The Communication Flow

 
Enrollment drives the financial health of independent schools. When I began as an admissions director several years ago, this point was emphasized to me numerous times by our head of school. “Get more students,” he declared, “and we can solve our financial problems.” After I kindly brought up the realities of our competitive market, the global economic downturn, our stressed budget, and our declining enrollment trends for the past five years, he once again echoed: “Get more students.”
 
Not deterred, I started hunting for a cost-effective, systematic, research-based, yet highly personal, method for turning the tide of our admissions woes. After talking with several mentors and doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon a solution that is both simple and highly effective: a good conversation. In enrollment management, we just call it a “communication flow.”
 

The Challenge — Bad Solutions to a Narrow Market

 
To fully appreciate this solution, we have to step back and consider the enormity of the challenge facing independent schools. As an admissions director at a K–12 school who came from higher education, my sympathy for enrollment officials in mid-sized private schools has grown exponentially. First, many schools face declining or stagnant enrollment, and are thus charged with recruiting more students without spending any more money. “We can’t spend more money on better facilities, new teachers, improved academic programs, or marketing or advertising,” the leadership will declare. “After all, our budget has been shrinking. But, we need more students. Go and find them for us.”
 
This is no easy task. Moreover, the market for independent education, at least where I live in Colorado, is incredibly narrow. Faith-based schools like ours compete for families who (1) share our beliefs, (2) are wealthy enough to afford a private education, and (3) see the value of independent education. When you crunch the numbers, this is an awfully narrow slice of the total population. 
 
The typical solutions to an enrollment challenge often fall short. The first usually involves a mass marketing campaign built around the principles of demand for independent schools.1 Study your demographics, choose your market niche, and do a mass marketing campaign. Although there’s certainly value to knowing your market, buying TV, radio, newspaper, and online ads is often prohibitively expensive for mid-sized schools, and the response rate on direct mail is dismal (around 1–2 percent at best). Yet the bigger problem is that mass marketing is often ineffective. We live in a culture inundated with advertising. One more ad is simply adding to the noise. In the age of social networking, unless somebody whom parents know personally recommends your school, they’re not interested.
 
Yet the greatest challenge for an admissions team is in what to do when a family contacts your school. Is giving a tour and an application packet really enough? Every school does that. The decision-making process for most families is far more complex than which tour (or ad) was the best. It involves factors like social environment, academic programs, quality of teachers, and financial value. Moreover, for most schools, after a tour, most families fall off the map. Despite a follow-up call or two, when the fall semester arrives, many administrators wonder what ever happened to that jubilant young family that toured last January.
 

Designing the Conversation

 
Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, proposes a helpful solution. He likens marketing to the process of “dating” your customer.2 Most marketers are like a bachelor who buys a new suit, finds the best singles bar in the city, meets a girl, and proposes marriage on the first date. (This is what most schools do when they ask prospective students to enroll after a 45-minute tour.) In contrast, a “permission marketer” will go on a date, and then another, and then after 20 or so dates decide to meet the family. The couple will discuss their mutual needs and desires, and over time, if all is going well, move toward marriage.
 
Godin argues that the key to “turning strangers into friends, and friends into customers” is to offer prospects an incentive to opt into a series of communications. Then, like a teacher, offer your prospects a curriculum over time, teaching them about your service. For schools, this ranges from the strength of the academic programs to the quality of arts programs and sports teams. With this attention, schools should deliver numerous personal, relevant, and anticipated messages. Then, after you’ve “dated” for a while, ask them for a commitment (an application).
 
Marketing, therefore, becomes a friendly conversation. And this conversation can be designed and put into a repeatable system delivered to prospects one at a time with individualized messages.
 
Building Your Communication Flow
 
A communication flow is a series of communications about your school delivered to prospects over time. They can be designed and implemented on a shoestring budget with the help of some coaching and a bit of technology. Here’s how to do it.
 

