Who Makes Up Your School’s Target Market, and When Do You Start Marketing to Them?

This Marketing Matter is a little different, in that the answer to the question posed above differs depending on which type of school you are – an elementary, or a secondary school.  If your school is a K-12 school, then your situation is similar to that of an elementary school.

Your target market deals with your school’s entry grade.

For an elementary school (a K-5, K-6, K-8, or, as mentioned above, K-12), your target market is the parents of the prospective kindergarten student.

For a secondary school (a 7-12 or 9-12), your target market is BOTH the parents of the prospective 7th or 9th grader AND the student.

When do you start actively marketing to them?  Consider the fact that 9th graders don’t necessarily make the decision to enter a faith-based high school while they’re in 8th grade…unless the only time they’re exposed to potential of attending a faith-based high school happens when they’re in 8th grade.

In 2005, I began to analyze the grade-by-grade enrollments of Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese in which I was working.  It was during my quest to create a tool to help schools estimate their enrollment based on a researched methodology, rather than simply on hope.  By using predictive analytics, an estimated enrollment could be calculated, and, if school administration determined the calculated figure was too low, it could then input their desired enrollment (to make budget, for instance), and the tool would return how many students needed to be recruited for the entry grade of the school.  By calculating the entry grade’s enrollment figure, a target was established, and the school’s administrative team could work on reaching that figure.

This helped schools in several ways.  First, it helped enrollment grow.  It’s long been thought that when goals are set and shared with others, others will help to make one’s goals a reality.  Recent research, however, has determined this to be false.  The fallacy can easily be understood relative to our tradition of determining New Year’s resolutions.  Most New Year’s resolutions last less than a month, even though we may have told our friends and family that this is finally the year to lose those extra ten pounds, stop smoking or obtain a better balance between work and home.  Research now shows that when we determine a goal for ourselves, and share it with others, our brain begins to believe that we have already begun to achieve the goal – even though we may not have done anything to attempt to achieve it, except to say that the goal has been set.  Therefore, when a school set its own goal of increasing enrollment by 10 students, there was rarely an action plan developed to show how many inquiries were necessary to result in a certain number of scheduled tours which would lead to a certain number of applications which would lead to a certain number of new enrollments.  However, when our Diocesan Office told our schools what their enrollment goals were for the coming year, many worked to attain and even exceed that figure.

Second, it helped schools focus not on enrolling new students, but enrolling students for the entry grade of the school.  Too many times schools want to “fill every desk,” and wonder how they’re going to get 2 more 2nd graders, 4 more 3rd graders, 6 more 4th graders, 9 more 5th graders and 11 6th graders since there may be only 9 6th graders enrolled for the coming school year.  A prevailing thought is that it’s great to enroll a family of 4 students, because there is a 5th grader, a 3rd grader, a 2nd grader and a kindergarten student.  It’s actually great to enroll a family of 4 students because the new kindergarten student has three older siblings.

Third, tracking the grade-by-grade enrollment helped schools see patterns that they may not have seen by simply recording the total school enrollment, along with the grade-by-grade enrollment on the same document, then filing it away for record-keeping purposes.  One school, the largest elementary school of the Diocese, saw an increase in the number of 6th graders enrolling in the school, rather than simply a declining trend through the grades as was the experience of most of the other elementary schools.  When the school asked these parents why they were enrolling their 6th grader in a Catholic school rather than the usual experience of parents withdrawing their students as they reach middle school age, the response was a surprising one.  These were families that were planning on enrolling their child in the local Catholic high school.  Enrolling the student in 6th grade would allow him to get to know his classmates as well as play on the same sports teams, preparing as a class for the high school years ahead.

This brings me to the answer of the question posed earlier, namely, when should these students begin to be marketed to?  If high school begins in 9th grade, and they’re enrolled in the “feeder” Catholic school’s 6th grade class, that means that latest they were exposed to the possibilities offered by the Catholic high school experience was while the child was in 5th grade.   That’s FOUR YEARS before the entry grade of the high school.  Quite possibly, the child may have even been in 4th grade, which would be five years prior to entering a 9-12 high school.  Therefore, parents of fourth and fifth graders, as well as the fourth and fifth graders themselves, would be part of the target market for a high school.  Even if the parent doesn’t enroll their child in a faith-based elementary school to prepare her for the faith-based high school experience, those students already enrolled in “feeder” elementary schools in 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade, along with their parents, are the faith-based high school’s target market.

Five years before the entry grade, eh?  Since kindergarten students are usually around 5 years old, that would mean that elementary schools should market to their target parent audience as soon as their child is born!  Indeed, there is another Marketing Matters entry called “Baby Steps Marketing” that provides a process for this to take place.

For elementary schools, this makes you kindergarten teacher arguably the most important teacher in the school.  Therefore, while your school’s kindergarten teacher should be duly accredited and educated, is this person fun, inviting, and enthusiastic?  Is he or she excited about coming to work every day?  If so, that’s great!  This is the personality which parents are looking for when they’re considering educational environments for their children.

But what about those test scores?  Won’t they encourage parents to enroll their children? Don’t they say something about the academic excellence of the school?  They certainly do, but academic excellence is an expectation of your faith-based school.  I’ve seen one school show standardized test results from 7th graders performing at an 11th grade level.  That’s a retention strategy more than an enrollment strategy.  If I had a 6th grader in a public school that was not performing at a 6th grade level, and I enrolled him in a faith-based school so that when he was in 7th, his academic performance could jump 4 grade levels, most school administrators would consider such a jump to be nearly impossible.

However, this information is something I would share with parents as their child progressed through the grades of the school.  If the data shows the average 7th grader in your school is performing at an academic level comparable to that of an 11th grader, then why would a parent want to disenroll their child after 6th grade and enroll her in an alternative educational environment that may not be as rewarding?

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2014 (Original Publication Date: 20140714)