10 Things I’ve Learned about Marketing from Parent Focus Groups

Parent Focus Groups at Private SchoolI have conducted hundreds of focus groups with parents at independent, private and faith-based schools in recent years. In every parent focus group, I am interested to learn about their perspectives on the school, as well as their search process, which has implications for the marketing and enrollment strategy.

Some of these perspectives and findings are no-brainers.

All of these are guiding principles for your enrollment and marketing strategy.

Let me share some of things I have learned along the way.

1.  Parents are most likely to find your school when they are searching. In other words, parents are only thinking about school options when they are in search mode. Obviously, this is the best time to find a parent and introduce them to your school. Therefore, it is important to be on a parent’s radar screen at the time when they begin their search since this is when your school will likely be discovered.

2.  If a parent isn’t thinking about a school for their child or interested in switching, it is nearly impossible to reach them. Unless there is something that is driving a parent to search for a school, a parent won’t even be thinking about the options. Usually, there is an anticipated transition from one school to another, dissatisfaction or pain that moves a parent to consider their options. If a parent isn’t looking, there is not much that you can do to grab their attention and convince them that they need to consider your school. Your school will likely be invisible to them.

3.  The number one way that parents discover your school is through word of mouth. When a parent first searches for a school, their first step is to usually ask their friends. This “asking” occurs in their natural relationships and conversations. Think about the parent with a child at a preschool, she will ask the other parents about the schools they are considering, as well as her friends with children enrolled in elementary schools. She will want to know the recommendations from others that are going through the same process.

4.  Parents will search the Web for your school after they hear about it from a friend or when they are ready to search for schools. Besides word of mouth, the Web is the most important tool in the search process. Parents often tell me that they will Google private schools in their area and look at directory sites when searching for a school. Therefore, it is critical to have a strong presence on the Web. If your school isn’t on the first page in a Google search, doesn’t have positive reviews on Great Schools, or lacks a strong and compelling first impression online, you may lose the parent to your competition.

5.  Parents rarely mention that traditional outbound marketing strategies have any impact on their decision. I can’t remember the last time a parent mentioned a print ad, billboard, radio spot, or direct mail postcard as having any significance in their decision to consider a school. I also ask the question, “How did you discover a school?” While it is possible that these strategies create some awareness, outbound marketing is not the main reason a parent discovers a school.

6.  The strength of your school’s academic program is the primary reason most parents are searching for your school. Parents are searching for a school that will meet the needs of their child and challenge them to reach their potential. They want the best school that their money can buy. They want something different and better.

7.  Faith-based schools will likely attract families searching for both strong academics and a faith-based environment.  Whether your school is Christian, Jewish, Catholic or some other faith perspective, parents interested in these schools are driven by their beliefs in searching for the right fit. They desire for their child to be educated from the same faith perspective as in their home.

8.  Admissions materials aren’t that important in the decision. Rather, the decision is based on the word of mouth recommendation, review of the school’s website, and the campus visit. A glossy viewbook usually doesn’t motivate a parent to select a school. Again, it can create an impression and can be an important follow-up tool. However, it is not the primary reason a parent selects your school.

9.  The “feeling” and vibe that your school gives is often the emotional connection that moves a parent to select a school. This is the intangible vibe that a parent receives when they walk through your doors for a campus visit. Many parents mention the feeling that they receive as an important part of their decision. Let’s face it, choosing a school is also an emotional decision.

10. Parents have high expectations of the faculty in that they desire to receive frequent updates on their child. Parents are paying a lot of money for a private school education. As a result, they have high expectations from the faculty. These expectations include timely communications from their teachers about their child.

These are just some of the things I have learned about private school marketing from parent focus groups.

What do you think about this list? Do you agree or disagree in your own experiences?