It’s no secret parents play a hugely influential role during the college search process, from helping students research schools to getting hands-on with the nitty-gritty of applying and visiting to deciding where to enroll, their impact spans every step of the journey.

Despite wide recognition of the importance of parents among higher ed marketers and enrollment managers, many schools struggle to implement a cohesive communications plan targeting the parents of prospective students.

In this episode, we sit down with Will Patch, Enrollment Marketing Leader, at Niche.com to talk about strategies for more effectively engaging parents during the college search. We start our conversation with a review of some key findings from a recent survey the Niche team conducted with parents, then we dive into concrete steps schools can take to engage parents more effectively.

Understanding the Mindset of Today’s Parents

Niche’s recent parent survey provides an informative snapshot of what’s top-of-mind right now for parents as they navigate the college search. Not surprisingly given the current global health crisis, parents are overwhelmingly concerned with their student’s safety, but Will is quick to point out parents define safety in broader terms, not simply in terms of how schools are managing the COVID-19 pandemic, and that other factors like reputation are still a top priority. Encouragingly, nearly three-quarters of parents reported being comfortable with their student living in a residence hall and 80% indicated they were comfortable with the safety measures being taken by schools.

The survey also reveals some interesting geographic nuances around parent involvement, both at the regional level and between rural, suburban, and urban communities. For instance, parents in the Midwest reporting being the most highly involved in their student’s college search.

Tips for Effectively Engaging Parents

One of the first challenges schools face in communicating with parents is simply gathering parent names and contact details, to begin with. Will’s advice is to schools is simple. If you want to capture parents’ information, you need to ask for it. To accomplish this, he recommends placing a set of optional fields on inquiry forms that allow students to enter separate information for their parents.

Will then outlines several ideas for crafting better communication flows to parents including specific topics to address, how to strike the right tone, and how schools might consider tailoring communications to specific segments of parents.

Links

Niche Parent Survey

Niche Enrollment Insights Blog

Niche Enrollment Research

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher ed in the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode I talk with Will Patch, enrollment marketing leader at Niche, about strategies for more effectively engaging parents during the college search process.

We kick things off with a dive into some fresh insights from a parent survey that Niche conducted recently, and then we’ll share some practical strategies for communicating with parents, including ways to capture parent contact information, thoughts on how to segment parents, and even some tips on how best to address them when you do communicate. This was a fun conversation full of interesting take-aways for anyone looking to more effectively engage the parents of prospective students. As always, you can find show notes with links to the resources we mention over at echodelta.co. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Will Patch. Will, welcome to the show.

Will Patch:
Hey, thanks, Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, so glad you’re here and I’m really excited to talk to you about engaging parents. I feel like we’re, so many times, talking about engaging prospective students but we know parents are an important part of the college search process, and you’ve got some interesting pretty recent information on how parents engage and assist in that process, so I’m excited to talk with you about that today. Before we jump in, I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about Niche and your role there?

Will Patch:
Absolutely. Niche is the largest preschool through grad school search site. On the college side alone we’re looking at about 60 million people a year coming and visiting the site, researching colleges. You’ve got everything from people just starting the search, looking at preschools, all the way up to students now looking into their grad school options. We have places to live, so people can research everywhere in the US they might want to live. There’s places to work that we’re exploring and testing out.
The way I’ve heard our CEO describe that I really like is to think of it like Yelp for the things that actually matter in life. It’s not “Where am I going to get a pizza tonight?” It’s “Where am I going to go to school? Where are my kids going to go to school? Where do I want to live?” But, yeah, my role is enrollment marketing leader. I came over from the college side. I worked at Manchester University for nine years in various roles, enrollment, marketing, digital strategy, but my role is essentially to help surface data and make it something that people can actually take action on.

To that end, I’m working directly with clients on onboarding, answering questions, going through some of our data. I run our Enrollment Insights blog where we have an enormous amount of information. I do a lot of surveying and research with parents, with students. We have some coming out next month with independant educational consultants. So trying to find different ways of looking at data and making sense of everything out there. We have the Enrollment Insights podcast, we do Enrollment Insights webinars. Basically, if you want free professional development, that’s my role in creating.

