Aaron C. Cooper
Look at the private school guides in any parenting magazine. How many times do you see the words academic excellence, small class size, personal attention, or character education? How easy is it to distinguish one co-ed school from another?
As the cost of independent school education continues to outpace inflation and new educational options abound, schools are struggling with branding their offerings in a way that resonates with today’s consumers. Independent school leaders have traditionally defined their schools through their missions and traditions. But today’s consumers want to be seduced by marketing, and parents are increasingly looking at independent school as a luxury product, making the “if we build and maintain it they will come” model unsustainable.
If independent schools are indeed a luxury—and we are certainly priced like one—we should pay close attention to research about this segment. According to Unity Marketing, a consultancy focused on the luxury market, young High Earners, Not Rich Yet (HENRY) customers are changing the game when it comes to how and where affluent people spend their money.
As Unity states in its “State of Luxury 2017: The Insider View” report, “What’s disrupting the business of traditional luxury brands is that their very tradition and heritage is giving way to a demand from customers for immediacy and now.” Younger consumers in this category look toward disruptive businesses (think Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb), which promote creative, innovative solutions that established markets missed and are more responsive to trends and consumer demands.
So, what’s the best way for schools to demonstrate our value and tell our stories? By getting parents to do it for us.
There’s no demographic better suited to this task than millennials. This group seeks something unique when making purchases, desires agency in all decisions, and is willing to continually look for something that better fits its needs. They want their purchases to say something about them—what kind of people they are, what kinds of things they value, and what kinds of experiences they seek. We’ve seen them evangelize their workout routines or diets in their Facebook feeds and vilify their cellular providers on Twitter. They are a generation for whom the term “cult branding” was invented.
If schools want to get millennial families to take ownership of our stories and tell them as their own, we need to highlight attributes that authentically appeal to them and be eager to partner with them and take their suggestions seriously so that they are co-creating the environment in which they want to raise their children—and the brand with which they want to be associated.
The fear for schools is that this will eventually move us away from our mission as we cater to every whim of every family. But, much as some companies learn completely new uses for their products through examining customer behavior, so, too, can schools learn what’s important to the customers they have—and grow their customer base—by engaging with parents on their terms and partnering with them in their child’s education. While schools shouldn’t upend decades (or, in many cases, centuries) of tradition and educational standards, we do need to understand that the old ways of marketing to and serving customers need to evolve.
From Awareness to Engagement
Millennials have grown up with a wealth of information at their fingertips. For instance, when we promote small class sizes, they are Googling the relevant research (and perhaps finding class size doesn’t always matter quite as much as we suggest). An emphasis on “traditional values” may lead them to question how inclusive and innovative our schools are. While we as school leaders take comfort in the fact that our marketing matches our missions, we may be leaving out families who are looking for the latest pedagogy or a focus on extensive parent involvement. How would the millennial luxury buyer see themselves reflected in a brand that doesn’t seem to set itself apart as something as unique as their child?
Parents increasingly want a school that speaks well of the type of people that they are (and aspire to be) and that enhances their “personal brand.” A focus on marketing our core product of an excellent education isn’t enough and will not provide the emotional connection families need to effectively tell our school’s story in the same way they evangelize about a meal kit or workout routine on social media. Word-of-mouth publicity remains the single most important factor driving people to our schools, and parents-turned-evangelists are our salespeople whether they are across the coffee table or behind a screen.
If schools want millennial families to own and spread our unique stories, we need to highlight (and sometimes increase) the attributes that appeal to them. This focus may be new for many schools and might feel to some in our field as though we are putting the emphasis on the wrong “customer.” But we know that child and parent satisfaction with schools is a very delicate feedback loop, with each one’s positive and negative feelings reinforcing the other’s. The more positive interactions a family has with a school—inside and outside their child’s classroom—the more likely that the news the child is bringing home from their day-to-day experience will be viewed in the most favorable light.
So, the question becomes: Who is responsible for the “client services” aspect of our schools, and how do we create positive interactions that build our brand and earn our parents’ active promotion of it? At The Elisabeth Morrow School (NJ), we believe that a key differentiator is an intentional focus on our families and analyzing their needs and priorities regularly, not only as they pertain to their children’s experiences but also to their own as members of the community. To do this, we have grouped together the administrators charged with marketing our school as a team, embraced surveying as a means of receiving family feedback, and sought to proactively address the small deficiencies or miscommunications that, left unchecked, can lead to attrition or a feeling of dissatisfaction that drives parents to seek different options. Through this kind of intentional focus on creating positive and fulfilling adult-to-institution interactions, we believe that we can tie our families more strongly to our school in an era when disruptors will come knocking on the door.
The Case for an Advancement Team
It wasn’t that long ago that school administrators were siloed. School communications professionals produced the occasional viewbook or video for the admissions department, but quite often worked for the development department, where they busied themselves with the alumni magazine and the auction journal. Heads of schools and division leaders created their own correspondence regardless of the tone and level of continuity in content/detail between divisions or departments—marketing the school was considered unnecessary at best and antithetical at worse. Surely some schools find that this approach continues to meet their enrollment management needs. Given the competitive landscape, however, a proactive marketing stance that seems over the top today may in a few short years prove necessary to meet the challenge of engaging prospective and current families with a school, so that they don’t pursue a shiny new option.
