Question everything, listen always, and make necessary adjustments

School marketing: asking questions

Over the years of helping Christian schools around the country, I have seen the value of leadership questioning, listening, and schools making the necessary adjustments to grow their enrollment.

Many of you have heard it said, “God gave you 2 ears and only 1 mouth.” Even in the Bible, James says, “Be quick to listen, but slow to speak.” Questions are an important part of learning what people like, learning what they don’t, and learning what are the priority issues to address to change the trajectory of enrollment. Here are some key areas to ask questions:

PRE-ENROLLMENT

Your admissions team should be great question-askers. Before you talk about the school, ask your future families to talk about themselves. Remember this mantra: “it’s not about you, it’s about them.” While you want to sell them on your school, your interest in their situation will be the first step in convincing them that your school is best for their family. If it’s all about you, then future families start to hear a canned speech and they can smell that from a mile away!

  • “What do you like to do outside of school?”
  • “What are you favorite subjects in school? Least favorite?”
  • “If you do make a change from public to private school, what would imagine being the best part? hardest part?”
  • “Who are you rooting for in the championship game this weekend?”
  • “Who has been your favorite teachers in the past few years and why?”
  • “What makes it hard to fit in where you are?”
  • “Are you interested in one particular sport or are you willing to try new ones?”

One of the things I teach my Christian school clients is to learn the “need/problem/pain/frustration/fear” of their ideal family (target market). The way you discover this is a series of questions. You can then use the answers given in your marketing so you can address not only the important things about your school, but you can show them that your school can be the answer to their need, the solution to their problem, and the alleviation of their fears.

ENROLLMENT PROCESS

As you walk through the enrollment process with a new family, always ask questions:

  • “Does the paperwork make sense?” or “Did you find the online application intuitive?”
  • “What are you most excited about coming to our school?”
  • “What are the things that make you the most nervous about starting a new school?”
  • “Do you have any questions about dress code, start times, schedules, etc.?”
  • “Have you had a chance to meet your principal? the head of school?”
  • “Would you like to join our Parent Teacher Organization?”
  • “Is there anything we can improve in the new family orientation?”

FIRST 100 DAYS

Especially with your new families, you need to ask some questions within the first few months of school (like before Thanksgiving):

  • “How are you/How is your child fitting in? Friends yet?”
  • “Are we delivering what we promised? Is there something way different than you thought it was going to be?”
  • “What has been the hardest part of transition to a new school?”
  • “What could we have told you before school started that would have helped make your first few months better?”
  • “What teacher/administrator/coach has made the most impact so far?”
  • “Is there a teacher/administrator/coach that rubbed you the wrong way or that you are having difficulty with?”
  • “What have you witnessed that has surprised you? (good and bad)”

PARENT SATISFACTION

A formal parent satisfaction survey/interview is always worth doing. I prefer finding this information out mid-semester, in hopes that you have time to make adjustments (or at least a pledge for future changes) before re-enrollment decisions are made in the spring. If you survey in May, you get parents and students who are busy, stressed and tired anyway, so they are likely not as positive about the school as you might hope. Plus, their responses give you little time to work on anything. Those who are fed up have already checked out mentally and likely already checked out other schools (maybe even applied to a few).

  • Measurable Questions: quantitative questions allow students/parents to rate various categories/topics/programs/people on a numbering scale. This allows you to do some data analysis at the end, averaging numbers to give you tangible (and easy-to-understand) snapshots about how your constituents think. If you survey 100 people and on average, they rate your internal communication as a 4 out of 10, then you have some work to do. As well, if you see that they rate your school an average of 8 on academic quality in the high school, then you can rest easy and encourage your teachers with good feedback.
  • Open-Ended Questions: qualitative questions give more opportunity for individuals to expand their responses. In an online survey (or paper survey), people can write out their thoughts that will give you anecdotal evidence. It also might give some explanation why you have a low average rating on the sports program. If you are just looking at the quantitative results, you could draw conclusions that the head coach is terrible. But more elaborate responses might give you clues that it is a triangle of 3 assistant coaches that are really the source of the problem. Perhaps the head coach can be more intentional in addressing issues, but you may want to do more corrective action around the other 3 coaches if stories start to emerge. I’ve seen this happen (not with a sports program, but something similar). While it takes more time, I think beyond a paper or online survey, actual interviews with students and parents provide a wealth of information and insight. You might be able to have someone on the inside to elicit honest responses in a safe environment. If you need an outside entity, I have done this on multiple occasions. I ask, listen, and collect the data to provide some suggestions on improvement/change.

EXIT INTERVIEW

Rarely do you ever want a family to leave but if they do go, do whatever you can to ask them some questions. Keep it simple:

  • What is one program, person or policy that we could have changed/adjusted that might have caused you to rethink your decision to leave?
  • Do you see any area of strength of our school that you will miss?

