Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Maximizing e-newsletter impact

School e-newsletters are a huge pain. No one, other than those who have to prepare them, would believe the amount of time they take. On top of that, they are a magnet for all kinds of heated and time-consuming discussions about who should control content, why parents still don’t know about upcoming events and who is responsible for all those typos and errors (there’s not usually a lot of takers on that one).

Not surprisingly, by the time you hit week 15, the strong temptation is to minimize the pain and just get the bloody thing done. But here’s the thing. Retention is the key to enrolment success and that means that e-newsletters are a critical marketing communication vehicle that deserve (almost) all the time they take to prepare. The key is to maximize the investment. Here then are nine ways to focus your efforts and improve the effectiveness of e-newsletters.

1. Strategy first. Remember that the e-newsletter is a key to building brand among current parents and stakeholders. That means that content must be both functional and strategic. Choose content based on what best reflects strategic marketing goals and don’t be afraid to have multiple items – whether in news items or captions – speak to the same topic. What you imagine to be heavy-handed is likely not perceived that way by the casual reader.

2. Content control. Some weeks finding content is like pulling teeth. No one responds to your emails and two hours before deadline, you’re still tracking down photos and details about a school event. And then you have the polar opposite when the development department is convinced that each of their 32 school fundraisers must be represented in this week’s newsletter. The solution is to have established and agreed-upon guidelines that detail content categories, indicate exactly who is responsible for getting you content and determine in advance the number of items that can appear under any heading. 

3. The tyranny of attention. Your e-newsletter may be chock full of all the things you want parents to know about like the softball team’s big win and the STEM contest that the 5th graders participated in. But none of that is going to get read unless you first meet parents’ most basic communication needs. It’s kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy. Tell parents what they need to survive the week ahead  - the early closing days, the no-lunch days – and then they will pay attention to the stuff you think they should know.

4. Know your limits. Studies show that people read online material at a rate of about 200 words per minute. Now, how much time do you expect parents to spend reading the weekly e-newsletter? If three to five minutes sounds reasonable, that translates into no more than 600-1000 words.

5. Be photo-literate. Rest assured that a good photo paired with a strategic caption can outperform any paragraph of copy alone. Whatever you can say with a photo will get more attention and will be more compelling. However, not all photos are created equal – and some, if not most, of the ones provided to you should likely not be used. The group photo of 25 students who participated in an event will be indiscernible. Rather look for shots of one or two people who look interesting or are doing something interesting. Remember - you can fill in the details in a caption or short story that accompanies the image.

6. What's the subject. Data indicates that 33% of email recipients decide whether to open an email based on the subject line alone. And get this – there’s an 18.7% decrease in open rates when the word “newsletter” is used in subject lines. Don’t fool yourself into imagining that your e-newsletter is so important to parents that data on subject lines don’t apply. So, instead of “Your newsletter for the week of September 18” try writing a creative subject line about an item in the e-newsletter - maybe something like “Our B-Ballers Beat the Best.”

7. Be a tease. Not every detail about every item has to appear directly in the e-newsletter. By using links to pages on your website or other sources, you can provide readers with just enough copy to “tease” them or for them to decide whether it’s something they want to know more about. It’s a win-win approach that conserves space and respects the reader’s interests and judgment.

8. Make it mobile. It’s critical that your e-newsletter can be easily read on a smartphone. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage of email open on mobile devices rose from 20% to 55% and from my experience the percentage of independent school parents using smartphones is higher than that. Content viewed on a mobile device always feels longer than on a tablet or desktop. That magnifies the importance of almost all of the points above. For example, the average mobile screen can only fit a 4-7 word subject line. So, in addition to being interesting, subject lines need to be concise.

9. Draw on data. Take advantage of the incredible array of data that is available to you in almost all email software. You can see which subject lines get better open rates and which items are more attracting clicks. You can even see who is opening emails and segment them by gender, location, campus or the grades of their children. All of that can be essential in the ongoing evaluation of the e-newsletter.

