Reaching Parents (From a Distance)
From the minute you step foot on campus, you feel it. That warm atmosphere, the sound of laughter, the feeling of belonging… Coupled with memorable teachers and impressive facilities, that initial school tour is a swirl of senses that come together to form that indelible yes — this is the place for us. This feels right.
Well, that’s not going to happen. At least not anytime soon, and many schools are stumbling through ways to triage their recruitment efforts without that incredibly valuable centerpiece.
Similarly, development offices are struggling to make a compelling case to parents who may be weathering new financial strains and an onslaught of worthy causes fighting for their support — all at a time when the ad hoc homeschooling attempts have led some families to skip a semester or press for discounted tuition.
It’s clear that education is changing — scratch that — the world is changing, and the educational sector must adapt. The tried and true methods no longer apply. Admission and fundraising strategies will require a thoughtful retooling that is responsive to our new reality, and bears flexibility to anticipate continued evolution and uncertainty.
This is not bad news. In fact it’s about time for innovation to lift the educational sector to new heights — to question old practices and policies, and adapt to the same “21st century thinking” we claim to ingrain in our students.
It won’t happen in a day. It will require a plan, a shift of resources, attention to frequency of “brand moments” and emphasis on innovative approaches to bring intensity of human connection. Our work with educational institutions has shifted dramatically over the last few months, and as our projects and strategies take new shape we decided to put together a quick guide of what we are learning amidst a rapidly changing landscape.
Firstly, parents want to know their child is in good hands.
This includes the clearly articulated logistics of how your school will practice safety protocols like social distancing, mask wearing, and hygiene stations. But equally important is to consider the anxiety parents face during the pandemic, and use language that is reassuring and confident in your commitment to keep their child safe. We are currently working on a microsite with a school that spells out their approach to safety in a calming manner, punctuated with imagery and fun videos designed to make the family feel comfortable in allowing themselves to get excited.
And it doesn’t hurt to lean on your feeder schools — interact with them across social channels and tag them in relevant updates. A smart social media plan will involve a heightened level of interaction based around goals that should flex with the current situation. In other work we are doing with the City of West Hollywood, we developed a social media campaign series that clarifies the ongoing changes in city protocol in a friendly way. Here, a key balance is struck between clarity and friendliness.
Second, parents need to see quality.
When your home doubles as your office, you may be relieved at the prospect of sending your child, whether they are young or a teenager, back into a school routine. But, parents will need to be reassured that the quality of education will remain high and justify the expense of tuition. Studies show that perception around the value of online learning is much lower, and so how you communicate the changes to your programming is key. Acknowledging the prevalence of this bias, schools should be mindful to frame their programming as an exception to the rule. Lean into ways in which your school will tackle online learning differently or the high quality of your customized hybrid / in-person model. Authenticity is key here, so if you want to claim a superior digital learning experience, make sure your digital presence including your website, social media, email, and video channels demonstrates a tech-savviness that won’t give your audience any pause.
To promote a new hybrid learning platform called Bendable, we anchored digital communication squarely within the local South Bend community to define an affecting sense of place, before leveraging the more fantastical possibilities of the digital realm.
One critical area of communication is focused around addressing the parental need to feel they are investing in quality education. When California Institute of the Arts had to shift gears quickly to promote a new online summer program, we helped them highlight star faculty and a high level of care and integrity that makes up the foundation of their learning experience, both in-person and online. We are working with another client on a virtual campus tour which goes a step further in enabling students to get a better sense of the campus feel with photos, testimonials, and videos of current students sharing their experience.
And lastly, parents are desperate for a return to normalcy (aren’t we all).
They are seeking reassurance and could use a healthy does of optimism and positivity to offset the collective uncertainty around childcare and education. Keep in mind parents are basing decisions off their immediate needs now more than ever, and depending on their child's age anticipating their needs 3+ years from now can feel like a lifetime away given the uncertainty. Use reassuring yet direct language with repeat (virtual) face to face contact to build trust in your expertise while forming a bond, and rework your digital content to lean into emotional resonance. Video and interactive content is often the way to go, but framing is key. To best demonstrate how a day in the life at The Webb Schools feels, we took the student perspective and traced the emotional connection of belonging to their community. We were lucky enough to capture some great material before campus closed, but even taking advantage of photography and illustration can help bridge that gap.
Illustration and animation can be extremely powerful, especially great when you’re unable to do a video shoot. We created a fundraising video for Oakwood School with a specific goal of reminding donors that they are part of the Oakwood community and that there are members of that community who need their help. No matter what medium you are leveraging, the most important thing is creating an emotional connection and clearly demonstrating your school vision during this time, and beyond.
Not all ideas are right for all schools, but cultivating an environment that regularly encourages new ideas is key to unlocking real innovation from your team. So stay flexible, open up your thinking and seize this opportunity!
Stephanie Chan is a partner at Kilter, and has worked with many schools including California Institute of the Arts, Scripps College, Oakwood School, St. John's College, Children's Community School and Otis College of Art and Design on shaping their brand voice and admission materials.