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Child care and marketing. If you’re not used to seeing those terms together, you’re not alone.
Marketing seems so … big business, right? It feels like your child care setting ought to get by on reputation alone. And in a perfect world, that’d certainly be the case.
Unfortunately, the past year has been pretty un-perfect. I would even dare to say it’s been bad. Among the many pressures the pandemic has put on child care, one’s been particularly painful: People just aren’t enrolling in child care like they used to.
So what do we do about it?
Well, if you ask Michael Tasner, it’s time we talk more about child care marketing.
Michael has been working in child care marketing for 11 years. He’s the CEO of No Joke Marketing, and has worked with hundreds of American child care providers to help build their promotional efforts. As he sees it, all the bumps and bruises of 2020 have made child care marketing more and more important for the sector.
“The pandemic upended our business model in so many ways, especially in that we can’t rely on parent referrals like we used to. Now providers who never really had to spend much time on marketing have to understand how to do it,” he says.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the best tips for child care marketing in 2021. I’ll look at how you can get a clear picture of the perfect future customer for your child care center — and then we’ll talk about the most effective ways to reach them.
But first, let’s start with that cynical question: Why bother with marketing?
In a sentence, child care marketing matters more than ever because we can no longer rely on the same sources for new enrollments.
“It’s no longer an ‘if you build it, they will come’ sort of environment. You’ve got to be proactive in understanding who your customers are, and connecting with them,” Michael says.
Historically, child care settings’ best source of new customers has been parent referrals. But with on-and-off lockdowns and child care closures, this passive source of new customers just isn’t what it used to be. Because the pandemic put such a dent in new enrollments, Michael says providers need to get more proactive with marketing.
Granted, this is easier said than done. Especially when budgets are tight, finding the money for marketing might not seem like a priority. But as Michael sees it, child care marketing has got more and more to do with your bottom line.
“A lot of child care providers are used to spending nothing on marketing. So if your budget is zero, anything is going to seem expensive,” Michael says. “But we’re getting to the point where if you don’t do any marketing, you’ll start losing enrollments to the providers that are.”
When Michael starts advising new clients on child care marketing, he starts by pulling up a map.
Looking at geography can be very telling. It helps you understand what neighborhoods your future customers might live in, and how far people are willing to drive to come to your setting. Plus, you’ve already got the data you need to do this.
“Most of my customers are sitting on a gold mine of data,” Michael says. “They’ve already collected a lot of the information they need in what they’ve got about their current and past customers.”
A great place to start is by looking at your records, pulling the addresses of current and past customers, and plugging them all into a map. Once you’ve got them all charted, you can look for patterns:
As an average across the US, Michael says, child care customers tend to come from within a 5- to 8-mile radius of your setting. But this can vary depending on where you are. In a big city, that radius might be as small as a quarter mile — and in rural areas, it could be as big as 50 miles.
Knowing where your families come from is a good first step in building up your marketing efforts. It’ll help you understand where potential customers might be, and where you should target your marketing within your city.
You might have heard the abbreviation USP before. That stands for ‘unique selling point’.
Within child care marketing, it refers to something special about your setting that might affect where your customers come from, or how far they’re willing to travel for your care. Knowing your USPs might help give you a clue on how to target your marketing efforts.
So how does your setting compare to other child care providers in your area? Michael points to the following USPs as examples that might set you apart:
If you have some factor that sets your program apart, think about how that might affect where you find your customers. Would parents live in a certain neighborhood, or frequent any local business? Would they read some specific publication, or be more likely to use a certain website or social media platform?
All of these factors can help shape how, when and where you connect with your ideal customers. But, as Michael says, you don’t need to have that unique factor.
“A lot of the time, the answer is no, and that’s alright. Sometimes there are just a lot of centers in your same area, so it’s hard to really be unique,” he says. “In that case, you’ve just got to out-market the competition. Invest more, spend more, put out more ads, get in front of people more strongly.”
Of course, depending on your setting’s size and budget, this can often be easier said than done. Still, any marketing is better than nothing — and there are plenty of ways to promote your setting that don’t cost a cent.
You probably know the parents at your setting pretty well. But where does that knowledge come from? Likely through some back-and-forth texts, and quick conversations during morning drop-offs.
If you can put all that parent knowledge organized on paper, you’ll get a whole new picture of who connects with your child care setting.
The easiest way to do this is through parent surveys. With online platforms like Surveymonkey, you can send a quick questionnaire straight to parents’ inboxes. It’s a quick, simple and cost-free way to paint a picture of who to target with your child care marketing.
If you’re sending out one of these simple surveys, you’ll want to ask about what made your setting stand out to your customers. Here are some questions you might ask:
If you want an even sharper picture of who prefers your child care center, you can get more detailed with your parent surveys.
An in-depth survey can help you understand what type of people prefer your care, based on your existing enrollments. The thing is, you might need to sweeten the deal if you’re asking a lot of questions.
Michael recommends incentivizing survey respondents with a gift card, or entering respondents in a raffle. He’s found that a $20 gift card can get parents to spend 30 to 40 minutes answering a survey.
In that in-depth survey, here’s what you might try to learn about your parents:
But wait, why would you need to know what radio stations your families listen to, or what magazines they read?
Fair question. It’s not actually about advertising on the airwaves — it’s because you can learn a lot from what that radio station knows about their listeners.
Most every radio station and sizable publication has a media kit. It’s a collection of information about a media outlet’s audience, which is meant to help advertisers decide if that’s the right place to put an ad.
But the thing is, anyone can access those media kits. Radio stations and publications often make them available on their website, or you could email or call them to request a copy.
Oftentimes, that media kit can give you a very sharp picture of a target audience. You might learn more about an average family size, average income, level of education, consumer habits, their values and preferences. You can use all that to help sharpen your marketing efforts.
So if your parent survey says that a lot of your families listen to a certain radio station, or read some magazine, go request their media kit. It’ll give you a high-resolution picture of who your target might be, and how you can best connect with them.
So, you’ve got a picture of your ideal client, and now you’re ready to launch a marketing campaign and watch the enrollments come rolling in.
But what’s the most effective place to place an advertisement in 2021?
According to Michael, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by focusing your child care marketing budget on social media, local publications and partnerships. Here’s why:
Digital platforms for child care marketing
Local platforms for child care marketing
As Michael sees it, one of the biggest new shifts in child care marketing is the need to get out and chase down new customers. Waiting for the occasional referral to come in might not cut it anymore.
Scrolling past a Facebook ad might put your child care setting on a parent’s mind, but that deal is far from sealed. Michael says the key to good child care marketing is being persistent with your follow-up calls, once you’ve made that first impression with your marketing.
He knows this isn’t exactly the norm within the sector.
“The idea of marketing is a little scary to a lot of people in child care. Calling potential customers during business hours, sending text messages and emails, making that second follow-up phone call, it can feel aggressive,” he says. “But those leads you get from Facebook and Google advertising aren’t the same as parent referrals, who are basically pre-sold. You’ve really got to follow up with your child care marketing to see results.”
Especially when our budgets are particularly tight, marketing might not seem like the most important expense. But Michael says putting some funds and energy into marketing now could make the coming months easier.
“A lot of child care centers are scaling back right now, and taking their finger off the pulse. But if you’re doing that and other providers aren’t, you’ll risk losing out to them,” he says. “For marketing and landing enrollments, now is really the time to double down and come out swinging.”
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.