By using these nine points (and probably a bunch more that I didn’t think of) you can transform your weekly e-newsletters from a necessary evil into a superhero force for good.

What do you think?
What are your best e-newsletter tips? Or better yet, let’s see some examples of your outstanding e-newsletters.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

10 Other Reasons Parents Are Choosing Your School

Independent school marketing is in many ways a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. We promote schools based on certain attributes and then we research why parents have chosen our schools and remain satisfied with them based on those same attributes. That, in turn, provides the proof that we need to convince ourselves that we completely understand parents' decision-making. But, maybe it’s time to jump out of our comfort zone and look more deeply at parents’ motivation.

Let’s be more specific. If you were to scan the websites of any number of independent schools, you would find the following attributes that are being used to promote the school: 
  • Academic excellence
  • Character Development
  • Whole Child Education
  • Acquisition of skills for learning
  • Being part of a community of students 
To measure their success in attracting and retaining families, schools then survey parents. That’s good. But here’s the self-fulfilling part. Survey questions are based on the promotional attributes above or some variation on them. For example, every parent satisfaction survey that I’ve seen asks respondents to rate the school based on something like this series of questions: 
  • How satisfied are you with the quality of the academic program/the Math curriculum/the Language Arts program?
  • To what extent do you feel your child is developing positive character traits? 
And surveys to new families will most often ask parents to rank the reasons they chose the school based on variations of the attributes above.

Then the survey data is collected and analyzed and guess what? Yup, now we have proof that the features we are using to promote the school are exactly the reasons that parents have chosen our school and the criteria they use in deciding whether to stay. And with great confidence, we can continue to market our schools the way we always have. Phew!

So how do we break the cycle? Two recent Harvard Business Review articles provide some guidance. The first – Creativity in Marketing – is based on discussions with leading marketers and provides some approaches that will definitely lead to new insights.

For example, what if we think about marketing with parents as opposed to marketing to parents? Strategic marketing is targeted. We talk about target audiences or target segments. Implicitly that means that we keep our distance, disseminating marketing messages, like arrows, toward the bulls-eyes we seek to influence. But parents aren’t sitting idly waiting for our cupid-like missives.  In fact, they are creating their own content in the lives they lead as reflected on social media. The imperative for independent school marketers is to remove the distance, have meaningful interactions with parents and make their stories and experiences the centerpiece of marketing efforts.  

The second article advocates a less empirical and more experiential way of interacting with customers – or, in our case, parents. By intuitively analyzing the customer experience, it’s possible to discover previously hidden motivation for buying a product or service. The authors characterize these motivators as “jobs to be done.”

With these two articles in mind, if we were to market with parents and really immerse ourselves in the parent experience, we may discover other attributes upon which parents are selecting independent schools and choosing to remain at them. Here are some of the “jobs to be done” that we might find: 
  • Creating a sense of accomplishment or status for parents
  • Building community and developing new friendships for parents
  • Developing a more homogeneous social circle for children and parents
  • Meeting the expectations of grandparents (parents’ parents) or other family members
  • Providing a worry-free experience that relieves the stress of having to continuously monitor school progress and advocate for children
  • Delivering convenience – in pick up/drop off and in scheduling of meetings, presentations and assemblies
  • Providing seamless access to tutoring or other supports
  • Communicating in ways that find the balance between providing “must-know” information and the validation of continuing to make the right choice
And, removing barriers to choosing independent schools, such as:
  • Assuring parents that they will fit in with other families at the school
  • Relieving a sense of guilt about their ability to afford higher tuition fees and separating themselves from peers (as may be the case with any luxury product) 
Implicitly, each school will have its own meaningful promotional attributes which doubles down on the need for marketers – and, I would argue heads of school and other key administrators - to immerse themselves in the parent experience.

Uncovering these real attributes at your school is way more than an exercise in marketing because each of them is an expression of need that must be supported. Being attuned to the parent experience requires action in programming and communication.

