Advocacy Marketing 101

A radical new system for transforming how people talk about your schools

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: August 08, 2019

This article is even better when paired with the companion discussion guide.

Coming from the world of private sector marketing, our team has done everything from social media management to ad creation to content generation. We still believe in the power of these practices, but if you hired us to run your district’s marketing, we would focus our energy somewhere else.

It’s the conversations people have in the most mundane moments that influence your community’s perception of your schools. It’s a chat at the grocery store, parents talking during soccer practice, grandparents meeting up for book club: the stories people tell about your schools when you’re not around. Those stories, more than anything else, determine how your audience thinks and feels—which is why we’d focus our marketing efforts on shaping them.

In the following pages, we’ll lay out a strategy for shifting the conversation around your schools: systematically developing brand advocates who will do your marketing for you. This plan takes diligence, commitment, and a little bit of guts—but it’s exactly what we’d do if we were in your shoes.

Conversations, stories, and your brain

While we may feel as if we make choices based on logic and reason, neuroscientific research has revealed that emotions actually power our decision-making. And what’s the best way into your audience’s emotions? Stories.

Of course, you already know you should be sharing your district’s amazing stories, blasting them out all over social media. But here’s the problem: according to a study from Nielsen, 92% of people trust the recommendations of loved ones above all other forms of marketing. In other words, what you say about yourself matters much less than what others say about you. Storytelling is the best way to change the decisions your community makes, but the stories you share yourself aren’t nearly as effective as those told by members of your community.

If you want to change how your community responds to your district, you have to change the conversation surrounding your schools. You need a mechanism for giving people positive stories worth telling their friends and family. You need advocacy marketing.

What advocates are (and why you need them)

The members of your community fall into one of three segments: detractors, neutrals, or advocates. Your detractors, with or without good reason, advertise their dissatisfaction with your schools. They complain during board meetings, make nasty posts about your district on Facebook, and criticize your schools to their friends and neighbors. The problem with detractors isn’t just that they’re unhappy; it’s that they’re very vocal about it. They’re the ones driving the negative rhetoric surrounding schools.

In the middle, you have neutrals, people who aren’t contributing much to the district conversation either way. Of course, hardly anyone is truly neutral; most people are leaning either slightly negative or slightly positive when it comes to your district. At best, they feel very positive about your schools—but they aren’t actually voicing that goodwill. Neutrals aren’t necessarily part of the negativity surrounding your schools, but they’re also not helping you address it.

That leaves your district’s advocates: people who tell positive stories about your schools. While these may be the folks regularly volunteering on campus or attending PTA meetings, they could just as easily be random community members sharing stories about your schools over coffee.

Because people trust their friends and family more than marketing messages, both your detractors and your advocates have significantly more power over the conversation around your schools than you do. This means that both positivity and negativity are contagious—and those people in the middle, your neutrals, are being influenced one way or the other. Your detractors are infecting their neutral friends and family with negative ideas about your schools. But your advocates are sharing positive stories about your district with their neighbors.

You might be tempted to throw all your energy toward your detractors, trying to convince them to quit tugging the conversation toward negativity. That’s certainly a common strategy in the private sector. In researching their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath discovered that, in general, private sector companies spend 80% of their resources trying to neutralize negative voices.

But more likely than not, a converted detractor will become, at best, a neutral—not an impassioned advocate. By turning a detractor into a neutral, you’re merely silencing the negative voice, not adding a positive one. That’s why, counterintuitive as it might seem, the research shows that it’s nine times more valuable to turn your neutrals into advocates.

Since they’re so vocal about their positivity, advocates actually have the power to pull other people—the friends and family who trust their opinions—to their side. Or rather, your side. So you don’t need to rid your schools of all negativity; you just need enough advocates to pull the conversation toward positivity.

The Zappos Experience

In the private sector, the online shoe retailer Zappos is the gold standard for outstanding customer service. That’s why, several years ago, our CEO, Jeston George, traveled to Las Vegas to observe their company culture. Just a few hours into his trip, he witnessed an example of this famous customer care firsthand.

