Think of a recent purchase or decision you made when you did not do some sort of online research. If you’re like most of us, you probably pulled out your phone and did a quick search. In today’s world, we turn to our devices to find quick answers to questions we have, from common, in-the-moment questions—like finding vintage furniture stores “near me”, to more thoughtful questions that you might have for a significant purchase, like buying a car.
Today, folks expect to find answers to their questions quickly online.
Let’s put a school marketing lens on this consumer behavior and apply this to your enrollment strategy and goals. Could your target audience searching for a school for their child—parents and caregivers—find the answers to the questions they have as they progress through the decision process?
In order to answer that, you first need to have a pretty good understanding of the experience your audience is having, particularly what questions they have and what tasks they are trying to accomplish. As a school leader, you probably know better than most folks what questions families have. If you wrote down those questions, would you be able to find the answers on your website? If so, are they presented in a cohesive, logical manner? Your website should make it easy to navigate the decision journey.
The reality is that most school district websites aren’t designed this way. When I ask school marketing leaders how they think about their websites, the answers generally cluster around an awareness goal: Our website helps us get our name out there and builds our brand. But is that what parents are looking for when they come to your site?
While you may agree that your website is also a means to help you recruit families, have you created a digital strategy to achieve enrollment goals?
From broadcasting outward
to providing help
What most school websites lack are answers to their target audiences' questions.
Most school websites (also typical in the private sector) are primarily “broadcasting” outward; the website communicates or broadcasts information about the school district. It’s “all about us.” And while it is important to share information about your school district, your website can and will do much more for your district brand than building awareness. Your website is a strategic lever you can pull to help with enrollment.
In order to provide the answers parents are seeking, you have to know their questions and understand their concerns, hopes, fears, and obstacles. What are they looking for at the very early stages, in the middle, and towards the end of their search? Have you identified the most common questions or hurdles? Do you have content that addresses those needs?
Knowing how to help: map the customer experience decision process
To offer help, you need to understand your audience's decision-making process as they choose a school. It is a marketing best practice approach to map this experience, as it creates a more nuanced, empathetic view of the customer and informs you of the content they seek and you need to provide. The below graphic illustrates the beginning stage of the customer experience journey.
Let’s drill down on this framework to help your audience choose your school district. Imagine you are the parent looking at options for your child to start school. As you use this framework, jot down questions, hurdles, and thoughts you would have at each stage.
Understanding your audiences’ needs, motivations, and triggers to drive strategy development
EXAMPLE: My child is about to start first grade. I’m a single parent, and I am going back to work from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. I need a school that offers early drop-off and late pick-up or that has partner organizations that I can leverage.
Help families learn how your school district meets their needs based on your understanding of their discovery process
EXAMPLE: Which schools in my area offer early drop-off and late pick-up for elementary kids? Is there a fee for this, and if so, how much? What happens if I’m late for pick-up? What are my options in the summer months?
Increase your families’ understanding of your district’s benefits
EXAMPLE: I used Google search to find schools that offer this service, but now I realize there are different types of after-school programs. Some seem more focused on “babysitting,” some are more scholastically inclined, and others are more focused on outdoor activities.
Increase their confidence by clearly communicating your unique difference using the criteria your families most care about
EXAMPLE: I wonder which would be best for my child who is outgoing but also quite physically active. I like the idea of my child getting to be active after school, but I would also love it if she got her homework done before I picked her up. What are the pros and cons of each?
Deliver tailored recommendations to help families recognize that your district best suits their needs
EXAMPLE: After reviewing the research I found about the benefits of physical activity on kids’ mental development, I feel more confident to make the right decision for my child’s developmental needs. It was easy to come to this conclusion with the information the school district provided.
Make it easy, safe, and fast for your families to enroll across all relevant channels, including digital (if possible)
EXAMPLE: Now that I am confident I can support my child’s development and work a full day so that I can financially support both of us, I’m ready to take the next step and enroll. This district easily helped me take that next step by linking the enrollment page to the after-hours worksheet describing the different kinds of programs available across schools in my district.
By thinking about the entire experience and writing down these kinds of questions, you are creating your own customer experience map. This can be a simple spreadsheet with early, middle, and late-stage questions or hurdles identified.
Once you have developed your customer experience map, share what you have with folks on your team who engage with parents or caregivers regularly to make sure you’re not missing something. Ask them to provide feedback and make suggestions. If you have friends who are within your target audience profile, ask them for input as well. The goal is to define the most common questions or tasks, not to identify every single obscure question. This exercise— mapping the customer experience of the decision process—will provide you with a more nuanced understanding of what information your target audience is looking for.
The next step: figuring out whether your school district website is providing the answer to those questions or assisting in the completion of those tasks. While these questions are potentially easy to respond to in a conversation, many parents prefer to seek answers online. Let’s now look at your district website and see how you can help prospective parents get these answers digitally.
Audit your website content using
It sounds like a very official task: a content audit. But it can be a relatively low-tech initiative that will show you where you have gaps in the content you provide that helps families decide on a school district.
Take your customer experience map and list of tasks and questions, and try to find the answers to those questions on your school website. Did you find the answers? Was the information easy to find, or was it embedded in long-form content? Was there information missing? How long did it take? This is also a great exercise to share; invite other employees who are less familiar with your website to do the same.
Once you’ve audited your own website for this kind of helpful content and guidance, you will have the foundation for a digital content strategy to help you achieve enrollment goals based on consumer behavior and mindset.
Creating a content strategy based on your audit and
With your customer experience map of the decision process defined and your content audit complete, you’re all set to start creating the content parents are looking for—content that helps them make this important decision. To give you more inspiration as you look to create new resources, think of content that provides help and or guidance in the enrollment process.
Provide opportunities to help parents and guardians in their decision process
EXAMPLE: Rather than simply adding questions and answers to an FAQ, consider something that is more contextualized to Open Enrollment and your audience, e.g., “Top Ten Considerations When Deciding On A School District.”
Explain the enrollment process, steps involved, and key dates
EXAMPLE: The parent or guardian of a prospective student has to go through many steps to complete the enrollment process. They may have to first create an account, find the school their child is zoned for using their home address, fill out and submit the application online, and then wait for their acceptance notification. Explain the steps and timing involved at the get-go., e.g., “The Enrollment Process: What You Need,” or “What To Expect And When.” By providing guidance on what to do, what to expect, and when to expect it, you will help parents and/or caregivers feel more confident and in control.
For today’s digitally native families, your website needs to do more than broadcast out. Your audience expects more. You need to provide help. Follow these steps to meet your audience where they are: online and on your website. Remember to think like your customer. Make it easier for parents and caregivers to do what they are trying to do—choose the best school for their child. Help always wins.
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