The last question may seem odd here, but I suspect more often than not, a family does not leave because they want to. They usually felt driven out by a particular issue. Finances can be the cause, but oftentimes, it is only the cover cause. There may be a problem with a particular administrator or lack of a program that might be true impetus for their departure. But in the end, most departing families will still have some good things to say about the school. They may say, “we just have to find a school that’s better equipped for my child who has an interest in band, but we are going to miss the family atmosphere and my son is really grieving that he won’t get to have Mrs. Johnson for French next year.”

THOUGHTS ON EXIT INTERVIEWS:

  1. ANONYMITY: Always send a link to an anonymous online survey. Keep it short, but ask questions where they can rate you numerically in various categories. But also give them an open-ended box to write all they want. Assure them repeatedly of the anonymity. Ask them to be brutally honest. Don’t just say, “Is there any way we can improve?” Ask them, “How did we get it wrong?” The latter ensures them that you are wanting true answers. I also recommend that, when possible, invite people to step out of their anonymity and share more details with the head of school via email. Some people do not care about the anonymity but just want to be heard. Absorbing their rage via email or in person decreases the chances that they write a nasty online review in frustration.
  2. IN-PERSON: Always try and get a sit-down interview with someone in leadership, preferably the head of school or vice president. Let this be a listening situation, not a time for the school to defend itself or to try and explain why the family is getting it wrong. Just listen. In this way, you are hoping to absorb as much hostility as there might be. The last thing you want a family to do is to leave mad, and then blast you with a really negative 1-star review on Google or Yelp. Take the honest feedback, listen well, and where appropriate, apologize or express regret/remorse over how the school did not measure up to their expectations. You want to have the family leave admitting that they were at least heard. Sometimes (though rare) this might change a mind on the spot, or maybe after a year of trying the new school, they return. Always end the conversation with, “we hate to lose any family that shares our mission. If you ever find yourself in a place of wanting to return, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss what changes we might have made to improve to make our school even better.” Of course this does not apply if you perceive the family not to be mission-appropriate, but if they are a good fit, do what you can to reach out in hopes that they might reach out to you again some day. Who knows? Perhaps they might say to a friend, “well, it didn’t work out for our family, but if you are looking for a school that feels like family, you need to try it out yourself.” That’s much better than a negative 1-star review on Google!

The great Christian motivational sales guru, Zig Ziglar, once said,

“Asking the right question and listening to the answer is a great relationship builder, which is important to the persuasion process.”

Are you listening? Or are you just talking?

Email Randy if you would like his help in asking the right questions at your school or to schedule a FREE 30-minute phone consultation.

Retention: New Families & The First 100 Days

A while back, I did a post called, “100 Marketing Things To Do 100 Days Before School Starts” (link below). Now that school is back in session, it’s time for a similar post but focused on retention. Because the worst thing you want is to go through all of the trouble to get a new family, only to find out that they have drifted away without even knowing it.

Learn more retention ideas here.

Many of you know that I often talk about the 3 Rs of school marketing:

  • RECRUITMENT
  • RETENTION
  • REFERRALS

There’s a way to look at RETENTION as “re-recruiting” – and I think there is a lot of validity to that interpretation because just because you have a new family seated at your school, there is certainly no guarantee that they will remain a student until they graduate. The odds are in your favor that they will, but you must show INTENTION about RETENTION.

Get ideas now about STOPPING THE DRIFT.

In the first 100 days of school, here is a list of the 5 most critical things to do in terms of re-recruiting families:

  • Tell stories – continue writing blog posts, recording podcasts, and shooting videos that tell your school’s micro-stories.
  • Follow up – depending on how many new families you had start this year, do your best to follow-up with each one within the first 100 days. If you started school mid-August, then Thanksgiving should be your target. A phone call is best, but an email will suffice. Even a face-to-face at a football game or in the pick-up line would work well (you can be intentional on spotting those families in the parking lot and getting a read on them pretty quickly – if you perceive a problem, invite them to a follow-up phone call or face-to-face conference).
  • News and information – one of the hardest things about being a new family is learning the ropes in a new school. A continuous “out of the loop” feeling is hurtful to your re-recruiting efforts. Consider a bi-weekly “New Family” e-newsletter where you can inform them about various traditions around Homecoming, different class schedules on 1/2 days, or specific cut-off dates for High School spring mission trips.
  • Leadership touch – invite new families to have coffee with the head of school once a month to talk about the school or shoot a bi-weekly video from your principal talking about a few key items for new families to take note of during the upcoming month.
  • Handwritten note – this is so much easier than most schools say it is. If you have 100 new students, then the head of school can start writing one note per day (or batch process 7 of them every Monday morning). Or if you are already 75 days into the 100 days, split the list of new families up by key leadership. Give 10 to the Elementary principal, 10 to the Middle School principal, 10 to the High School principal, another 10 to the Athletic Director, Fine Arts Director, Spiritual Life Director, Admissions Director, teacher, board member and finally, give 10 to a seasoned parent. You could even rotate among this group throughout the year, and a new family could end up getting notes on a monthly basis from someone at your school. Powerful, huh?

