“All the marketing in the world is not going to help if you do not offer a quality program.”
I often get asked, “What are the best ways to build enrollment in my early childhood program?” There’s no easy answer. As a matter of fact, a good marketing program coupled with a mediocre early childhood program will actually lead to declining enrollment. Why? Because a good marketing program means that people will learn sooner rather than later of the program’s poor quality. Parents are smart consumers. You can bring them in with smooth talking and glitzy marketing, but if the program is not high quality, parents will not stay. Parents will also not refer their friends, family, co-workers or neighbors unless you offer a top quality program that meets their needs and their children’s needs.
There are many good evaluation tools and checklists you can use to assess your program’s quality. My favorites include the booklets published by NAEYC’s National Academy of Early Childhood Programs and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales. I encourage all directors to take a look at your program and make any necessary changes before beginning a full scale marketing program.
You already know that it is important to know how many young children and families live in your area. However, you also need to know something about the families you want to attract to your program. What benefits and features of an early childhood program appeal to them? What is the average size of these families? How old are the children? Where do the parents live and work? Why would they want to come to your center? When you know some of these answers, you will know what types of written materials to develop for them, how to reach them when you promote your program and what to talk about when they call and visit.
Once you know your parents a little better, plan how you’ll appeal to them. Do you have a brochure? How about a logo? Are you advertising in places that reach your potential parents? I was once taught the 5 P’s that may help: PRICE, PROGRAM, PLACE, PROMOTION and PARENTS. All 5 should be working together. For example, the price should be one the parents you are trying to attract can afford, and your program should be consistent with the needs in your neighborhood. And remember: what you’re marketing should be reflected in the quality of care the children in your center are receiving.
Know what makes your program special. What makes your program different from, and better than, all the other early childhood programs in your area? Why do parents come to your center rather than the one down the street? However you answer this – your staff/child ratios, extracurricular programs, price or teacher qualifications – becomes your competitive advantage. It should become the foundation of your marketing efforts.
Know your competition. Visit them, not just once, but periodically during the year. Find out tuition prices, their services, the kinds of families they attract and what makes them special. When you know your competition, you know what you are doing better. This becomes the focus for everything you do to build enrollment. Be careful how you define your competition. Don’t limit yourself to other programs just like yours. For example, if you are an all day child care center, are family child care homes competing with you for children? How about public school programs? It is important to look at all programs that offer services to children in your area.
The last step is to develop a strategy for action. Make no mistake about it: a center without an action plan will not succeed in building enrollment. There are too many distractions in your job as director to keep you from building enrollment. So when you’re ready to get started, be realistic, be patient, remain committed, do some delegating and have fun. Action plans and knowing your target audience will get you enrollment and happy customers.