Jarrett Smith:
Very good. Very good. And you guys are very busy on that front. Today we’re going to zoom in to a survey you recently conducted with parents. Just to kind of set the table for us, could you briefly tell us who you surveyed and how you collected the data?

Will Patch:
Yeah. We are going to focus on the college-searching parents. We asked everyone from parents looking for preschools up through college. We posted to the Niche site where parents can find it very easily. Parents who had registered with us, we emailed it out to them. And then we have a parent group on Facebook, as well, that we shared it out with, just trying to get different areas that we could get in front of people.

We focused in on parents who had looked for a school in the past year, so it had to be within the last 12 months. We wanted to really capture what these experiences look like. You’re enrolling in the middle of a pandemic. We haven’t had that happen in, what, 100 years? So let’s try and get a snapshot that we can make some sense of, and we had just over 1,000 parents complete it on the college side.

Jarrett Smith:
Super interesting. I guess, let’s dive in. We know parents are such an important influencer in that college search process and in some cases are getting very hands-on, even really doing the college search process, in some cases. But I’m wondering if you could maybe put some numbers around that and help us understand just how involved did your survey show parents are in the college search process.

Will Patch:
Yeah, they are extremely involved. We had 87% said that they researched colleges with their child, so they’re helping them ask questions, helping them figure out where to look, what matters, going on college visits back when we could do that, that sort of thing. But four percent did say that they did all the college research for their child, which isn’t great but you always have the parents who will fill out the application for their kid and fill out the inquiry forms and then wonder why their kid doesn’t understand what the process is.

But, yes, overall over 90% of parents were involved in the process. And I’d be willing to bet even those who didn’t search with their child were still asking questions, they’re still there to support them. It’s not like they are completely hands-off, not involved in any way at all. So I think that really should emphasize why it’s so important to bring parents in, sell to them, as well, talk to them, educate them, just because there’s so many conversations I’ve had with institutions where they’re talking about, “Hey, we need to start talking to parents. We’re thinking about starting a communications plan for parents.” They’ve been involved for years. We should have been doing this much longer than we were. It’s just it’s more difficult and we tend to be stretched thin. But knowing that they are at that search phase with their students, I hope this is a call to action.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I know you’ve got some great ideas on how to really operationalize that, right? Not just say, “We should do it,” but, “Okay, brass tacks, how would we actually begin to execute on a strategy like that?” Before we get there, though, I’m wondering if you could just paint a picture for us right now about what parents are really looking for in a college right now, understanding that of course we have this backdrop of COVID so this brings certain things to the fore that maybe were concerns but not quite as intense as in the past, but what did your survey show in terms of what parents are actually focusing on and looking for as they’re helping their students evaluate college?

Will Patch:
Well, Jarrett, this is something that I’m already looking forward to our next survey this fall to see what our comparisons are, if some of these things were super important this past fall and have gotten more important, less important, but right now safety was the absolute number one. That was overwhelmingly what parents are focused in on. And I want to emphasize that safety doesn’t just mean physical safety. On the high school side, we’ve seen such a focus on bullying and things like that. Is that something that carries on to the college side? Are they emotionally safe? Are they intellectually safe? Is it a place where they can actually ask questions or is it essentially a lecture, take it all in, tell-me-what-I-want-to-hear environment. There’s multiple ways we need to think about what safety means.

Reputation was extremely important. And reputation’s not a static thing, either, because what I think goes into a reputation in terms of maybe an academic reputation, maybe I have a good awareness of what the graduates of this college are doing, maybe reputation for me is in the community how are they involved, thinking about what your reputation is. And a big part of that, I think, is social listening and being aware of what’s being said about you and where. How are your alumni talking about you? How are your students talking about you? How are other parents, how are prospective students talking about their process?

That’s where going online, places like Reddit, if you want the realtime chatter, review sites like Niche, like Google. You could see reviews on Facebook, elsewhere. Just being aware of what’s out there is really important. They care about the college website, of course. So thinking about how are they researching you. Because right now how many parents are able to get on campus and see it for themselves? So they’re out there spending a lot of time trying to figure out what a college campus is actually like and what that experience for their child will be.

