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Three tips to attract new parents and pupils in a virtual world
Attracting prospective parents and pupils is a challenge for schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Karen Dempster and Justin Robbins provide their top tips for virtual communication
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Ongoing travel restrictions and a common fear of mixing in larger groups drive the need for cost-effective and easy ways to engage virtually. You still need to communicate a clear message and build a belief that your school is the right match for a pupil by focusing on actions that create trust with pupils and their parents or carers.
Traditional school marketing methods, such as brochures and other paid advertising, don’t resonate as well with many parents anymore. Use this opportunity to take a fresh look at your communication beyond pure marketing, to find creative approaches that ensure your school stands out from the crowd for the right reasons.
You can learn and achieve so much when you listen to the current school community
Trust is critical to any relationship and particularly when choosing a school. Parents need to know their children will be safe and have the best chance of happiness and success.
Here are three ways to build trust with parents and carers by communicating in ways that will attract the best match pupils to your school.
How do you feel when you are truly listened to? You probably feel valued and appreciated; and are more likely to trust those listening to you.
But listening is often the biggest gap in traditional school marketing approaches. You can learn and achieve so much when you listen to the current school community, including parents, pupils and your school team.
Ask current parents and pupils:
- What made them send their children to your school? Or, for pupils, why did they want to come to your school?
- Have things turned out as they thought they would – has your school lived up to expectations?
- If so, how and, if not, why and what can you do about this?
Use their answers to identify what is going well and what is not.
For example, you will find out whether parents’ perception of your school is the same as that of your school leadership team. This will enable you to define a clear message about what your school stands for – not simply your motto or vision – but from the perspective of parents and pupils.
Then listen to your school team. Find out if their experience as an employee matches your school’s promise.
Value word of mouth
In these times of ‘influencer marketing’, current parents, pupils and school team members can be powerful marketing channels. If they support your school and talk positively about it to others, you will achieve a lot more positive publicity than through traditional paid advertising.
Peer-to-peer attitudes within your school community have the power to attract potential pupils and even turn around negative perceptions, simply because people are influenced by those around them who have no underlying marketing agenda.
Many parents recall negative words when they think back to their own school experience.
Prospective parents need to know that you care about their child and appreciate them for their uniqueness and potential. However, schools have many prospective pupils and in reality it can be challenging to demonstrate this understanding of each prospective (and current) pupil.
From our research, we found that many parents recall negative words when they think back to their own school experience. They will, therefore, approach your school with a filter built through their own experience, which will influence how they feel.
Traditional open days that focus on pushing information at groups of parents, rather than listening to and learning about their children, won’t address this barrier.
Children don’t receive much physical post these days so a postcard can be exciting for them!
Ideas for direct communication
Offer to have short, one-to-one meetings with prospective parents and pupils who would like to do so. Rather than pushing information at the parents and child, these should focus on you learning about the potential pupil: for example, what they love and what they want to achieve during their time at your school.
Make sure your school staff have a clear understanding of how to run these sessions to ensure the child and parents feel valued. This would include discussion guidelines and tips for understanding how to communicate effectively with different types of people.
- Send a well written message from the headteacher that includes their photo, introducing themselves. Ideally this would be accompanied by a short video message, between 60 and 120 seconds long, linked to the school website. We have created a simple template to help school leaders to write their message with empathy and impact.
- You can extend this to include friendly and personable videos featuring staff members and current students and parents. Ensure these are supportive and talk directly to prospective parents and pupils so they hear directly from those who know about the school first-hand.
- Simple handwritten postcards (or something printed or electronic that looks customised) addressed to prospective pupils are a great personal way to follow up on mass communications. For example, follow up a virtual open day with a postcard that invites them to share their thoughts. Children don’t receive much physical post these days so a postcard can be exciting for them!
- Ensure parents always have school contact details in case they have questions or concerns.
The positive messages shared about your school create expectations that need to be fulfilled to build trust and your school’s reputation.
These expectations are like making a promise, whether this is implicit (what people have understood), or explicit (what you have directly promised to prospective parents and pupils).
For example, you may say: ‘We bring out the best and uniqueness in every child’. That’s a promise to the ears of a prospective parent. They will be looking for evidence to back this up, both during the period when they are choosing a school and during the time their child is at your school.
Deliver on your promise
Firstly, be clear about the promise you are making to those in your school community. Do this through talking with current and prospective parents and pupils. Identify parents who did not choose your school and find out why.
This valuable information will enable you to shape the messages you share in your school community (as your most powerful marketing channel), reinforcing what your school stands for and why it is different to other schools.
Before you share this promise, ask yourself:
- What do we do as a school to deliver on this promise right now?
- What could we do more of, or do differently, to deliver on the promise?
- Is there anything that stands in the way of delivering this promise?
When things do go wrong and you don’t deliver, be transparent and honest.
Acting on your promise
Identify actions to ensure your school delivers on this promise every day, not just to prospective parents and pupils but also to those who are currently at your school.
Importantly, when things do go wrong and you don’t deliver, be transparent and honest. When you have built up a ‘bank of trust’ with parents, they are likely to forgive and even support you if you take timely action and demonstrate you are putting their children first.
In summary, this is an incredibly demanding time for schools to give prospective parents and pupils a sense of the intangible elements that make their school special. We believe that, by focusing on actions that build trust and create school community advocates, you can achieve better outcome than through traditional, costly marketing techniques.
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Last Updated:13 Apr 2021