Scottsdale Schools traverse advertising marketplace in 21st Century

A screen shot of Copper Ridge School’s video sponsored by Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty.

The evolution of education for Scottsdale’s youth has been constant since the first school house opened in 1896.

Although spanning more than 100 years, the local schools have grown from eight children being taught inside a home in 1896, to Scottsdale Grammar School being built in September 1928, to the expansion of Scottsdale Unified School District, to having more choices than one can name in 2017.

Private, charter, home, or public schools all bubble to the top of the education conversation. Each option offers something different, and all draw local students.

In the era of school choice, the Scottsdale Unified School District is finding itself searching for ways to tell its own story.

School districts and individual campuses across the Valley are each finding their own recipe for success by using paid advertisements, social media and any other means possible. For SUSD, their newest marketing ingredient is sponsored video.

When parents — or potential parents — log onto their school’s website, somewhere on the homepage is a 5 minute video sponsored by longtime, family-owned real estate company Russ Lyon Sotheby’s.

The video interviews the principal, teachers and highlights the unique aspects of each school, while showing students immersed in their daily school routines.

“In the era of school choice, it is more important than ever for schools and districts to tell their stories,” Scottsdale Unified School District Public Information Officer Erin Helm said in an Oct. 11 written response to emailed questions.

“Families no longer ‘default’ to their neighborhood school. They may be swayed by the marketing of a well-funded private school and choose to go somewhere else, without ever knowing the very best educational option was right in their backyard. The challenge that public school districts face is finding ways to tell those stories without the huge marketing budgets that many competitors have.”

In recent years, Scottsdale Schools has found itself implementing more specialty offerings — such as Mandarin and Spanish immersion programs and robotics classes — to compete with the growing competition moving in. In addition, all of SUSD’s schools are open to any student — district boundaries no longer marginalized.

Ms. Helm says although Scottsdale Schools’ marketing budget is fluid, the district has about $12,000 to spend on marketing for the 2017-18 school year, outside of their bi-annual magazine, which is published for a fee by a subsidiary of the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Independent archives show that from 2014-16 the Scottsdale Unified School District had on average adopted an annual communications budget of $472,259.653 with the highest budget amount totaling $512,173.55 in 2016.

In total, over those three years, SUSD has allocated $1.4 million on various marketing efforts, including in-house communications staff salaries and supplies, records show. The district has a cost of $27,000 to $28,000 to publish the Advantage magazine and have it mailed to existing Scottsdale residents through its vendor agreement with the chosen marketing and advertising entity.

While SUSD believes they may have found a good partnership with local video producer Sequence Media Group and current sponsors, Russ Lyon Sotheby’s, who pay to have each video produced — a cost that ranges from $3,000 to $10,000 per school — there are some district parents who aren’t so excited about the endeavor.

Parent Jeremy Lovett outlined issues with the school videos including questioning the authorization of the children in the videos, a monopoly being created by SUSD’s single sponsor and the belief that the school videos are being used in realtor’s recruitments to “work the schools.”

A Facebook page taking issue with the videos has also been created.

Through a pilot program, Scottsdale Realtor Kelly Jones sponsored all of the videos initially because she felt if some schools were receiving this benefit, all schools should have the same chance, she explained in an Oct. 11 phone interview.

“I said ‘I want to be a part of this — I see the benefit as a whole to the school,’” Ms. Jones said. “I made an agreement with Sequence Media Group that I would be the place marker for all the schools. They (Russ Lyon Sotheby’s) saw the potential not only from a marketing perspective, but as a community effort.”

Local level brainstorming

The video public relations initiative that SUSD has embarked on was created through the brainstorming of a couple of different local companies.

Longtime Scottsdale resident, former SUSD parent, and owner of Sequence Media Group, Mark Wahlstrom says he was pretty well acquainted with the funding issues public schools face, and wanted to assist.

Mark Wahlstrom

“Money follows the kids, and I observed a number of charter schools and private schools — the fact that it was becoming more and more difficult to retain those students and keep funding in the classroom,” Mr. Wahlstrom explained in an Oct. 11 phone interview, of his desire to market his neighborhood schools.

“I’m sure the district doesn’t have the money for this — they need to be in social media, in video — if we can provide these at no cost to the district, do a beta test, sponsors could support a true video and marketing initiative to show the unique aspect of every school.”

It was two years ago that Mr. Wahlstrom first contacted the school district with the video idea. He went on to submit a department of education proposal that was put out to bid, he said.

“We ended up getting the contract,” he explained. “I have several family members in public education, I’m a supporter of choice, but I hated seeing public schools being sold against — they didn’t have the tools to tell their own story.”

Mr. Wahlstrom says a school committee voted on the initiative twice, and the videos started going live last fall.

Ms. Helm couldn’t tell the Independent the exact terms of the contract, stating she was still learning the contractual details, but believed it to be a five-year agreement.

Mr. Wahlstrom’s passion for his local community has touched SUSD and Cave Creek Unified School District, he said, noting that he wanted to test the products in two different-sized districts. SUSD has 29 schools, while CCUSD has under 10.

The videos aren’t the first marketing avenue the school district has chosen, in recent years they were selling ads on their school buses.

Erin Helm

“School bus advertising was a really innovative idea that a lot of districts started doing a few years back. For SUSD, it was initially successful, but after a time, new interest in bus ads dwindled to only a handful of inquiries per year — not enough to keep the ads on dozens of busses fresh,” Ms. Helm explained. “Older ads started to wear down and look bad, and removing them came at the District’s expense. This year, we became our own customers and now use our busses to promote SUSD programs and schools!”