So that’s one place that if I can put a call to action in everyone’s ear, think about every single page on your site as a landing page and every single page on your site as an admissions page. You have to make it easy for people to find relevant information for, “What is my experience like? Why is it important that I go here instead of your competitor down the street?” Right now they are still saying that campus visits are more important to their decision than virtual visits and I don’t know that that’ll ever change. But as we get better at doing virtual visits I really hope that that is a good complement.

If I am sitting here in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I’m going to be researching a college on the West Coast, my first step is going to be doing a lot of online research. Before I buy that plane ticket, I want to know, I want to use that campus visit as a narrow down and either a yes or eliminate rather than my first approach to learning more about the campus. And we’re seeing proximity becoming more important. That’s something that we heard from students last fall in other surveys we did. That’s something this upcoming HQCA survey of independent counselors that we saw, that they care much more about how close to home are they.

So when COVID hit last fall we did a couple of surveys, one in March when things were just getting rolling, and we saw right away that students were saying, “I don’t know if I want to go so far from home. What if something like this happens and college campus closes down and I have to be out tomorrow and my parents live across the country, what am I supposed to do?” Or there was a student that, this is always going to stick with me, who said that in a one-week period, every adult in his family lost their job. For someone like that, we had students saying they had to help support their families so they didn’t lose their home. Things like that. If you’re a long way away, that’s a lot of anxiety of “Can I be there to help?” So we’re seeing that radius of what they consider an acceptable distance from home, contract again.

Jarrett Smith:
And obviously it would be so tied in to their unique personal situation.

Will Patch:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s a really interesting point. And maybe to kind of bookmark that proximity conversation a little bit, because I also think that that has important implications for how you’re allocating, say, your marketing and media dollars in terms of the geographic area you’re trying to canvas. Anyways, a bigger conversation but super relevant right now. I want to talk a little bit about timeline a bit and how far in advance students and their parents are beginning their search. You had some really interesting findings here about when people actually started and you used the start of classes as the finish line, how far in advance of the actual start of classes did they begin looking. What did you guys find there?

Will Patch:
Yeah. Just over half of parents said that they started actively researching colleges a year or more in advance. So when there’s people talking about, “Well, we have our eighth-grade campaigns and all this.” Just because you can buy a name of an eighth or ninth-grader, doesn’t mean that they are looking for colleges yet. We saw sort of that 50% breakdown right around a year out. So think about it as the start of their senior year.

Private colleges really need to start that outreach earlier than others because we had about 40% of parents say that they started two or more years in advance. That’s something that private colleges do have to think about that longer tail. It was interesting that the closer we got to enrollment, the less and less likely parents were to say that that’s where their student enrolled. So it was about 40% of those who started two or more years in advance said they enrolled at a private. When we get down to three months in advance, so think about over the summer here, it was less than 15%.

Jarrett Smith:
Wow.

Will Patch:
So if you want to be able to win students over as a private college you have to think much sooner, get into those sophomores, get into those juniors, but really trying to attract new searchers in the spring and summer isn’t really going to be a great tactic for you. The four-year and two-year publics, on the other hand, do see success. We saw both with the four-year and the two-year schools, four-year publics and two-year schools, that the closer we got to enrollment, the larger share of those searchers were enrolling at them. We especially saw that at two-year schools that, really, beyond six months in advance of enrollment, there was very minimal return. Very few people who were looking a year out, two years out, chose to enroll at a two-year.
But then once we get less than three months, it’s a very high percentage of them, so they’re much more likely to enroll the closer you get. So if you’re a public four-year, here in the spring, you still have a lot of time where you can attract people who are just starting to think. If you’re a two-year college, those summer campaigns are still going to do well for you. What was interesting to me, so not looking at the enrollment side, but just overall of when did we start researching? For-profits had a very long cycle.

69% of parents started researching more than a year in advance, which was higher than any other group. So of parents considering a for-profit, which wasn’t a huge number, to be honest, but of parents considering a for-profit, they were looking the longest, so that’s something that… I know a lot of for-profits aren’t necessarily going after the traditional high school student, but for those who are, that’s something to think about, that just starting to go with the senior searchers, you’ve already lost some people.

Jarrett Smith:
Are there any other things that, when you look at that, the difference in timeline between private four-year, two-year, the for-profit schools, any other things that jump to mind for you about what might be driving that and why you see those differences?