1. Make a list of the distinct advantages of your school.

 
Call it strategic positioning, your niche in the market, or simply what you’re good at, but you need to write down the top characteristics that make your school unique in your geographical area. It may be a uniquely diverse
 
student body, a renowned science department, or a commitment to year-round community service. These will form the heart of your messages, and will be highlighted in your communication flow to prospective families.
 

2. Plan out your conversation.

 
Now, with your strategic advantages as the center point of your communication plan, what else do you want to say? Is financial aid important? How about an invitation to an open house? Think through each major item you’d like to communicate to a prospective family, and make a list. Now pick a time frame to execute your communication flow (three to five months works for most schools). This plan is your intelligent, long-term conversation with a prospective family. It is the curriculum through which you teach to your student (the prospective family) all about your subject (the school). 
 

3. Mix your mediums of delivery.

 
Now you need to select how you want to say these things in your communication flow. I suggest a combination of emails, letters, videos, postcards, and phone calls. These will vary from school to school, but the key is to say something unique with each “touch” and to present messages to the family in various mediums over time.
 

4. Produce the content.

 
Now you need to request help from your school community. Ideally, you’ll have a combination of teachers, parents, students, alumni, administrators, and admissions officials producing the content for your communication flow. If you have a cooperative team, imagine the end result: A new family leaves from a tour, and over the next four months, the family receives a personal letter from a teacher, an email from an administrator about spiritual life, a phone call from admissions about financial aid, a postcard invitation to an open house, an email from an alumnus about the influence his school had on his career decision, and a parent’s testimony via video. If spaced at proper intervals, this will not be “spam.” For those who’ve opted into this conversation, it will look like the entire community wants this prospective family to attend your school.
 

5. Automate your communication flow.

 
Finally, you’ll need the help of technology. Nobody will remember to do this entire sequence on his or her personal planner. With hundreds of inquiries, it would quickly become overwhelming. Instead, it must be a part of an automated system. At my school, Front Range Christian School, Colorado, with the click of a button we automate a “drip marketing campaign” (a communication flow) through an email marketing program and a handy piece of customer relations management software. Over the next four months, emails are sent automatically, reminders are sent to the admissions department to send letters or postcards, and phone call prompts are sent to administrators or teachers to chat about topics ranging from financial aid to foreign language (depending on the prospective student’s interests).
 
This automation means we can know the quality of follow-up each inquiry receives, and we can bet on improved results for student enrollment next year.
 

Why It’s Worth the Effort

 
Designing your own communication flow will likely take about a month. But it’s well worth the effort. Consider the benefits. Now a family will learn about your school from a variety of important perspectives. Because this learning will take place over time, when families are making hard decisions about what school to attend from among the array of educational options, the communications will be a steady reminder of the quality of your programming. Plus, the frequency will have built trust between the school and the family, and multiply the opportunities for families to apply. Meanwhile, the admissions team will have greater peace, and the executive team can know exactly the type of communication each and every inquiry receives. For those who use this system, the ultimate benefit is obvious: more students.
 
After the first month on the job as an admissions director, I was overwhelmed with the task of reversing a double-digit enrollment decline that had persisted for four years. So I sought out a mentor. Because this mentor was the vice-president of student enrollment at a theological seminary that had increased enrollment by an average of 15 percent per year (at a time when peer seminaries’ enrollments were dropping at an average rate of 4 percent per year), his words held some weight for me. He proceeded to explain the idea of a communication flow. Toward the end of our lunch he slyly grinned, as if he knew something I didn’t, and said, “The comm flow will take you a long way.”
 
Last year, Front Range Christian grew by 4 percent, and by the grace of God, we hope to double that figure this year.

Notes

1. The five principles of demand for private schools are demographics, high-income families, parent attitudes about education, competition, and the acceptability of public options. For more details, see: Jeffrey T. Wack, “Marketing 101,” in The NAIS Handbook on Marketing Independent Schools, Kathleen Hanson, ed. (National Association of Independent Schools, 2011), 16.
 
2. Seth Godin, Permission Marketing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 43–48.
Author
Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the director of admissions at Front Range Christian School, Colorado (www.frcs.org). He can be reached at jeff.haanen@gmail.com.