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Chapter 12—Marketing and Communicating Your LDS

Gaining stakeholder buy-in for an LDS is critical for the long-term sustainability of the project, as well as for the effective design and utilization of the system. Unfortunately, developing a system, even one that will greatly benefit the entire organization and its stakeholders, may not on its own be enough to get everyone on board. Agencies often need to also "sell" the idea to gain support for the LDS, and many have pursued different tactics to do so. This section offers best practices to help your education agency face the marketing challenge.

Who Is the Audience?

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History helps
Take advantage of relationships that exist throughout the education community, especially between state, regional, and local education agency staff. Get the word out and keep these lines of communication open.

Cast a wide net to promote the system, reaching out to stakeholders throughout the education community and focusing on all levels. Present the project to education agency executives and decisionmakers at the top, focusing on the policymaking advantages of the LDS. Brief them regularly on the progress made, as well as how the system can help achieve the organization's goals. Buy-in at the top may also increase when the LDS team moves forward with the project—contacting districts or schools for data, for instance. In addition, take a grassroots approach to publicizing the project. Make sure that information and support travel up, as well as down, the organizational ladder and ensure that all stakeholders realize that the LDS will be critical to the organization's day-to-day operations.

Put special emphasis on the business side of the organization. While the project will need support from your organization's technology team, buy-in from nontechnical staff is critical. Involving a wide variety of stakeholders in the design process will help everyone feel connected to the project and gain early buy-in (see chapter 4). Get input from program area staff, district representatives (for a state LDS), school administrators (particularly important for a district LDS), teachers, and other interested parties before designing your system; and let everyone know you are incorporating their feedback. What data do they want? What information will help them save time and be more successful? What tools will best suit their needs? How will privacy be ensured? (See chapter 4.)

magnifying glass icon To hush or to holler...
Should you keep a low profile or grab a megaphone and yell about your LDS from the rooftops? Education agencies have taken both paths: some have worked under the radar, while others have aggressively advertised their project. Both approaches have their advantages. While the latter course may slow down the development process by inviting lots of interest and involvement, the limited outreach approach may lead to serious problems later on when the agency tries to build support for the project.

What Is the Message?

Communicating about an LDS development project can be a major challenge. However, getting everyone to understand what the new system will be, and what benefits it will offer, is important if the project is to succeed.

Start with a clear vision for the project. Communicate it consistently, and be prepared to repeat your message multiple times. Frame the LDS around organizational goals and how the new system will better equip everyone to achieve them (ESP Solutions 2007). Get the word out:

checkmark icon What will the new system be? How will it be different from the current system?
checkmark icon Why is the system being developed? How will it benefit the education community? Stress streamlined daily operations, time and money savings through increased efficiency, quicker access to data and better informed decisionmaking, and improved services. Make sure the LDS is not perceived as a burden. (See chapter 5 of Book One: What is an LDS?)
checkmark icon How will the system better equip the organization to meet its goals?
checkmark icon How will the data be protected?
checkmark icon How will the culture of the educational community need to change in terms of the way people think about and use data?
Also provide frequent updates:
checkmark icon Who is backing the project? What support and resources have been won (governor buy-in, grants awarded, etc.)?
checkmark icon What progress has been made toward system goals? Which benefits and functionalities have already been achieved, and which will materialize in the future?
checkmark icon What is the timeline for the system? Be realistic in your estimates so that expectations are appropriate. Highlight planned milestones and gain support for reaching them.

Converting the LDS nonbelievers

While many will get on board early without much convincing, there will probably be individuals who are not so willing to embrace the project. For instance, many schools and districts do not see data systems as critical to their day-to-day operations. Show them the value of the system. Win these people over by showing them that the LDS will improve their days and make their jobs easier. For example, what information will they be able to get through the portal? What reports will be made available to them? What data entry will become automated? How will greater efficiency improve the data's timeliness and usefulness? How will better information equip them to make better decisions and spend their time and resources more effectively? Note that improvements do not always need to be high tech. Often, the changes that please local staff the most are simple ones that save them time every day.

Explain why the system they are using and the data it contains are inadequate. For example, the current system may collect and store redundant and/or conflicting data in various silos, rather than collecting data once and storing them in a centralized, integrated, and authoritative data storage facility. Data entry may be laborious, or getting information back in a timely manner may be difficult. Then show how the new system will address these issues and improve their data. For example, if your development project involves the construction of a data warehouse, identify all of the silos the LDS will replace. While the silos may have served the state well in the past, explain that the new data warehouse will be better for reasons x, y, and z. For example, how will the new system be different from—and better than—existing transactional or other types of historical data systems in use? What insights can new data linkages provide that could not be derived from a system of disparate silos? Ease anxieties by stressing that the system is being implemented to help staff, not to replace them.

When all else fails, more coercive measures may become necessary. For instance, an executive such as a superintendent might send out letters or emails to noncompliant districts requiring them to get on board. Some states make compliance with the LDS mandatory. If that is the case in your state, communications can be more forceful than merely offering encouragement.