Will Patch:
I think it comes down to maybe it’s a student who thought they were going to go straight into the workforce and things have changed here. Or maybe they didn’t really think about college as an option and then they realized, end of senior year, “Hey, I do want to open some doors. I do want to have that opportunity.” Are they more likely to go with a school that they don’t know a lot about or are they more likely to go with, “Well, I’ll start at the local two-year down the street”? And not everyone has access to local community colleges.

Especially you get out into Nebraska, Kansas, it might be three hours away. But, for those who have that option, that’s something that, “Okay, this is an easy way that I can dip my toes in, figure out what I want to do.” Or they might also think, “I don’t really know how to go about the college search. I don’t really know about what I want to do. But I’ve been watching this school’s football team every Saturday my entire life. I’ll go there and I’ll get started there because I know the name.”

Jarrett Smith:
Yep. It seems like a good, safe bet and it’s cheaper than the expensive private school down the street.

Will Patch:
Yep. And more likely they also know a lot of people from their high school who go there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s an interesting dynamic. I know that you also did look at the impact of geography in a couple of different ways. The region that they’re in in the United States, but also urban versus rural versus suburban environment. What kind of differences did you see there, based on geography?

Will Patch:
I always love to see what the regional differences are. It’s fascinating to me to see how different we can be just based on where we live, the type of communities we live in. When we look at that in terms of the parents who are helping their students look, we saw the Midwest parents were the most involved in the college search. They’re the most likely to say that they searched with or for their child. Parents on the West Coast were the most likely to say that they were not involved. I want to emphasize, though, that not involved still means the vast majority of them were. Especially if you’re a college in the Midwest, you have to, there’s no reason not to be talking to parents, knowing that it’s almost 100% are involved.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. So I’m going to stop you there. I’m from the South. I haven’t spent that much time in the Midwest, but you’re in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so tell me what’s your take on that? Why do you think, of all the regions, that the Midwest parents are the most involved? Do you have a little pet hypothesis on that?

Will Patch:
Yeah. I’ve lived almost all my life in Indiana. I grew up in the big city of Otterbein, Indiana, which, county-

Jarrett Smith:
We all know.

Will Patch:
I think I grew up in a county of 6,000.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s the Paris of the Midwest. We all know.

Will Patch:
Exactly, exactly. Some day they’ll get a stop light. When you grow up in that type of community, the community matters so much because, especially when you look at rural Midwestern parents, that was 98% of parents were involved, you are very well connected with each other. It’s not like the parents can just say, “Oh, the counselors at school will take care of that.” Because we were a junior/senior high school, you’re looking at seventh grade through 12 and we had one counselor. They can’t sit down with every student and help them. The state hasn’t funded them well enough to do that.

So you have a lot of parents who, “Yeah, I’m going to be involved. I want to help out.” I’ve worked at a small rural college for nine years and even though only 20% of people in the area had a college degree, had any college experience at all, even, there’s this myth that first-gen parents don’t care. I want people to just eliminate that because the parents were so involved, they wanted to help out, they wanted to learn, they wanted to be engaged. They were the ones really helping and supporting because, for whatever reason, there is such a close-knit sense of family out here.

I haven’t lived in New York or LA to say if that’s the same thing, but that’s just the experience I’ve had. When we looked at urban families in the West Coast, so sort of our two least involved, that’s where it drops off. There’s a 10 percentage point difference there between rural Midwestern families and urban western families. Yes, they may be less involved in helping their student find a college, but they are still absolutely the majority of them involved. Communicate with them, they may need different things. It could be a case of they don’t feel like they can support their students. So give them that confidence.

The same way you might be giving confidence to the students. Talk to the students and tell them, “This is an option. This is something you can do. We’re here to support you.” That same message needs to go to the parent. “We are here to support your student. We are here to support you. You can do this with our help.” Don’t assume that everyone coming to you knows what the process is, knows what the lingo is.

I was four or five years in when I had a parent, after a presentation, walk up and say, “Hey, that was great but what does bachelors degree mean?” It’s like, why have I not been saying this all along?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, absolutely.

Will Patch:
They want to be there and support their kids but they don’t… If you don’t understand the lingo and the acronyms, you’re going to feel left out.