Lest anyone thinks I am disparaging the use of data, I offer these points. As is best practice in the use of qualitative and quantitative data, once you uncover new motivational criteria, you can – and should - use broad based surveys to determine the degree to which they are a factor for all parents. But perhaps more importantly, I am reminded of an amazing quote by author and speaker Brené Brown, who said, “stories are data with a soul.”

The bottom line is that as independent school marketers, we may be looking for love in all the wrong places and by being shoulder to shoulder with our parents, we may discover the true path to their hearts.

What do you think?

What are some of the other reasons that parents are choosing your school? What have you done to validate those reasons empirically? More importantly, what programs or communication have you put in place to support them?

Monday, October 10, 2016

7 paths to being a parent-centred school

To distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace, schools must become parent-centred.

These days, being a child-centred school doesn’t provide much competitive advantage. Child-centred approaches are clearly linked to educational success and have been woven into the practice of most schools. Frankly, being child-centred is a must-have that parents expect.

On the other hand, being parent-centred represents an opportunity to differentiate and create recruitment and retention success. The data from the business world on the benefits of improving customer experience is incontrovertibly positive. Focusing on the quality and the characteristics of the parent experience in your school has innumerable benefits including fostering more satisfied parents who are more enthusiastic ambassadors. So, how do you do that? Here are seven paths to being a parent-centred school.

1. Think like a customer. This is primarily about empathy. Put your self in the shoes of a parent and use all your senses. For example, when you walk into the office, what do you see and how are you greeted? Are you talking to parents in language that they can understand? Often, there is a tendency to use internal technical terms like, “you need to complete an RTC form.” Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into “edu-speak,” using terms like authentic learning and differentiation while a parent’s eyes glaze over.

No matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to look at your school with fresh eyes. In that case, borrow an idea that retailers use all the time and enlist mystery shoppers – or in this case, mystery parents. Have two or three people contact the school (using various means) and express interest in enrolling their children. Be sure they record details of all their interactions. Review their reports to see if the experience that’s being delivered is what you really want it to be.

2. Collaborate. Parents aren’t really at the centre of your enrolment and marketing efforts unless you seek their opinions and participation in meaningful ways. Considering a change to the daily schedule? You’d be wise to consult parents. Partnering with parents also means encouraging feedback and, of course, being willing to accept criticism.

3. Be Transparent. There is no point in trying to hide information from parents. If you’ve made an error, you have got to own it. Let parents know what happened and how you’re going to fix it. Schools can be notoriously secretive about how decisions are made – often because they don’t want them to be questioned. A great example of this is class placement. A common statement is something like, “we place students using our best judgment in optimizing their academic performance and social environment.” This is vague enough that parents don’t really have a basis for questioning a placement decision. Contrast that to listing the specific criteria on which placement decisions are made and being prepared to entertain discussions with parents based on those criteria. Being transparent doesn’t mean having to accede to every parent request. Many times, parents will tolerate a decision that doesn’t go their way as long as they feel like they’ve been heard.

4. Solve Problems. Effective problem resolution requires many elements. First, you need to encourage openness. If staff members feel that every reported error is just another step toward discipline and dismissal, you won’t know about most of what goes wrong with parents. Second, you need to know the root cause of problems and that, in turn, requires asking incessant whys. Why did the Smiths get the wrong letter? Why were they on the wrong list? Why were they tagged incorrectly in the database? Why did someone edit their profile? You get the picture. Resolving problems is only half the battle. The real prize is problem prevention and that will require lots of internal collaboration with staff members at all levels.

5. Consider First Impressions. This isn’t just about the first-time visitor to your school, although focusing on that is a pretty good idea. But this could also be the first experience that parents have with your school every morning. You know, the dreaded drop off line. (Here’s a hilarious rant about drop-off). This is a great opportunity to greet parents and reduce their anxiety. What about the first impression of parents coming to the school for parent teacher conferences? They are totally stressed at having to quickly navigate the school and find the appropriate rooms so that they can then spend six minutes and 28 seconds with a teacher before being rushed out. Some schools place student docents in front of each room who can tell parents whether the teacher is ahead of or behind schedule and can even disarm parents by having a conversation with them.

