Even in this age of social media, positive word of mouth remains a powerful recruitment strategy for independent schools that are seeking to deepen their applicant pool; generate greater demand; and generate more mission appropriate choices in the selection of new students.
I. The Parent Passion Index
Most schools have a parent “passion” index of approximately a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. This is an estimate of the percentage of parents who proactively market the school in the internal and external community. Yes, it is important to market a school internally. Schools often overlook the importance of selling existing parents every YEAR on the academic programs and extracurricular experiences that students and families can expect.
A passion index of 6 indicates that the parent body is on board but their perception of the cost/benefit ratio is low even though they are paying tuition. The cost/benefit ratio is the ranking from 1 to 10 of how parents perceive the value of the product compared to the cost.
There is a definite correlation between the cost/benefit ratio and the parent passion index.
Many parents are very happy with an independent school’s total product but they do not have a role in marketing it. They are passive consumers. Turning a segment of the parent body into a powerful parent ambassador program takes the positive parent sentiment, highlights and builds upon it but does NOT ignore complaints or dissatisfaction.
When this Consultant asks parents: We ask why did they come? Why do they stay? What do they like best? How happy are their children? What other options did they consider and why did they not choose them? What is the school’s reputation in the community? How satisfied are you as parents? What do you most want to see improved or changed?
II.Telling the Story
The key is allowing parents to have a structured opportunity to answer these questions and tell the good news story, i.e., hearing the positive anecdotes but also listening carefully to the concerns, worries and complaints. This exercise allows parents to vent, thus freeing up their innate affection for the School. In other words, we are freeing parents up from social media and car poll line negativity to become proactive and positive parents. We are not asking them to overlook the criticisms but having been “heard”, they may be willing to work for the school by talking up the school in the local market AND by using their considerable and often untapped connections (social, political, recreational, religious, residential, and professional) to tell the school’s story.
The Ambassadors are organized into three ongoing work committees: internal marketing; external marketing; and admissions process. Of these the external marketing group is the most influential in the long run. These parents are leveraging their professional and personal connections and they have received the training, structure, feedback, organization and leadership to ensure that they use those connections powerfully and properly to advocate for and market the school. They do not need to be at the school to do this.
The first impact of this program is to reduce attrition and that usually happens quickly. The second effect within 12 months is a greater number of inquiries and applications, and within 18 to 24 months there should be higher enrollment or wait lists depending on the School’s enrollment capacity. A full enrollment with wait lists generates more loyalty, pride and brand management. No wait lists and many openings left unfilled leaves current families with the feeling that they were not lucky to gain entry but the school was fortunate to land them. Wait lists generate more wait lists and that generates pride which in turns generates greater annual and other forms of giving.
Often schools with strong ambassador programs lead to a stronger parent led annual giving ambassador program and we have developed those as well in a number of schools worldwide. One international school went from no annual fund or history of charitable giving to raising $3.5MM USD in six weeks from 70% of its parent body. Several years later the same school raised $75MM USD in a new building campaign. All these efforts are connected.