• Independent Schools
How (and Why!) to Host a School Focus Group
Hadley Rosen

Why Host a School Focus Group? 

Focus groups are essential to market research and allow schools the opportunity to speak to the types of people they want to learn more about as potential customers. From discovering how families learn about your school to the pains they’re experiencing, hosting a school focus group is an invaluable exercise to develop customer personae for the particular prospective families who are the right fit for your school. 

Holding a focus group and creating prospective family personae can help schools looking to enter a new market, like adding a lower school; can expand the power of a small marketing and communications staff, and can help schools better use their marketing budget to reach families in the right place and time with the right message. 

But, if you’ve thought hosting a school focus group would take too much of your limited time or if you’re worried that you don’t have the budget, bookmark this post. We’ll share tips and will give you new ideas to get started. 

Hosting a school focus group is a key aspect of inbound marketing and helps you develop personae and guides your strategy in reaching the right-fit families where they are in the journey from searching for your school to graduating and giving back.  

Persona: What You’ll Create at Your Focus Group

Personae are the semi-fictional representation of who your ideal family might be, based on both research and data about your enrolled students and alumni and on the information you gather in your focus group. Depending on the size of your school, type (pre-school, boarding, day, all-girls) you may have as few as one to two personas, or as many as 10 or 20.  But, don’t let that number overwhelm you: we recommend that you start with three ideal family personae for your focus group. 

PERSONAS ARE SHAPED AROUND:

  • Backgrounds, age, demographics
  • Personality
  • Goals
  • Challenges
  • Common objections
  • Budgets
  • Interests
  • Academic focus

The strongest personas are based on the kind of market research you’ll perform at your focus group as well as personal insights you and your colleagues already have of your actual families and alumni. This may not be ‘new’ information to your school, but rather a new way of applying what is already known.

An understanding of their motivators and obstacles can help craft and shape your marketing efforts towards these different personas. And, once personae are created, marketing efforts are more effective. Hubspot estimates that websites can be up to five times more effective.

From a marketing and admissions perspective, it makes sense to focus on developing detailed personae for prospective families, but this is also an exercise that can be used to help guide the communications strategy for advancement activities at the school.


Want to learn more about creating personas? Watch this webinar. 

WATCH NOW


Your School Focus Group, Step-by-Step

Now that you’ve learned about what personae are and why you need them, it’s time to organize your focus group. Here are the steps you’ll need to take.

Step 1: Select your attendees

With the goal of developing three prospective family personae, you should have a goal of eight to ten current families and three to five alumni attending your focus group. We’ve found that this number is the most manageable, and allows for individual attention and good group discussions.  

Select families and alumni who are similar to your ideal personae, for example:

  1. A family who had attended public school before your school
  2. A legacy family or a family with other children at independent schools 
  3. A family who found your school through social media or search and previously hadn’t considered independent school.
  4. A recent alum from the past five years
  5. A Millennial, Gen X or Boomer alum

Share an invitation with your invitees six to eight weeks before the event, and follow up with a personal call letting them know how valued they are this process. And, don’t forget to include people from on campus, too: admissions, advancement and faculty can add great insights to your conversation.  

Step 2: Send a pre-event survey

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of attendees and they’ve accepted, it’s time to send a short survey to hone the focus of your event, the development of personae.

In the survey, ask questions like:

  1. How did you find out about our school?
  2. Why did you select our school above others?
  3. What do you think the biggest challenge is facing our school?
  4. What’s your personal opinion of independent schools?
  5. What goals do you have for your child/self when you were a student?
  6. What motivates you and/or your child?
  7. Where do you find information about schools?
  8. What do you think makes a “good school”
  9. What has our school done to help you overcome your challenges and reach your goals?
  10. Is there any reason why you’d consider leaving our school?

Share your survey in an email (hint: Forms Manager makes this easy), making it due the week before your focus group. Then, review the results so that you and your colleagues can share the results with the group. 

Now it’s time to start the real work of the focus group by setting an agenda that’s respectful of your attendees’ time by keeping it to three hours, and beginning your persona work. In a typical three-hour school focus group, you will have time for a review of the group’s survey results, and work on persona worksheets for your three target personae.

A sample agenda for an evening focus group might be:

5:00 p.m. Welcome with Head of School Smith

5:15 p.m. Review and Discuss Survey Results

6:00-7:30 Dinner and Persona Worksheet Exercise

7:30-8:00 Discussion and Questions

Step 3: Host an awesome event

While you’ve probably hosted all kinds of awesome events at your school from reunions to prom, a focus group is a bit different. Your goal is to make your attendees feel appreciated, comfortable, and as experts in the subject (they are!) so that they can be open and honest during the process. 

This means finding the best room on campus—usually the one where you hold board meetings—feeding your attendees delicious food and drink, and providing some extras like spirit wear and school swag.  Bring in your head of school for a special welcome, too. 

The time of year can be important in having a successful event, and schools have found that tacking a focus group onto a weekend where families and alumni are likely to be on campus, like homecoming or reunion, can help with attendance. 

Now it’s time to start the real work of the focus group by setting an agenda that’s respectful of your attendees’ time by keeping it to three hours, and beginning your persona work. In a typical three-hour school focus group, you will have time for a review of the group’s survey results, and work on persona worksheets for your three target personae.

A sample agenda for an evening focus group might be:

5:00 p.m. Welcome with Head of School Smith

5:15 p.m. Review and Discuss Survey Results

6:00-7:30 Dinner and Persona Worksheet Exercise

7:30-8:00 Discussion and Questions

The Persona Worksheet is a group exercise where you will facilitate the group’s input to several questions, designed to assist in creative a persona narrative and quote for each of your three target personae.

It helps to name the persona something alliterative; “Nancy, the New-to-the-Area Mom” for example to help your group picture a semi-fictional person as they complete the exercise. 

Nancy the new to the area mom
Nancy the new to the area mom
Nancy the new to the area mom persona

Once these worksheets are complete for each persona, you and your colleagues will be able to create the persona narrative, like the example below:

Example Parent Persona #1

Nancy the New-to-the-Area Mom’s persona narrative and quote was developed with the help of the Persona Worksheet.  

Your persona narrative can now be used to guide your efforts as you think about the prospective family journey to enrolling at your school. 

Step 4: After the event, thank and thank again! 

After the event, send thank you notes, and call each participant if you can. It makes a big difference when your attendees know how appreciated their input was to the future of your school. Posting to social media and including pictures of the event in your school magazine or newsletter also shows participants how much you value their time. 

Hosting a school focus group does require some planning, time and money, but the results are worth it: the development of key family personae that will shape your marketing and communications efforts to grow enrollment and retention. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HadleyRosen

Hadley is Finalsite's Director of Communications and is a former independent school teacher, fundraiser and marketing director with a passion for cooking, travel, and spending time outdoors with her growing family. She founded the FinalsiteFM podcast network and enjoys meeting Finalsite clients from around the world.

  • Marketing/Communications
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