6. Prove You’re Listening. It’s not enough to tell parents that you care about their opinions. You have to put your money where your mouth is. Be prepared to make changes based on parent feedback. You can take that to another level by making proactive changes. For example, let’s say a parent reports that her child was dropped off at the wrong spot when taking the bus home. In addition to finding out what happened to that child, you should likely be investigating whether the same thing has happened to other children – even if those parents haven’t said anything. And, make sure you tell parents about the action you are taking in response to their concerns. As consumers we all know how gratifying it is to be told that changes have been made because we spoke up. Be sure to give yourself credit for listening – and acting.

7. Break Down Silos. Making your school more parent-centred can’t be done as a unilateral initiative of the admissions department. Or the marketing department. It’s going to take a multi-disciplinary approach that has the parent experience on the agenda of every department in the school – including faculty and lay leadership. You may want to share articles about parent/customer service or better yet, be sure to communicate parent experience successes. In all likelihood, it will require the active involvement of the head of school to make it happen.

Technology and demography (think millennials) have created conditions where word of mouth is the most powerful channel in marketing success. While educational success is the most potent subject of word of mouth, being a parent-centred school will create the motivation and impetus for positive ambassadorship that will in turn lead to gains in recruitment and retention.

A more detailed look at the Parent Experience is available in the e-book, "Tailoring the Parent Experience."

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Parent Experience Prescription

The Parent Experience (PX) at your school has the potential to be the greatest contributor to retention, ambassadorship and enrolment success. That’s why schools should be giving some serious thought what their PX prescription will be. 
An e-book that I collaborated on withBlackbaud K12 explains the Parent Experience concept and design process in detail. In the past couple of months I’ve been taking the PX from words on a page and slides in a webinar to real-life school environments. The insights from that could be helpful to anyone thinking about PX in their schools.

For some context, here’s a quick Parent Experience primer. Increasingly companies are finding that their most effective competitive advantage is not the products they sell but rather the experience that their customers have using them and even shopping for them.

Why is that? Because, as the people at Bain & Company say, “If people love doing business with you, they become promoters. They sing your praises to friends, colleagues, and complete strangers over social networks, in online reviews, through blogs, and in every conceivable channel.”

To me, that sounds like the description of current parent ambassadors that every school would love to have. And that’s why the Parent Experience is so critical to schools.

In fact, as independent schools find themselves competing with not only public schools but charter schools, online schools and for-profit schools, experience becomes a critical differentiator and competitive advantage.

The Parent Experience is the sum of all experiences at various touch points a parent has with a school over the duration of their relationship with that school. This includes their first online contact to watching their youngest child graduate and everything in between.

To be more than just positive, Parent Experience must be the product of a reverse engineering project. Schools need to understand what memories and feelings they want their parents to have at the end of their journey with them. Once they’ve determined that destination, they can work backward to design the experience that will produce the desired results.

In other words, to be truly effective and to completely differentiate a school, the Parent Experience must align with a school’s brand. Schools must answer the question, “What do we want the parent experience at our school to be?”

Now, with that background, here are some practical Parent Experience insights.

The Parent Experience exists whether you design it or not. Make no mistake. Parents are having an experience at your school. They are interacting with school staff, lay people and other parents all the time. The quality of that experience is up to you. You have the opportunity to not only make that experience positive but one that truly reflects what is unique about your school.

Parent Experience is more than just good customer service. The best illustration of this comes from a school at which I was leading a parent experience workshop. Support staff said they were always friendly and respectful with parents, often going above and beyond to help. That’s good customer service. However, one staff member said that she noticed that when the answer to a question was tailored to the cultural background of the parent, communication was more effective and the parent was more satisfied. In a school that truly celebrates diversity, the actions of that staff member are helping to build a positive parent experience that is unique to that school.

