Using Market Research to Elevate Marketing Strategy
At Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, Ohio, we recently invested in a market research study to deepen our understanding of the three personas that make up our key audiences. The market research, which took the form of interviews, surveys and focus groups, helped inform our strategic marketing plan, including our key messaging. In this article, learn about our key findings, including a few surprising insights, and how you can apply the same market research practices to elevate your school’s marketing efforts.
With a goal of communicating with strategy, we recently reviewed our marketing to see if we were reaching our audience with messaging that truly resonated. As career marketers, we had some assumptions about who was attracted to the school, but we also understood a concept known as the buying-selling paradox. Often, schools like ours focus on the rational benefits of a Jewish education, whereas our buyers—parents—make their decision nearly entirely based on emotions. Instead of focusing our marketing efforts on the nuts and bolts of a Jewish education, should we instead try to tell a compelling and emotionally charged story?
Marketing 101: Know your audience
You do not have to be a marketing professional to know one of marketing’s simplest rules: Know your audience. As we looked closely at our school’s data, we quickly saw our families fell into three loose marketing personas:
1) Those who actively sought out a pluralistic Jewish education for their children, primarily affiliated Reform and Conservative families.
2) Those who wanted to have a more private-school experience, but stumbled into Jewish education for a myriad of reasons.
3) A small but growing number of Modern Orthodox families who are prioritizing a stronger secular curriculum for their children.
What exactly is a persona?
A marketing persona (sometimes called a buyer persona) is a representation of a group of customers who have similar goals, buying journeys and personal profiles. Personas help you visualize the ideal customer you are trying to attract. They help you relate to your prospects as real humans.
While sometimes conflated with demographic outlines, personas tend to be more benefit-driven. Instead of using fictionalized personas, we shared our three personas with actual examples of families from our school to illustrate this philosophy to our board of directors.
Ultimately, we used terms and abbreviations to define each of the three personas:
1) Jewish Identity (JI)
2) Values-Based (VB)
3) Lessons of the Torah (LT)
We have since used these personas for other reasons beyond marketing, such as recruiting a diversified group of new board members.
Why does each of our personas choose Mandel?
Using a third-party firm, we set out to conduct market research to confirm our three-persona hypothesis and better understand the drivers of their buying decisions. We had some assumptions about the buying process, but we did not have ample information to determine how to optimize our marketing strategy. We started by listing out some key questions that we wanted to understand: Why do our families really choose Mandel JDS? What is the underlying emotion behind their buying decision? Are we emphasizing the right elements in the recruitment process? Are we reaching our broadest possible audience?
While you can do market research on your own (see suggestions for how to get started at the end of this article), we opted to hire an expert to help guide us through the research process. Thanks to a recommendation from a marketing professional at another local Jewish organization, we quickly found a strategic partner who had terrific references and ample experience working with both private schools and Jewish organizations.
Structuring the market research
We decided to use a variety of research instruments to gain insights about our audience and their motivations for choosing a school for their children. We wanted to be sure to hear from our existing families, but equally important was hearing from families who had not chosen our school. Therefore, for each type of research, we included both “affiliated” and “non-affiliated” participants.
Exploratory interviews. Our first step was to conduct in-depth interviews with staff and current parents to develop insider, baseline information. Then we mapped those parents with additional parents from the community who represent the target personas but who are not affiliated with the school. Interviews were held one-on-one or in small groups, either in-person or via Zoom. In total, 16 interviews were conducted by our researcher. We found that using a third-party researcher to conduct the research created an unbiased, safe space for interviewees to be candid in their responses.
Quantitative online survey. Next, we conducted a survey of all of our key stakeholders, including faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, alumni parents and donors. We received 420 completed surveys, of which 49% represented parents of current students. The survey helped us identify motivators, communications channels, attitudes, behaviors and perceptions of Mandel JDS and other schools. It also provided a deeper understanding of the consideration set when choosing a school and mapped out the customer journey.
Focus groups. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, we conducted a series of focus groups with current and unaffiliated parents to help validate our messaging. During these focus groups, we explored perceptions of Jewish education in general as well as specific schools in our community. We also asked focus-group participants to respond to test messaging: a school concept, taglines and headlines, key phrases and even proposed imagery. We held seven focus groups, three with non-Mandel parents, two with current parents from the JI persona, and two with current parents from the VB persona. We split our focus groups by personas to gather and compare insights in order to craft customized messaging for each audience.
