Admissions and enrollment teams put a lot of time and effort into attracting new families through engaging campaigns, immersive campus experiences, and consistent communication. While all of these methods can be extremely powerful at boosting enrollment and ensuring long-term retention, nothing is quite as persuasive as a genuine parent referral.
When people are looking to make important decisions, they overwhelmingly trust their peers over any form of marketing. When a referral from a fellow parent is accompanied by positive, personalized admissions and enrollment experiences, there’s no competition.
But, how do you encourage current students’ parents to refer your school to their network of friends and family? We’ve seen what works (and what doesn’t) for successfully driving parent word-of-mouth referrals.
Why are Parent Referrals So Important?
Referrals are often the most trusted source of information, making them the most powerful.
Suppose you’re on the market for a new vehicle. First, you peruse car manufacturer websites to get details about cars you’re interested in buying. Maybe you even sign up for marketing emails and visit local dealerships to chat with sales reps.
Then, your coworker hears you’re on the market and starts raving about the car they recently bought. They tell you all about the great gas mileage, the tech, and the safety features. This conversation legitimizes the manufacturer’s claims — and it also gives you a chance to get first-hand insight into what it’s really like to drive and maintain the car.
Which experience will factor more heavily into your decision? While the specs, marketing messages, and experience of seeing the vehicle in person will certainly impact your choice, chances are that the conversation with a peer will leave a stronger impression. Because, no matter how much you trust the manufacturer or dealership, you’ll always trust a peer more.
Of course, the decision about purchasing a car pales in comparison to a family’s decision about their child’s education. But the fundamentals are the same: a referral from a peer doesn’t just outweigh communications from the school, it also helps support all those wonderful claims you and your team make about your institution and can help foster a family’s trust.
How to Successfully Ask for Parent Referrals
Developing a sustainable referral program is a form of art. It takes dedication, genuine relationship-building, and careful timing. However, the most important part is just to get started.
1. Identify Group of Parents to Target
First, decide who you want referrals from. The easy answer is “everyone” — but it’s best to start with a core group of highly satisfied and highly engaged families who will become your parent ambassadors. Then you can expand outward.
Start by looking for families who are involved in your school community. For example, if you have a parochial school, you might look for parents who are highly involved in the parish. Or, you might seek out families that are well-connected to a community you’re hoping to attract. For instance, an independent school in Seattle would benefit from engaging a parent that works at Amazon and could sing their praises to newly relocated coworkers.
Additionally, consider parents who have approached the school about getting more involved, or those who rank in the top tier of your Net Promoter Score (NPS).
2. Designate a Program Leader
While every member of your admissions and enrollment team should be involved in supporting referrals, you need a single point person to ensure consistent messaging and experiences. Select one person from your team who will prepare the game plan, ensure it is running smoothly, and follow up and improve as needed. Your program leader should lead the charge on messaging to parents and serve as the primary point of contact for your referring parents.
3. Prepare a Gameplan
As with any initiative, it’s essential you start with a solid plan. Once you’ve identified which parents you want to engage for referrals, determine when you’ll ask, how you’ll ask, and who will ask.
A successful has four key elements in place:
1. A plan for asking parents directly
A referral is a big ask, and it’s crucial you recognize this when you approach potential parent ambassadors. Whenever possible, make the request in person so you can fully express the importance of the effort and how much you value their family. If an in-person conversation isn’t possible, a phone call can be sufficient.
Stay away from asking parents via emails or text messages. Although these messages can be personalized, a direct conversation is much more powerful — and will ensure nothing is lost in translation.
2. A plan for connecting parent ambassadors and prospective families
Once parents agree to provide referrals, the process varies from school to school. For example, one school could match parents up over email, or coordinate meetups over coffee. You may also choose to connect parents over your website, as Woodward Academy does using this interactive chat feature:
Through this interactive element, prospective families can view profiles of current families, parents, and alumni — and try to find a family most similar to theirs. From here, they can send a direct message or request a phone call.
No matter how you choose to enable parents to provide referrals, the end goal is to show a prospective family that they are not alone at your school. This means, for example, matching up STEM parents with other families interested in STEM and families who have financial aid questions with ambassadors that are familiar with that process.
3. Unified and coordinated messaging
As you expand your referral program, remember that a referral can take many forms. Some parents might recommend your school directly to a neighbor or friend, while others might share information about your school across their workplace. Some parents might bring a fellow parent to an event while others might better serve you by engaging with parents at critical points throughout the admissions process.
While you want parents to share an authentic perspective of your school, it’s important to unify the narrative, align messaging, and make things easy for parents. Give them scripts for phone calls or templates for emails to help everyone save time and get on the same page.
4. A plan for improvement
Remember to document your plan so you can make tweaks and replicate your success with each new group of engaged parents.
4. Say “Thanks!” and Plan for What’s Next
Satisfied and engaged families who are willing to evangelize your school are worth their weight in gold — and it’s important you express your gratitude. If someone refers a family to your school, send a handwritten note along with a nice gift any parent will enjoy, like a school-branded fleece jacket (which also doubles as free advertising).
Once you’ve developed your parent referral network, the next step is to build a formal ambassador program of parent and student ambassadors. An ambassador program is a great way to leverage your parent ambassadors while also giving them the recognition they deserve.
And to learn more about getting your ambassador program off the ground, check out these three helpful blogs:
- Student Ambassadors: What They Do & Why You Need Them
- Using An Ambassador Program to Build Deeper Connections With Your Families
- How Private Schools are Engaging With Families, Running Virtual Shadow Days & Recruiting for the Fall
Don’t miss the opportunity to make the most of your relationships with happy and engaged families. After all, genuine parent referrals can be the most powerful enrollment tool you have.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cody Weaver is an Enrollment Solutions Consultant with Finalsite. Over the past 6 years he has focused on helping schools tackle the enrollment challenges they face. His main focus is educating clients on how to make data-driven decisions to reach their enrollment goals. Cody lives in Texas with his beautiful wife and two young boys. When he's not helping solve problems and increase a school's ROI, he loves to smoke brisket and try his hardest to keep his garden alive.