This following plan has been adapted from "Strategic Communications Planning." See this resource for more guidance on developing a communication plan.

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Strategic communication plan

Develop a communication plan early on to identify your outreach needs and carry out an effective public relations campaign. A strategic communication plan may consist of the following sections:

square icon Context: What has happened before? What is the relevant history?
square icon Environmental scan: What are the key factors that will affect the project's success? What are other jurisdictions doing? What is the legislative context?
square icon Stakeholder analysis: Who are the LDS stakeholders and what are their characteristics? What are their expected reactions? How can the support of those who react positively help mitigate the concerns of individuals who may resist the project?
square icon Objectives: What clear and measurable goals do you want to achieve in your communications effort? To educate your stakeholders? To build support or create demand for the LDS project?
square icon Strategy: From a top-level perspective, how will you achieve your communications objectives? Should your approach be high- or low-profile?
square icon Audiences: What specific key audiences will you try to reach? What are their needs and interests? How will you tailor your communications to these various audiences and maximize the impact of your message?
square icon Announcement: Given the strategy, should you make an announcement? If so, how will you summarize the project in your announcement?
square icon Message: What are you trying to tell stakeholders? What is the project and why are you doing it? What will change as a result of the project and the new system?
square icon Tactics: How will you implement your strategy before, during, and after your project announcement (if you make one)? What modes of communication will you use (emails, direct mailings, speeches, meetings, training sessions, web conferences, presentations, websites, press releases, etc.)? Who will be responsible for different communication activities, and when will each take place?
square icon Issues: What problems might you have to overcome? Can you anticipate any potential confusion or pushback? How will you deal with these issues if they arise?
square icon Budget: What will your communication plan cost? Where will funding come from? Do not ignore seemingly small details.
square icon Evaluation: How will you know how well you have achieved your goals? How will you measure your marketing success? Will you be able to see a beforeand-after effect of your efforts? For instance, did the project receive media coverage? How did stakeholder perceptions change?

Who Should Do the Outreach?

When trying to get the word out, having the right people promoting the project is important. Identify these passionate communicators among your stakeholder groups and deploy them to talk with their peers. Energized district leaders, for instance, can talk or give presentations to other district leaders, sharing with them the benefits of the LDS and the status of the implementation process. They can also solicit valuable feedback. Enthusiastic legislators, governors, state superintendents, and other high-level leaders can also make a strong impression and help overcome resistance and remove political barriers. These high profile advocates, or "champions," can speak at meetings or communicate through mailings to raise awareness and get the system on people's radars. Alternatively, these roles might be filled by outside consultants who can focus exclusively on the marketing effort. Either way, these champions should be knowledgeable about the system and the progress towards its implementation.

What Modes of Communication Should Be Used?

While agencies have used a vast arsenal of communication techniques, a large share of the information about the project should be shared during internal and external stakeholder meetings. Presentations in these meetings or at conferences (both in-person and web-based) should include progress updates. Training sessions and other development activities are also great venues for marketing the system. Other means of communication include email campaigns; paper mailings such as letters, newsletters, or brochures; and press releases to announce the project and milestone achievements. If the media are contacted, staff must be ready to effectively and consistently respond to their questions and concerns if support is to be gained from the general public. Assign specific personnel as the go-to people for specific types of information on the system, and direct calls and questions to them. Agencies might also consider creating a web page or site dedicated to the project, to which stakeholders can be directed for up-to-date information.

Agencies must be able to disseminate information quickly in a format that is understandable to nonspecialists. Again, have a clear message and make sure that your audiences understand what you are saying. Avoid miscommunication, for example, by limiting the use of jargon in general presentations and communications. Agencies might also consider creating a common glossary of terms for stakeholders to reference. (DQC 2006b)

Maintaining Support

Communications should be used to keep everyone excited throughout the project. An LDS development project plan that includes many short-term deliverables will lend itself to a successful marketing effort. Show progress, however small, by announcing achievements and delivering results along the way. With the completion of each deliverable, a separate communication can be disseminated to celebrate each little "win." These victories can be advertised via the media and throughout the organization. But be careful not to promise anything you cannot deliver quickly. If results are not forthcoming when promised, or if your first success is long to come and subsequent ones infrequent, faith in the project and your ability to create and maintain support may be diminished (DQC 2006b). And, in addition to talking to staff about the project, project managers should also acknowledge a job well done. A little recognition or token of appreciation for those working on the project will go a long way in keeping everyone motivated and invested in the project.

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Finally, the system and the data themselves are another important marketing vehicle. Along the way, get the data out and show stakeholders its usefulness. Further down the line, when parts of the system are ready for testing, pilots are also an effective means of winning over key stakeholders. They get districts and schools interested in the system, let them try it out, and give them the chance to help improve it and resolving any kinks (ESP Solutions 2007). If a new data mart is created, for instance, let the appropriate stakeholders explore it and see how it will benefit them. If an analysis tool is created for teachers or administrators, let them see its value and chime in on ways to make it more useful.