Jarrett Smith:
Yep. The admission’s lingo and jargon around higher ed in general is so specific and I think for those of us that operate in that world day in and day out it becomes second nature and you forget what it’s like not to know what it means. You take it for granted. But for these students, especially if their parents never went to college, they’re going to go through this process one time, unless they move on to graduate school and whatnot.

But in all likelihood they’re going to go through this process one time and they’re figuring it all out, but we do it every day. I think it’s such a fundamental point of meet your audience where they are with what they know. Start by connecting with what they know and what they’re familiar with and work up from there, not the other way around and say, “No, you need to learn my world, learn my lingo,” and put that extra barrier in advance. Because it is super intimidating if that’s not your world.

Will Patch:
Yeah. And, Jarrett, you have to think about beyond just the conversations you’re having. Do experiments on your website, on your digital marketing.

Jarrett Smith:
Oh, absolutely.

Will Patch:
There was an experiment I did with just language surrounding our majors, our programs. It’s things that are obvious in hindsight that areas of study won out, that people were most likely to click through and stay there when we said, “Areas of study,” than if we said, “Majors,” or, “Programs,” or, “Academics.” Areas of study, I can understand what that means. But if you say, “Majors,” and I didn’t even graduate high school, what’s a major?

Jarrett Smith:
Right. Yeah, yeah. It really assumes that they already have some sort of framework that they’re already operating in for higher ed. One common sin that I see is organizing the site around the internal lingo or, worse, the actual org structure of the institution and then saying like, “Oh, this maps onto our site map really well,” and it doesn’t. I think a great example of that, just kind of piggybacking on your academic discussion, is “College of” pages. A student’s not going to know what’s in a particular college. That’s inside baseball to know not only what are majors and minors but then what college are they housed under? Because it’s super confusing unless you spend time poking around.

But I know internally, folks think about that as a logical organizing structure, these separate entities within the university. So I think that’s such a good point, particularly on your website. Long before they ever talk to you, they will arrive on your website, to your point, Will, and be looking at those page and, if it’s not easy to understand, they’re going to bounce and go to somebody who is easy to understand.

Will Patch:
Yeah. With areas of study, I’ve seen sites where music and music education are in different colleges and you can’t find one from the other. That sort of thing makes absolutely no sense that if someone’s looking for one, they may be looking for the other, so let them find both.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, such a-

Will Patch:
I’ll put away my soapbox.

Jarrett Smith:
I know. You’re reading my mind. I was like, “Oh, I can feel the fire burning. I can…” Yeah, I’ll start up the Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. We’ll grab our pitchforks and go charge off. Good stuff. All right. Let’s talk COVID, because I’m so tired of talking about COVID but we can’t talk about our world but yet we must.

Will Patch:
Everyone’s favorite topic.

Jarrett Smith:
Everyone’s favorite topic and this was obviously a part of your survey. I’m particularly interested in any insights you might have about how you’ve noticed in previous surveys, maybe, attitudes change over time. But, as we talked about before, COVID’s obviously brought certain things to the fore, an added intensity to conversations around safety, really brought proximity top of mind in a way that maybe it wasn’t before. The learning delivery method, online, on campus, how all that’s tied together. Can you kind of paint a picture for us? What did your survey show about how parent are feeling about these various issues right now?

Will Patch:
I’ll try and paint the best word picture I can here through audio medium. We’ve done several surveys here. The first one came out in late March. Things had just hit. We wanted to gauge how are schools responding, how are parents of students perceiving these changes, what’s working, what’s not, what sort of real-time feedback can we give? Back in March, 11% of high school students and 15% of college students said that online learning was effective. That was pretty bleak.

But the good news is parents, 27% of parents, said that they had a favorable outlook on online learning. So I think, as you always see, parents and adults tend to be a little more positive about things than students. It’s that maturity level, I hope. In May, we did a followup to gauge what’s happened and what are your thoughts for the fall. In that, we saw it double. So 23% of high school students and 30% of college students said, “Okay, online learning is working for me.” Still not great. We still have 70% of college students who were saying, “This does not work for me.”

And with both of these I really want to highlight, too, that it’s an online survey. So if someone has no internet access at home, they can’t respond. They also can’t do their classes. We did a fall senior survey where five percent of students said that it was appealing to them to enroll in online school. So even though we had 23% of those high school students saying that, “Yes, online learning. Okay, it’s effective.” But it’s only appealing for five percent of them to continue doing it. So it’s not something they really loved.

