Creating a strategic plan for your school without market research is like going on a cross country trip without GPS, a map, weather apps, etc. You need data to plan where you need to go.
Schools often refer to strategic planning as a “visioning” process. They gather trustees, parents, faculty/staff, alumni and students to daydream about what the school could be. Strategic goals follow suit.
But you can’t plan in a vacuum. Market research allows you to hear directly from the marketplace and validate your hypotheses about what your audiences think and feel about your school. These factors will undoubtedly shape and prioritize your strategic plan. Knowing exactly what people, internally and externally, think about your school – and the data to back it up – are essential to developing the broad vision of a strategic plan.
“By committing to market research, we were able to get deeper impressions of how we were viewed in the community—and so we were better able to fine tune our messaging to better address matters on the minds of our target audience. It helped us clarify the ‘jobs to be done’ for our potential families.”— Neil Mufson, Head of School, The Primary Day School
How Market Research Makes a Difference
A lot has changed for independent schools since 2020. The market has become more complex, and how families think about school options has shifted. You may have anecdotal perspectives on this, but they don’t take the place of validating, statistical data from a broad audience.
It’s not just educational trends. You need to know if your messaging still resonates with your market. Think of it this way. Your school has spent a lot of time and money on your messaging. Market research will tell you what perceptions the market has about your school and whether your messaging is relevant and meaningful to your audiences. And it may not be what you think it is—or want it to be.
You need real data about your audiences’ preferences, perceptions and expectations about your school. Market research lets you to know—not guess—what your place is in the market. With these key market insights, you can more confidently assess and analyze how to plan strategically for your school’s next chapter.
Market Research Questions for Better Strategic Planning
You may have questions about your tuition strategy or about an academic division. For example, maybe your lower school has experienced a decline since the pandemic. Or a few of the feeder preschools you relied on have closed and you are considering opening a preschool. These are big questions that need real data to shape decisions.
Before you start a market research process, you need to get your strategic questions down on paper to ask your stakeholders. What they say should guide your research plan.
There’s another key question: Will you do the research yourself or hire an outside research firm? If your school needs answers from the market beyond your internal community, the most strategic and effective research program is one done by a professional market research firm who have proven methodologies to reach your specific audiences. It’s a worthwhile investment.
To find a firm, get referrals and send out a Request for Proposals (RFP). Start with firms that work in the educational space and have considerable experience in conducting a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods. Experts also can help you hone your strategic questions.
What Goes into Market Research?
Market research is invaluable intel based on what’s important to your market. Good market research includes two important steps.
- Qualitative data: Focus groups, phone and/or in-person in-depth, one-on-one interviews. The latter can allow for more confidential feedback and avoid groupthink. Qualitative data is summarized and analyzed into a report that can spark direction for your strategic plan but most importantly, inform the development of a quantitative phase of your market research.
- Quantitative data: Large numbers of internet or phone surveys that prove your hypotheses developed in the qualitative phase with statistical significance so you can be sure of your conclusions.
Think broadly about the stakeholders you may wish to hear from in the qualitative phase. You want input and data from internal and external audiences. You might include community leaders or, if your school rents its campus to many community groups, a few of the individuals who lead the sports leagues or camps. For alumni, be sure to include recent alumni currently in college (or in high school, if your school goes until 8th grade). Their insight about your school is more current than someone who graduated 25 years ago.
Be sure to include families who were accepted but did not enroll in your school. Yes, there are anecdotal interviews done by your admissions team. That data is not definitive. The responses families gave to the nice admissions team may not really be why they did not enroll their child. An independent, neutral thirty party can often elicit more detailed insights.
Market research reveals pain points—those decision-making and decision-changing issues, such as price, location, program, etc.—in a format designed to give transparent, honest feedback. Once you know what your prospects’ pain points are, you can address them in your messaging. Then you can develop strategic planning goals that meet your market’s pain points.
Allow enough time to gather data and analyze it before you start scheduling strategic planning sessions. Typically, a market research study takes 8-12 weeks.
READ MORE about what Market Research is in our free PDF, Market Research: What It Is and Why It Matters.
How can Kalix Marketing Group help with market research? Give us a call at 410-662-5925.