Do you know what’s important to your current and potential school families? It’s different from what you may call key distinctives or core values (why we do what we do and the words that best describe our deliverable). Key distinctives and core values may be important ways of talking and thinking about your school, but they aren’t necessarily important to your customers.
If I took a tour of your school and asked the friendly, outgoing person that was leading my wife & I around campus, what makes your school different, I would likely hear about the loving school environment, how much each staff person loves the Lord and is committed to the mission of the school, and how wonderful the school community is—all of which are central to what we do. However, if you take each of these in order, there is a problem with each one.
A loving environment? If potential students are visiting in their younger years, they probably experience the same loving environment in their local, high performing public elementary school. This message appeals to those in more challenging situations, but does nothing to persuade students in great elementary schools. Incidentally, this may be a factor in why Christian school enrollment in many regions of the country, struggles most at the elementary school level—it’s a high cost threshold to get someone to cross if one of our main selling points isn’t making much of a distinction between our school and the local public school option.
Committed staff who love the Lord? The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t connect to an outcome that impacts my children. We haven’t talked about discipleship, preparation for maturing in Christ, or how they will be equipped to be discerning and wise. Instead, we’ve talked about ourselves. While it is interesting to hear about how Apple has innovation teams at their corporate headquarters, it’s more important to me how innovation results in products that I like.
A wonderful school community? Here we have several potential problems. First, we are talking about “inside” things with those who are still on the outside. Will it be appealing? Maybe, but it also may be intimidating or seem odd. Second, parents are in the market for a school for their child. They did not set out on this process because they were looking for community—at least not consciously. Even if that is something that they will be amazed with once they are at the school, it is not why they are there. Finally, not everyone is interested in or will have the ability to join the community to the same extent or in the same way. We are much better off focusing on what we are called to do—educate their children in a Christian school.
So, what should we talk about? This is why message testing is so important. We need to know what matters to potential families that are exploring our school. This takes place both on an individual scale and a macro scale. First, at the individual level: ask the potential family questions before the scheduled visit and during the school visit. This allows you to do a little research to find out their needs, wants, and expectations. Are they concerned that their 3rd grader isn’t being challenged enough and just need to find out what other options are available? Don’t waste the limited amount of time talking about the warm loving environment, but rather talk about the outcomes. Talk about how the biblical world view is actually a common thread that strengthens the outcome and provides a more robust education. Talk about faculty qualifications. Alternatively, is the visiting parent concerned about bullying? Then by all means focus on the care that your school provides and the biblical approach to conflict and peacemaking. This shows preparation for the family. It also prepares them for when they experience a similar problem at your school. They will know that there is a different way of dealing with the problem and will be more likely to stay.
Research on an individual basis is only one part of message testing and also the less technical part. We have to create messages that we can use in marketing, advertising and even communicating to our own families (both for retention and to turn them into effective promoters of the school). We want to test messages with larger and varies audiences. A general approach should be to conduct research with two main groups in two different ways.
First, test messages with both target families and current families. What matters to each of these groups will likely be very different. This will lead to the likely conclusion that some massages are more useful for internal audiences and some messages will work more effectively with target families. What matters to get people to join a school will not be the same as what matters in keeping them. For example, my partner at Charter Oak Research, Dave Urban, and I have worked with a classical Christian school for a number of years. They serve an area with several failing school districts nearby. They are committed to the classical model because, among other reasons, they have seen real results in who they serve. However, very few people in their target market understand the model. They are looking for a Christian school that will help their child. So, by knowing their inquiries they can message about the classical approach at the right time in the marketing process. This is something that they may use while talking with a parent through the enrollment process. Or, even further along the process, this information may end up being more useful for current families to help them understand why they should continue to pay tuition.
Second, spend time researching deeper with each group. I’ve already mentioned the prospect families. The information gathered prior to and during visits should be used, shared and strategized over. Each case becomes one respondent for a qualitative study. Also, gather a group of newly enrolled parents and ask them why they came? What made the difference? What didn’t matter or sound right when they visited? Ask a group of longer term families why they stay?
Message testing gives the customer a voice. We move from talking about what we want to talk about to what they have told us matters. It gives us the ability to test our ideas. No matter how clever or insightful we are, we can always use input that will improve our efforts.
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.