Follow the Journey: Making Communications Decisions Less Daunting, More Effective
You know the primary job of all your recruitment and enrollment communications is to show what it’s like to be at the school, on campus, and part of the community. What’s not always so clear is what messaging and which tactical elements will work together most effectively to deliver that experience and motivate action — especially with new channels and emerging formats on the horizon.
Developing a holistic understanding of a prospective family’s decision-making journey will increase your confidence that you are selecting the most effective channels, formats, and content to engage target families at different points in the school selection process. It will also help you respond thoughtfully and strategically to new trends.
Keeping Up with the Pace of Change
The competition in the school marketplace along with the constant change in the communication landscape can make developing a plan that drives enrollment, retention, and fundraising seem daunting.
Three of the most frequent questions our independent school clients ask us are:
It’s important to remember that the basic consideration process families follow when choosing a school remains the same. In marketing circles, this process is known as the “buyer’s journey,” and represents the relatively predictable set of information-seeking behaviors consumers exhibit as they move through decision-making phases from consideration to selection to purchase.
- What do we focus messaging on in all our different channels?
- How do we know what to prioritize as far as the tactics we select?
- How do we know that we have a plan that will most effectively achieve our goals given our constraints on budget, time, and resources?
Likewise, the prospective family’s journey follows a predictable path, as charted below.
Emotions Drive Life’s Major Decisions
In the face of change and competition, the key to developing an effective communication plan that drives enrollment is understanding how best to meet prospective families where they are along their journey — and being willing to make course corrections as needed.
Consider the case of a 90+-year-old, grade 6-12, coed school outside of Boston that was having difficulty getting families to visit campus after the initial inquiry about five years ago. The head of school contacted EdwardsCo to evaluate the school’s admission materials, print, web, and social, and overall communications plan to diagnose the issues.
The school had a very informative viewbook with results-oriented statistics, such as college placements, as well as details about academics and extracurricular activities. The website also had beautiful imagery and was full of similar detailed information. Print, digital, and radio ads focused on key stats such as class size, and the school’s Facebook page featured highlights of school programs.
Our major finding: The timing of their messages was off.
Based on our 30+ years working with independent schools, we have discovered that the role of emotions and facts — e.g., class size, curriculum offerings, sports, and extracurricular activities — varies during the consideration process.
For parents, there are few more emotion-driven decisions than those that involve their child’s future. If your school doesn’t enable parents to see the reflection of the hopes and dreams they have for their child’s education at critical points in their decision-making journey, you won’t make it to the next round of consideration. Likewise, if your school doesn’t answer questions about whether you offer the specific criteria and experience families believe are essential to their child’s success, you won’t make it to the next round either.
We have found that emotions drive decisions early and late in the process, while facts take the lead in the middle.
Because this independent school had focused on the facts at the beginning of the journey, it was missing the opportunity to connect with interested families who weren’t ready to hear about specific features and programs. Thus, many families were dropping the school from their consideration set early in their journey.
Based on our recommendation, this independent school reformulated the messaging in the tactics it used when families were most likely to be in the inquiry phase. Instead of sharing a running list of facts about class size and student-teacher ratio in print, digital, and radio ads, for example, the school centered messages on the kind of education best-fit families wanted and why — to support high academic achievement and success in life. (For more on how to determine what best-fit families want, read my NAIS blog, “Branding 201.”)
Similarly, it updated the print brochure that went to newly inquiring families and the home page of the website, as well as varied the content of Facebook posts to illustrate the strong match between a best-fit family’s aspirations and the school’s values. Within three months of launching this new approach, the conversion rate from inquiry to campus visit increased 30 percent.
Matching Message and Means
Selecting the right means and mix of communications is also an important part of meeting prospective families where they are along their journey. Most communications elements — print materials, websites, advertising, social media, videos, etc. — can be used to effectively convey emotions as well as deliver facts. Websites can certainly house more details and facts than an Instagram post, of course, but for schools looking to select the most effective means and mix to reach and engage target prospects, it’s more about determining how families access and prefer to receive the information they need.
Once we established the Kent School’s brand messaging, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Cataldo asked us to help develop the school’s enrollment communications elements. The first question was, should Kent, a 111-year-old, coed 9-12 grade boarding school of 570 students in Kent, Connecticut, do a traditional viewbook? Jeff and Assistant Head of School Sarah Ross wanted to think differently about their admission communications. Do we need this heavy book? What about video? How should the website integrate with all other communications? The school was also aware that a few of its competitors were using virtual reality (VR) technology to give prospective students a campus tour; should Kent invest in that, too?
As a first step, we asked Sarah and her team to think about the enrollment materials and events that prospects asked for, expected, and responded to historically. Though families still frequently requested information early in the process, Kent’s team knew that prospects today turned to the website on their own after relying on word-of-mouth from family and friends to develop an initial feel for a school.
While prospective students looked on social media for unsanitized information from current students, it was challenging to get them to pay attention to content the school created — print brochures, emails, and videos posted on Kent’s website.
With this knowledge in mind, we focused our strategy on how best to engage families, how best to get them to pay attention at different times in their decision journey.
Rather than a traditional fact-heavy viewbook, for instance, Kent opted for a shorter Inspiration Book to appeal to the emotions of prospective families. Its role was to inspire rather than to inform.
Instead of containing long text blocks and details about the curriculum, the Inspiration Book featured bold images and headlines and short, inspirational blocks of text. It was an easy read for busy people and more important, a meaningful read for parents. As parents desired more facts, the book could provide them. It also included a folder pocket where fact-driven, content sheets were personalized to the interests of the family.
More in-depth information was easily accessible on Kent’s website. Because it was a staple at many stages, the website had to serve many purposes. Kent interwove emotion-driven copy and content on key pages, and kept the balance of material specific and concise to match the needs of visitors seeking facts later in their journey.
For example, on the home page, key stats about the number of AP classes, courses, and extracurricular activities had an emotion-driven lead in: “Because at Kent School, we've built a learning environment and culture based on immersion in a rich diversity of experiences that allow students to discover their true potentials, unlock their strengths, and define themselves. At Kent, students learn to embrace everything & accomplish anything.” (For more about implementing a creative campaign across channels, read my NAIS blog, “Branding 301.”)
Though other schools were using VR to show buildings and the campus layout, this fact-focused, people-less presentation didn’t connect with families or the prospective middle schoolers. Jeff, Sarah, and EdwardsCo envisioned a different opportunity with 360/VR. We worked together to create a virtual student experience, portraying the feel of campus life and fostering a sense of belonging to the community already. This was about people not buildings, about hanging out with friends, teachers, and teammates.
Kent became the first boarding school in the U.S. to include a virtual student experience in its acceptance package. The school provided a box viewer students could use with their phone. Since its release in March, the video has tracked 2,200 views despite not being available beyond the accepted student pool until just one month ago. Parents shared the experience on Facebook.
“Kent's use of VR this year successfully pushed us out ahead of many of our peer schools in our marketing efforts,” said Brian Wettach, associate director of admissions at Kent.
The bottom line is that, no matter the medium, it’s important to consider the different types of content that families need — inspirational vs. factual — along key points of their decision-making journey.