Understanding the Enrollment Journey from a Family’s Point of View

In my previous article about customer personas we discussed how crucial it is to understand exactly who your current and target customers are, and what they want. These insights not only help you understand what makes your families tick, but they provide crucial guidance for every decision you must make about your marketing and communications strategy.

However, creating customer personas is just the first step. Equally important is to step into these families’ shoes so you can understand what their enrollment experience is like from their point of view. How easy is it for them to find information about your school? How easy is it for them to get answers to their questions? And, most importantly, how does their experience as a customer shopping for your school impact their decision whether or not to apply or enroll?

customer experience at school

Unfortunately, understanding the customer experience isn’t easy for a lot of educators. The administrators and enrollment officers I work with all love their schools, but they often have a blind spot to how the admissions process feels to the busy, distracted, and concerned parents who they are trying to reach. When a client hires me to go through the customer experience myself as a secret shopper, they’re often surprised by what I find. The welcoming, seamless, and rewarding enrollment experience they believe they’re providing is often confusing, chaotic, and frustrating to parents.

To help you understand this process from a parents’ point of view, let’s go through it step-by-step and see how small changes to the parents’ customer experience can be the difference between welcoming a new family to your school or allowing them to get away.


The Start of the Search, aka, It’s All About Google

While many schools obsess over their glossy brochures and slick PowerPoint presentations designed to capture the attention of new families, the fact is that most families will begin their search for a new school online. That’s why, whenever a client hires me as a secret shopper, the first place I go is Google.

Remember, if a family can’t find you on the Internet, don’t expect them to find you in real life.

This is especially true for Millennials, who are accustomed to using the Internet to shop for everything (schools, cars, toasters, etc.) online. Gone are the days when Millennials were the kids you had to put up with. Today Millennials are in their mid 20s to late 30s, meaning they’re not kids anymore. Nowadays, they’re parents, which means they’re your most important customers.

Your web presence is even more important if your school has a lower profile than other nearby older and more established schools. Some schools have a reputation that might precede them. However, if your school is the “best kept secret in town” it’s going to remain that way unless people can find you easily online.


Cracking the first page of Google results can be a tall order, but it’s important that you do whatever you can to be found. The first step I always recommend to schools is to immediately register on Google My Business. This process is fast, easy, and free, and it will instantly improve your Google results and ensure the accuracy of the information Google gives out about you. If you’re unfamiliar with this process, I put together a video that walks you through the steps:


Next, make sure your school is doing whatever it can to improve your search results with search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is both an art and a science, and large companies spend a lot of money to make sure they’re at the top of every search. However, that’s no reason not to do whatever you can to help your search rankings. There’s an old joke in internet marketing that goes, “Where’s the best place to hide a body? On the second page of Google search results because nobody ever goes there.” Even if it isn’t perfect, better SEO will lead to more clicks which will lead to more families interested in your school. It’s that simple.  

If families don't know about you - one of the best things that you can do is to increase your presence on the internet.


Making School Review Sites Work for You

No matter how good your SEO is, there’s a decent chance the top Google results prospective parents will see will be taken up by review websites like Niche who have more resources and technical expertise to get themselves to the top of the list.

Well, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

school online reviews

While you can’t control everything said about your school on review sites, there are definitely ways of making reviews sites work for you. The first step is to claim your school’s profile and make sure all the information is accurate and all the links are up to date. Review sites know they’re only as good as their data, which means they actively want to have the most up-to-date and accurate information about your school.

Also, while you can’t scrub every negative comment about you off the internet, most review sites have a process for taking down inflammatory or bogus reviews. Encouraging your most enthusiastic parents to leave glowing reviews doesn’t hurt either.


Your School Website Is Your #1 Recruiting Tool

So far, the customer experience I’ve described is partially out of your hands. That’s why your website is so crucial. Your website isn’t simply your first opportunity to make a good impression on a prospective family; there’s a decent chance that your website is actually your last and only chance to sell yourself to busy parents who are juggling work, kids, and multiple open browser tabs with the websites of your competition.

This is why I always insists that schools must aim their websites at prospective families, not current families. You have countless ways to communicate with current families– you have their emails, addresses, phone numbers, etc. However, you might only have one chance to communicate with a prospective family visiting your website, so you have to make the most of it.

