Make parents feel like they are “missing out” when they read your comms

Last week I received a lovely, laminated postcard style invitation to attend an Open Morning at a local prep school. I have received these 2-3 times a year since registering interest some 3-4 years ago. There’s a lovely image on the front and details about when and where the next events are. It definitely “ticks a box” as a regular piece of communications but I couldn’t help but think that the school is seriously missing a trick and could make this piece of their marketing collateral much better and probably get a higher return on investment from it.

By looking at the data they took from me, the school should be able to work out that my children are now both school aged and probably at a very good state primary school. Which means we would need to be pretty unhappy with how things are going to want to move them somewhere else and start paying fees. Why do parents move their children? Well, from those I talk to the major reasons seem to be:

  • Desire for more co-curricular activities – 30 mins of sport a day rather than once or twice a week with specialist coaches; music with qualified music teachers and drama and performance opportunities for all, not just as an after-school club.
  • Wraparound care – working parents can find the limited before and after school care options in some state schools impacts hugely on their lives. Selecting an independent school with early drop off and an attractive after school programme removes the need for childminders and ferrying around to after school clubs and activities. A lot of independent schools also run holiday courses now too.
  • Smaller classes. As children get older, some parents feel they are getting lost in larger infant and junior classes. Although class size must not exceed 30 in YR-Y2 they can then increase to 33 or 34 and not always with a teaching assistant in the classroom.
  • Preparation for 11+ and 13+. Primary schools do not prepare children for entry to selective independent schools, so if they can, some parents move earlier to take advantage of the advice and support a prep school can give in the build up to senior school entry.

There are of course many other reasons but by focussing on these in your comms to parents on your database with 5-6 year olds with a view to 7+ entry might persuade disillusioned parents to come and have another look. Ask a current parent who made the switch to  give you a quote or testimonial; do some research to see how you compare on time spent on sport for example and focus on how you support each child.

Schools need to “push buttons” with the messages they give out in their comms and create a meaningful and emotive call to action when targeting parents who decided to educate their children elsewhere. Using the same approach for all won’t reap you the same benefits as a more targeted and personalised campaign. If you are going to spend money keeping in touch with parents, make sure you are telling them something they might want, or need, to hear. Give them FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and they will come calling…..

Letting them down gently….communicating bad news

At this time of year, many independent schools are busy processing assessing, examining and interviewing prospective pupils (and often parents) for places for the coming  year.

For some, there will be good news to come and schools are getting much better at communicating offers in a personal and warm way. Research I have undertaken with parents indicates that the offer letter, whilst not a deal-breaker, can play an important role in the mind of an undecided parent.

But what about those who are not lucky enough to be offered a place? Schools need to communicate this bad (and sometimes unexpected) news carefully, with due thought not only for the family concerned but also their reputation within the local community.

Last week, a friend forwarded me an email she had received from a school. They had assessed her younger child but had unfortunately not offered a place. Her older child is on the waiting list. She replied to the rejection letter to find out whether her younger child was even on the waiting list (no information had been provided) and, if so, if the school thought there might be places for her children in the future, given there is often some movement in the weeks after offers go out.The school was absolutely their first choice, but they had other offers to consider, so wanted to be sure where they stood. It was a carefully thought out, polite letter to the Head. The response from the school, in stark contrast, was a standard, impersonal and quite rude sentence via email. Not even a Dear Mr and Mrs, let alone reference to her children by name.

In a world where customer service is now scrutinised, criticised or praised across social media, let alone at dinner parties, you want everyone you come into contact with to say nice things about you, regardless of the outcome of their application. The ramifications of those kind of emails could extend far beyond the disappointment caused to one family. My friend certainly feels far less pre-disposed towards the school she once raved about and whilst she accepts it was possibly not the right school for her children, she is now less likely to recommend it to others than if they had let her down in a more thoughtful way. An even more aggrieved parent may have forwarded the email on to friends, or shared it to Facebook or with Twitter, copying the school in. This is the danger now of not thinking all of your communications through as even your ‘private’ ones may not stay private for long.

So, as your Admissions department plans and writes those rejection letters, think not only about how you would feel as the parent and the child receiving it but also how you want them to feel about you and your school in the future. No one likes bad news, but it it is given in a sympathetic way the blow is more likely to be softened and your reputation remain intact.

Keeping them sweet

Parents often register their children for pre-prep and prep schools several years in advance, stumping up not insignificant registration fees to do so. In some cases this will guarantee a place at the school but increasingly schools are assessing children (and parents) for entry at 4+, usually in the early part of the year prior to September entry.

Assuming many parents will also be looking at state primary schools, particularly in areas where provision is good but places are hotly contested and possibly two or more preps, what should schools be doing to ensure they stay top of mind and top of registered parents’ lists?

Probably more than sending the odd calendar or mass mailing invitation to another Open Day. At some point you are going to be asking this family to come in for assessments and interview and then, if they are offered a place, they will need to pay a deposit to secure the place. From the moment they commit money to you, even if the place is not yet offered, you should start to make them feel part of your community.

  • Sending weekly newsletters (preferably via email) will keep them up to date with what is happening in school.
  • Personalising letters with invitations to events (Summer/Christmas Fairs) will provoke a much more favourable response.
  • Running parent & Pre-schooler events so families can come into school (storytelling; outdoor activities) and start to feel familiar in your surroundings
  • Offering a refresher tour closer to the assessment dates to ensure parents are reminded of what you offer and you can tell them about any new/updated facilities, curriculum additions.
  • Include them at PTA events – nothing persuades prospective parents more than hearing current parents rave/enthuse about their child’s school so why not encourage registered parents to come along to a PTA social.

Ultimately you may not be able to offer these parents a place for their child, or indeed they may turn your offer down but you want every parent to have a positive feeling about your school in case they have younger siblings who they might consider for entry, so that they can tell their friends how friendly, warm and welcoming you are or, in case their circumstances change and they come knocking at your door looking for a place in the future.