Earning Trust from Prospective Families During COVID Recovery

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COVID-19 has changed the conversation about education. We’ve seen that K-12 schools are more than places to learn — they’re an extension of families’ communities and part of the “village” that parents rely on for support in raising their children. Trust is a huge part of that, and many families lost that trust during the last year. When the pandemic disrupted education as we knew it in March of 2020, some schools rose to the occasion while others struggled, and a lot of parents found themselves making choices they never imagined before. A January 2021 report on enrollment and marketing trends from Niche bears this out. Virtual and public schools lost families to private and parochial schools that offered in-person learning last fall, yet for parents craving normalcy, in-person instruction wasn’t enough to foster the kind of school spirit and sense of community that they are used to. Some parents went as far as relocating so their children could attend school in person. Others moved from one private school to another, chose to homeschool their children, or formed “pods” with friends and neighbors. 

In households across the country, choices like these are still being made as families rethink what they need from their children’s schools. And, the Niche study showed that K-12 schools in every category are seeking to increase visibility and enrollment in the coming year:

  • 43% of public schools reported that improving their schools’ overall reputations was a “pressing goal.”
  • 42% of public schools, 65% of non-religious private schools, 72% of public charter schools, and 74% of religious private schools reported increasing enrollment as a marketing and recruitment priority.

After a year of watching their kids struggle with disrupted routines, social isolation, and learning losses, it’s easy to understand why many parents are having trust issues. To capture their attention, enhance your reputation, and meet your enrollment goals, establishing trust with families early in their search process is more important than ever. 

Here are three things to keep in mind:

Show and Tell

Even in a normal year, prospective parents want a window into what life will be like for their children at your school. And, we’re probably going to go through another enrollment cycle with limited opportunities for parents to see what that looks like in person. If your website and social channels haven’t been updated to reflect the current environment at your school, it’s time to make that transition. This doesn’t mean you need to do a wholesale overhaul of your website’s photos and videos, but I’d recommend making sure that your online presence reflects school as it is right now, COVID protocols and all. Your social channels are a great way to do this in real-time, and the parts of your website that speak to students’ academic experience are great places to weave in current stories and photos of how your students are experiencing your school at this moment.

Two recent Niche surveys on how parents are searching for K-8’s and high schools showed that families are prioritizing academics and safety — make sure you’re showcasing your current approaches for both. How are your students currently learning? Are you providing 100% in-person instruction, virtual, or hybrid? How are you engaging hybrid students? Are students and faculty socially distanced? 

This is also an opportunity to leverage social proof like ranking and review sites — including this one — to show how current parents and students are experiencing what you have to offer. In addition to your website, testimonials and rankings from these sites can be promoted through your social channels and comm flows. If you’re light on narrative reviews, your parent volunteers are a great place to start. 

Embrace Your Brand

While some schools are fortunate to have comprehensive branding strategies and documentation, that isn’t the case for most. If you don’t have those tools, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck. You’ve probably heard that your brand isn’t your logo, mascot, color scheme, or font, but it’s worth repeating. Your brand is what your school stands for, the unique value it provides to your community, and how those things are represented through what happens at your school every day. Without undertaking a massive branding project, here are some questions to consider: What are your school’s values? What is its mission? What is your school’s personality? How do you want people to feel when they engage with your school? Answering these questions can give you a baseline idea of your school’s brand and value proposition, which should serve as the filters for everything prospective parents see and experience when they engage with you. 

Since your website will be one of the earliest touchpoints for a prospective family, that’s the first place to start. Are you setting the tone by making your school’s mission, values, or beliefs easy to find? How are they reinforced by your website content? Are your messages and visuals consistent? Making visible connections between what you say and what you do as a school plays a significant role in building trust. There is also value in making your website work harder for you by providing information beyond the nuts and bolts of daily school life. Despite an abundance of evidence of its effectiveness in building trust, generating leads, and increasing brand awareness, many K-12 schools aren’t taking advantage of content marketing. This doesn’t mean you need to launch a blog tomorrow. Instead, try testing the waters with one or two educational content offers that position you as a thought leader while solving a specific problem for your target audience. The number of inquiries generated by a school search guide we launched last fall was well worth the work involved in writing the content and setting up the comm flow behind it. 

Once a family has converted by submitting an inquiry, downloading a piece of content, or signing up for an event, every touchpoint that follows should be consistent with the brand story you’re telling on your website.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

As you’ve probably experienced this year, we are living in a time when over-communication is essential. Federal and local guidelines keep changing, school administrators are being pulled in a million directions and operational plans vary widely between schools. These are the exact reasons parents can’t hear from us enough. Our job is to make the school search process easy, and right now that means communicating more than we’re used to. But this doesn’t mean you should sacrifice quality for quantity — communications should still be relevant, clear, honest, and empathetic, even when you’re juggling a high volume. 

The flip side of this is that because of this increase in email volume, some innovation is warranted on our part. It’s a bit of a catch 22, but make sure your messages stand out with clear, engaging subject lines, and don’t be afraid to try days and times that you haven’t tried before. The broader goal is to keep families informed on how you’re operating, what’s changing, when, and what you need from them during the admission process, answering more questions than you create. Even as life begins to feel a bit more “normal,” schools can’t contribute to the uncertainty parents and students have been feeling during the pandemic. Any operational plans posted to your website should be clear, scannable, jargon-free, and up-to-date, and both current and prospective families should have access to the same basic information. If an update is needed, include language explaining that one is in the works instead of giving the impression that that part of your website has been forgotten. 

If your school is anticipating capacity restrictions next year due to high enrollment (yay!), space limitations, or local regulations, make sure that’s clear on your website so families don’t have to guess. Has your admissions process changed in the last year? Make sure that’s up-to-date too. In cases when you don’t have the answers, be transparent and acknowledge that. How many of us have been asked about comprehensive operational plans for next fall? If your school has that all figured out, I tip my hat to you. If not, an interim message along the lines of, “We’re working on it, and here’s when you can expect an update” is better than silence. If you don’t fill a communications void for families, someone else will, and that won’t do your school any favors when it comes to building trust.

In its recent report, “The Ride to Independent Schools 2020-2021,” the Enrollment Management Association points out that today, “The end of the admission cycle is as important as the beginning.” This is because an increasing number of parents are changing schools well beyond our published application deadlines. The admissions cycle is becoming increasingly fluid, and the work to recruit right-fit families for the fall of 2021 isn’t over. Now is as good a time as any to use the concepts above to find new ways to earn their trust.

Angela Brown

Angela Brown

Angela Brown is the director of marketing and communications at Flint Hill School, a PK-12, co-ed day school just outside of Washington, DC. Angela joined Flint Hill in 2014 after spending 10 years focusing on B2B marketing communications for AmLaw 100 firms, IT consulting and digital marketing agencies and a leading commercial real estate information and analytics company. She is a member of the American Marketing Association, National Association of Independent Schools and Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington, and serves on the Advisory Board for the Marcom Society, an exclusive online community for independent school marketing and communication professionals. In December 2020 she served as a judge for the Brilliance Awards, which honors marketing and communications work from PK-12 private schools around the world.

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