In talks on lead generation (growing the pool of potential families), I will always argue that it costs a lot less TIME and MONEY to keep a family (re-recruit them) than it does to initially recruit them. So do not rest on your laurels and assume re-enrollment is a piece of cake. Get after it!

Again, show INTENTION about RETENTION!

Retention course for private schools

 

 

Link: “100 Marketing Things To Do 100 Days Before School Starts

If you are looking for someone to come alongside you this year to help you in your recruitment, retention, and referrals, I would love to talk with you about that. I only take a few new clients each year. I have room for one more to start in 2018. Click here to begin the conversation.

Randy Vaughn - Christian School Marketing

7 Fall Activities to Differentiate Your Christian School

7 Fall Activities to Differentiate Your Christian School

School is back in full swing!  Your to-do lists are piling up and there is a great buzz on campus of a variety of different activities, not counting all the academic work!

Independent/private Christian schools need to think more about differentiation. This is what will set you apart in the marketplace. This will help you distinguish your school from other private nonsectarian schools as well as the public, charter and home school options around you.

Here are 7 activities that most schools do in the fall and an idea or two of how to optimize these activities in marketing your Christian school:

  • Homecoming – because I live in Texas, Homecoming is always going to be in the fall although some schools I’ve worked with do it in conjunction with a winter or spring sport if they do not have football. At your Christian school, consider how Homecoming is different than at the public schools. While in Texas we have the crazy tradition of Homecoming mums (here’s an extreme example), your school may choose to do something in lieu of mums (traditional Texas mums can cost hundreds of dollars, which some students may choose to donate to a charity instead). Also, because your school likely smaller than your public school counterpart, you can recognize alumni differently, have alumni prayer gatherings before the Friday night game, and so much more. Homecoming can be a special event, but ask yourself: how different is what we do than our public schools around us? Carrying over some traditions is fun (HOCO dress-up days) but if you do not do anything unique, it might be worth looking at your annual traditions differently. Differentiation is critical to marketing.
  • Grandparents Day – many elementary school across the country host a day for grandparents to come and visit the classroom and share a meal with their grandkids at their school. Again, if you’re school is smaller, perhaps you can do a special musical program or a performance by all of the students in elementary. Certainly you could involve your grandparents in a time of worship and prayer since you are not restricted by that like your public school colleagues are.
  • Athletics – Cross Country, Volleyball, and Football are the most common fall sports, although your school may have others. How does your school differentiate itself at these sporting events? Do you pray before or after the game? Do you learn to integrate Scripture into your training of your athletes? Do you treat athletic training in the broader context of discipleship? How do you communicate striving for excellence but also enjoying the love of God? One school I worked with many years ago had an idea to launch a video series called, “The Making of a Kingdom Athlete.” They were already talking about spinning off a blog series and using the combination of written word and video to create vignettes to share with future families. The way you treat athletics should be noticeably different than the public schools.
  • Fine Arts – whether it’s band on Friday night or some of the upcoming holiday performances (Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), Fine Arts is a beautiful way to showcase your students’ talent. While you may lament that the size of Fine Arts program/facilities/equipment, how can you use your size to an advantage? Often at the large pubic school performances, there are limited solos. But at a smaller school, you can have more. While you still want to feature excellence, think of the different ways you can showcase individual talent. Your larger competitors simply cannot do that. This is an easy way to stand out.
  • Annual Fund – most public schools do not have to have Annual Funds because they are funded by government sources. However at most privately-funded schools, the Annual Fund is a tool to bridge the gap between tuition revenue and the actual costs of school operations. The Annual Fund is a fundraising event, but it can be a great way to highlight the community aspect of your school. While outsiders may view it as a purely fundraising event, you can gather people together to pray for God to provide for the gap that exists. It also gives you plenty of opportunity to talk about some of the things your school is wanting to have in areas of facilities, technology, and safety. It provides a great platform to talk about the important things while future families listen in!
  • Assessment – every school tests students, but it’s the government-mandated standardized testing that causes angst in parents and their kids. Often accused of “teaching to the test”, your private school does not have to abide by the same government standards (this is why it can be a great marketing tool for you). However, you can certainly talk about how you use benchmarks to assess your students’ academic progress (here’s how Eastern Christian talks about the difference). Parents do not like curriculum that is driven solely by a standardized test, however they want an excellent academic preparatory program. Use this differentiator to showcase you strong your academics are.
  • Holidays – with Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, your schedules are full of holidays. Many Christian schools avoid Halloween (many public schools do as well), but you can showcase how you still have fun with various dress up days. Veterans Day is a great way for you to gather Veteran parents and grandparents for a celebration on your campus or you may want to ask to have your middle school or high school choir sing for veterans at a community-wide celebration. Because of the spiritual nature of Thanksgiving and Christmas (and how such spiritual connotation has been virtually removed from the public square), you should make sure and showcase your performances that talk about how you are “grateful to God” or in the context of celebrating the birth of Jesus.

