The trust of your current and prospective parents is the cornerstone of a successful school. Trust is also the cornerstone of successful school communications and marketing. Why do so many schools miss the mark?
It is incredibly difficult to achieve sustainable school enrolments and retention without trust. Yet many schools simply assume parents will trust them from their first enquiry through enrolment and for their child’s entire school career.
The truth is that the Australian population tends to be sceptical about the trustworthiness of institutions. One of the definitive longitudinal research reports on trust, the Edelman Trust Barometer, shows that trust has changed profoundly in recent years. Australians have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control. Most notably from the researcher’s perspective, this means their employers, but school choice matches all the same criteria. If your families are wanting to trust you and your school more, the stakes are higher. A trust misstep, even unintentionally, can do enormous damage to your relationships and the news spreads like wildfire.
In a world full of fake news and clearly biased media reporting, creating trust with your prospective parents is even more essential for building and maintaining an enrolment pipeline. But convincing a new family to trust your school with the most important, loved and talented child in the country (theirs), and to pay for the privilege, can be a tricky proposition.
It is almost impossible to function in society without an innate understanding of trust. We learn it through experience from the earliest days of our lives. It forms a central part of human relationships, including family life, politics, community … and making choices about the right school. If a parent doesn’t feel they can trust their child to your school, it makes it much harder for you to achieve your school’s mission. But what is trust? Here are some possibilities as suggested by Dr Paul Thagard in Psychology Today:
- “Trust is a set of behaviours, such as acting in ways that depend on another.
- Trust is a belief in a probability that a person will behave in certain ways.
- Trust is an abstract mental attitude toward a proposition that someone is dependable.
- Trust is a feeling of confidence and security that a partner cares.”
This trust is rarely absolute, but is instead restricted to particular situations. In our school marketing context, trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time, yet it is not a matter of technique, tricks or tools but of character. We are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exteriors or our expertly crafted communications.
In the experience of imageseven, we are yet to meet a school Head who doesn’t truly desire that their school be trusted and trustworthy. However, we regularly see schools missing some of the basic strategies and approaches to building meaningful trust with their current and prospective families.
Embrace the good and the bad
It is natural to run and hide from criticism, especially when it comes in the form of adverse reviews, negative online commentary or car park gossip. Unfortunately, some schools do all they can to suppress bad or less-than-perfect feedback because they fear it will discourage prospective parents and prompt unwanted conversations with current parents.
Of course, too many bad reviews in online discussion can harm your school’s reputation, but a few here and there are not going to irreparably damage your brand. In fact, it can actually make your school appear more trustworthy.
Parents are savvy consumers of media, particularly social media. On the whole, they are actually quite sceptical when they see that a school only has positive reviews and a perfect five-star rating. It can signal that the reviews are potentially fake and suggests the school is suppressing or even deleting negative feedback to create a false perception. Obviously, this kills trust. While your goal should certainly be to gather positive customer reviews, both online and via word-of-mouth, there is no reason to shy away from negative comments.
Showing current and prospective parents that your school displays and responds to negative online comment, or deals with negative gossip by proactively addressing the issue, makes your school visibly more authentic. Being appreciative, timely and genuinely concerned — particularly in an online environment — allows your school’s culture to shine through the fog of missed meaning that often accompanies the defensive posture we naturally take when we receive criticism. It is not that you were intentionally inauthentic previously; it is just that at this point in time parents are hyper alert to how you respond. When you publicly respond to poor feedback or criticism you are showing that you truly care about what they think. Criticisms positively handled make current and prospective parents alike feel as though they can trust your school and, in turn, more confident in their decision to choose your school.
Stick to your brand voice
Inconsistent branding causes confusion and scepticism, so sticking to a clear overall message builds recognition and familiarity, which leads to higher trust. In fact, a study from Lucidpress found that when an organisation’s marketing had conflicting or inconsistent messages, customers were less likely to trust the brand. Consistency with your key messages is every bit as important as consistency with your visual identity.
To build an effective set of key messages your school brand should first be clearly defined and understood, especially by your communications and marketing team, so that every piece of content is in alignment with your brand voice.
Great internal communication and external marketing are magnificent ways to build trust, but only if they are trustworthy in and of themselves. Many schools find that posting informational content like how-to guides or suggestion lists resonate well with their current and prospective parents.
However, to create trust, be sure you have the research and proof to back up any major claims you make. This comes naturally to educators but not always to marketing teams.
The best research to be quoting is always your own in-house study, but these often require resources that are beyond what is available to your school. Links or references to reputable websites, studies or reports are excellent substantiation. But much of the knowledge that your school will want to share with your audiences is not research-based. It will probably be tips and techniques to be passed on to parents from your experienced professional staff. In this case, the substantiation can be direct quotes that are attributed to your staff, and this is where there is significant danger of internal inconsistencies emerging.
An example: say your marketing team interviews a Senior School History teacher for tips about how to help students study, then publishes it as a blog on your website. Your readership data suggests your parents and wider public find it useful. Fantastic! Six months later, your Year 9 Maths teacher sends a helpful email to parents explaining how to prepare for an upcoming test. Are the two messages congruent? You know that they are different messages, for different audiences, in different contexts, but the readers don’t always appreciate that and get frustrated with you for inconsistency. Your trust takes a hit. A small hit, but over time all the little hits add up and they slowly start to question if they can trust you with the big-ticket items, like safety and welfare.
When parents are unable to get hold of the right staff member, it can cause them to question the trustworthiness of the entire school. Even if a parent does not need to make contact or ask a question, it is reassuring for them to know how to and that someone will respond promptly.
As modern consumers, we are trained to expect swift responses to queries made to businesses. Your parents apply the same expectations to your school. If you can’t be prompt (we suggest that a response time of under one hour is prompt in the eyes of parents), then be clear about when you will get back to them. By setting a clear expectation (for example, “Mrs Jones is in class until 3:30pm, so she will get back to you between 4:00pm and 5:00pm today”), trust actually increases when you’ve made a promise and then kept it.
Be sure to clearly list contact information on every page of your website. If you are a multi-campus school, list the direct number for every campus. For enrolments, you may also want to invest in having a team roster to take calls after hours. It builds trust at a moment of truth in the purchase decision-making process.
You can never really convince someone to trust you — trust is earned and built through experiences and interactions. Trust is the currency of interactions and it is built with consistency. It is up to you and your team to cultivate a sense of trust and confidence in every single aspect of your school.
- The success of your school is built on trust.
- Schools can increase trust by being consistent, authentic and available.
- Be prepared to substantiate your claims and deliver on your promises.
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. imageseven.com.au