Grass roots marketing for ESL: Success story

People often ask me if brochures are an effective way to market a language or literacy program. My answer is always the same: It depends.

I am a huge fan of technology. I love social media. I teach marketing workshops that show clients how to make a Facebook page and how to use Skype for learning and marketing.

But sometimes, brochures still have a place. Here’s a success story about a client who used a very low-cost, grass-roots marketing approach that included brochures – and built their very first e-mail list.

My client, an ESL program in a small town in a farming community in Canada wanted to increase their enrollments. Before we got started I asked them all the usual questions:

What are you doing now to market your program?

Answer: Brochures, an outdated website, flyers.

Are you able to track the return on the investment you’re making for your marketing dollars?

Answer: Blank stare. The idea of tracking this had never occurred to them. They didn’t even think it was possible.

How many students do you have now?

Answer: A handful. Certainly not enough to make ends meet.

What’s your target market?

Answer: The world.

Sigh. The last question often gets answered this way. It’s one of my pet peeves, to be honest. I dug deeper. I found out that most of their students were local immigrants. Some would qualify for government funding and others wouldn’t. The conversation revealed that some farmers in the local community employed seasonal foreign workers, mostly from Mexico. Not all of those farmers wanted their workers to be fluent in English, but some did.

Bingo.

“You’ve got brochures?”, I asked.

“Yes. They’re not pretty and we can’t afford new ones.” They cautioned.

No problem.

“What’s your budget?”, I asked.

Nervous chuckle. “Um… Free?”

“OK,” I said. “We can’t do free, but do you have $1500 to spend?”

“Well, not really, but I know you’ve got to invest something to get something.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Now here’s what I want you to do…”

My suggestion for this particular program was for them to rent a table for 4 weeks at the local farmers’ market. Have two staff members or teachers from the school work the table. Tell all the staff and students to come to the market this weekend “drop by and say hello”. Many staff went to the market on the weekends anyway, so that was easy.

By saying “drop by and say hello”, kept the feel of it casual and low-pressure. After all, just about everyone who meets a friend or colleague at the market stops to say hello, so we weren’t asking them to go out of their way.

I told them to make a big sign and hang it behind the table to people walking by would see it. “It’s important to hang it at eye level,” I told them. “Don’t make the mistake of hanging it off the table so people’s legs brush it as they walk by.” Putting signs at eye level is always important in a busy setting.

I told them to put this on their sign: “Win a free ESL course from ABC English School”.

Why a free class? It doesn’t cost a school hard dollars to give away one course. And it would generate interest.

Next, I said, make or buy a ballot box and have some pens and paper handy for people to write down their name and e-mail address.

And bring those brochures.

I told the staff their main job that day was to talk to people. Not to “sell” the program. Most definitely not to be pushy. Talk about the fact that the school was giving away one free course for the next session. Talk about the courses. Talk about the students, giving specific examples of students who have benefited from their program. Talk about what a great place it is to be.

I told my client that the e-mail addresses they collected would make up their first e-mail list. I’d coach them through that up after the farmers’ market campaign.

They went forward with the idea.

The result?

Teachers came by the booth with their families, stopping to say hello. This meant the table was not “empty”, with staff standing around looking bored. As conversations went on, others stopped by. They asked questions. Conversations happened.

Other vendors stopped by, a few of them welcoming the school to the market. It was a novelty to have an educational institution at the market. In some ways, they appeared not to fit in.

And yet they did. They were part of the community. In fact, their prospective clients were not only the students themselves, but also the farmers who might want to have their workers better educated. The school was reaching out to their prospective market by meeting them on their own turf.

Anyone who stopped by was invited to put their name into the draw. They were told that they could give the course away to anyone they chose, such as a seasonal staff member or a neighbor.

The ballot box slowly filled up with names.

People were interested. They took away brochures.

The result? After 4 weeks, enrollment for the semester was up by 47%, resulting in their highest number of registrations ever. A 47% increase in monthly registrations, achieved over a 4 week period is a significant increase.

The costs:

Table at the farmers market for 4 weeks: $80
Bristol board and big “fat markers” to make the sign: $10
Paper and pens for ballots: $7
Staff salaries: 2 people x 8 hours x $20 per hour x 4 weeks: $1280

Cost per week: $344.25

Total cost for 4 weeks: $1377

And most of that was spent on staff wages for those working at the market. Rather than putting most of the money into advertising that wasn’t generating much return, the school was actually helping out their own staff and teachers by giving them some extra hours.

Were they able to track the return on the investment they’d made? Absolutely!

What else did they get? They got new students and new relationships with others in the community who were interested in their programs.

Were the brochures helpful? In this case, yes. Anyone who was interested popped one into their bag and pulled it out later at a convenient time. This was, literally, not the market for high tech gadgets. A brochure was appropriate in this context.

With a few adaptations this same approach could also work for literacy programs who want to build an awareness campaign.

My point in sharing this story is that depending on your market, grass roots approaches may work very well. Reaching out to your market in a way that makes sense to them, and includes a personal connection is likely to be much more successful than doing something just because it’s fashionable.

So said the social media-butterfly / marketing expert who just got her first Blackberry.

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5 Responses to Grass roots marketing for ESL: Success story

  1. Joshua says:

    Dr. Eaton,
    This inspiring, heart-felt and most of all, business savvy piece was A+
    I am involved with an ESL program as an assistant teacher, and also by-the-by as an ESL student {ESPANOL as a Second Language}.
    Thank you so much for sharing this with us, I learned a good bit about how to reach out to our local community, we certainly have farmer’s markets all across town and will make an opportunity of them!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Joshua. Sometimes, marketing is not all about being splashy and high cost. It is about reaching the people you need and want to reach in a way that makes sense to them.

  2. QELA says:

    This is a great story! It really goes to show that the most effective marketing happens when you know your audience and are able to meet them, literally, on their own turf.

    • Thanks for your comment. There’s an ongoing debate about whether organizations, regardless of their size or mission, should “get with the times” and do everything with technology. I tend to think that “meeting people where they’re at” is more effective. Appreciate the feedback!

  3. Learn English Online says:

    Great! Congratulation, I’m happy for your success. Hope I can have it too. I really have fun reading this.

    Thank you,
    Learn English Online

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