At first blush, it seemed like a typical customer service call: a woman needed to exchange the shoes she’d bought for an event the following day. They were the wrong color. There was just one problem, though: it was Friday, and Zappos doesn’t offer Saturday shipping. As you might expect, the service rep apologized for the inconvenience—but he didn’t stop there. He followed his Zappos training, looking for a personal connection with this caller.

He learned that the event she would be attending was actually her son’s memorial service, and that the color of the shoes bore special significance to their relationship. Most companies would have apologized and moved on, ignoring the woman’s need. Instead, the rep bought the right shoes from a competitor and had them shipped to the caller the next day, free of charge. All Zappos asked was that she donate the first pair of shoes in her son’s name.

The most amazing thing about that story isn’t the touching act of kindness or the creative customer service. It’s the fact that a story like this will never go away. Years later, we’re still sharing it—giving the company free marketing in our magazine! Zappos created such a good moment for this customer that even we, as passive observers to the situation, tell this story over and over, in print and at conferences. Whatever money Zappos lost on that deal, they’ve almost certainly gained back thanks to the countless advocates this singular moment has created.

Advocates don’t come from a barrage of billboards, ads, and flyers. They’re born in singular moments that make them feel seen, understood, and cared for—moments that make for stories worth telling.

Schools are rife with moments like these. Educators know better than just about anyone how to show kids they care. But since these moments often happen randomly, you might believe you can’t control whether or not they occur—but that’s not the case. You don’t have to wait for these moments to happen; go on the offensive and make them happen.

Let’s think a little more about that Zappos story. Sure, the opportunity to create a great moment came about randomly, but the employee’s response to the situation was anything but random.

In case you were wondering, just about any Zappos employee would have responded the way this one did, because it’s built into their company culture.

“We truly care about each and every individual that contacts us, and it’s our mission to provide the best solutions possible,” Zappos touts on their website. The company also encourages employees “to develop personal connections on every call.” Zappos customer service reps aren’t given a set script to follow, and they have the authority to “WOW customers to provide solutions in any other manner they deem appropriate.”

Zappos has created an environment that ensures incredible interactions will occur. That’s why their customer service is famous not just for this moment, but for hundreds of others like it.

Planting an Advocacy Farm

Image: Bag of advocacy seeds

Think of the conversation surrounding your schools as a little plot of land. We say “little” because, realistically, the people in your community only spend so much time thinking about schools, and an even smaller amount of time talking about your district. So we have just a bit of space to work with, a little plot.

You need a farm here (think corn, not cows): a bountiful field full of positivity. But crops don’t grow unless they’re planted first. Left to its own devices, your little patch of land won’t sprout much but dirt and weeds, maybe a few random flowers. If you want to grow advocates, you need to plant seeds: personal, intentional moments.

Of course, not every moment will result in an advocate, just as not every seed in a field will successfully grow into a plant. But by purposefully initiating those authentic moments, you’re creating a space that might eventually bear fruit: positive conversations.

Like Zappos, you can build your own advocacy farm: a system that helps you and your brand representatives intentionally create the personal connections that drive people to advocate for your schools.

1: Connect with anyone, but not everyone.

Before we go any further, an important point: you can’t create moments for everyone in your community, and that’s okay.

Let’s take another look at Zappos. Most of their customers experience a pretty typical transaction; they buy a pair of shoes, the shoes arrive, everyone’s happy. That’s it. Their experience certainly isn’t negative, but it’s not a magical, advocacy-building moment—because it doesn’t have to be.

Zappos saves its magic for the roughly three percent of customers who call into their customer service line. But that tiny fraction of the company’s customer base has shifted the entire conversation around the brand, creating an international reputation for great service.

Moments turn into stories worth telling in part because they’re deeply personal. It’s important to keep this in mind as you strategize. If you’re talking to everyone at once, you’re probably not reaching anyone. The more individualized these moments are, the more impact they’ll have—and the better your chances of building strong advocates.

If you can’t target everyone, who should you target? The truth is, you shouldn’t really be targeting anyone in particular—though you may be tempted to.

You probably know off the top of your head whose opinions carry the most weight in your greater community. The may- or, the chair of the chamber of commerce, church leaders, local news anchors—these people all have substantial sway over public opinion.

So it may seem logical to throw all your marketing energy into convincing these people, and only these people, to become your advocates. But if you only create special moments for the people with the highest social status, it’s going to seem disingenuous, and it’s not going to drive advocacy.