Enter the advancement team. At our school, this includes the admission, communications, and development professionals, who are charged with promoting a 360-degree view of every touchpoint between families and our school. At our weekly meetings, which are open to all administrators, in addition to regularly discussing the state of the industry, we are also getting a bird’s-eye view of what is happening in the Parents Association, what our donors are talking about, the views of our faculty and staff, and what questions prospective parents are asking. Our communications professionals are taking this qualitative data in and using it to help all areas of the school—from our instructional team to our business office—to craft messages that align with one another and resonate with our constituencies. The advancement group also drills down into factors that impact retention or admission and ways in which our marketing strategy can impact families’ impression of and attitude toward the school and its academics. Taken together, this approach provides a more cohesive and authentic experience for families, which leads to a deeper commitment to the institution.
Before the advancement team at EMS began regularly surveying families four years ago, asking for feedback had not been a regular feature of parent communication. In 2013, we launched a 30-question online parent survey asking about everything from curriculum and extracurriculars to fundraising and communication, and we committed to a three-year cycle for that broad-based survey. When it was last administered in 2016, more than 80 percent of families participated. In addition, we have separately surveyed families who enrolled, didn’t enroll, and didn’t complete the admissions process, as well as our graduates and families whose students left (through graduation or otherwise).
In 2016, we developed a new approach to survey our families more frequently and get a read on our more typical activities—family coffees, family education events, curriculum discussions, and parent/teacher conferences. Before our more general parent presentations, we surveyed families to solicit their questions and concerns so we could shape our remarks to address the areas of interest families expressed. This approach has been a great success. In 2016–2017, we surveyed parents 30 times, via online tools such as SurveyMonkey, with a typical response rate of greater than 80 percent. In addition to providing an excellent feedback loop for us, we often hear that families appreciate being asked their opinion and knowing that the school cares about their perspective. Any unanswered questions that surface during post-event surveys are then incorporated into future communications, which include a podcast, a blog, and a missive from me featured at the top of our weekly newsletter.
Looking for Clues in Attrition
Many independent schools once had the idea there was little that could move the attrition needle. But long gone are the days when a suitable answer to a departing mission-appropriate family might be: “Perhaps this is no longer a fit.” Rather, understanding the business axiom that it’s cheaper to keep a customer than get a new customer, we recognize that attrition provides strong customer feedback that we must take into account to improve students’ educational experience, as well as the experience of families in the community.
Like most schools, we maintain a list of families who may be considering leaving the school. We reach out directly at the division head level to address any specific concerns. Beyond that, we know that families leave schools for global concerns that good communication can help mitigate. For example, in N–8 schools, families may leave at various times to bypass the process of obtaining admission to a high school by seeking admission to a school that ends in 12th grade. We address this proactively by explaining how we help families manage the process and by touting our students’ excellent results. We write about these issues in our biannual magazine and make sure to prominently feature our excellent middle school in other marketing vehicles. And we continuously promote our school as a seamless and singular experience that produces the best results when experienced from the youngest years through to eighth-grade graduation.
Weaving Straw into Gold
Personal relationships remain at the heart of independent schools; it is often the relationship between teacher and parent that forms the solid foundation upon which a love for a school can grow. This dynamic is especially challenging when a family experiences a moment of frustration, whether it be an unpleasant interaction with someone in the community or a perceived disagreement about an aspect of the curriculum. Millennial families exhibit much less brand loyalty than previous generations did, and these moments of frustration can result in attrition.
It is during such times that families need education and empathy. Millennials want these issues contextualized—they are open to deep discussions about rationale, the philosophical underpinnings of a decision, and the professional analysis around it. At EMS, this has manifested in back-to-school night presentations that focus on rationale, parent-teacher conferences that address families’ top priorities, education about family chaperones’ purpose and role during class field trips, and using school employees as experts to complement outside specialists during parent-education topics.
Helping faculty shift their understanding of trust in a relationship between parent and teacher is key. Trust may no longer connote, “I will do what you say unquestioningly,” but rather, “I respect you enough to value your opinion and to engage with you on this topic so that I can better understand it, and I expect you to respect me enough to truly listen to my perspective.”
At the same time, an acknowledgment that a situation could have been handled differently strengthens our partnership with these families and their trust in us. They appreciate that we are being transparent and “owning” our part in the problem. Thus, a challenging situation can sometimes form the beginning of a much stronger, more committed relationship in the future.
Whatever we may believe about how millennials parent, work, and live, they constitute an ever-larger piece of the independent school market, and engaging them deeply is an opportunity that is crucial to our survival. If we want them to tell our story, we need to understand how they think and what motivates them, earn their trust and reward their loyalty, and, most of all, work hard to create an authentic emotional attachment for them. If an iPhone can do that, surely a product that lives inside of their child forever can, too.