Independent school marketing is in many ways a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. We promote schools based on certain attributes and then we research why parents have chosen our schools and remain satisfied with them based on those same attributes. That, in turn, provides the proof that we need to convince ourselves that we completely understand parents’ decision-making. But, maybe it’s time to jump out of our comfort zone and look more deeply at parents’ motivation.
Let’s be more specific. If you were to scan the websites of any number of independent schools, you would find the following attributes that are being used to promote the school:
- Academic excellence
- Character Development
- Whole Child Education
- Acquisition of skills for learning
- Being part of a community of students
To measure their success in attracting and retaining families, schools then survey parents. That’s good. But here’s the self-fulfilling part. Survey questions are based on the promotional attributes above or some variation on them. For example, every parent satisfaction survey that I’ve seen asks respondents to rate the school based on something like this series of questions:
- How satisfied are you with the quality of the academic program/the Math curriculum/the Language Arts program?
- To what extent do you feel your child is developing positive character traits?
And surveys to new families will most often ask parents to rank the reasons they chose the school based on variations of the attributes above.
Then the survey data is collected and analyzed and guess what? Yup, now we have proof that the features we are using to promote the school are exactly the reasons that parents have chosen our school and the criteria they use in deciding whether to stay. And with great confidence, we can continue to market our schools the way we always have. Phew!
So how do we break the cycle? Two recent Harvard Business Review articles provide some guidance. The first – Creativity in Marketing– is based on discussions with leading marketers and provides some approaches that will definitely lead to new insights.
For example, what if we think about marketing with parents as opposed to marketing to parents? Strategic marketing is targeted. We talk about target audiences or target segments. Implicitly that means that we keep our distance, disseminating marketing messages, like arrows, toward the bulls-eyes we seek to influence. But parents aren’t sitting idly waiting for our cupid-like missives. In fact, they are creating their own content in the lives they lead as reflected on social media. The imperative for independent school marketers is to remove the distance, have meaningful interactions with parents and make their stories and experiences the centerpiece of marketing efforts.
The second article advocates a less empirical and more experiential way of interacting with customers – or, in our case, parents. By intuitively analyzing the customer experience, it’s possible to discover previously hidden motivation for buying a product or service. The authors characterize these motivators as “jobs to be done.”
With these two articles in mind, if we were to market with parents and really immerse ourselves in the parent experience, we may discover other attributes upon which parents are selecting independent schools and choosing to remain at them. Here are some of the “jobs to be done” that we might find:
- Creating a sense of accomplishment or status for parents
- Building community and developing new friendships for parents
- Developing a more homogeneous social circle for children and parents
- Meeting the expectations of grandparents (parents’ parents) or other family members
- Providing a worry-free experience that relieves the stress of having to continuously monitor school progress and advocate for children
- Delivering convenience – in pick up/drop off and in scheduling of meetings, presentations and assemblies
- Providing seamless access to tutoring or other supports
- Communicating in ways that find the balance between providing “must-know” information and the validation of continuing to make the right choice
And, removing barriers to choosing independent schools, such as:
- Assuring parents that they will fit in with other families at the school
- Relieving a sense of guilt about their ability to afford higher tuition fees and separating themselves from peers (as may be the case with any luxury product)
Implicitly, each school will have its own meaningful promotional attributes which doubles down on the need for marketers – and, I would argue heads of school and other key administrators – to immerse themselves in the parent experience.
Uncovering these real attributes at your school is way more than an exercise in marketing because each of them is an expression of need that must be supported. Being attuned to the parent experience requires action in programming and communication.
Lest anyone thinks I am disparaging the use of data, I offer these points. As is best practice in the use of qualitative and quantitative data, once you uncover new motivational criteria, you can – and should – use broad-based surveys to determine the degree to which they are a factor for all parents. But perhaps more importantly, I am reminded of an amazing quote by author and speaker Brené Brown, who said, “stories are data with a soul.”
The bottom line is that as independent school marketers, we may be looking for love in all the wrong places and by being shoulder to shoulder with our parents, we may discover the true path to their hearts.
What do you think?
What are some of the other reasons that parents are choosing your school? What have you done to validate those reasons empirically? More importantly, what programs or communication have you put in place to support them?