For example: what if, instead of an average customer, it had been Oprah calling into Zappos’ customer service line? The story immediately becomes less impressive. Of course the service rep would bend over backwards to please Oprah—wouldn’t you?

The real story affects people so much because there’s nothing in it for Zappos. The service rep wasn’t gunning for a celebrity endorsement; he was just taking care of a real person. That’s the kind of moment that will drive advocacy.

Of course, you shouldn’t exclude your most influential community members from your efforts to build advocates, but don’t focus on them to the exclusion of others. Really, you want to scatter moments throughout every group in your community, like seeds evenly distributed in a field.

Be like Zappos: create moments for anyone, not everyone.

2: Create meaningful, personal connections.

Think about the people that already speak up for your schools. What stories do they normally tell? Usually, they’ll point back to a meaningful moment that somehow said to them: “I know you. I hear you. I’m thinking of you.” Those personal connections, more than anything else, plant the seeds that grow into advocates.

Sometimes, personal connections turn an entire school around. In the spring of 2011, the staff of Washington, D.C.’s Stanton Elementary School were at their wits’ end. Facing ever-rising suspension and truancy rates, the school had tried everything: new teachers and administrators, new curriculum, even a campus remodel. Nothing helped until the Flamboyan Foundation, an organization focused on family engagement, stepped in.

A short assessment showed representatives from Flamboyan the root of the problem: there was a disconnect between parents and the school. Teachers thought the parents were disengaged and didn’t value education; parents thought the teachers didn’t really care about their kids. It was an all-too-familiar case of mutual mistrust.

Flamboyan’s solution? Home visits. Over the summer, teachers would visit families in their homes to chat about their kids. They wouldn’t bring any papers to sign or procedures to go through. The only goal was honest conversation. Teachers were given a prescribed set of questions, like “What has your child’s experience with school been like so far?” and “How can I help your child learn better?”

To the awe of teachers, the home visits turned Stanton around—almost miraculously. The following school year, overall performance on standardized tests climbed, too, and suspensions practically disappeared. Truancy rates dropped by 17%.

But more than that, the conversation surrounding Stanton shifted. Everyone in town was talking about the home visits, sharing their great experiences. Parents even began getting in touch with the school, wondering when they’d receive their own visits. At the next Back-to-School Night, 200 parents showed up—more than eight times the previous year’s turnout.

The personal connections that turned Stanton around began with something incredibly simple: listening. “Knowing students personally means taking the time to truly see each individual,” writes child development specialist Chip Wood in his book Yardsticks. “And a good first step is to simply observe and listen to them.” Stanton’s home visits made that crucial first step.

The connection deepens when you show your parents and families you’ve been listening. Wood suggests an exercise devised by educator Donald Graves: for each student in your class, write down one fact, something not related to school, that you’ve learned about them. (For example, you might know that Ally is taking ballet classes, or that Manoj scored a goal in his soccer game last week.) Finally, “look for moments when you can comment on or ask questions about things you know are important to [those students],” Wood says.

You could easily extend this principle to families in your district. When you have conversations with parents and community members, listen. Make a list of facts you know about that family, and when you sit down to write them a note or make a phone call, mention those details. Make sure the people in your community feel known.

Another way to show your audience you’ve been listening? Take their concerns and suggestions into account. One can assume that Stanton’s home visits revealed problems that staff hadn’t even considered, but that parents were acutely aware of. Addressing those previously neglected problems not only improved the school itself, but bridged the divide of mistrust between teachers and families. It deepened the connection by making families feel heard.

That feeling of being seen, understood, and cared for is the sunlight that makes an everyday moment bloom into a story your audience can’t wait to share.

3: Think systematically about how and where to connect.

A good farmer doesn’t plant her crops whenever and however she feels like it. She plants systematically, in just the right way and at just the right time of year. As you build out your advocacy farm, you need to find a systematic way to engage with community members.

For Zappos, it’s customer service calls. For Stanton Elementary School, it’s home visits. For you, it might be weekly stops at school carpool lines to chat with parents and students. Whatever you choose, you need to find a specific, repeatable action you can consistently take to connect with your community. This means you can’t wait for people to come to you; you have to go to them.