Tailoring your website to prospective families is a good example of what marketing professionals call the 80/20 rule, which says that 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers. When thinking about your school website, remember that 80% of your enrolled students will be coming from 20% of the visitors to your website. They might not be your biggest group of visitors, but they’re by far the most important! Tailor everything, from your messaging, to your layout, to your graphics, to catching the attention of prospective families by giving them the information they want and need.

improving a school website

What does this mean in practice? Your alumni may want to see pictures from last year’s reunion on the homepage, but if you want to attract tech-savvy parents, you’ll be better off with a picture of your new robotics lab. Similarly, while an announcement about new pickup and drop-off procedures is important, this is probably best communicated through an email to current parents. On the other hand, if you have an upcoming fall festival that’s open to the public and where prospective families can come to your campus and check you out, you want to make sure that prospective families know it’s happening and know they’re welcome.

I’ve written extensively about how to tailor your website and create engaging content. Here are some articles if you want to dive deeper into improving your school's website:


Use Your Customer Personas to Customize Your Website

customer personas at a school If you read our last blog article, you have gone through the hard work of creating your customer personas, and now it’s time to use them! If your target parents are lower income, make sure your website is optimized for mobile, since they most likely are checking you out on their phones. If your target parents want a school with a diverse student body, make sure your photos reflect your diversity.  

Not matter how big or small, whenever faced with a decision about your website go back to your customer personas and ask yourself how you are using your website to reach these customers, and how you are demonstrating to them that you are serving their needs.


Next Steps: Your Calls to Action on your website

 Of course, impressing a family on the Internet means nothing if it doesn’t translate to contact in the real world.

If you want families checking you out online to enroll, you need to get them to take the next step. That’s why, whenever I’m working as a secret shopper, I’m always looking for anywhere a school is missing an opportunity to connect with a family or capture their contact information. Your website has two very important objectives:

  1. Tell the story about your wonderful school and;
  2. Get prospective parents to take the next step in their enrollment journey

Many schools do a good job on the first, but excelling in the second is how you build a strong enrollment funnel.

How does this look in practice?  Make it easy to sign up for a newsletter, and make sure that newsletter is helpful to prospective parents. Make it easy and encourage families to sign up for a tour or a shadow day.  Through the use of buttons or links on your website - prospective families should be 1 - 2 clicks away from taking the next step in their enrollment journey with your school.

Also, please don’t ask families to call your office to schedule a tour. Those Millennial parents hate using the phone, or at least they hate using their phones to talk to other people. Make it easy for families to register for a tour online by providing them with a calendar of available tours and letting them RSVP in just a couple clicks.


The School Tour: Your Make or Break Moment

After the initial visit to your website, the campus tour is probably the event that has the most impact over whether or not a family enrols in your school. This is where families get to experience your school firsthand, and this is the moment that will cement their impression of what it will be like if they enroll.
improving a school tour

I’ve taken enough tours both as a parent and as a secret shopper to know that the tour experience begins well before you get inside the school gates. Poor communication, confusing directions and difficult parking can start the day off on the wrong foot. This is why it’s important to deploy clear signs and welcoming students and administrators to greet families the moment they roll onto campus. These school representatives should be ready to answer any question with a smile.


As for the content of the tour itself, make sure to go back once again to your customer personas. How does this tour demonstrate that your school will address the family’s goals? Is time on the tour better spent showing off every corner of campus, or should you concentrate on highlighting specific facilities and programs?


Next, how does this tour overcome the objections that you identified when you created your personas? For example, busy working parents might be as interested in after school care for their Kindergarteners as much as they are about what goes on in the classroom.


For more information on how to conduct a winning school tour, click here.


And for Pete’s Sake, Follow Up

 The follow up after a school tour is another part of the customer experience where I am frequently let down as a secret shopper. Your tour is the first step in engaging with the family, not the last.   

follow up in school enrollment

Do whatever you can to keep the conversation going with prospective families. Send them a thank you email. Even better, send them a personal, hand-written thank you card. Put them in touch with members of your school community who can not only answer their questions, but who can also demonstrate that your school really wants them to enroll. This could be the coach of a sports team the student is interested in joining, a teacher from the department the student is most passionate about, or a friendly current parent who you think the prospective family will get along with.

Understanding the experiences that parents go through when trying to enroll at your school is a critical step in improving your school's total enrollment process.


Are you looking for insight into how families experience the shopping experience at your school?

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