Now, in our parent survey, we had 15% who said that they were in a remote, fully remote, learning. 15% felt that it was very effective for their student and 36% said, “Well, it’s somewhat effective.” Which, that’s good. The overall, we have 51% saying that it is effective to some degree. But I’d say 36% saying that it’s somewhat effective is not a glowing recommendation, either.
When we look at hybrid, so doing some online, some on campus, I was surprised to hear that 11% said it was very effective. They were less likely to say it was very effective. But 43% said, “Somewhat.” That was interesting to me that these hybrid options where you can still get on campus some, you’re doing some online, they were less fully positive about.

Jarrett Smith:
What do you think’s driving that?

Will Patch:
It’s one of those where fully remote, you know what you’re getting. You know that you’re going to be sitting at home or sitting wherever and everything’s online. With hybrid, I think it can be a little messy, where, yep, you’re on campus, yep, you’re professor is a building away, but you’re sitting in front of a screen.

Jarrett Smith:
What else? I know there were some other things you found.

Will Patch:
Yep. We asked about their comfort level with precautions being taken, the safety levels. And this is where there’s great news for colleges. 84% of parents said that they were very happy with the precautions being taken by their college for their in-person students. So when the students are back on campus, the parents feel safe. That’s great news. We asked, if they were living in residence hall, how comfortable are you with that? And 75% of them were comfortable. That’s very good. I would love to see it at 100% but right now I think that’s pretty good, that the majority of them do feel like it’s safe for their student to be there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Gosh, there’s so much to unpack and all of that. There’s so many different things were popping into mind. One of them is I’m really curious, going back to the attitudes and feelings around online learning. I’m really curious to see how folks in that K through 12, not really high school, but the elementary-aged students, their feelings around online learning. Because I think, of all the schools that were the least prepared to go online, and of all the students that are the hardest to teach online, that K through fifth, sixth grade, up through middle school, that’s rough and they were not prepared to do it.

On a personal level, I have to give absolute kudos to my personal school where my boys go. They did a fantastic job and I was just blown away. But in talking with friends and family and also with some of my colleagues at Echo Delta who’ve talked with their friends and family that have young kids in school, I’ve just heard some horror stories. I’m wondering how those attitudes and perceptions will persist over time. And, at the very least, it tells me that colleges, even the ones that have excellent online programs and they’ve been doing it for a long time and they got it and they know how to do it right, they’ve got a potentially really big uphill battle to prove, “No, this is not what you experienced in the fourth grade.”

Will Patch:
It’s definitely easier for us on this side of the table to say emergency online instruction is not the same as a fully-online course. Once you’ve experienced it, though, I think it’s much harder to change that perception.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. The other thing that really comes to mind, Will, in just looking at this, is that I think in marketing so often we kind of get sucked into the idea of “User behavior is changing. Everything’s different. It’s all digital. Our kids, they’re tech-savvy,” and all this, and we lose sight of the fact that that social interaction and being collocated with their peers still really matters. That’s deeply ingrained in who we are. I want to talk about, now that I took us into the stratosphere, let’s bring it down to Earth in terms of what do we actually do with this information?

I think one of the most practical problems that schools have, first off, is just getting parent contact information. It’s a challenge. You oftentimes don’t have it. So, I guess, how would you advise schools that are saying, “Okay, we’d love to have a comms flow for parent but how do we start, how do we change things so that we have confidence that when we send that parent email, it’s actually going to a parent?”

Will Patch:
I think the absolute easiest way to figure out how to contact a parent is to ask the student for it. I think if you just flat out ask, “Hey, would you like your parents to learn more about such and such college? Would you like to have them aware of upcoming events and opportunities?” I’m willing to bet most of them will say, “Yeah, that way I don’t have to…” We’re not playing a game of telephone where Mom and Dad ask all the time, “Are there visit opportunities? Hey, what’s the deadline for this?” That having something taken off their plate, I think they would appreciate.

Something that I found useful is just having a supplemental form. So keep that inquiry form small. Don’t get tempted into having a 30 or 40-question inquiry form. Keep it 10 questions or less, and ask. After you have that student inquiry, have a supplemental form for, “Hey, if you’d like your parents to be included, here’s how you can do that. If you want to get this other information, here’s how you do that.”

