School Marketing Research: A Case Study of a PreK-8 School's Feeder Network

No practitioner of school marketing should ever forget the power of research. Now it is true that not every school can have an "Office of Institutional Research", but a solid market research plan needs to happen if schools want to maintain a well-managed feeder network. Feeder schools are one whose graduates can reliably become students of another school. 

What is School Market Research?

Marketing cannot, and should not be done without a consistent and committed quantitative and qualitative approach. This can only be achieved through market research which looks to gather, analyze and interpret information in the market. For this case, we are looking at schools, and the market which they form. It can be very tempting to overlook this step, but in reality, there is a market of competing schools in which every school finds itself. Secondly, there is a network of feeder schools which each school should actively manage. These two ideas are the backbone for School Market Research. 

Feeder School Management

The first branch to investigate is the idea of feeder school management. A feeder school is a school out of which comes many of your own school's current and prospective students. They may be linked geographically or through affinity. A student in a French pre-school might continue either in an elementary school in the neighborhood, or might choose the French elementary school across town. For a specific school to be able to manage and understand their feeder network is quite important, since this will be where the majority of your prospective families will come from. Looking at fig. 1, one will see the emergence of two types of feeder schools, the main feeders, and the second-degree feeder schools. The latter's graduates will go to the feeder schools. An example is an elementary school (2nd degree feeder) sending its students to a middle school ( feeder), ad they later come to your high school. 

fig. 1. The Feeder School Network

fig. 1. The Feeder School Network

It is of course quite possible for second-degree feeder graduates to attend an unplanned school, for reasons ranging from personal conflict, to a job loss, to a loss in the family, and even a change in family status. The two main catalysts for the creation of this network are, as was stated above, geographical and affinity based. 

Geography. Why do parents send students to a specific school. For many, it has to do with geography. This school is close to their home, or work, and it will be the main reason why they choose one school over another. They will come from feeder schools that are close by, and preferably within less than a 20-minute drive. If they drove 20 minutes to send their children to grade school, then they will be quite reluctant to send their children to middle school. When doing such an analysis, it is important to look at the number of potential schools within a 20-minute drive from where you are. 

As an example, let's take St. Agatha Catholic School in Portland, OR. This Pre-8 school has feeder schools which are schools K-5 (leading to Middle School and Preschools (leading to Kindergarten). A geographic map analysis can be done which looks at the area within a 20-minute drive from the school, the total number of K-5 schools in the area and preschools. See fig 2.

fig. 2. Map of potential Feeder Schools in a 20-minute driving radius from St. Agatha School in Portland, OR

fig. 2. Map of potential Feeder Schools in a 20-minute driving radius from St. Agatha School in Portland, OR

Affinity. Some parents are not going to send their children to a school which is geographically close by, but one that is closer in a social way. Parents of a specific religion, sending their children to a religiously affiliated school of the same denomination are going to prefer more of the same once their child(ren) graduate and will need more education. Affinity does not necessarily mean that there is a religious connection, it could be a values connection. Some younger parents might be attracted to the social justice element of a school's curriculum. When their child graduates from the 8th grade, they may with for them to deepen this approach with a high school which shares affinity with the previous school. An elementary Lutheran school would more likely send their students to a Lutheran high school if they put values as an important aspect of a school experience for their own kids. 

Continuing with our example with St. Agatha Catholic School in Portland OR. The school is a Catholic school, part of the Archdiocesan school district in the area. Parents who have sent their children to K-5 or preschool catholic feeder schools might be more responsive to the school's marketing. See fig 3. 

fig 3.  Map of potential Catholic Feeder Schools in a 20-minute driving radius from St. Agatha School in Portland, OR

fig 3.  Map of potential Catholic Feeder Schools in a 20-minute driving radius from St. Agatha School in Portland, OR

Conclusion. It is in putting the geography and the affinity together which can allow for a much more focused approach to targeted school marketing. Having a knowledge of which schools are your feeders, which schools can be future feeder schools, and which ones are no longer able to provide you with a steady stream of students, can help you aim your marketing resources more efficiently. 

With the St. Agatha Catholic School example, we notice that there is an affinity (Catholic schools), and a desired geographic proximity within a 20-minute drive. Putting both of these together will increase the quality of feeder leads.  See fig 4 for Catholic pre-schools. 

fig. 4  Map of feeder Catholic pre-schools in a 20-minute driving radius from St. Agatha School in Portland, OR

fig. 4  Map of feeder Catholic pre-schools in a 20-minute driving radius from St. Agatha School in Portland, OR

Limitations

There are a number of limitations in this model. The first one is that parents who have their children in a catholic pre-school would find it much easier to keep their students in the same school since all such schools are in a preK-8 system. Disassociation from a school is tough, since social networks are formed very tightly. Secondly, the limitation comes from the tools used to perform the analysis. The author used Google Maps, and a commute-measuring add-on for the same program. These programs are quite limited, and further, more detailed research is important. 

Practical recommendation for the case study school

According to the research, St. Agatha Catholic Schools should focus their limited marketing resources on both standalone Catholic pre-schools, and standalone Catholic K-5 schools. This of course does not mean that it should neglect other constituents, but that the stated groups should receive extra focus. Looking to attract students from other preK-8 schools would result in a low chance of success, since separating parents from a school in which they can simply continue is a tough sell. Standalone pre-schools and K-5 schools are very important to look at, even if they are not Catholic, since religiosity might not be the most pressing issue to other segments of the parent population. Catholic schools bring a whole slew of other attributes, such as heritage, history, discipline and quality of academics.