In the final installment on marketing research, I want to focus on how awareness and perception impact Christian schools. Awareness is critical to understanding how a school can increase its reach and perception impacts a school’s ability to capitalize on increased awareness. The two should be explored together because change in awareness impacts reach and change in perception impacts conversion. Both can be difficult to gauge and change.
Awareness is relative. When my colleague and I visit schools and ask key stakeholders what people know or think about them in the community, we hear that the school we are visiting is the “best kept secret.” While that assumption may or may not be true, it is almost always based on no evidence. In fact, the conclusion is flawed for the very reason that there is no evidence to support it. Instead, the supposed evidence of being the best kept secret is that inquiries aren’t what they think they should be. However, to conclude that the cause of minimal inquiries is that no one knows about the school is lack of better understanding. Most likely, people probably know something, just very little. A decision to explore a school as an option for their child requires more than just nominal awareness.
Being the “best kept secret” is bad news and a terrible place to be. It is very difficult to get a target audience to pay attention to our messages. However, if the target audience doesn’t know we exist, we have little opportunity to impact their perceptions. Research indicates that most of the respondents in school target markets have heard of the school under consideration—or at least a much larger percentage than anticipated. So, how important is awareness? Well, it depends. While awareness is desirable, more important is the level of awareness. We have found that while awareness may be higher than expected, the level of awareness is usually very low. The level of awareness, or familiarity, is movable—and by moving familiarity we can move interest.
It is very difficult to get a target market to consider us as an option, unless we message them on their timing. Talking about a Christian school option to a target market needs to be an ongoing and a cumulative effort because customers only learn of options as they are in the market for those options. Awareness increases as demand for information is met—not as we put out unsolicited information.
Perception is the next thing to consider. Here we are looking at how a school is viewed by a target audience—not just on its own, but also in comparison to other options. Perceptions are always based on some contributing factors. Sometimes these are acts. Other times, they are simply reputation or something from the distant past. Whatever the contributor, it is valuable to understand what has contributed to the current perceptions. Knowing where this target audience got their information can be valuable in addressing inaccurate, outdated or harmful perceptions. If the perceptions are accurate, all is not bad news. Knowing what is wrong based on surveying target audiences gives you real data in order to address the problems.
How we are perceived compared to other school options is also a powerful piece of information. We learn who we are being compared to, how we perform in that comparison, and what things are important to our target market. We need to focus on things that are important to our customers, which are not always the same things that are important to us or our current school families. It is important to always find ways to market new audiences while continuing to serve our current customers.
Many schools find that their reputation is much more one dimensional than they would like it to be. This is often the result of news reports on a particular area of success or being known as the school for ________. However, when we are given the opportunity to shape perceptions, we should be sure to always present a multidimensional picture of our school. Whenever we are communicating about one program, we should find ways to talk about how that program is tied to our entire approach. Athletics should be talked about as an integral part of our entire program. Spiritual formation should be talked about in the context of how it contributes to the overall academic experience. Co-curricular, in general should demonstrate a variety of options and the extent to which students are involved in diverse activities, rather than allowing the focus to be on one element and how students focus on just one thing. When we set the agenda for driving perceptions, we should be as aggressive as possible in order to get the most impact for our target families.
Consider the following questions in order to plan a more effective marketing campaign:
- How well are we known? How does this compare with the past and with other competitor schools?
- What is the level of awareness? How well do people think they know us?
- How are we perceived compared to other options (on a number of features or characteristics)?
- How have these things changed over time?
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.