Classroom Insights / Jul 18, 2023

Attracting and Retaining Families To Schools and Districts with Angela Brown

District Insights Attracting and Retaining Families with Angela Brown

Hoping to create a vibrant and supportive community in today’s educational landscape? Then it may be time to profoundly embrace the world of digital marketing. 

Angela Brown, K-12 Senior Enrollment Insights Leader at Niche (a platform used to research and evaluate schools from preschool to college), sits down to share school and district marketing insights on capturing and retaining the attention of new prospective families for enrollment.

In this ClassTag CommUnity chat, Brown also reveals the strategies schools are adopting to meet the digital age’s demands effectively. Lastly, she shares the strategies that inspire her to put the focus where it counts to create a smoother school-parent connection.

Tell us about the school and district marketing insights you are finding in education today.

So, I’ll start with what we’re seeing with schools. The good news is that more schools are starting to take digital marketing more seriously.

That’s really important because it really gets to the core of how families are researching and evaluating schools and districts that they’re considering, both when they reach a certain pain point and they want to make a change or if they’re relocating. This is something that we’ve been seeing quite a bit of in the last couple of years with the pandemic. You know, it’s starting to slow down a little bit because you don’t have as much remote work happening, but we were seeing a lot of that movement that was happening on the platform. 

But what has been most interesting to me is just in this role how I’ve been able to see the differences between how public school districts, charter schools, and private schools approach marketing.

It’s really interesting because these are school types that don’t think that they’re competing with one another. But they are, even if they don’t want to admit it. Especially now, as parents are really starting to evaluate different school types and exercise that ability to choose where they send their children to be educated– they’re comparing schools across categories. 

You know what we see on Niche specifically is that on average, parents are adding about four schools to a digital list that they can create. And those schools typically cut across different categories.

So, where public schools and districts have a tendency to be more focused on engaging their current families, they’re slowly starting to get more on board with marketing for recruitment purposes. But they are a little behind their peers in the private schools. [That’s] because they’ve had to fight for students forever, you know, this isn’t new for them, so they’ve been doing that for a while. 

So, I think it’ll be interesting to see how that changes with the declining enrollment that we’ve seen with public school districts. And, if that focus is going to become more equally balanced between current constituent engagement and that family recruitment piece.

On the enrollment side, across the board, we’re seeing some concerns around enrollment and retention. … Private schools reported an increase in attrition, almost a 10% increase over last year. We saw a jump in the percentage of schools that were saying, “Hold on, we’re having a little bit of an issue in retaining our students.” 

Interesting. So, settle the debate for us. Are parents the customer of schools? 

Yes, yes, yes. Parents and students, yes. We can’t forget the kiddos; they’re the ones, and there was a saying that we had at my previous school that was basically, “Your parent is as happy as their least happy kid.” 

So that is really where that relationship starts. If the kids are happy, the parents are usually happy. But you really do have to serve them both. They’re absolutely connected, and I think that parents are the decision-makers, but the kids are the ones that heavily influence that decision for the parents… And yeah, you’re right, the loudest kid is one that parents are going to hear, and the same way at school, the loudest parent is likely the one that the school is hearing and paying attention to.

Do you have any school and district marketing insights on retention in education? 

Yes, I mean retention marketing is critical because there is a dollar amount associated with every student that you lose, and that’s true no matter what type of school you are. For schools that charge tuition, it translates into tuition dollars, and for districts, it’s tied to funding. 

So in both cases, it’s a loss of revenue, and that impacts your ability to attract and retain strong teachers and administrators who are delivering those programs. It also impacts your ability to deliver on the experience that your students are absorbing each and every day. So it’s absolutely critical. Not just from a marketing perspective, but also from a process and experience perspective.

Parental Experience and Communication

What do parents say is most important to them when it comes to the parent experience?

I think communication is the cornerstone of that experience, and that impacts everything. [That goes] from just knowing what’s going on on a day-to-day basis, to the ability to manage their calendars, especially if they have multiple children. 

It’s even tougher if you have children in different facilities within a district or in different types of schools. So just being mindful and putting yourself in the shoes of that parent. And really understanding the juggling that they have to do on a day-to-day basis… You really have to serve up information, don’t make them look for it. You have to tell them things more than once. Your email communications have to be very clear and scannable, and you also have to be really good at resolving conflict. 

That’s another issue that tends to pop up; your ability to address concerns, responsiveness, [and] closing the loop. Don’t make them guess about something that’s happening. There’s a term that a colleague of mine, Jill Goodman, uses that I love when she talks about retention: “public displays of learning.” Those moments where parents or guardians can really see your program in action and the impact it has on their student. 

