Marketing to the Digital-First Generation of Parents

Fall 2022

By Kevin M. Kunst

kunst

This article appeared as "New Wave" in the Fall 2022 issue of Independent School.

As we have walked together through the past few years, so many of our schools have been in constant crisis management mode, creating and amending policies and procedures far outside our historical norms and comfort zones. Many schools have had to extend unprecedented amounts of financial aid or make new cases for independent schools against the backdrop of less expensive homeschool, public school, and charter school options. Other schools have seen disproportionate—and perhaps ultimately unsustainable—gains by attracting families that might not otherwise have looked to independent schools. 

Now, as independent schools move out of crisis management mode, we find ourselves back in what feels like a familiar space: trying to figure out how to attract quality students to meet more “normal” enrollment and budget goals. To some extent we are resetting the clock, looking at a situation that seems similar to a few years ago, a sustained struggle that independent schools have faced for many years outside of the framework of adapting to an emergency situation.

At the same time, we are emerging in a new and very specific generational moment. The front edge of millennial parents have just reached their 40s, with income levels that allow for the possibility of paying independent school tuition. In addition, the front edge of Generation Z is hitting their 20s, with some just now having children and entering the market for preschool options. Like any broad historical group, there are endless theories as to who they are, what they value, and how they act. And while in any generation there are distinct cultural groups and types of achievers, they do share some common traits. The most important from an admission and market standpoint: They are the first two generations to spend their adult years in an internet-driven information age. 

The Big Picture

Anyone who graduated high school after 1998 has been profoundly shaped by widening access to data, a normalization of algorithm-based influences, and the growing assumption of a post-truth world, in which the “truth” of any circumstance is up for debate. How they gather information and conduct research, their expectations for transparency and service, and what they want and how they get it are significantly different from prior generations. When we take this into consideration and view these parents as consumers—and potential members of our independent school community—we can start to understand that they are increasingly looking at the education of their children as a transaction. In a 2021–2022 poll from the Education Advisory Board’s Independent School Executive Forum, 81% of the heads of school who responded said that transactional attitudes among parents have increased. They are seeking the best education for their children in the same way they seek the best deal on a vacation spot or the right restaurant for a family dinner. 

In a 2018 Forbes article about millennials’ shopping habits, market researcher Angela Woo examines research that found, among other things, that millennials “shop promiscuously,” and the data indicates the same trend for Gen Zers. Their brand loyalty is low, and they “have no problem trying new, innovative brands rather than turning to a brand seen as old and reliable.” Both young and middle-aged parents report that no matter how much they trust a brand, they will still do their research before making a purchase. In the case of independent schools, families who have been loyal, some for generations, will explore their options and are more confident in moving away from a school, even when they trust it.  I’ve served at independent schools for 30 years and we’ve long relied on returning customers and positive word of mouth. But now, as the market wakes up from its COVID slump, we must recognize that the moment has changed, and schools need to cater to the current generational wants and needs. 

The Three C’s

To respond to and capture this market that millennial parents have created—that will likely continue as the market transitions to Gen Z parents—independent schools must sell and resell themselves, not just leading up to admission but annually, and frankly, daily. To do this well, leaders must pay attention to three C’s: customer service, concierge programming, and communication.

Customer Service

In a 2021 blog post from Salesforce, 53% of millennials and 63% of Gen Z say their standards for customer 
service are “higher than ever.” Thinking about schools as a product can seem anathema to educators 
and administrators who devote their lives to caring for children, but school leaders must embrace that notion 
and view everything they do through a customer service lens. A person might love the food at a particular restaurant, but if the service is consistently poor, it’s unlikely they will be a regular patron. Similarly, schools must consider 
how they present and deliver what they provide. 

Every interaction that faculty and staff have with students and parents counts. Being welcoming is at the core of customer service, and schools have to be welcoming anew every day so that parents—who have spent much of their lives in the internet-driven world—are happy about dropping off their children, and the children are excited to get into the building and get to work. There should be ease and joy in all interactions: more frequent positive communication; more access to administrators and teachers through monthly coffees or events; more celebrations of student and faculty success; more proactive emails before a problem occurs. Frequency matters, as does quality. The way an email is written (or how a social media post is captioned) or the energy level of a school representative positively resells your mission and brand—or moves the student and parent consumer to consider looking elsewhere. I worked with one middle school head who every morning greeted every student by name, waved to the parents dropping off, and laughed with students 
over inside jokes their relationship had created.

No one ever left that middle school, and every prospective parent heard about him.

