How to market to prospective students by marketing to their parents

It's harder than ever to get the attention of prospective students, leaving recruitment teams to increasingly look for back channels through which to engage them. One of the most effective, and sometimes untapped channels, are parents and carers.

For most institutions, content has already been developed to arm parents with useful information and naturally to persuade them to encourage their children to apply.

But how can institutions go the extra mile to deliver communications and engagement opportunities for parents so they can become advocates for enrollment at your institution?

The benefits of engaging parents, carers and supporters

Before we look at strategies, tactics and some examples, it's worth reading about the influence this audience has in the recruitment process.

Earlier this year Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL) launched a report on how to amplify the digital engagement of high school students during the university search process. The parent findings make interesting reading.

  • Parents contacted the institution on behalf of a student in only 4% of cases.
  • However, 54% of students were willing to share their parent's email addresses with institutions, and 42% were happy to share their parent's phone numbers.
  • More importantly, after meeting an admissions representative, nearly half of the students discussed the institution with parents.
  • And 6 out of every 10 students said their parents or carers were engaged during the university search process.
  • 62% of students also stated that their parents had helped review university options.

An additional research study found last year that sending recruitment marketing communications to parents boosted application rates by up to 10%.

Clearly parents are involved and influential in the institution selection process for students.

Overcoming the barriers to communicating with parents

Despite parents' heavy influence, some enrollment teams have been slow to engage them effectively.

One reason for the hesitation might be a fear that marketing directly to parents could turn them off. But in a study published in the US last year, 74% of parents said they believed universities should communicate with them directly in the recruitment process.

But even if universities do make the decision to actively engage with parent and carer audiences, reaching them isn't always easy. There are, however, some observations that can help.

  • Firstly, a student lead can also be a parent/carer lead. As we discovered earlier, 54% of students were willing to share their parent's email addresses with institutions. Providing incentives and opportunities to do this provide the vital hooks to begin the relationship-building process with parents.
  • Parents are information gatherers just like prospective students and want to be informed to support their children through the decision process. A visit to the university website should provide opportunities for parents and carers to identify themselves and submit their details to receive updates and useful, timely information.
  • Any parent data submissions can be followed up with email campaigns tailored to parents in the recruitment cycle.
  • Developing parent-specific content and resources, signposting to them from campaigns and through effective navigation on the website itself and optimizing these pages to rank organically can help parents quickly discover content relevant to them.

Universities are raising their parent and carer content game

Institutions with a dedicated objective to engage parents and carers are naturally investing in content. Information typically covers admissions guides, enrolment timetables, finance and funding, accommodation details, academic support and health, and wellbeing guides as well as maps and contact information.

And these content initiatives continue to rise in quality. Northumbria University, for example, has developed a user-friendly resource area for parents as well as a guide to the institution in high definition video format with testimonials from students and their parents.

The University of Birmingham meanwhile has a dedicated Facebook group for parents to join to learn more about the institution and connect with other parents.

Sydney University and other institutions include a dedicated guide and newsletters for parents to download and print.

And at Duke University there is a vast amount of useful content both on the website and on social media for parents and carers, backed up by initiatives that create a sense of community such as parent and family orientation events, a parent newsletter, videos, blog content and a podcast.

Ways to engage parents to aid student recruitment

We've demonstrated that parents are a key part of the decision-making process for many students, and they tend to seek out information and engagement opportunities. Furthermore, their involvement is typically welcomed by the students they support.

We've also shown that the quality of content that connects with them continues to rise. But how else can institutions engage parents and carers?

The good news is that the playing field in this area is varied and there are lots of initiatives universities can implement and experiment with. Here are six tactics to consider.

1. Engaging parents early on in the recruitment cycle brings benefits. Parents are more open to considering institutions further away from home and different types of institutions earlier in their children's time at school and early engagement with them puts you ahead of competitors.

2. Cost remains a major barrier to applications and it has been identified as one of the most pressing concerns for parents.

Recruitment teams who help parents to understand fees, for example using cost calculators and the funding options available for programs, stand to benefit.

3. Creating events specifically for parents and making them convenient and accessible can pay dividends. Consider evening campus tours, parent Q&As sessions at open days and live streaming events such as a parents welcome address, to increase inclusion and engagement.

4. Digital activity aimed at parents and carers should be created to align with their online behavior patterns.

For instance, parents engage with digital marketing even more than students do, with click rates typically 1.5 times higher than their children.

Parents are also more likely than students to return to ads repeatedly. Very few universities currently target parents and carers with pay per click activity, but creating paid search campaigns could be highly effective in reaching parents and directing them to relevant website content and to sign up for updates.

5. Parents are keen to connect with others in the process of selecting an institution. Establishing group communication options will encourage registrations and affiliation for the institution by enabling parents and carers to connect. Options include groups on Facebook, WhatsApp or private group messaging services such as Slack.

6. Parents and carers will respond favorably to timely, personalized communications. Consider putting in place data capture opportunities specifically for parents and carers on the website.

This will enable you to capture their details, deliver information which is tailored to the program preferences of the students they support, and create email campaigns with useful information bespoke to their circumstances throughout the recruitment period.

By marketing to parents, universities get backdoor access to the next generation of students

The majority of institutions recognize that parents and carers play an important role in a student's enrolment journey. They want to hear from institutions and are receptive to marketing, yet the opportunity to engage with them is still relatively untapped.

With student recruitment becoming ever more competitive, it makes even more sense to target parents creatively. Institutions that put investment behind content initiatives and digital marketing that keeps them informed and in the loop are set to benefit.