Marketing Your Studio
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
iano studios are particularly vulnerable to the effects of economic downturns, because they are inherently in a non-essential service "industry" - the sector most sensitive to economic conditions. Many teachers experience decreasing enrollments during economic dislocations. Even during upturns in the business cycle, most teachers will experience times and situations when they need to increase enrollments, increase fees and/or decrease costs in order to maintain their standard of living. Since I have previously written on the subjects of Setting Lesson Fees and Reducing Costs in the Teaching Studio (full versions on the PEP CD), this article will focus on the ways that one might increase income by "marketing" a studio.
Emphasize the quality of your teaching to prospective students, not price.
One thing is certain: if people don't know about you or your studio, they can't take lessons with you. Thus, you have to find ways of publicizing your teaching and studio. Advertising is one way; we will discuss that aspect a little more below. However, advertising isn't the only way to bring new students into your studio and not even necessarily the best, depending on your situation.
Ads might be helpful, but are often expensive, whereas "word-of-mouth" costs nothing, so 100% of any income from it is net. If you already have students in your studio, word-of mouth from current students to others they know is one of the best ways to bring in new people. You generate good word-of-mouth simply by doing your job well and letting your students know, in passing, that you have openings in the studio. Handling lessons professionally at all times is the key to generating a good opinion and "buzz" from your current students. This includes always starting and ending lessons on time, wearing appropriate dress, always coming to the lesson prepared, being positive and encouraging, and developing a professionally friendly relationship with students and parents. For more tips on studio professionalism, I recommend Jenny Simaile's PEP article, Top Ten Qualities of a Diligent Piano Teacher and my own PEP CD article, Setting Standards for Your Studio and Your Students.
Local music teachers' organizations can be a huge help in bringing new students into the studio. If you're not a member of such an organization, join one! Most cities and towns have at least one such group. It's also easy to start one, either local or affiliated with one of the large national music teachers associations, if you don't have one or if you feel a need for a different one in your area. By attending and participating in the group's meetings and activities, you'll build a relationship with other teachers, as well as learning from them and probably having fun, too! You can simply let the members know informally that you have openings in your studio and, if you teach specific classes of students (beginners, children, intermediate, adults, etc), the types of students you teach. Since most established teachers have full or nearly full studios, they are usually quite willing to send students your way, if they know you, and if you are willing to reciprocate on occasion. Letting other teachers in your area know that you're looking for students is another way of increasing your studio numbers without cost.
The local music teachers group can play an even bigger role than simple one-on-one referrals. The organization can sanction, support and finance a small display ad in the Yellow Pages, for a "free music teacher locator service", prominently bearing the organization's name. Because it bears the organization's name and sanction, people searching the Yellow Pages for a teacher will almost always call the number there. The organization chooses one teacher to act as the head of the service and handle the phone calls. That teacher then distributes referrals to the members of the organization for follow-up. This allows pre-qualification and sorting of requests (young children to those teachers who specialize in children, adult students to those who like to teach adults, no time-wasting referrals to those with full studios, and so forth), and costs practically nothing per member (around $10 per member per year for a typically-sized organization). It provides good publicity in the community for the group and, if run properly and honestly, benefits for everyone in the group. The only real concern is to have a person running the service who will be unbiased and honest in distributing contacts to the members and who will be a good representative for the organization. It's also a great member benefit! This has proven to be one of the most successful ways to recruit new students in a competitive "market."
My PEP CD article, Building Interest in Piano Lessons and Music, has a number of other tips about how you can use community service to publicize your studio at no cost, except time, and build student numbers. One effective form of musical outreach that almost invariably results in new students for the studio is offering free music appreciation classes. Such free music appreciation classes held within the studio are a great vehicle to get people into the studio to meet the teacher, see how she teaches, and view the facilities without creating a financial commitment. In our experience, 20-40% of the class attendees will ultimately join the studio as students.
It is particularly effective to run such classes under the sponsorship of a local music teachers organization. This gets the organization some free publicity and provides an opportunity to share the teaching responsibilities with another teacher in the organization. Since the classes are free and are seen as a community service, local media will usually publicize the classes at no cost. Further, it is often possible to obtain a sponsorship for such classes, thereby allowing the teachers to be paid for their time, in addition to bringing in new students. While conducting these music appreciation classes can take time, they are usually lots of fun and well within the knowledge and capability of almost any able piano teacher.
Most knowledgeable marketing people will tell you that advertising and publicity should be targeted to your audience, in this case, parents and prospective piano students. Targeting means that you get the greatest effect for the least number of dollars spent on advertising, broadly considered. You can publicize your studio in less targeted venues (classified ads, widely-distributed fliers, etc.), but those venues have to be either very inexpensive or reach a large audience in such a way that people looking for piano teaching can easily find out about your studio, before they become cost-effective.
