by Trevor Waddington, Founder & President, Truth Tree
I wasn’t around for the hay day of independent school glory. I didn’t get to see families line up 30 minutes before an open house to demonstrate their desire for admission. Since 2004, independent school enrollment has seen a decline across the country exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008. That was then, this is now. We are in a horrible moment in human history, but I’ve seen so much love and compassion over these last few months. A lot of it coming from you! Seeing your social posts and learning from colleagues, the tremendous personal sacrifice that goes into distance learning has inspired me. And I’m not alone. This is your moment to show your mettle to your current community, prospective families, and your sphere of influence. Here is how you can show them why you bring immeasurable value to their lives and that you are worth the price of admission. If you serve students in kindergarten or younger, you definitely have Millennial parents. You may even have a sprinkling of Gen Zers now and will undoubtedly have some in over the next five years. The popular myth for these generations is that they lack brand loyalty, but research shows quite the opposite. What are you talking about, Trevor? There’s a lot of research that shows they are not brand loyal. Ah, yes, the infamous school hoppers. Bouncing from school to school, based on their personal value-drivers, including convenience, social proof, and getting a better deal. To paraphrase a parent who explained to me once why they were leaving after just one year, ‘I heard that Mrs. X wasn’t a great first grade teacher, and I know you cannot guarantee we get Ms. Y. So we are going to move [child’s name] to School Z because we’ve heard great things about their first grade teachers. We will definitely consider coming back for second grade.’ ?????? Other research points to Millennials and Gen Zers as fiercely brand loyal but require a lot of convincing. In one of my favorite books, Brands and BullS**t: Excel at the Former and Avoid the Latter. A Branding Primer for Millennial Marketers in a Digital Age, author Bernhard Schroeder states, Millenials take the most convincing but once convinced, you’ve got them for life. The problem is, “convincing” and long-term brand awareness are historically not in the admarcommer’s playbook (admarcommer: admission, marketing, and communication school admin). Ask yourself, sixteen years ago, were you marketing your school year-round or you were primarily sending out postcards, affixing banners, and posting open house info online ≤ three months prior to the event? Today, right now, you are in the spotlight along with every other brand out there trying to gain awareness and maintain loyalty with parents who desperately want normalcy and value. Why do you think every brand you’ve ever interacted with is sending you COVID-19-related emails talking about how they are helping the cause? Because they want you back in the fold. Just turn on “regular” tv and mindfully watch the commercials. You’ll see. But how do you, an independent school get your message across to young parents during this once in five generations event? Have Kids Will Travel I don’t know about you, but I’m itching to travel more than ever once this is over. So right about the time that a “vacation” might be plausible, the traditional school year will be in full effect. Yet just like my itch, Millennials love to travel. They value experiences over stuff. But having kids in a tuition-based school can cramp their style. So what if the traditional school structure was turned on its head? What if you could be a part-time, in-school student and still get an outstanding all-round education? While you may be rolling your eyes, schools like Mysa Microschool in Washington, DC, use technology and creative innovation to give families the flexibility they desire and, in some cases, require. “Learning really can happen anywhere in the world. If a family has an opportunity to travel somewhere, we work with them to try and predict the kinds of things students might encounter or the resources and experiences unique to that place and create lessons and learning around those experiences. So a student that travels to New Zealand, s/he might be assigned The Hobbit. Some of our students have family members who live on other continents, and we think that spending time with family far outweighs the constraints of having to attend every class in person – we can always teach from afar,” remarks Siri Fiske, Mysa’s Founder and Head of School. Show Them Last fall, I spoke to a group of admarcommers in Colorado. Leading up the event, I had the pleasure of interacting with Mishel Gantz. At the time, she was the Chief Experience Officer at Watershed School. I was fascinated by the title and her mandate. While it reads much like the job description of an enrollment manager, the outlook for Mishel was unique. You can hear more about it in the InspirED Spark Cast from last November. Bottom line: you need someone at your school always thinking, “How do we continually improve and deliver a better experience for our students and families?” Be a Few Things to a Few People There will always be a place for the traditional, co-ed K-12 independent school in the United States. But we’ve all witnessed schools morph based on popular whims, trending philosophies, and a need for tuition dollars. While that can solve problems in the short-term, it rarely solves them in the long run. That fact is becoming more evident today. Millennials want to get behind something that matters, but if they view your school as inauthentic because you are trying to be all things to all people, they will most certainly thumb their nose at you. Go all-in with who you are and share that with the masses on social media. If your brand matches their personal values, they will certainly have you on their shortlist. But if your paid social media posts are about selling, they will keep thumbing up right past your well-crafted open house ad.