This article is not meant to list out a thousand innovations – the point is to recognize that it is the way that your school treats the common factors is how future families will tell there is something different about you. Look for ways to take the commonly-shared experiences the public schools have and turn them into great marks of differentiation. Also, use this as a test to determine if you are any different than your competing private schools in the area. If you cannot find much difference, how do you expect a future mom or dad to find you unique?

I love helping schools create plans and strategize about reaching future families. If I can help you, please click here to schedule a 30-minute free phone consultation to learn about my coaching program specifically designed for Christian schools.

Randy Vaughn, Christian School Marketing Consultant

Enrollment Evaluation: Looking Back. Looking Ahead.

Enrollment Evaluation: Looking Back. Looking Ahead.

As you look at a new school year starting, your enrollment management team is finally able to take a breath and “relax”. Unless you are a school with locked-in enrollment numbers by the spring, you have hard at work all summer long, emailing, calling, and following up with those last-minute families who might enroll in the fall. While some of you with open enrollment may continue to see a few late-comers, for the most part, your admissions team finally gets to experience “summer”.

As you evaluate your enrollment status, here are few things to consider. First, let’s take a look back.

LOOKING BACK

  • Assess your Advertising: did that magazine ad drive anyone to your school? Did your radio…direct mail…social media campaign impact your numbers? While there are some difficulties in assessing some of the effectiveness of each one, you should at least acknowledge if something is worth doing for next year. Now is the time to evaluate, especially if you can provide any hard data to support your decision. Inevitably, a board member will approach you next spring wondering “why aren’t we doing that radio campaign again like we did last year? I thought that was brilliant!” If it didn’t work, then you’ll want data to show said board member.
  • Self-Evaluation: take some time to evaluate yourself and your team. Where did you work from a place of strength? Where could you reallocate resources? Where do you need to spend more time? Less time? Hopefully your team can have an honest assessment so you don’t just start the treadmill over again in a few months without looking for ways to improve.
  • Survey Says: consider reaching out to your new families and surveying them about their enrollment experience. Ask them about how they heard about you. Ask them to evaluate your admissions process. Ask them to give you candid feedback about your campus: appearance, communication, processes, etc.  You can certainly do the same to your returning families, but these new families have the freshest eyes to see things most clearly.

LOOKING AHEAD

  • Retreat: if possible, get away from the office for at least one day for an off-site retreat (two days or more would allow you time to go even deeper). If you haven’t done any self-evaluation, this is the place to do it. But this is also a time to spend some moments reflecting with gratitude for your new families. Before you get too critical about processes, and before the onslaught of next fall’s admissions season begins, take time to be thankful for who came your way this year. You might even take a few minutes to write a few hand-written cards to some of your new families. Have some fun together and do some team development work.
  • Plan Quarterly: look at the new 3 months. If you are reading this in August, pretty much examine your school calendar, the national calendar (holidays, cultural rhythms, etc.), and your community/city calendar and see what is ahead. This will likely take you to Thanksgiving, so if you need to go ahead and plan through Christmas break, do so. Included in this timeframe is likely the start of next year’s enrollment season. It may begin with re-enrollment efforts in December or early in the new year (hint: don’t wait to start re-marketing to your families….that begins now!) Look at your social media planning calendar and know what’s ahead in the next few months and get a jump on scheduling some posts on Facebook or using a tool like Grum for scheduling Instagram posts. Here’s a free social media/marketing content planning calendar that has helped many.
  • Mind the Gap: you should be able to have a hard count for each grade as you start the new year and see where the enrollment gaps are. This should give you real clear direction for next year. Is this year’s Kindergarten class small? While you certainly want to work hard at getting better Kinder numbers next year, you might also look at ways to grow next year’s 1st grade class so that you can set yourself up for a strong future. If you project Middle School to be down, then start concentrating your efforts now on developing a strategy for filling those seats.

Don’t get too busy now too look back and to look ahead.


SUCCESS STORIES

I love to help schools with their marketing, especially at this time of in the school calendar. I have been helping one school this past year that saw a 16% increase and another school who told me yesterday that they are almost 25 students more than they thought they would have when the board set the budget last spring. I would love to help your school as well!

Contact me for a free phone consultation – I am eager to help!

Randy Vaughn, Christian School Marketing Consultant