Supplemental forms are a great way to keep learning about the student and letting them opt in to personalizing their experience, but without creating this giant barrier to initial inquiry. Having, even on your sit, a separate parent inquiry form where, without even having the student in the system. We have four percent of parents who said that they did all of the search for them so why not let parents opt in to learn more about your college. Whether that’s just general information or if they want to personalize it and say, “Yes, I want to learn more about this major, about this club or opportunity, about this athletic team.” Let the parents opt in to their own comm flow.

But I think with all this you have to be careful and not make assumptions. So don’t just email the student, if you have a parent email address, even. Email and say, “Hey, dear parents of such and such,” or, “Dear Mr and Mrs such and such,” because you don’t know their family. It could be a single parent situation, it could be they’re living with grandma or grandpa or an aunt or uncle. I’ve seen cases where a student lived with an older sibling because of problems with the parents. That person who is helping them, that person in that guardian role, that parent role, might not be their parent. So don’t feel like you’re leaving them out and that you’re talking to them in a way that they don’t appreciate right off the bat, so just asking these questions upfront could be really helpful.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I think that’s such great advice about not assuming too much right out of the gate. And I think that supplemental form, it reminds me of a conversation I had, gosh, in an episode we published two years ago with Kris Hardy over at Messiah College. Really smart guy. He said, “We added a whole set of optional fields to our inquiry form that are pretty lengthy. We just teed it up with a whole check box that said, ‘Would you like to give us extra information so we can personalize our communication to you?'”

And then when they checked it expanded to a rather lengthy form where nothing was required. They could just add whatever they wanted. And he said, “We’ve looked at the analytics on that and a surprising number of people fill out at least some of the form.” I can’t remember what he said but it was something like half of all the folks who completed their inquiry also filled out at least one or two fields on that supplemental thing. So I think it’s such a great point.

Will Patch:
Yeah. Saying that you can do something is much more likely to solicit that response, than to say you have to do this in order it.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, keep the barriers as low as possible. And I think especially in today’s world where we’re very focused on privacy concerns, the ability to decide the information that you want to provide is very empowering for your prospects. So let’s say you’re gathering this parent information, you’re starting to build a list. As you mentioned, not everybody’s situation is the same. A parent that never went to college but is super excited to help guide their student through that process, is different than the parent with the PhD. So when we’re thinking about maybe segmenting that audience so we can tailor our communications a little bit, do you have any thoughts on how we might approach segmenting our parent audiences?

Will Patch:
I think anything with segmentation, the first step is do what you can do well. Don’t feel like, if you’re a one-person operation trying to do all this yourself, don’t feel like you have to have 10 segments for each stage of a nurture camp.

Jarrett Smith:
Honestly, in that case, just having a parent segment in the first place would be a huge deal. Do that competently.

Will Patch:
Yep. Yeah, if you’re going to try to do too much you’re going to have a lower quality product and you’re going to hurt yourself in the long run. That being said, I also want to stay on my soapbox for experimentation, so don’t just jump in and say, “Oh, well, I read this on a blog. I heard this here so we have to switch everything over.” Experiment. See what works for you. But I would say, first up, location. Knowing what matters to parents, and their process and considerations varies based on the type of area they live and the region in the US they live. Have location-specific messaging. Think of that as proximity, as well. The local parents may have different concerns and issues and what matters to them than someone who lives 12 hours away.

If you’re sending out a reminder about on-campus visit, maybe not target everyone 12 hours away for that. Hit your local area. Prime those people further away with virtual events, virtual opportunities, and then, after they’ve engaged. So if you’re doing any sort of lead scoring or prospect scoring where their behaviors are driving up a point system, those people who are really engaged, sure, then tell them X information, but let’s prime that pump first. First-gen parents, we see first-gen parents and students care a lot about sport. I’ve seen some great examples of essentially having a dictionary for first-gen students.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, yeah. That’s a great idea.

