Need School Marketing Ideas? Start By Listening

“Acquiring new students is important for growth, but it can be costly and time-consuming. That high-cost investment is especially painful when you fail to hold on to those new students. While retention is necessary for generating a return on your marketing investment, and vital for maintaining revenue, it also comes with several additional benefits such as loyalty and an overall better student experience.”

“Making promises and keeping them is a great way to build a brand.”

Seth Godin

Public school enrollment isn’t growing in many states. In California, it’s decreasing. Even in traditionally high-growth states, public school enrollment is flat. There are several demographic reasons, but a steadily declining birth rate and decreased in-migration are probably the biggest two. The reality is that with these demographic shifts and school choice options for families, schools need to work hard for student enrollments today. And the real beneficiaries? Students, because schools need to work to “earn their business.”

As a public school leader, you know that your operation is funded on enrollment. And although funding typically (kinda, sorta, somewhat) follows the student, covering fixed and existing legacy costs becomes a major budgetary concern as enrollment dips. And although necessity is the mother of invention, having the flexibility to try new approaches and create innovative solutions is usually a little easier with some financial wiggle room. 

Listening to customers has always been at the center of effective marketing programs; now, it’s becoming critical to charter schools and school districts. These days, marketing is less promotion and advertising and more listening and adapting. The organizations that listen, adapt, and evolve to meet student and family education needs are the ones that will meet the K-12 enrollment challenges of the future. 


Maintain healthy enrollment levels by focusing on retention

It’s been said that if you have acquisition trouble you have a brand problem, and if you have retention difficulties you have a product problem. In school talk, if you’re having trouble enrolling new students, you probably have an issue with your school’s brand awareness or perception. And if students are leaving, your school quality may need to level up. But, it’s not always that simple, especially in areas with declining student numbers and lots of school choice options.

In the world of K-12 education we sometimes talk about student retention as synonymous with “holding back” a student from advancing grade levels. But in this case, I’m talking about about retention in marketing terms. And marketing retention is a critical business concern for any healthy organization. From Hubspot: It’s a well-known fact that it costs organizations five times more to attract a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. The value of retaining existing customers over acquiring a new one can’t be overstated.

"Acquiring new students is important for growth, but it can be costly and time-consuming. That high-cost investment is especially painful when you fail to hold on to those new students. While retention is necessary for generating a return on your marketing investment, and vital for maintaining revenue, it also comes with several additional benefits such as loyalty and an overall better student experience. Satisfied students and their families have the additional benefit of being brand promoters, willing to bring in new students through word-of-mouth referrals - a low-cost source of growth.

Ultimately however, the consistent experience a retained student receives leads to a better overall experience, and that’s what really matters."

Tyler Roberts, Method Schools Board Member; Senior Integrated Marketing Manager, T-Mobile USA

Voice of the Customer (VoC) research: the perfect marketing approach for schools and districts

At Method Schools, one of the methodologies we use to monitor and improve our enrollment retention is through Voice of the Customer (VoC) research. What is VoC? Voice of Customer (VoC) is a marketing research methodology that’s used to collect customer feedback. Pretty simple. VoC helps businesses understand what their customers want, what they like, what they dislike, and how they feel about a product or service. It’s a versatile tool that can be applied in various ways using different approaches. It’s becoming very popular for marketers because it’s a simple but powerful way to build products and services that gain new customers and retain existing ones. 

When applied to school management, a VoC program helps leaders get a pulse on how students and their parents (customers) feel about their school and school programs. It’s a great way to inform school leaders when it comes to creating, modifying or enhancing programs. It can also be a powerful “early warning system” to alert leaders that students and/or parents aren’t happy, and could consider transferring.

"Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning."

Bill Gates

We could have used VoC in the early days of Method. One particular experience stands out to me. It was 2014, and we were struggling for student enrollments. Funding was tight and we had absolutely no reserves/safety net. We were getting creative in order to find ways to satisfy our student and parent customers. I have fond memories of those times, but it was tough! It was a stressful grind, for sure. 

