Please Note: This article may not be appropriate for actions to be taken right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will still be important to plan for when your school does open back up. Moreover, it will be important to demonstrate who you’ve adapted to the “New Normal” we’ll all be experiencing, and the innovations in your curriculum that you’ve implemented as a result of this unique time in history!
When I worked for a Diocesan Office for Catholic Schools, some of the schools held an Open House during the Spring so that parents of prospective students could see the school in excellent condition. After all, excellent academics should be presented in an excellent environment, right? Desks were cleaned, floors were swept, the students’ best work was displayed on the walls of the halls, and, of course, “Open House” events were held – at night, when there would be no distractions from children currently in the school, and teachers would not be disrupted.
If you’ve been following that formula, I’ll bet you’re having difficulty growing your school.
Reserving one night – or even a Saturday or Sunday afternoon – for an Open House for parents of prospective students is comparable to having a Web page for a school’s Internet presence rather than a modern and responsive design Web site. Some schools leaders have countered with, “Oh, but we have a Facebook page!” True – but that’s still a page. Further, your school’s Web site is supposed to be the unique face of your school…and every Facebook page looks the same. The responsive design component means your school’s Web site will automatically adjust itself to the device that the viewer is using (computer, tablet, or handheld device) to provide an optimal UX (user experience). And since mobile devices in EVERYONE’s hands now, it’s good to think “mobile first” when designing – or, more correctly, architecting – your school’s presence on the Web.
A little over 15 years ago, I saw several private schools move to 5 Open House events – one in September, one in October, one in November, one in February and one in March. My first thought was that school leaders were catching on. August is when the new school year gets underway, and parents that are thinking about where their children will be enrolling next year have school at the front of their minds in the Fall. Here in the Northeast, December, January and February can be horribly affected by inclement weather to the point that nothing takes place. It’s almost as if bears aren’t the only lifeform that goes into hibernation. This is why it’s not really a good idea for a Catholic school to have its only Open House of the year during Catholic Schools Week at the end of January. By April and May, today’s successful schools are starting to collect tuition for the upcoming school year, and Open House events during those months could conflict with year-end activities like school plays, field day events, Spring concerts, and, of course, standardized testing. Now let’s throw in COVID outbreaks, and your “house” may no longer be “open.”
Still, even with 5 Open House events, some of those schools struggled with enrollment targets!
Then I discovered a text called “Marketing Christian Schools: The Definitive Guide” from GraceWorks Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Dan Krause and Bob Rogalski compiled an excellent text for not just Christian schools, but for Catholic schools as well since the mechanics of the Advancement side of the equation holds true for any faith-based school. The text recommends weekly Open House events. Now that your mouthful of coffee has sprayed across the table, doing so makes the Open House a regular event so that the school is always kept in excellent shape and always ready to welcome parents who might not be able to make it during previous weeks because of the demands of their schedules.
Recall that Enrollment = Sales. They both have congruent path-like “funnels” associated with them, as “Inquiry –> Interview –> Tour –> Application –> Acceptance” can be compared to “Lead –> Meeting –> Presentation/Demonstration –> Purchase Consultation –> Close.” The interesting thing is that due to the advent of the Internet, the buying process has changed. Prospective customers that used to contact a sales representative to get information about their products and services are now up to 75% through the sales process by the time they contact the sales representative. They buyer has changed, because they’ve researched their options through their own due diligence of asking their friends (which is why word of mouth marketing is so vital to your school and why the “experience” of a “customer” forms one’s “brand” today – pay no attention to the fact that friends may not be “experts”) and seeking information on the Internet from not only your school’s Web site, but recommendation sites (like Great Schools, Private School Review or even Yelp).
I can personally attest to this trend. Seven summers ago, after putting 230,000+ miles on my Jeep in 6 years, it was time to get a new vehicle. I decided what I’ll be getting via Internet research, tested some vehicles when I could rent them, and talked to owners of the vehicles on my short list. I also knew what I was willing to pay for the vehicle I chose, so the only thing I really needed to do was visit a showroom for that brand of vehicle. I thought I’d have to order the car to specification since the days of dealing and discounting so a dealer could move a car off the lot are gone. If you’ve been through this process, see if this conversation sounds familiar:
“We have the car you’re looking for, except that it’s silver and not black, and has a sunroof.”
“But I don’t want a sunroof.”
“But it’s only going to make your payment $21 a month more.”
“And they leak and cut out 2 inches of headroom, plus they can crack in the winter. I’ve seen them shatter, too! No, no sunroof.”
“Okay, then we’ll just give you the sunroof if you take the car home today.”
“But I don’t want a sunroof.”
“But it’s great to let the heat out of the car and make the air conditioning work better, and there’s a shade to make it look like it’s not there. And, with the sunroof, you get maplights too.”
That type of conversation doesn’t really happen anymore. Besides, if I don’t get what I want from that retailer (they don’t call themselves dealers anymore), then I’ll visit another one to be treated the way I expect to be treated! And, if you’re looking for a new car in 2022, you’re finding the costs are astronomical, the selection is small due to supply chain issues, and there are some car manufacturers who are now only making trucks, SUVs and one flagship car model. I drove past a retailer of that nameplate a couple of days ago, and it looks more like a used car lot rather than a new car showroom!
Because of our COVID-influenced marketplace, you’ve seen that restaurants may have reduced hours, businesses that were booming several years ago have vanished, and those that are still in business are having difficulties retaining employees. Customers expect personalized and prompt service, and become belligerent when their expectations aren’t met. Today, if that’s the mindset of the customer, the employee mindset is, “I don’t need this,” and will leave to look for a place where they’re respected and compensated. And that’s the same mindset that today’s parents bring with them when they’re looking at education opportunities for their child. Not only does your school have to provide what they expect (and if they can’t find it, homeschooling is a viable option – especially for some who now know they can do it), you and your school must be accessible to them. Virtual tour videos on your school’s Web site is a great first step.
And yes, that’s videos – as in, “plural.” Make no mistake – video is THE way of the future. Many people just don’t read anymore (so I hope you’ve read this far!). I’ve even received responses to emails, and then received a follow up response that started, “Wanted to let you know after reading your entire email….” That says a person read the first few lines, responded, and then read the rest of what I had written.
As Millennial parents continue to enroll their children in elementary schools, they’re now knocking on the doors of the traditional grades 9-12 high school. This is important: As we prepare to re-open, your school’s new “Open House” event is going to be held whenever these parents are available to stop by. They’re going to expect you’re available to meet with them, or that someone will be available to meet with them, with or without an appointment. If they’re told they’ll have to make an appointment, there’s a good chance you may not see them again. This means those weekly scheduled Open House events will also become history very soon. Certainly, setting an appointment is appropriate. After all, you want to give them your full attention when they visit the school. But that’s your mindset, and not necessarily the mindset of your customer.
As for those videos, your “Open House” may now be a purely virtual one, consisting of multiple videos on YouTube or Vimeo linked to your school’s Web site. Then, the actual visit to the school becomes the event where parents discover how they AND their children will be treated by your school.
As for the format of that personal appointment, will it be:
A) A one-on-one appointment, where the parents and child/ren meet with one or more school administrators;
B) A meeting consisting of a small group of parents of prospective students; or
C) One that’s in a large group format in a school cafeteria where everyone feels like they’re being lectured to?
Trying to decide? Think about which type of meeting you would like to experience. Now think of how you can build community at your school. Did your answer change? Note how there’s not a right or wrong answer – it all depends on what type of experience you want to provide for your students and for their parents.