You can do this digitally as well, but those are the things that really help them to see, “Okay, I made the right choice.” But I do think there’s a responsibility for schools to constantly reinforce that decision every single day. Communication is absolutely the cornerstone of making that happen.

School and district marketing insights: Strategies for Marketing Outwardly 

Tell us the current best practices for outward district marketing. 

It all starts at the very beginning. If you are thinking about a parent who doesn’t know where to start or you’re in the position of making a change or you’re at a transition point, you know, a lot of the time we’ll see a situation where you have a child who’s in sixth grade and they’re about to go up to whatever the next level is, if it’s a middle school or a secondary school, you’re already in the district, and you’re kind of doing a pulse check on that decision. 

Do I move them to a different type of school, or do I allow them to continue? In both instances, we’ll see parents starting with that search behavior, so they jump into Google. You want to make sure that when they take that step, they don’t just see you, but they can learn about you.

That doesn’t always start with your website.

I think that there’s a lot of focus on the school website, and we have seen that for a large percentage of families, that does ultimately help with the decision-making process. 

But the first things they typically see are things like Google reviews, Niche reviews, Great Schools reviews, and all of those sites are very well optimized. Of course, Google’s going to pop up at the very top of the page. Then you start to see these other sites. You might also need a family to scroll past some ads from other schools, so you want to be aware of that. 

So, if your school website that you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into isn’t necessarily on the first page, you also want to make sure that that extension of your digital presence is telling a story as well.

Because one of the things that we saw as a really big driver for parents, both in the research stage and in the decision-making stage, is what are other parents saying about their experiences with this institution? 

So you want the reviews to be current; anything that’s more than a couple of years old isn’t very helpful because, as we all know, no institution is the same way that it was two years ago. You want to make sure that the reviews are current. You want to make sure that they can get a sense of your community, your program, your unique value proposition. 

I really believe that every district, every school has something unique to offer to their communities, so you want that to shine through. And then, you know, it is the website, it’s the visit experience, and that’s something that’s true across the board. 

Private schools historically have really focused on that. Public school districts have not as much, and that’s something that we’ve found to be really important. It is a marketing tactic that’s kind of overlooked. And then, you know, we’re really big believers in consistently reinforcing a message with a family. 

So we have found [in school and district marketing insights] that beyond search, your website, doing some re-marketing is really helpful to stay top of mind. 

Things like direct mail, billboards, and radio ads. Those are things that don’t really move the needle as much. When we asked families (both in the research stage and in the decision-making stage) which marketing channels resonated the most with them, those were very much at the bottom. 

Social media is another really big one. As much as we have heard a lot of conversations about a lot of different channels, Facebook and Instagram are still the top two when it comes to connecting with parents. So, if you are one of many marketing teams of one and you’re worried about which channels you should be using, the good news is the top two that you’re probably already very engaged in. You can continue to double down on that. 

And instead of worrying about adopting something new, focus on storytelling. Focus on making sure that your institutional identity is very clear, and that you’re showing those public displays of learning. That’s something that parents want to see no matter where they are in the process. If they’re researching schools, (or) if they’re already part of your community. As we talked about, they really want to see that. They want to get a sense of what your community is actually like. That’s something that we really believe in. Trying to break down that barrier and share as much of a school’s personality, community feel as we can before you even set foot on campus.

When is social media helpful versus harmful?

…  I love Andrea Gribble, who’s like a social media guru in the district world, in the school world in general. And she always says that social media is for celebration, there are other channels for information. And, I 100% agree with that. 

Social media is great for those warm fuzzies. But when you need to communicate something serious/actionable, and if you want to show what’s happening on that more sort of one-on-one basis with an individual child, there are other channels that work more effectively for that. 

I think we saw a lot of that over the course of the pandemic with schools that were communicating some really difficult information on social channels. Things about masking policies and vaccination policies and curricular changes. Seeing that play out on a Facebook page is really, really tough, and it’s because that’s not really the best place for that. 

And I think what’s also harder for districts, in particular, is that you end up getting a lot of feedback from people who aren’t necessarily immediately connected to your community. Yes, and so that’s difficult, it’s kind of the double-edged sword, if you will, of social media.

In some ways, it’s great because you can expand your reach. But when it comes to sharing more sensitive information, that’s when things become really challenging. And so that’s where it’s important to lean into other channels that are a bit more protected and targeted to be able to share some of that information. 

 

For more ProfessionalED CommUnity Builders on school and district marketing insights, read and watch Sarah Norman talking about where educational leaders should turn their focus in 2023. 

Professional Ed Community Builders is powered by ClassTag – a family communication and engagement platform for teachers, schools, and districts. ClassTag helps fuel strong school-family partnerships through equitable and delightful mass communications and two-way messaging in each user’s preferred language and channel.

Join the millions of educators using ClassTag to connect their school community.

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