Non-targeted advertising can be valuable too, if carefully chosen. Perhaps, the first place people go when looking for a teacher is the Yellow Pages. It's fast and everybody has one. The Yellow Pages aren't cheap, but once you've paid the fee, you're good for a whole year. A business card sized display ad in the Yellow Pages runs around $400 a year. If you do this through a music teacher's organization (see above), the cost can be negligible. Make sure you classify your ad correctly (under "music teachers" or "pianos" or "piano teachers").
There are some things you can do to make non-targeted advertising more effective. For example, one time that a classified ad might be cost-effective is around the Christmas holidays, because it targets a time span when many people are looking for lessons on that new family Christmas present. Such limited-time, limited-content ads are available in most places and can be very cost-effective, whereas a long term ad may not be.
Although targeted publicity is best, there are even some well-targeted ideas that don't work well. For example, you might think that a free ad posted at a music store would be a good idea. We did, too. After it generated literally nothing, we realized that essentially all the people in a music store are either teachers, accomplished players, or students who have teachers already. Since the posting was free, it cost only the time to prepare what was posted, but it didn't work well in this area. This experience simply demonstrates the fact that a good marketing program uses more than one approach to publicity.
Some teachers have tried publicizing by putting up signs on utility poles or even in their front yards. I recommend that you not do either of these. First, they don't provide a desirable image of you as a professional. Second, unless you live on a major thoroughfare, the sign will be seen by few people and fewer still piano students. Third, posting signs around town or in the yard violate the ordinances of most cities (as well as irritating your neighbors). Those ordinances are often not enforced, but keep in mind that, if you run your studio out of your home, you have to have neighbors willing to tolerate the traffic, parking, sound etc. If you put up a yard sign, that might push one of them to complain about the other aspects of your business. The resulting hassle probably isn't worth the effort to put the sign up.
It's difficult to publicize your studio or give people an idea of why your lessons are worth having if you don't have anything that prospective students can see that shows what you and your studio are about. At a minimum, you'll want to have business cards, either done professionally or by you, but printed on good card stock, and a good studio brochure with enough graphics to make it easy to read. A copy of your studio policy is also valuable. You can find general tips for preparing these documents in our article, Starting a Private Teaching Studio; you can also prepare them using templates which speed up the process considerably. No matter how you prepare these documents, you'll want to do so with care and forethought about what you want them to say and what image you want them to present.
Although not essential, a small web site of a few pages, usually including Web versions of these same documents, is very valuable in publicizing your studio and costs essentially nothing to keep running, once it's up. Most ISP's provide web space for free with every e-mail account, so this is a no-cost option, if you can write the site. Most people can write a site these days with nothing more complicated than a word processor and some basic graphics software. A web site can be very effective, when used in conjunction with your other studio documents. If you have a web site for your studio, be sure to include the link to it in your studio documents.
Once you've brought the prospective student into the studio for an initial interview, with ads or a web site or through a referral, how do you determine if this student will be a good fit with the studio and, if so, how might you convince the student that you are the right teacher for him? First, the student has to be shown a neat and professional teaching environment. Since so many teachers teach from their homes, home maintenance becomes particularly important. I've seen several home-based teachers who have let their lawns grow up in weeds (and I mean big ones!). This is the first thing their clients saw as they arrived at the studio. Perhaps for unrelated reasons and perhaps not, these teachers' student numbers seemed to drop at about the same time as the lawn began to get overgrown. This is just an example, but I think if you teach from your home, keeping it presentable and welcoming becomes a part of the business of teaching piano.
As you talk with the student and/or parents, you'll want to emphasize the "quality" of your teaching, not its "quantity" or price, even though these other topics will almost always come up. One of the best services you can do for the student, whether or not you want him in your studio, is to give him an idea of what quality lessons should include, no matter what teacher he takes them from. How can we expect people to know what quality lessons constitute, let alone be willing to pay for them, if they don't know and can't easily find out what "quality" means when it comes to lessons? There are undoubtedly a few people who don't care about quality, but most parents and adults want the best lessons they can get for their money. If teachers don't inform them of the elements of quality lessons and show why they are important (without denigrating other teachers), then who will? Of course, you will show how your lessons constitute quality. Focusing on quality will make it easier for students to understand and accept whatever your fee structure might be. Indeed, many teachers find that the higher their fees, the better the quality of the students they get, since these are the people willing to pay to get the best in teaching.
Just as with politics, all marketing is local; that is, every studio will
have different needs and different approaches that will work best in the
local market. Although this article has focused on low or no cost means of
publicizing a studio which have some general applicability, there are many
other useful studio marketing approaches that one can use that we haven't
mentioned here. Just remember that, whatever marketing approaches you use,
your success ultimately depends on your knowledge, skills and commitment as
a piano teacher.