Three questions your school must answer

Let’s not waste your time. Here are the three questions:

1. Do you understand me?
2. Can I trust you with my child?
3. Will you keep your promise?

The problem for Heads is that prospective parents do not usually come out and ask you these questions directly. However, resolving them, in often subtle ways, is the key to any successful relationship — business or personal.

You can think of these questions as stages of a relationship.

Stages of a relationship

There is a communication and marketing reality that imageseven has proved to hold true across decades of practice: the school which can more clearly communicate that they understand what is going on in the heart and mind of their prospect wins the enrolment.

Understanding and addressing a prospective parent’s problem is like a jigsaw puzzle: it comes together one piece at a time. Consider how you wrestled with and processed the last thorny issue that landed on your desk. It is almost certain that you didn’t wake up one morning and exclaim, “Problem solved. I’ve got it!” Consciously or unconsciously, you probably went through a series of stages on your way to your eventual answer.

By understanding these stages, you can give guidance and messaging parameters to your communication and marketing team. In turn, this means they can be articulated in both your marketing to prospective parents and your communication with current parents. You also begin to understand the job your messaging must do to be successful in guiding your prospective parent to select your school, and to reassure current parents that they made a wise choice.

The stages addressed by these three questions focus on the human desire to achieve clarity, confidence and control in almost every aspect of our lives — and this includes the school they choose for their child.

Many school marketers will jump straight into explaining why their school is such a good choice for every family. However, most prospects, still early in their journey, may not even have a good grasp on the problem they are trying to solve beyond the fact that the law requires their child to attend school. So, they may be aware of the symptoms they are experiencing but have yet to diagnose the ‘real’ problem, and certainly have not connected solving their problem with your specific brand promise.

Clarity: do you understand me?

“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved,” said the famed inventor Charles Kettering. His point was that to accurately summarise a problem, you must first achieve clarity about what the problem is.

Many prospective parents know they have a problem; either their child must start school or they don’t feel their current school is meeting their needs. But they don’t know how to clearly state what they desire or how to recognise it when it is present. Other industries call them ‘unsophisticated buyers’: purchasers who desire a product or service but do not have the technical knowledge to make thoroughly informed buying decisions. Unsophisticated buyers of primary and secondary education are a key reason why proxy measures of educational quality such as academic league tables, uniforms and architecture receive undeserved weight in school choice.

It is your job as school Head to understand prospective parents. Developing and articulating this understanding is a strategic task that you should outsource to your marketing team. Once determined, it is their job to consistently weave the evidence that your school understands the desires, aspirations and fears of prospective parents into your marketing tactics.

As school Head, it is your job to educate unsophisticated buyers about what really matters, how they can recognise it and how your school offering addresses what is truly important.

Once you take on the role of guide to prospective parents, shed light on the real issues, help them with their challenge of selecting the best school for their child, help address an issue that if left unaddressed may have a detrimental impact on their child, and help them know what they didn’t know and see what they didn’t see — then their worldview begins to change. Modern marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problem.

Your school may educate children but the problems your school solves are much more varied. You couldn’t possibly articulate them all in your marketing messages. So, the solution is to keep digging deeper. Ask yourself why prospective parents desire something. When you have an answer, interrogate that answer with another ‘why?’ Then another and another and another. Then you will be close to the answer that is right for your school.

That is how you show prospective parents that you understand them. However, if you get to the end of your ‘five whys’ and you are still not convinced you can articulate how you understand prospective parents, it is possible that your problem is a ‘product’ problem and not simply a messaging problem.

As the leader of marketing, your job is to communicate empathy with the problem, communicate that your school knows what the problem is and that you understand why it exists. Do this, and you’ll earn the right to explain how to fix it.

Confidence: can I trust you with my child?

You have now defined the problem for prospective parents and educated them about how they can make a wise and informed choice, but they still don’t have the level of confidence required to commit to your school. They will typically begin to ask friends and go online to search in the usual places, trying to find examples of other parents who have successfully solved the same problem.

As a marketer, this is where trust rules. 

Once a prospective parent discovers that you do indeed understand them and you are the only one talking about the problem that has been rolling around in their head for months, they will start to take a deeper look at two things: who you are and what your school offers.

This stage involves deeper dives into your school website, watching your videos and perhaps even reading your deeper, long-form content like your philosophy of education, statement of faith or strategic plan. It also includes filling out your forms, searching you out on social media and even searching your school name.

Confidence is either won or lost in the details. How fast your site loads, how intuitive your forms are to complete and how well readers get a sense of what you stand for (and what you don’t) when they read more about you.

None of these items alone is a deal-breaker, but collectively they tell a story about what is important to you, and that is the mental checklist a prospective parent is completing at this stage.

Most of all, there is the nagging question at the back of their mind: “Can I trust you with the most valuable child in the world … mine?” Do they believe you can live up to the promise of solving their problems in exchange for their hard-earned money?

Control: will you keep your promise?

The final stage of the relationship is when a parent is fully engaged in solving their problem with you, both before and after enrolment.

During this stage, they want a sense of control. 

This doesn’t mean they want to control the process; they simply want to feel as though it is going as expected, that they see results, that communication is flowing in a way that allows them to relax and trust the process.

This stage equates to a great customer experience, a great plan of action and, ultimately, your parents’ ability to understand the value of their investment.

So, did you keep your promise? Did you surprise them? Did you exceed their expectations? These help them feel like they are in control.

That sense of control is what retains students and generates positive word-of-mouth and referrals.

It’s not enough to simply have a great explanation of the problem you solve. Your school must also intentionally address and guide a prospective parent through each of the three stages.

Build a journey that addresses these three questions, and you’ll build relationships that are deep and long-lasting.


insight applied

  • Schools must give clarity, confidence and control to parents.
  • Articulating the answers is a strategic task and is the Head’s responsibility.
  • Be the guide for prospective parents as they solve their problem.
  • Think of these questions as stages of a relationship.

Andrew Sculthorpe, aka Scully, is the Managing Partner of imageseven. With a wealth of experience gained in both the UK and Australia, he is perfectly positioned to deliver insights that create a world-class impact for schools and their Heads.

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