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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

Marketing to the Middle

middle school customers, chalkbord

In California, state and federally funded after-school programs that fail to meet their attendance targets are subject to grant reduction.

In the most recent round of adjustments, middle level schools received a disproportionate share of the cuts. While they receive only about a quarter of the ASES and 21st CCLC funds allocated to K-9 schools, they accounted for more than half of the reductions. Clearly, we have a problem engaging middle school kids in our programs.

And do you know why? Because trying to convince a 12-year-old to stay at school longer than the law requires may be the most insane sales proposition ever conceived!

Seriously, who came up with this idea?

Did some administrator at the Department of Education say, “Hey, I know how we could improve test scores! Let’s ask our students – you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones who start staring at the clock about fifteen minutes before dismissal, the ones who react to the final bell like their hair is on fire, those ones – let’s see if we can’t get those kids to stay at school for about three more hours a day. Voluntarily, of course.”

Now how do you think that strategy would go over with the staff at the Department of Education? Let’s say some manager in accounts payable pulled all his folks together and said, “Hey, I’ve discovered a way to increase our unit’s productivity by 25%. Starting tonight, at five o’clock, when all of the other divisions head off to happy hour, we are going to keep working until seven. What do you say? Who’s with me?! Overtime? No, there’ll be no overtime. We’re going to do this because it will make us better accountants. Trust me; this is for your own good.”

We have trouble finding teachers who’ll stay after school for money. What makes us think that students will want to do it for free?

And you want to hear the craziest part? We’re living in denial! Here’s the big lie to which the after-school community continues to subscribe: “There’s nothing for these kids to do after school.” Really? You show me a 12-year-old who is literally waiting for some adult to save him from intolerable boredom by organizing a constructive activity, and I’ll show you one who is seriously lacking imagination. We need to qualify that statement by saying that there is nothing for these kids to do after school that we, as adults, find acceptable.

We are operating in a competitive marketplace, folks. And most of our competitors are a lot better at selling their products than we are. In the general scheme of things, from a youth perspective, after-school programs are not cool.

Let me put it into context for you.

The adult equivalent of one teenager saying to another teenager that he likes going to an after-school program, is like you telling one of your friends that you actually enjoy jury duty. Some of you have actually said that, haven’t you? Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is nothing about that statement that makes you more impressive to your peers. Your friends are just too polite to tell you to get a life.

I mean, come on, people! What is the worst punishment that a teacher can inflict upon a student? Of course! “I’m going to make you stay after school!” So that’s what we’re up against. It’s our job to change “you have to stay after school” to “you get to stay after school.”

OK, so have I made my point?

Do you understand why we have such a difficult task facing us? Maybe now you don’t feel so bad about hitting only 40% of your target last year. Let’s not kid ourselves; the first step to recovery is acknowledging that we have a problem.

Now are you ready for some good news? There are programs out there that have actually found a way to crack this impenetrable nut. And you know how they did it? Successful middle school programs are built around a tried and true business axiom; “the customer is always right.”

Most educators aren’t used to thinking about their students as customers.

Their relationship more often mirrors the type experienced between guards and inmates. I mean, can you imagine if teachers were evaluated based on customer satisfaction surveys? What if they got commissions based on the numbers of students they could attract to take their classes? I wonder how many more students would graduate if the system were set up to cater to their interests, rather than the prescriptions of adults.

School is mandatory, but, at some point, a student has to decide whether or not graduating high school is a job they want to volunteer for. They have to find a reason to stay, and it has to be the school’s job to help them look everywhere they can to find that reason. That’s what we do in our after-school programs, because we have no choice but to learn everything we can about the people who buy our product.

I had a colleague tell me, “You have to get inside the mind of the middle schooler.”

I repeated that line in a workshop and a lady said to me, “I don’t want to get inside the mind of a middle schooler.” And I thought, “Fair enough. Not everyone is crazy enough to go there. But you may not be the best person for this job.” Because if you’re right, and the customer is wrong, then it won’t be long before you have no customers. It’s as simple as that.

Remember this: the students will ultimately dictate the content of any after-school program serving anyone over the age of nine. Now you can learn this lesson the hard way or the easy way, but it’s much better to get there by design than by default. We have to take off our educator hats, take off our social worker hats, put on our used car salesman hats and literally ask every kid, “What’s it going to take to get you into my after-school program today?”

The middle school programs that are pulling in big crowds have become experts at promoting their product to the 10- to 14-year-old demographic.

Based on my twenty years of practice and observation, I have identified ten keys to successfully marketing your middle school programs.

1. Offer your customers something your competitors can’t. The one thing we have over the competition is a convenient location. We can deliver the activities students want right where they already are.

2. Find out what your customers’ needs are. Conduct focus groups and other market research strategies to find out what your kids like to do with their free time.

3. Create an attention-grabbing name and logo. If you are recruiting kids to join something called the “After School Education and Safety Program,” then you deserve what you get.

4. Sell the benefits rather than the features of your program. Kids don’t sign up for cooking class because they are building their recipe boxes, they want to eat something!

5. Eliminate all risk to the customer. Don’t tell a kid he can’t sign up unless he commits to coming every day. Let him take your program for a test drive before you get to the fine print.

6. Test and revise everything. Introduce new activities at every opportunity, and quickly eliminate anything that isn’t working.

7. Make it easy to do business with you. Don’t let the fourteen-page enrollment packet be the reason a kid doesn’t join.

8. Your best customers are your best advertisements. Curry the favor of the “celebrity spokespersons” among the student body. Offer incentives to existing customers to refer others.

9. Educate your customers. You can’t just claim to offer an engaging program. Show students enjoying exciting activities through pictures and videos.

10. Stick with what works. Keep offering an activity as long as the students demand it. The only good reason to change something is discovering that something else works even better.

We have to get better at catering to the needs of our customers, and that’s because our competitors aren’t going away. And it’s one thing to lose them to Maury Povich, or video games, or the mall, but it’s another thing entirely to lose them to drugs, or gang affiliation, or teenage pregnancy. Like all of you, I care about winning their business. As the late, great, John Leichty used to say, “If it’s not illegal or immoral, I’ll try it after school, because I’d rather have them in here than out there.”

I had to commute from San Diego to Orange County this morning, so I hit Starbucks on the way out of town. Breakfast this morning was a Venti Pike and a blueberry scone.

Author Profile: @steveamick

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