11 ways to surprise and delight parents

“Surprise” and “school” isn’t a word pairing that would generally be regarded as positive. There is little that parents dread more than the unexpected call from their child’s school. Based on that, surprising parents may not sound like the basis for an effective school marketing initiative. But when the surprise is positive and unexpected, it has the potential to delight and, in the process, generate more loyalty and word of mouth than most conventional marketing campaigns.

What is Surprise & Delight?
In fact, the corporate marketing world has developed an entire array of “Surprise & Delight” tactics and they have become a staple of marketing campaigns. Here’s a formal definition from the people at Social Rank: “Surprise and Delight is a marketing strategy in which companies randomly select an individual or group to receive a gift or experience.”

At its core, surprising and delighting customers is not new. Giving a free cookie to the child with his mother at the bakery, providing an unexpected refund or sending clients a birthday card are things that business owners have done for years. However, social media, with its power to transform the mundane into mass communication, is a turbo-charger to these acts of kindness, ensuring that hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of people know about them. When one good deed – or the photo of one good deed, can lead to thousands of shares and re-tweets, there is tremendous potential for organizations to enhance their brand reputation by surprising customers and stakeholders.

Examples of Surprise & Delight
Some companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on surprise & delight campaigns. WestJet, a Canadian airline, surprised passengers on one of their flights by making their Christmas gift wishes come true. TD Bank surprised clients with personalized thank you gifts ranging from Disneyland tickets for a single mom, roses for the elderly, and airline tickets for a mother who wanted to visit her sick daughter.

These tactics don’t necessarily have to come with large price tags. Sometimes surprise & delight is just an impressive extension of providing good customer service. When a Southwest pilot delayed a flight so that a man could see his dying grandson or when employees at a Trader Joes store delivered groceries to an 89-year-old war veteran, it didn’t cost a ton of money but it did get a ton of attention.

Why Does it Work?
Clearly it’s not the cost of the program that makes surprise & delight successful. So, what accounts for their success? A Harvard Business Review article suggests that there are five scientific reasons to explain the efficacy of surprise, including the assertion that surprise is addictive. The Social Rank article quoted above says, “When brands publicly (and randomly) reward their customers, they demonstrate that they genuinely care about their customers…” and makes this summative statement, “Surprise is still probably the most powerful marketing tool of all.”

In today’s competitive educational marketplace, schools may be wise to consider using surprise & delight tactics to express their appreciation to parents in ways that are personal, poignant and have significant social media currency. They can be a potent marketing tool sending an important message about the way schools regard parents and students.

The truth is that even without the label, there is already a measure of surprise & delight being practised in many schools. An example is the teacher who brings a sick student her homework along with a get well card from classmates.

But for schools that want to ratchet up their customer (parent) appreciation in ways that are sure to light up social media, here, are 11 ideas for surprise & delight tactics you may want to try.

  • What if parents coming to curriculum night or parent teacher conferences were given the red carpet treatment – literally. Imagine parents walking a red carpet that leads to the school entrance and having their photos taken by faux paparazzi. The photos of the event and the individual photos posted by parents could create a social media storm.
  • Make parents’ day remarkable by providing coffee and donuts or muffins to parents who are in their cars anxiously and stressfully waiting in the drop off or pick up line.
  • Keep an eye out for parents with a notable professional or community achievement and then send a personal handwritten note of congratulations.
  • Conversely, call parents who have suffered the loss of a loved one to personally express your condolences.
  • Provide the first parent to return re-registration forms in any particular year with a special “You’re number 1” gift.
  • Or send a Starbucks card to and a handwritten thank you note to the first 50 families that re-register in a year.
  • Surprise the parent who calls to say that she got held up in a meeting and is going to be late picking up her son or daughter by offering to personally drive the child home.
  • Offer a coffee and cookie for the road to the parent who is dropping off the lunch that their child forgot.
  • Have your Head of School behind the counter in the front office one morning accepting forgotten lunches, books and knapsacks – and of course, engaging with parents.
  • Alternatively, have your Head of School take the late arrival calls and use the opportunity to say hello to parents or do the same with later arrival emails.
  • Call parents who moved their children to another school to find out how the kids are doing and see if you can offer any help.

You may already have done some or many of these and that’s great. Or, maybe this list will spawn your imagination. Either way, make sure that the world knows about what you are doing because publicity and social media are the catalysts to surprise & delight success.

There is no question that, these days, it is imperative for schools to transform parents into evangelists and surprise & delight tactics can go a long way to making that happen. Or as the people at Social Rank say, “… there’s no better way to turn customers into lifelong superfans than by catching them off-guard (surprise) in a positive manner (delight).”

What do you think?
What surprise & delight tactics have you tried at your school? What worked? What do you think about the whole notion of surprise & delight?




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