Understand Your Families Better with Parent Personas

June 4, 2020 Melissa Providence

Savvy admissions and marketing teams have one key goal: to properly market and sell the missions, values, and cultures of their schools. To do that, they find ways to communicate a sound idea of what the future holds for their potential families. This message is carefully considered and deliberated based on research and data, and is represented by parent personas, or characterizations, of what the school’s target family looks like.

Enrollment officials make a “sale” when they as sellers truly understand the person making the purchase. Ultimately, the enrollment team that really "gets" their parent has more success at not only yielding that family, but also retaining them for years to come. Nowadays, however, this strategy is in distress.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic made painting a picture of the future an impossible task? What happens, say, in the noise and upset of the pandemic, when things feel like they may never be the same? Can we still rely on trusted examples of parent personas of our past to direct our efforts to enroll the schools of our future? I'd argue that despite the cloud and uncertainty of the present, parent personas are still a perfect place to start.

As much as we are all adjusting to the experience of this once-in-a-generation disturbance, it is safe to trust that what parents want for their children, through this upheaval, fundamentally prevails. In a survey of a group of friends and coworkers, all parents with school-aged children, 100% of respondents indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way their families shop and invest. While some reported minimal changes in when and how they now make purchasing decisions, others expressed becoming much more modest and conservative. However, education and quality of life topped the list of what was most important to them and their families. What this tells me, even in light of a small and diverse group of respondents, is that what we are willing to invest in our children to see them reach their best does not wax and wane according to our ability or potential to do so.

Last week, I had a great talk with Brendan Schneider, The Director of Advancement at Sewickley Academy in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Brendan had done groundbreaking marketing work on behalf of Sewickley as its Admissions Director, utilizing carefully crafted parent personas to more accurately attract prospective families and to deliberately engage with them through the admissions funnel. Initially, Brendan and I joked that a phone call, after a day full of Zoom meetings, was like a return to the “good old days” and, unwittingly, a most welcome interruption. I asked Brendan for some advice to help schools reinforce their value propositions in this time of great unpredictability. As he replied, Brendan recollected his time in admissions, a time when he had become a much better listener, hearing families expressing what was most important to them, so that he could then respond in kind. While noting that this pandemic will absolutely change how people search for schools, he also rendered, familiarly, that he isn’t quite sure what that is going to mean. Indeed, none of us do, which is why now is the perfect time to begin, or to revisit, persona work.

When there is finally a moment available to recover from this past school year’s melee, and space to re-envision the 2020-21 school year, Brendan suggests the following:

  • Give yourself and your team the time and space to think strategically
  • Make the conversation local
  • Focus on one message and ONLY on items that are actionable for your school
  • Nail that message down and move on from there

COVID-19 has forced us all, schools and families alike, to examine our priorities and to reexamine the ways in which we work to achieve our most important goals. While this time has allowed us all the impetus to innovate, the foundations of our best practices are still fashioned from raw fact-finding and wrought with intentionality, and while our customers are likely transforming in fashion, they are arguably not changing at all in principal.

So even though we have the ability to Zoom, let’s be unafraid, every once in a while, to resort to a good, old-fashioned phone call. In light of everything swiftly changing shape around us, let’s be flexible and ready to pivot, building upon our exacting research, rather than reinventing what we know to be a well-designed wheel.

About the Author

Melissa Providence

Melissa is an Associate Director of Membership and Business Development for EMA. Formerly she was at the Speyer Legacy School in New York, where she served as the Director of Secondary School Placement. Prior to that, she held positions in high school and college placement, diversity, admission, and financial aid, at the Oliver Scholars Program, the Nightingale-Bamford School, Bronx Prep Charter School, and Prep For Prep, all schools and community-based organizations located in New York. Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

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