Will Patch:
Having this information that, “Here’s the terms that you might come across. Let’s make sure that you understand.” And don’t call it out as, “Hey, we know that you didn’t go to college so here’s this.” Just make it a helpful resource. Target it however you like but don’t make them feel like an other or an outsider. Provide that information. Let them use it if they want to. Once you have FAFSA information, you can do some income-based targeting. You see in some of these that low-income families are more likely to want their students to stay close to home. So targeting that parent 12 hours away who’s making $10,000 a year, probably not your best return.

The higher the income, the more likely they are willing to travel. We also see higher incomes wanting to know more about rankings than lower income. They care much more about how many people made a Forbes 40 under 40, or what’s the rank of this school or this program? That’s sort of their trigger, that bragging point for them of, “My son or daughter goes to the number-one ranked da, da, da, da.” That doesn’t matter to most people but it matters a lot to those people.

Thinking about major-specific information for parents, as well, the same way you would for students. If their child is looking at a premed program, you should be talking to the parents about, “Here’s what that program looks like here. Here’s our expectations for them. Here’s our timeline. Here’s our outcomes.” So speak to that. If you know they’re interested in an athletic group or arts, speak to that to the parents, as well. Talk about, “Hey, here’s our parent ticket holder program. We stream our music events so that, even if you can’t get to campus, here’s how you would be able to see them.” Engage with them in every way you know how but, again, just make sure that you can do it at a high quality.

Jarrett Smith:
So kind of drill down and even get super tactical, thinking about someone says, “Okay, great. I’ve got my parent contact information and I’ve got maybe a segment, if we’re able to do that, of parents that I’m trying to address. Now I have the opportunity to sit down and compose an email.” How should we think about actually literally addressing parents? As you pointed out, they may not even be a parent. They may be a guardian. They just may be involved, a loved one. It’s not safe to assume parents of… So you can’t say, “Dear parent of Sally.” So what do you actually say? How would you approach that very tactical, concrete situation?

Will Patch:
Yeah. And I’ll preface this, again, with experiment. Do A/B tests, do factorial tests, figure out what works. But I would always approach it in a more informal way. That can be hard sometimes to write like you would speak so one thing that I found is helpful, there’s a lot of good text-to-speech, so if you have Google Docs or if you have it on your phone. I have a recorder app on my phone that will do text to speech. Just say what you would talk to, to parents. “Hey, we’ve got this event coming up, da, da, da, da.” You’ve got the text right there that you can tweak and edit.

You don’t need to be so formal as, “Dear parents of Suzy, we thought that you would really enjoy this opportunity.” That sounds like such a form email that you would just send to everybody. You can make your automated campaign sound so much more personal by not sounding like you’re writing a formal letter for something. Again, segment as much as possible. Just try to make sure that you are speaking directly to them and giving them the information they care about. If you are just saying, “Hey, we have this new program in pharmacogenomics,” and you’re sending it to parents of students interested in art, okay, that’s a mismatch. But if you send it to parents of students interested in premed and pharmacy and related programs, that’s going to connect much better.

Use a lot of proof points in there, as well. So reviews, short parent testimonials, student stories, build connections. If you have a parent counsel, connect that parent counsel to them, even at the inquiry and prospect stage. Don’t wait until someone has been accepted to say, “Oh, welcome to the community.” Make them feel welcome and part of it as early as possible, and that happens with making that personal connection. What are the stories? What are the outcomes? What cool opportunities are there? What traditions are there?

Jarrett Smith:
Good stuff, Will. Such a good conversation. I love it anytime we get to expand the strategic and the tactical in the same conversation and walk away with some concrete next steps. Will, you guys are turning out a lot of interesting data and insights, webinars, all sorts of great content. If folks would like to go find out more and look more at the kind of work you’re releasing, where should they go?

Will Patch:
If you just want to see everything coming out, it’s just the Enrollment Insights blog. You can do a search. It comes up first thing. I always like shortened links because I don’t want to have to type in 50 characters just to get where I’m going. You can get there at niche.bz/insights. If you’re interested in the research specifically, that’s niche.bz/research. There’s lots of ways you can get there.

Jarrett Smith:
We’ll include some links in the show notes so folks can also go there, over at echodelta.co, and check that out. Will, thank you so much for your time and sharing some of the interesting things you’ve been learning. Thank you so much.

Will Patch:
Yeah, thanks, Jarrett. I really enjoyed it.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full-service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts and, as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.