David Neeleman, founder of budget airline JetBlue, understands the importance of planting moments. While he served as the company’s CEO, he traveled on a JetBlue flight at least once a week. Once onboard, he’d personally speak to each customer, taking questions, fielding complaints, and thanking them for their business.

Neeleman’s system for planting moments was simple: once a week, have authentic conversations with customers. He couldn’t possibly have known where the conversations would go, or who he’d meet, but he came ready to engage with whomever he found in the seats. He intentionally sought out connections.

Not every customer would be impressed by this gesture; not every conversation would be particularly meaningful. But you can bet that quite a few of Neeleman’s thousands of conversations blossomed into vocal JetBlue advocates.

In Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish Schools, superintendent Hollis Milton has a system of his own. Milton, who believes in “the power of a handwritten note,” writes about 50 letters per week, celebrating successes and providing support to his students, families, faculty, and staff. “It’s a labor of love,” he tells SchoolCEO.

Milton doesn’t always know who will need a note at the beginning of any given week. He observes, listens, gathers info from his staff, and seeks out opportunities to plant great moments. And from the sounds of it, many of those notes grow into something special.

“I’ll have parents come up to me and go, ‘That letter you wrote to my child meant everything to us. For you to take the time out of your busy schedule and write that spoke volumes about how much you care,’” Milton says.

4: Tie these moments back to the district brand.

Of course, you’re not the only person working on your advocacy farm. Every member of your district team, from the classroom up, can help you find places to plant and cultivate the seeds of advocacy. But you’re wanting to cultivate advocates for your district, not just individual schools—so you need to make sure your representatives are tying the moments they create back to the district’s overall brand.

In South Carolina’s Spartanburg School District One, Communications Director Sandra Williams has spearheaded the effort to create magic moments. Her system is pretty simple—students all over the district can fill out “Spartanburg One Successory” certificates, thanking a teacher for helping them be successful. Then, Williams snaps a picture of the student and teacher together and posts it on social media, overlaid with the student’s kind words.

“That has been worth its weight in gold,” Williams says. “Just hearing those words of affirmation from peers and community members and stakeholders has been an incredible marketing tool.” Why? Because the Successory program creates those magic moments of recognition and respect so crucial in building advocacy. Seeing their kids’ voices uplifted, parents reshare the posts to their own feeds. Friends and family of the highlighted teacher often do the same.

These instances of advocacy come about because the district planted an initial seed: a mechanism for teachers and students to encourage one another. And though they’re systematic, those moments of encouragement are genuine, heartfelt, and authentic—and everyone in the district can tell. “The kids love it,” Williams says, “and the teachers feel incredible when they hear those words.”

It’s not hard for Spartanburg to tie these heartfelt moments back to the district brand. Williams emblazons the Successory certificates with the district’s colors and logo, and each post contains the hashtag #Spart1Successory. There’s no missing the fact that these personal moments are stemming from the district.

Simple touches like this—a well-placed logo, a branded T-shirt sent in a gift basket, a note written on district stationary—tie the great moments parents and families experience in your individual schools back to your overall brand, cementing their support for your entire district.

Image: watering can and sprouting plant

The Power of Advocates

As you work to plant moments throughout your community, something amazing begins to happen. Suddenly, the air is filled with stories, told by your freshly-minted advocates.

Kaitlyn’s family received a call from the district superintendent, congratulating her on her great performance in the state robotics competition. When Jamie’s father was in the hospital, the district sent a card to her family. And after the super struck up a conversation with Billy’s dad in the carpool line about a leak in the school gym, the problem was fixed before the week was out.

The stories go on and on. And stories, blossoming out of the personal moments you create, are the key to changing the way your community treats your schools.

Flooding your district with positive stories, told by you and by your advocates, influences not just what people say, but what decisions they make about your schools. Even if they haven’t experienced a magic moment themselves, community members who’ve been touched by a sweet story about your schools are more likely to vote yes on a bond measure, back a new policy initiative, or offer your district support.

When you consistently plant great moments in your district, you end up with more than a field full of homegrown advocates. You get the satisfaction of a great harvest: a conversation tugged toward positivity. 


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