The videos, which contain footage of students, are not distributed anywhere besides SUSD’s websites and on their host site, Vimeo, Ms. Helm said. In addition, parents sign a Code of Conduct agreement each year, and in that agreement, there is a photo/video waiver near the very beginning of the agreement that parents may choose to opt out of.

Ms. Helm sent a screen-shot of the Code of Conduct, which outlines the use of photo and video to be used in school-related activities, and for the use of the school district in various media including newspaper, broadcast, website, social media and contests.

Sponsors are being sought for the next installment of videos, Mr. Wahlstrom noted.

A view of a monument sign motorists encounter when entering into the city of Scottsdale. (File photo)

Community immersion

For Ms. Jones, the videos aren’t just about getting her name out into the public, she says Russ Lyon Sotheby’s and SUSD both are quality, longtime local businesses that have found an opportunity to work together.

“I think because we understand what digital marketing is doing in today’s world, people respond to videos more so then print, or billboard or radio,” she explained. “So if we can bring awareness and educate the public of the need of public schools through videos, it helps attendance rate.”

Kelly Jones

Scottsdale Unified School District’s state and federal funding is dependent upon the amount of students attending their schools. Each student sitting in a seat equates to a dollar amount.

As more education competition moves into Scottsdale and surrounding areas, fewer students attend SUSD, which in turn effects their annual funding.

Ms. Jones says she has been championing the Arizona tax credit opportunity, where single or married couples can give up to $200 or $400, respectively, to a school and get a full refund on their taxes.

By attending school and community events, Ms. Jones says she is trying to get the word out about tax credits — and if someone needs her real estate services, she’s there for that also.

“I think my goal with the sponsors, be the Realtors or Hash Kitchen, or anyone, is to get that message out — how the money will get the education they need for kids,” Ms. Jones said of the tax credit.

“With this new project you have sponsors such as myself who want to go in and network with families — the best way to do that is to help educate them about tax credit. It can be a win for everyone.”

She sees the videos as a way to help the schools build the business of making money, she said.

“These videos are expensive to produce, school districts have no money for it whatsoever, so by your sponsor paying for the video and having a banner ad on the website, these are free services we’re offering and being a part of,” she explained.

“What we’re recognizing is people from out of state they’ll figure out the school, and then the neighborhood and then the Realtor. We’re trying to meet them halfway.”

Ms. Jones says she was offered an introductory rate because of the pilot-nature of the program — high school videos cost around $8,000-$10,000, while elementary schools cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Schools now have a handful of designated Russ Lyon Sotheby’s Realtors sponsoring their videos.

“This has never been done in our country, it’s something revolutionary,” she said. “It’s new and we can see the traffic. Our goal really is to help bring awareness and bring more money — we hope bigger companies see the potential, like Nike and Under Armor.”

Ultimately, Scottsdale Schools and Ms. Jones both say they have heard positive results from the community.

“If I’m hosting an open house and I happen to be sponsoring their school, they get really excited about it,” Ms. Jones said. “If I have a booth or am at an event it really does help me educate other families about their schools.”

Ms. Helm echoes the same response from the individual schools, although she noted the popularity of videos is hard to track.

“We have heard reports that parents cite the videos when they arrange school tours, and we even had a principal stopped in the grocery store by parents who recognized him from his school’s video,” Ms. Helm said.

Russ Lyon Sotheby’s is also a regular Scottsdale Independent advertiser, where they also outline their Realtors by school neighborhood.

In an Oct. 11 edition of the Scottsdale Independent, Russ Lyon Sotheby’s paid ad included 10 Realtors names, phone numbers and their SUSD neighborhood.

The ad also notes Russ Lyon Sotheby’s “exclusive” real estate partnership with the Cave Creek and Scottsdale unified school districts.

Left in the dark

Mr. Lovett says he and his wife are very involved in their children’s school, and were surprised to see their offspring in a corporate video. He also points out, SUSD’s Code of Conduct waiver that he has the choice of signing at the beginning of each year, doesn’t include commercial advertisement as one of the uses for their child’s likeness.

Jeremy Lovett

“The entire sales pitch is that they will have all these pieces to create buzz to attract new students, from the boots on the ground level, parents don’t like the videos,” he explained in an Oct. 11 phone interview, noting the real estate professionals discuss the opportunity of “working the school” in their videos.

By creating the Facebook page “SUSD Corporate Media Concerns” Mr. Lovett says he wanted to create a hub for this issue. His video ad has 1,500 views, the page shows.

“Every parent I talk to, we’re in the dark — I didn’t notice and we’re involved,” he said. “Literally 99 percent (of parents he talks to) are surprised. Secondarily, they’re like ‘yeah it doesn’t seem right.’ The parents have even found themselves in the videos.”

Mr. Lovett says his Facebook page simply asks parents to contact the school district regarding the issue.

“It’s fine if they want to sell corporate sponsors,” Mr. Lovett said of SUSD trying to make money. “But for that person’s pitch to include my kids in it — separate it out. If you’re going to put my kid in a Nike video I’d hope I would know.”

Ultimately, Mr. Lovett says he would just like the district to look at their marketing efforts, and not hide things from parents.

“Really they could appease me and take my kid out — I believe if they’re going to take time and effort and put it prominently on their website they should look into up-to-date marketing tools. I’d like the district to take time to realize it’s ineffective, infringing on our rights, and make sure parents know about it. Not sticking our kids in some ad without knowing it — the concept of social sharing is more valuable than anything else and that’s never going to happen if we’re left in the dark.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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