Q and A: Rossana Ladaga-Llenado: Marketing education in the time of pandemic

Rossana Ladaga-Llenado, CEO of the AHEAD Education Group, has always been an entrepreneur with a decades-long track record of pioneering innovative services for the educational sector. For over 25 years, AHEAD’s cutting-edge review centers have enabled countless students to gain entry into their preferred top universities in the Philippines, preparing them to become future society leaders.

In this Q and A with Marketing Interactive, Llenado talks about how she successfully pivoted to digital learning at a time when other schools are still adjusting to the situation. She also discusses how she was able to keep promoting and marketing education, overcoming parental fears, and the challenges presented by the temporary shuttering of traditional classrooms.

Q:  The pandemic and the months-long quarantine that the Philippine government has implemented on the National Capital Region and other cities took everyone by surprise. Parents were especially concerned about how their kids were going to continue education---and still remain safe. How did you and AHEAD Learning Systems respond to this unprecedented challenge?

A:  We saw the signs that the pandemic was going to force things to move online. No one wanted to go out. Crowds were a no-no. But still, we did a lot of market research. We needed to know how the pandemic affected our staff, students, and teachers. We saw the signs that the pandemic was going to force things to move online. And we had to act fast. 

We implemented remote work for the team. We stressed the use of social media services to keep in touch with our communities.  Most of all, we began to transform our learning services into online alternatives that were easy for parents and children to use while they stay at home. 

Q:  What were your messaging and strategy to your target publics to make sure they remain engaged?

A: We had to be realistic and at the same time optimistic. We recognized that there was a new normal. And when there’s something new, we take it and adapt to it. We innovated products and services that could answer the concerns of our target publics. 

For example, one of the biggest concerns parents had was how their children were going to learn. Parents were not equipped to become the primary academic educator. Another was how children were going to school in light of the pandemic. This led us to create the BlendFlex approach while marrying homeschool’s flexibility and traditional learning with progressive education’s student-oriented methods. We also strove to support first-time homeschool parents. We created classes such as Mental Health and Wellbeing to help students cope with the pandemic. To address the high demand, we also created a Foreign Language class. 

As part of our marketing strategy, while helping our target publics, we gave free trial sessions of our classes to more than 2000 students. Our objective was to show them that our teachers are competent and highly skilled and that they can help the students learn, despite the pandemic. This was also a chance to showcase the educational tools that we have been using, and how the students do learn in experiencing them. 

Q:  Did your messaging to your internal stakeholders change as well?

A: To make all this possible, I had to motivate my staff. That was internal communications. I also decided to rally my staff. Like all others, they have been affected by the pandemic. They can’t go out and meet their friends, they are cooped up at home, and they miss their life outside---and they are afraid of losing their jobs, because a lot of people did. I decided to meet them regularly. Prior to the pandemic, I only met them about three to four times a year. But since then, I have been meeting them weekly to motivate them, teach them, and show them the brighter and saner side of the situation. 

I did show them that they grew up a lot during this pandemic; they became adaptable and agile. At the same time, I emphasized that we all need to be positive thinkers, alert, adept, action-oriented, altruistic, and having the minds of achievers. 

Q:  What other tools did you use to make sure that your communities were engaged?

Social media and email marketing are critical. But we also created monthly webinars for another group of stakeholders:  the school directors and administrators who were just immersing themselves in this new learning landscape. We got the leaders from the top universities to interact and share their challenges and solutions. Educators from all over the Philippines actually participated because they wanted to know how to move forward despite the obstacles blocking their path. 

These webinars reinforced our messages of hope and resilience to our target publics. At the same time, we encouraged collaboration among our stakeholders. That alone is helping create the online communities that will help us bond together during this time.

We also have been appearing frequently in these webinars as well as in newspapers and online platforms to remind our public that we are open. For a long time since the pandemic hit, we were the first and only one in our industry to offer continuous services. This was also a change for me. Before, my marketing team had to persuade me to appear in front of the media. Now I am volunteering to address our audience through many different platforms. We have launched our own webinars and plan to make more. One of them got 250,000 views and the interest has been peaking. 

Q:  What were the most important lessons you learned during this crisis? How can marketing be successful during economically hard times?

Always offer a service that your customer needs. Think of what their concerns are during a crisis and more important, craft the message that can show them a solution. 

Next, always be there for them. This is a blend of marketing communications and customer service. Parents in particular need to be assured of their children’s well-being. Keep the lines open and listen to what they are saying. It may be hard, but your being present with them at all times makes them feel valued. They do not feel alone. At the same time, they trust you to look for solutions to their problems.

Our results do show it. Our sales this year alone for our review centers tripled our annual sales for the past six years. That was because we focused on providing service to the K-12 students making the transition. 

Moving forward, we are now in a world where globalization is more prominent. AHEAD aims to help families transition into becoming “citizens of the world” not just in their own country. AHEAD Online specifically has been designed for international students, especially those in Asia, who want to learn English as a second language.