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The Hierarchy of Parent Communication Needs

The impact of word of mouth on independent school admissions is pretty much undeniable. There is a litany of data demonstrating that the most frequent and the most effective way that prospective parents hear about a school is from family, friends and peers.

Great. We all get that. Now here’s the hard part. The inescapable reality of word of mouth marketing is that its success is a function of parents being able to talk – or post – knowledgably and passionately about their school. The passion can potentially come from parents simply talking about their positive experiences. Knowledge, on the other hand, requires parents to have information about a school’s achievements or perhaps its comparative performance. Those facts can often supercharge the impact of peer to peer communication.

But how do you get parents to have that information at their fingertips when it’s a struggle to just get them to remember when its an early closing day or to sign up for parent teacher conferences?  If informed ambassadorship is the apogee of parent communication, how do you get there?

The answer may lie in a construct with which we’re all familiar. Maslow’s pyramid, or hierarchy of needs, has been used by psychologists – and educators – for decades.  Its premise is that for individuals to reach their greatest potential, there is a four-level progression of needs that must first be met. The highest level of the pyramid – or the pinnacle of human existence – is what Maslow called “self-actualization” which he defines as “the desire to become the most that one can be.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Self-Actualization

What if we use that same paradigm to think about parent communication? How can we get parents to reach the ultimate goal of being well informed ambassadors with the independent ability to speak knowledgably about the school their kids attend? Perhaps the answer is that we need to first meet their more basic communication needs. It’s only when those needs are met that parents feel free to discover more about the school and retain that information.

With deference to Professor Maslow, let’s see how we can translate his pyramid into a hierarchy of parent communication needs.

The Hierarchy of Parent Communication

Physiological  – These are survival needs like food and drink. The parent communication equivalent is what do I absolutely need to know for next week. Are there early closing days? Are there programs/events that I am supposed to be attending? Are there days on which my child needs to bring something different or unusual to school?

Safety – These are ongoing health and well-being needs like physical and economic security. In our communication hierarchy that translates into how can I help my child? This could be information about homework or resources parents can use to help their kids. Or maybe it’s about special lunch programs or extra-curriculars. However we define them, this level of communication relates to the ongoing needs of the child.

Love and Belonging – We need family, friendship and intimacy. Our parents need communication that makes them feel like part of a community. That could be information about other families’ lifecycle events or some kind of bulletin board with items for sale and upcoming community programs. Maybe this involves letting parents know about opportunities for involvement in the school community.

Esteem – We must feel valued, respected and confident. This relates to two types of communication. On one hand, parents need communication that validates their decision to send their children to our schools. This could be information about special achievements or educational milestones. Often this level is fulfilled through special programming to which parents are invited. In addition, parents must feel respected and appreciated. Communication must recognize the parent as customer.

Self-actualization – The freedom to realize our fullest potential. Having fulfilled the other four levels, we can now provide the communication to parents that will allow them to be the consummate ambassador. This might be information on comparative test scores, college choices, athletic or academic achievements, faculty credentials, accreditations or endorsements. On the foundation of the other levels of communication, parents are ready to receive – and retain – the information that we really want them to be conveying to peers and friends.

Although to this point we have focused on substance, meeting communication needs is also a matter of finding the right channels and means of communication. Most schools have an arsenal of communication vehicles – e-newsletters, classroom newsletters, websites, password protected portals and even print communication. Fulfilling a communication need is dependent on matching it to the right channel.

If we accept the premise of this hierarchy, the indelible message is that for parents to become effective ambassadors, the onus is on school communicators. It could be time to take a good look at your communication plan and make sure it’s really needing the needs of parents and your school.

What do you think?
 Does the hierarchical construct work or make sense? Does your experience with parent communication validate this analysis? What are your thoughts about how to get parents to be the best ambassadors?

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