The Parent Experience brings your brand to life. Brand is a representation of the relationship that parents have with your school. If every interaction that parents have with your school is brand-aligned, PX is an opportunity for your parents to literally live the brand.

Developing the Parent Experience is an exercise in design thinking. It’s a painstaking process involving dozens of people and thousands of interactions. But with a clear goal in mind it’s an opportunity to incorporate all of the design thinking elements of empathizing, designing, ideating, prototyping and testing.

Heads of School are critical to the Parent Experience. There are three reasons for this. The head is the only person in a school with the authority and credibility to align disparate sectors – from faculty and educational leaders to the business office to the board of trustees. Given the symbiotic relationship between brand and PX, heads, as primary keepers of the brand, must be involved. Finally, PX is by definition future-focused. Its ten-year journey will be interwoven with your school’s vision – as articulated and driven by the head.

Faculty is essential to the Parent Experience PX – but be patient.  The strongest link in the school-parent relationship is teachers and therefore developing an effective Parent Experience requires their cooperation and active participation. Teachers are very focused on the classroom and see student achievement as their primary success metric. However, there is growing appreciation of parent engagement and communication as critical elements in the educational process – which, in turn, is all about the parent experience.

As independent schools face increasing competition in an economic environment that is, at minimum, circumspect, it is essential to differentiate and find competitive advantages. Focusing on the Parent Experience may be the perfect prescription for doing just that.

Download your copy of Tailoring the Parent Experience 

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Hierarchy of Parent Communication Needs

The impact of word of mouth on independent school admissions is pretty much undeniable. There is a litany of data demonstrating that the most frequent and the most effective way that prospective parents hear about a school is from family, friends and peers.

Great. We all get that. Now here’s the hard part. The inescapable reality of word of mouth marketing is that its success is a function of parents being able to talk – or post – knowledgably and passionately about their school. The passion can potentially come from parents simply talking about their positive experiences. Knowledge, on the other hand, requires parents to have information about a school’s achievements or perhaps its comparative performance. Those facts can often supercharge the impact of peer to peer communication.

But how do you get parents to have that information at their fingertips when it’s a struggle to just get them to remember when its an early closing day or to sign up for parent teacher conferences?  If informed ambassadorship is the apogee of parent communication, how do you get there?

The answer may lie in a construct with which we’re all familiar. Maslow’s pyramid, or hierarchy of needs, has been used by psychologists – and educators – for decades.  Its premise is that for individuals to reach their greatest potential, there is a four-level progression of needs that must first be met. The highest level of the pyramid – or the pinnacle of human existence – is what Maslow called “self-actualization” which he defines as “the desire to become the most that one can be.”

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What if we use that same paradigm to think about parent communication? How can we get parents to reach the ultimate goal of being well informed ambassadors with the independent ability to speak knowledgably about the school their kids attend? Perhaps the answer is that we need to first meet their more basic communication needs. It's only when those needs are met that parents feel free to discover more about the school and retain that information.

With deference to Professor Maslow, let’s see how we can translate his pyramid into a hierarchy of parent communication needs.

Physiological  - These are survival needs like food and drink. The parent communication equivalent is what do I absolutely need to know for next week. Are there early closing days? Are there programs/events that I am supposed to be attending? Are there days on which my child needs to bring something different or unusual to school?

Safety – These are ongoing health and well-being needs like physical and economic security. In our communication hierarchy that translates into how can I help my child? This could be information about homework or resources parents can use to help their kids. Or maybe it’s about special lunch programs or extra-curriculars. However we define them, this level of communication relates to the ongoing needs of the child.

Love and Belonging – We need family, friendship and intimacy. Our parents need communication that makes them feel like part of a community. That could be information about other families’ lifecycle events or some kind of bulletin board with items for sale and upcoming community programs. Maybe this involves letting parents know about opportunities for involvement in the school community.

Esteem – We must feel valued, respected and confident. This relates to two types of communication. On one hand, parents need communication that validates their decision to send their children to our schools. This could be information about special achievements or educational milestones. Often this level is fulfilled through special programming to which parents are invited. In addition, parents must feel respected and appreciated. Communication must recognize the parent as customer.

