Education marketers find there's no longer any room for an off-season
Childtime Learning Centers targets moms with direct mail and social media
Educational institutions have moved beyond sending prospective students and their parents only a periodic letter affixed with the school seal to promote their programs. Education industry marketers are communicating frequently with both parents and students to acquire and retain customers, and they're using a mix of traditional, e-mail and social media to do so.
Schools, including learning centers for children, are combining direct mail and electronic methods to engage consumers in addition to the enrollment period and keep parents up to date about their child's progress. Stacy DeWalt, CMO at Learning Care Group, says her brand strives to provide a "360-degree view" of the company to parents.
"We've used direct marketing for both acquisition and throughout the lifecycle to keep parents excited and to let them see the development of the children, and we've used personalized marketing to show that growth and keep mom close throughout the relationship," she says. "The educational needs of families have changed, and the socioeconomic needs of families have changed, so finding the right channel to communicate with mom, given the way her media consumption has changed, has made direct marketing a greater part of our acquisition strategy over the past two years."
The company, which operates Tutor Time, Montessori Unlimited and Childtime Learning Centers, has enhanced its direct marketing strategy by communicating with consumers much more frequently than in the past. It abandoned what was a largely seasonal approach to reach prospective customers partially because parents have more educational choices now than in the past and because they are better informed, DeWalt adds.
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"Years ago, a new school would open, there would be buzz, and the school would be filled. There are more choices for moms today, and they do more research," she says. "We started using the philosophy that seasonal marketing would not be enough. We moved to approaching moms wherever they are in the decision cycle, and marketing for the full year."
Education marketers are also finding that analytics and consumer research are essential as they target consumers on an ongoing basis. The interactions that a parent has with a school influence the decision-making process on whether to enroll a child, or move him or her to another institution, notes Kara Quinn, marketing account director at Vertis Communications, which works with Learning Care Group.
"A major differentiator from the past is being able to track and target the decision making process throughout the buying cycle," she says. "The household, usually the mother, decides differently about education. There is much more of a relationship with a brand and that brand experience."
Quinn adds that consumers also expect educational institutions to personalize their communications more than other companies. "In retail, maybe you can target an area's residents and cover a strategic area," she says. "For child care, when you deploy direct mail, it can't feel mass. It has to feel customized and local, so the mom says, 'Oh, that's less than a mile from me.'"
Higher education institutions, which target the customers themselves as much as parents, are communicating with prospective students through more individualized messages. St. Edward's University launched a website segmented for individual groups, such as current students, alumni and prospects, and began sending high school students customized e-mail messages, says Paige Booth, VP of marketing and enrollment management at St. Edward's University.
"We use a lot more e-mail, although we still use a good amount of print," she says. "The trick is trying to find students who look like your best prospects, trying to find their interests, and tailoring that into the stream of communication."
Educational marketers from colleges to day care centers are also taking advantage of social media to deliver personalized messages to consumers considering enrolling themselves or their children. "I think universities are paying attention to social media because it's another way to engage with prospective students and it allows them to see what it's like to be a student at The Catholic University of America or Duke University, or whatever the case is," says Patrick McKenna, CEO at DMi Partners, a digital agency that specializes in helping higher educational clients.
However, educational marketers face challenges with using social media that their peers in other industries do not, such as stricter use policies for employees. Facebook and many types of marketing e-mails are often blocked by K-12 school districts.
"There is blocking in the districts, and not only by them but also by the e-mail service provider. They have filters, and if you don't set up your e-mail properly, you can get registered as a spammer," says John Hood, president of MCH Strategic Data, who adds that institutions are using e-mail at the expense of traditional mail.
"There is a big switch going on to e-mail marketing at the expense of snail mail, and that is being driven largely by the expense of catalogs and postage and things of that nature."
McKenna notes that education marketing trends are also dependent on current events. More consumers tend to be interested in higher education options at times when the unemployment rate is higher than usual, he says, adding that consumers who are looking for new jobs are a unique target for continuing education institutions.
"If the unemployment rate gets worse or doesn't get better, you might see more of that segment of the population turning to education to get a better job, or a different job, so I would not be surprised if that is a trend we see throughout the year," says McKenna.