I recently worked with a school that was in the process of uncovering key factors in school choice for their current school families. At the same time, they were exploring key drivers that target families when making decisions about school. My research, in addition to normative research from around the country, indicates that most Christian school parents use academic quality and biblical focus in their decision making process— two nearly inseparable factors. The gap between these two factors is very tight. There are many interesting contributors to this reality and there are some interesting trends worth further study. Also, there are some real opportunities to look at specific aspects within each of these factors to find room for differentiation. However, the basic conclusion that we can draw from research is that Christian school parents don’t want to take a hit academically in order for their child to have a Christian education.
When it comes to marketing a Christian school, there are several customer groups to consider. A term used in most businesses can be particularly helpful when talking about marketing a Christian school —the voice of the customer. This term refers to the process of understanding customer’s expectations, preferences and aversions. The challenge is who are we talking about? Are we talking about those who are exploring our school? Are we talking about those who have applied but haven’t joined yet? Are we talking about current families? Each one of these voices may be very different, but understanding each group is critical. Understanding each specific group is not only necessary to measure that group, but helpful in understanding how that group is either similar or different from other groups.
So what should be the conclusion in rare cases that research uncovers current school families report lower importance on academics than biblical focus? In these cases, the gap is wide and not necessarily good news. This means that different messages are needed for each group in order to motivate or respond to what’s important to them. First, what trends have likely taken place to result in a parent population that looks like this? Have those who wanted a biblically focused academically rigorous education given up and left? If we know most parents across the board have this dual expectation, something happened to this group. This is why enrollment data is critical.
Another important factor to consider for schools where the parent populations does not reflect the boarder Christian school target market, is how this reality will impact their ability to communicate with, and market to, that target group. Obviously, it is a challenge if the people you want to tell about your school are very different from your current school families. However, when opportunity presents itself, how prepared is the school for the integration of two cultures—one group who has been at the school and another group who is now exploring the school because it now meets a minimum threshold on something like academic rigor, technology offerings, or quality faculty.
So, what does a school do when it has the opportunity to reach new families who are very different from its current school families? This is where the voice of the customer can be helpful. The better we understand each group the better we can serve them. The better we are able to find ways to demonstrate areas of overlap in motivations, the more effectively we can meet each group’s needs. By researching each group we can use words that matter and massages that resonate and talk about offerings that drive their respective behavior. Three questions for consideration as you look at your own school community and the area in which you serve:
- How well do you know each group? What data do you have that may not have been used for this purpose but will answer some questions?
- What are we doing with our programs that communicate to all of our constituents that we understand that academic quality and biblical focus are inseparable? How can we demonstrate this to a data-driven customer base?
- Can we make the case that both academic quality and biblical focus together strengthen our program? That could be a powerful argument.
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.