One day I saw that a family of five was transferring from our San Diego Method charter school. I was surprised – they went to all of our events, did their school work, and they seemed happy. But they were transferring? I contacted the mother and asked her about her decision. I asked her if there was anything we could do to convince her to leave her students at Method. She actually laughed at me on the phone when I asked. We were so far off of her expectations at that time that there was nothing we could do to save the relationship, and, of course, all five of her children transferred to another charter school. It was a humbling experience for me personally, but one that brought a much more research-based, VoC-type approach to our organization.

VoC is a good way to ensure you’re putting student needs first, because your marketing efforts are directed at listening to students and parents, and making product modifications and improvements based on their feedback. It helps school leaders avoid transfer surprises, like the one I mentioned above. In any business, surprises are usually bad. It’s the same with schools. But this new, research-informed marketing approach is much more effective than spending money on unmeasurable promotional activities such as billboards, direct mail, and mass media advertising. And it helps avoid transfers and other bad surprises (such as negative online reviews that seem to come out of nowhere).

At Method, we use several VoC feedback tools, including quarterly parent and student surveys, pop up chat boxes in online courses, live website chat, online reviews, and Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys. We love using NPS in particular, as it’s is an especially powerful but intuitive tool to use – I’ll dive deeper into it below. 


Net Promoter Score

Have you ever seen the movie Moneyball, where Jonah Hill’s character says “it’s about getting things down to one number?” For us, NPS is that one number. If it’s high, our enrollment retention is good, we seem to generate a lot of positive online reviews, and things are good in Method land.  
New Promoter Score (NPS) is a powerfully simple (or simply powerful) way to increase retention, and it can be an integral part of a VoC program. NPS asks the question “on a scale of 0-10, how likely are you to refer [company/product/service] to your family and friends? In the NPS scoring calculus, those who respond with a 9 or 10 are considered promoters. On the other end of the scale are the detractors – those who respond anywhere from 0-6. NPS ignores the 7-8 responses because these are considered passive opinions. From here, take the percentage of those who gave a 9 or a 10 and subtract the percentage of those who gave anything from 0-6. There’s your NPS.
net promoter score scoring
Net Promoter®, NPS®, NPS Prism®, and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks and Net Promoter Score℠, NPSx℠, and Net Promoter System℠ are service marks of Bain & Company, Inc.

NPS is an even better tool for schools and districts when respondents are allowed to provide commentary about their score. If someone replies with a 10, it’s great to know what it is about your school that is working so well. And likewise, if a respondent gives a 3 to the “how likely are you to refer” question, it’s helpful to know why.

We monitor each and every comment we get, and where appropriate we reply to the respondent. It surely varies across organizations, but a little more than 20% of our Method respondents provide commentary to go along with their responses. These comments are huge for us as we work to earn their trust and improve their school experience. 

In NPS, promoters are the most likely to refer your school to their family and friends. Accordingly, promoters are the least likely to transfer from your school and district. Which means higher NPS scores should correlate to higher retention rates. It certain;y does for us at Method. 

But what is a good Net Promoter Score? Mathematically it’s possible to have a score anywhere from -100 to 100. But in the real world, the short answer is it depends. Average NPS vary across industry, so benchmarking can be tricky, even for education because of the wide variety of organizations involved in education. That said, the creators of NPS, Bain & Co., suggest the following

  • Above 0 is good
  • Above 20 is favorable
  • Above 50 is excellent
  • Above 80 is world class

Marketing today: listen more, talk less

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

Bernard Baruch

Today more than ever, marketing is less about promoting and more about listening. Listening to current students, their parents, and the overall public school population. Our job as school leaders has never been more challenging. But, I’d argue, it’s never been so rewarding either. We have the tools and resources to provide what works for students – often learning and reacting in real-time.  We can build and operate schools and programs that truly meet student educational needs. And by always students first, school leaders will have a leg up on the enrollment challenges ahead. 

In summary: focus on retention in school marketing, listen more, talk less through Voice of the Customer (VoC) research, and net promoter is one great way to implement a VoC program and benchmark how you’re doing as an organization. 

What works for your school or district? I’d love to hear about your approach in the comments.

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