Some important questions to consider include: When prospective families and students visit, what is their experience? Is the team excited about the potential of this new member of the family? Are students trained to provide good shadowing experiences? Is your website effective and easy to use? Are constituents well-trained and do they understand the tools available in your learning management system? Are teachers and administrators positive in their interactions with students and parents and looking to solve problems? Is it easy for parents to get information and offer their own input? (A parent survey will identify focus areas, and while schools will hear hard things, those hard things will inevitably become key focal points.)

Concierge Programming

A 2020 Global Web Index study, “Gen Z: Observing the Latest Trends on Gen Z,” found that 35% of respondents felt that a “company should offer customized products that are personalized to their needs,” a likely result of a lifetime of algorithms automatically aligning more and more of their daily experiences to a personalized set of expressed interests. And although independent schools have long touted that small class sizes offer a more “personalized” experience, this is not enough. Now, millennials and Gen Z are not just looking to have their child be seen and known but also to have some level of curricular or programmatic adaptation for their child. At my school, I have been internally referring to this as “concierge” programming.

This is a real challenge for schools. Trying to create a variety of paths for each student generally requires staffing, time, and money—three things that are in short supply at many schools, especially smaller independent schools. Whether it is specific academic offerings (different foreign languages, more varied and specific science classes, etc.), accelerated and honors programs, or remediation and support programs, the challenges of adapting a curriculum to each student are daunting—and the older the student gets, the more parents will demand. A nimble curriculum will need to be the norm. 

I encourage schools to first perform an audit of their mission, looking at each of the key phrases and how the school exemplifies them. All good marketing starts with what you do well, what you are already most proud of. Strategic plans should examine how to continue to invest in them and ensure that they become the key factors motivating a prospective parent to choose the school. But remember, too often, schools laud a program that used to be exceptional or is past its prime because everyone involved has for too long just accepted its reputation. Once you have those programs and the marketing to go with them shored up, a school can invest time and effort in known areas of weakness.

The more students and parents feel they can see variety in what a school does well, the more they may be willing to accept that as the “personalization” they need. Meeting with and soliciting input from parents is key—they want choices, which inherently means they want to feel involved. 

At the same time, schools should not fall into the trap of trying to do too much. It’s a difficult balance—and a potentially slippery slope.  Choose wisely the opportunities that can serve as a thoughtful response to the market rather than to specific constituents. Trying to do everything will inevitably lead to a lower-quality product and, ironically, a harder sell. The loudest voices are often the minority—they should be heard, but a school needs to dig deeper to see the ways the broadest swath of constituents can be served in a mission-appropriate way, as well as in a way that feels personalized to them.

Communication

All of our schools are doing incredible things on a day-to-day basis, but educating parents on what these things are so that it fuels word of mouth—while also broadcasting a consistent and well-planned marketing message—can sometimes feel elusive. 

A recent Independent School Management study of millennial parents found that “Millennials expect communication and return on investment for their tuition dollars. They want to ensure their children are well cared for, and that their expenditure on tuition results in their child being ready for the future.” And if school leaders also consider that, according to the aforementioned 2018 Forbes article, millennials receive “nonstop messages of doom, gloom, and anxiety” in the three to five hours a day they will likely spend on their mobile devices, there’s an opportunity for schools to send these parents a message of hope as they provide a transparent look into the hard work of faculty and students.

Schools can seize the inherent opportunity to be a bright spot by creating messaging for value-, quality-, and image-conscious current and potential parents that highlights safety and security, the return on investment of experiences, and academic preparedness—all key factors for millennial and Gen Z parents. This needs to be reflected in the pictures, captions, articles, and blog posts you share. Look for opportunities to honor students, with awards or scholarships, or a thank-you note or a gift card. Words of encouragement, in an email or a sticky note on a locker, will be retold at home, and potentially retold on social media or at a social gathering. When you celebrate a student, you effectively celebrate their parents, who will in turn share that celebration. A simple gesture is almost always magnified and multiplied in a digital world.

Riding the Wave

Capturing the millennial and Gen Z parent market is possible. By focusing staff on thoughtful customer service, by understanding that the market will be looking for more concierge programming for students, and by orienting the communications strategy toward more volume, consistency, and hope, schools can meet the most significant shifting needs this new and growing market presents. While there may be some initial investment of time and money, the long-term impact of growing enrollment through positive word of mouth, and a lessening of attrition rates through customer satisfaction, will more than pay for itself. 

Author
Kevin M. Kunst

Kevin M. Kunst is head of school at Evansville Day School in Evansville, Indiana.