This spring, Kinetic assisted with campaigns for two high school mill levies in the state of Montana. Sadly, both failed at the ballot box by similar margins. While the outcome was disappointing, the challenges of these campaigns were both intriguing and educational.
In retrospect, those challenges center on a common theme in marketing: how to convey complex issues, services and products in a simple, galvanizing way. While clear communication has been paramount in connecting with audiences since the advent of marketing, the information age has intensified the battle for our attention. With that comes the paradox of further reduced attention spans in the face of a constant barrage of information.
Default to the simplest level possible
The best marketing finds a way to stay out of the weeds at the top level. Details are important but should not cloud the overarching message and can often be handled a couple clicks down on a landing page or on interior pages in print.
Aspire to cut the clutter from your message. Delete every extra word to drive home a simple message with clarity. You should know exactly what you want the audience to do after consuming each piece of content.
The Montana Public School Funding Formula
The task of educating the public on the high school mill levies was complicated by misperceptions about Montana’s convoluted and, many would argue, unfair public school funding formula.
Based on the number of students, the state determines a maximum budget for each district. The formula then allocates 80% of that amount and leaves it up to the district to raise the rest through local mill levies. This puts school administrators in the uncomfortable position of turning to voters each year to ask for money to fully fund the district.
Few voters would choose to “underfund” schools. Yet the formula creates the impression that school administrators are asking for money year after year because they have somehow failed to budget properly. Instead, all they’re asking for is the full budget that the state calculated for them.
The issue is compounded by the trend of politicizing school governance in the wake of the pandemic, which creates further division and distrust. There are few decisions school administrators can make that won’t anger half the electorate these days.
Reducing Complexities in the Marketing Messaging
In both mill levy campaigns, we sought to reduce the complexity with statements that simplified the arcane state funding formula for public schools. For example, “Do Our Students Deserve More Than 80%?” The details of how the state apportions money were handled in an FAQ section and, where possible, through simple infographics.
In making the case for the mill levies, we included a strong component of what fully-funded schools would look like. In part, this was handled through short videos with current and past high school principals who could speak directly to the challenges they face when communities do not regularly pass mill levies. They touched on how, when fully-funded, the district is able to prepare students for careers, which benefits the local economy, especially during tight labor markets.
This message about the economic benefits of thriving and competitive high schools was emphasized elsewhere in the campaigns. School districts are among the largest employers in most communities and much of their spending has significant economic benefits. Competitive public schools improve economies across the board by attracting new residents and providing a pipeline for qualified job candidates.
While the mill levy campaigns did not yield the results we hoped for, they did provide a valuable exercise in sifting through a mountain of information to find the compelling selling points. In the end, we found the right messaging to give the campaign a chance to succeed despite the headwinds of the economy and post-pandemic angst.
Need help simplifying your message? Call Kinetic, it’s what we do.