Self actualization – The freedom to realize our fullest potential. Having fulfilled the other four levels, we can now provide the communication to parents that will allow them to be the consummate ambassador. This might be information on comparative test scores, college choices, athletic or academic achievements, faculty credentials, accreditations or endorsements. On the foundation of the other levels of communication, parents are ready to receive – and retain – the information that we really want them to be conveying to peers and friends.

Based on all of the above, this is what we arrive at:

The Hierarchy of Parent Communication Needs

Although to this point we have focused on substance, meeting communication needs is also a matter of finding the right channels and means of communication. Most schools have an arsenal of communication vehicles – e-newsletters, classroom newsletters, websites, password protected portals and even print communication. Fulfilling a communication need is dependent on matching it to the right channel.

If we accept the premise of this hierarchy, the indelible message is that for parents to become effective ambassadors, the onus is on school communicators. It could be time to take a good look at your communication plan and make sure it’s really needing the needs of parents and your school.

What do you think?
Does the hierarchical construct work or make sense? Does your experience with parent communication validate this analysis? What are your thoughts about how to get parents to be the best ambassadors?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

My one-question branding hack

The terms “brand” and “DNA” appear together in business literature as often as “critical” and “thinking” do in the educational world. The assumption is that just as DNA is a way of defining a person’s uniqueness, so too brand is the way of articulating what is one-of-a-kind about any organization.

I think that “brand” and “DNA” have something else in common. While no one disputes that they exist and that each is very important, the truth is that almost nobody knows what they are. Seriously. What exactly is DNA? It’s some kind of molecular structure that somehow magically determines my uniqueness. Likewise, other than a bunch of marketing wonks, who can really define “brand” and explain exactly how it represents your school? 

And yet no one can deny the importance of being able to tell prospective parents or prospective faculty or prospective donors what makes your school so special. So, if you haven’t yet engaged the experts to develop your brand – or maybe you have and either can’t remember or no longer use what they came up with – here is my one question branding hack. (By the way, "hack" is a term borrowed from the tech world that generally refers to a clever solution to a tricky problem.)

It’s based on Simon Sinek’s “why” TED talk. If you’re not one the almost 26 million people that have seen this video, you should stop reading and watch it now. In short, Sinek proposes that the most successful companies and organizations in the world achieved their success by focusing on “why” they do what they do – as opposed to “how” or “what” they do.

Sometimes thinking about “why” your school exists or operates can be difficult. It gets bogged down in mission and philosophy. So, in working with schools I ask them this:

What would be missing from your city or community
if your school did not exist?

And that’s the one-question branding hack. It’s a pretty important question that you should be able to answer before you meet a single prospective parent (or donor or teacher). When parents ask, “why should I send my children to your school,” they are really asking what can I get here that I can’t get elsewhere.

The answer you formulate to the question is not your brand but it will likely focus on the experience that your school delivers – the combination of academics, character development, extra-curriculars, spirit, relationships and philosophy. And that will provide a glimpse into the relationship students and parents have with your school – which is at the core of branding.

Even if the answer to the question is easy because your school’s offering is unique, it will still require some introspection. For example if yours is the only arts-based school for girls in your area, you will still need to be able to communicate why an arts based education for girls is important and what it can deliver.

For what its worth I believe branding can be explained and similarly, I have successfully articulated a brand for many schools. At the same time I’m enough of a realist to understand that branding can be time-consuming, complicated or out of reach for many schools. Interestingly, I have also encountered many schools that have undertaken branding projects and are still struggling to articulate their uniqueness. 

Whatever the circumstances, if you’re looking for a clear, productive and reasonably quick way of thinking about branding, the one-question hack could be the answer.

What do you think?
Does my one question hack work for you? Have you got an alternative that you have successfully use? What are your branding hacks? Let me know.

Image courtesy of Suwit Ritjaroon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net