Addressing the “Parent Factor” in Enrollment Marketing

I’m thinking about the importance of parents.

I have good friends who just became first time parents. They’re young and energetic and the birth of Olive Kay thrills and amazes them. In this first week of parenthood, the exhaustion and weight of responsibility is just starting to show itself. They have a lot of that ahead of them. 

On the other extreme, two of my good friends just said their final goodbyes to their moms. No matter your age, and no matter how well you get along, you and your mom hold a special relationship. Biology alone accounts for much of that. But years of influence makes the loss of your mom difficult.

My good friend, client/colleague Ken Anselment is picking up his firstborn from Marquette today for the rest of the summer. They’re both in for some surprises though I know their strong relationship will override the potential clash onset of new-found differences.

And I’m also thinking about John, a student at Herron School of Art + Design, who I met a couple of weeks ago while we were conducting Circles of InfluenceSM. He was telling us about the stress of communicating with parents who aren’t supportive of his college choice and career path. He’s doing well in school and has had remarkable opportunities to showcase his work, but the differences of perspective with his mom and dad are a constant weight. One of the huge benefits we see in Circles is the degree of transparency and intimacy that allows us insight into the experiences of students that we’re then able to translate to our recommended marketing strategies.

All of those ideas spinning around in my head lead me to reconsider how we advise our clients to engage parents and families. When it comes to student recruitment, it’s important to remember that we’re recruiting families: mom, dads, guardians, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, the whole bunch of them in all types of combinations. Nearly every student comes with some form of family network that influences their choice and their journey. It’s tempting to think of a student as a monolithic decision-maker, but that’s just not the case. And if your plan is to communicate coherently, you need to know her tribe almost as well as you know the student.

Many institutions understand this well and, like IUPUI, capture parent and family addresses (mailing and email) early in the process. With contact information, you can develop critical communications strategies to engage families in the process. We think the best way to do that is to offer valuable information beyond your institutional promotion. Think in terms of service information you know like the back of your hand, yet families are clueless about. At each step of the student customer journey, you have important counsel that families need and desire. By making that available regularly, you’ll develop relationships with family members who will be endeared to you along with the student you’re recruiting.

Five Important Occasions to Address Parents

At college nights and fairs

Events in high schools and local venues may be your first opportunity to engage with parents even before a student inquires. All the rules of first impressions apply to these encounters. Do you hand out guides specifically for parents when they approach your table? This is the perfect opportunity to provide a promotion-light, service-information-heavy piece that indicates your interest in being a partner with parents. You’ll take them off guard a bit when you deliver a useful college planning guide designed for parents before you slip into your “pitch” for your school. This is an excellent positioning opportunity to cast your institution as a thought leader.

During the inquiry phase

Parents and students alike are learning how to navigate the college search process. Years ago, at the height of Sweet Briar College’s enrollment, we began communicating with parents as soon as a student inquired. We sent parents their own “search” brochure, targeted to them about their interests for their daughters. We invited them to inquire as well and developed a parallel recruitment journey for parents. The inquiry connection told parents that Sweet Briar welcomed their engagement and questions. By engaging early in the process, parents provided strong indication of affinity to help in building predictive enrollment models.

During application season

When a student applies for admission, most families are aware of that step in the process. Surely, some students apply without their families’ knowing, but generally parents are well-informed (and yes, some of them have completed the applications and essays). So what do parents need at this stage? When customers get to a stage in the process where they indicate intent to purchase (which an application suggests), your communication task is to assure them that they’re making a wise choice. Begin building confidence about the support services you’ll offer, tell great outcome stories, speak as though they are already part of your community and encourage them in their capabilities to succeed at your school.

Applying for financial aid

Actually, we think it’s best when institutions provide helpful planning guides as early as possible. Be certain to post financial planning information on your website that includes dates, direct links to resources and even helpful tips for completing the FAFSA. You could even offer the URL to your alumni when they post baby announcements! But certainly, by the sophomore or junior year, provide helpful information about paying for college and how financial aid processes work so that when you encourage families to apply for aid in the senior year, they’re already equipped with information. Of course, when it’s time to provide financial aid packages, offer clear guidance about what your awards mean for families and offer good information about how to fund any gaps between aid and cost. And always, always, always lead with value, not price. And never, never, never, apologize for what it takes to educate your students in a premium way.

On campus visits and open houses

This may be your best opportunity to engage with parents. We recently participated in a campus visit experience at Case Western Reserve University and noticed the responses of parents as much as the students. Parents asked many of the questions when given the opportunity. Parents engaged with the tour guides more than their students. Parents were scouring the brochures while waiting for programs to begin. Parents showed up for the supplementary history tour of campus; they wanted a deep dive. (By the way, we thought the separate history tour concept was brilliant.) Those observations lead us to believe that while you plan visits for students, you will want to chart the campus visit journey for parents as well. They need time to interact with their students during their experience, but it might be helpful to plan a complete parent track, not just an isolated session on financial aid. Allow parents to engage with each other; they want to compare notes. They’ve been doing that since their students were babies; it’s a habit.

Special events on campus like Homecoming or concerts

Though not technically campus visit events, any time you have prospective families on campus, consider how you can engage them in becoming better acquainted with you. Be sure you have maps and campus guides available throughout the campus. Enlist your campus tour guides to offer special Homecoming routes. Offer presentations for prospective parents with prized faculty members and administrators. Sponsor a coffee hour with the president. By all means, send special invitations to alumni who are of age to have high school-aged children to bring their families. Remember little siblings on these occasions so you plant seeds of interest early! Build affinity with fun events, t-shirts and swag.

Often the influence of parents is subtle (often, not so much!), yet families can determine your success in recruiting the class. Meet them, speak to them and engage them on their terms. You’ll reap the rewards.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.