management. This will help to decide where to put your energies. The minimum to do it well is about 30 to 60 minutes a day, although this can easily increase if you are creating content like case studies or videos. The key is to be realistic about the time and resource available and what can be achieved within this. 

4) Decide which social media platform(s) is most appropriate to achieve your aims. It may be tempting to say all of them, but social media channels need to be actively monitored and regularly updated. It’s better to be realistic and do one well, rather than three poorly.

Most schools start with Twitter and Facebook as these are great channels for showcasing achievements and activities happening on a day to day basis. Instagram is for visual content such as photos, and some schools have set up their own You Tube channels for video content.

Implementing the strategy effectively

Once you have agreed the story you want to tell, the audience you want to speak to and the channels that are most appropriate to use, you’re ready to look at the practicalities of implementation.

Decide who will be responsible for social media activity on a day to day basis. This individual(s) should have good writing skills, understand what you are trying to achieve, have a broad knowledge of what is going on across the school, be proactive about seeking out relevant content, and have the authority to respond to comments where appropriate. Some schools utilise the skills of an external education communications specialist; some have one or two members of staff with social media as part of their job description. Whoever it is, they should be prepared to spend some time each day monitoring activity and posting relevant content.

Create a planning schedule. Different audiences may be more important at different times and this can be built into the planning cycle. For instance, you may want to focus on prospective teaching staff in the spring term just before and during your main recruitment period. Start with a high level yearly planning schedule, then break this down into terms and weeks. On a more detailed level, it’s useful to work a term ahead.

Schedule posts on a weekly basis. Consistency is key to success; regular posts will keep your audience engaged. Tools like Hootsuite and Tweet Deck let you write posts in advance and schedule when they go live, days ahead. Facebook also has a scheduling tool. However, make sure there is flexibility to capture and post activities and updates daily, in real time.

Be prepared to act if people comment or get in touch. Social media is a two-way communication channel and responding to comments is the way to build a sense of community. It is inevitable that not all comments will be positive. In some instances the best strategy is to ignore it. However, if the person has a legitimate concern, it’s a good idea post a neutral response to show that you are listening, and then take the discussion off line as quickly as possible. Direct (private) message the person and offer to follow by email or phone.

Have an engagement plan. There’s no point spending time on social media if your key audiences don’t know it’s there. Put links to your social media accounts in your school’s email signature. Take every opportunity to remind parents to follow you. Put links in your staff recruitment advertising and any printed material or presentations you take to open evenings.

Evaluate impact. There are hard metrics you can use for evaluation, such as the increase in followers, the number of reposts, shares, likes, or comments. Reviewing posts every half-term will let you assess whether the majority support the story you want to tell about your school and are relevant to your key audiences. It can also be useful to track which posts have the highest engagement levels.

Social media tips

Here are some additional tips to make the most of your social media activity.

Include pictures or videos whenever possible. Research shows that posts with images are much more likely to be noticed and shared.

Use the 80/20 rule. For every one post about the uniform policy or upcoming parents evening, include four posts that tell a story and bring the school community to life.

Link the content on your website and social media sites. The majority of content should reside on your website, typically in the news section; then use social media to bring people to your site, where they can see everything on offer. You can have your Twitter and Facebook posts appear on your website, but also provide direct links to your social media accounts.

Encourage staff to submit ideas for posts. There will be lots of interesting activities and stories all around the school, so enlist the help of staff to make sure you capture these. However you’ll probably need to remind them regularly that you want their contributions.

Have fun with it. Consider having one class take over your social media channel for a day. Have competitions. Ask for comments and feedback. Encourage people to engage positively. It will make your school community seem vibrant, caring and welcoming.


We’ll be at Small Business Derby at Derby Town Hall on December 2nd between 10am – 5pm for talks, workshops, exclusive discounts, networking and more! SmithGadzik helps organisations achieve better results through highly effective communications and marketing. @smallbizderby #derby