Key findings and insights
The first question we wanted to explore was whether or not we had gotten our personas right. The research heavily reinforced our first two personas, but showed that our third persona of Modern Orthodox families was simply too small (approximately 6%) to merit the allocation of marketing dollars. Instead, we learned that there was a spillover effect from our first persona (JI) to our third (LT); namely, by marketing to highly affiliated and engaged Reform and Conservative Jewish families in our community, Modern Orthodox families that were not fully or adequately supported by other options for day schools in our community would naturally be drawn to our school. Instead of allocating marketing dollars, we made a commitment to meet this segment of our community through programmatic efforts. For example, we sponsored the Kiddush at the local Modern Orthodox minyan on Shabbat and added a new afterschool program led by a local Rabba to explore stories in rabbinic Judaism.
The second insight we sought to clarify was how we could refine our positioning to better articulate the school’s value and help explain what makes us different from other options. We revised our positioning statement and identified six key aspects of our school’s personality. These brand elements are not intended for external use; rather, they exist to help us to emphasize the right elements of who we are throughout our marketing efforts.
The third benefit of our market research was the determination of the “reasons to believe” for each of our two primary personas.
What we learned about JI:
• They care about their children having a strong Jewish identity, pride in who they are, as if “it’s in their kishkes.”
• They are less interested in Talmud study, Jewish literacy, Hebrew language or Israel necessarily. It is more about the overall identity formation of knowing who you are and feeling good about it.
• They also value the small class sizes, the community and the individualized attention to their children.
What we learned about VB:
• They value small class sizes, community, individualized attention and the focus on social-emotional development.
• However, small class sizes are also an area of concern. This persona has expressed concern about the lack of “real diversity” and limited social choices.
• They feel Jewish values are generally a value-add, but they are more invested in their child growing up to be “a good, kind person.”
Here are some additional findings that are interesting and somewhat surprising:
• Many families do not take a data-driven approach to evaluating school options for their children; rather, they rely on their informal networks and their own personal perceptions and experience to determine which school may be the best fit.
• To our surprise, we learned that we are not competing with other independent private schools in our community. For the most part, we are competing with one other Jewish day school and public school options.
• Values are important to all of our families, regardless of persona. VB families are motivated by cultivating graduates with integrity and a strong moral compass, whereas JI families are motivated by cultivating graduates with a strong Jewish identity.
• Even though we consider ourselves “diverse” as a community day school, drawing from families across our region and from all streams of Judaic practice and affiliation, as well as many Hebrew-, Russian- and Spanish-speaking households, the word “diversity” is a non-starter, as it is perceived by our potential buyers as relating only to racial diversity. Some respondents felt it was inaccurate and inauthentic to use that term in our marketing.
• Social dynamics, especially in terms of class sizes, can often influence a family’s decision even more than academics or other reasons.
Marketing strategy, refined
As a result of our research findings, we built a new annual marketing plan to reach and engage our two personas. This includes:
1) Print advertising that leverages full-page ads in local magazines in key JI and VB geographic locations and our local Jewish newspaper, replete with new imagery, headlines and updated messaging to build awareness among new, prospective families.
2) Paid digital campaign that is highly targeted and helps build awareness and convert prospects into leads for recruitment purposes.
3) Two variations of our admissions viewbook, each focused on one of our two key personas, to help drive consideration and convert leads.
4) A pre-tour questionnaire to help identify the correct persona for prospects before they walk into our building.
Print Advertisement Examples (JI and VB)
Social Media Campaign Examples (JI and VB)
In addition, we identified additional marketing initiatives that need to be undertaken in future years:
• A website refresh focused on new messaging and positioning.
• An integrated storytelling campaign across channels to help reinforce our new positioning and key “reasons to believe” for each of our primary personas.
While the new marketing campaign has only been running for three months as of this article’s writing in March, we have already begun to see the impact. During that time, we ran four full-page print ads and launched a targeted digital advertising campaign.
To date, despite a significant Covid spike and winter break, we identified nearly 20 leads, 10 of which were qualified leads. Five out of these new leads toured the school and two have submitted applications for the 2022-2023 school year. In addition, we have seen significant increases in inquiries (12%), tours (44%), and applications (45%) versus one year ago.
While it is hard to know if these families already knew about our school or were planning to reach out regardless, these recent marketing efforts have increased our brand equity and created a funnel of new prospective families for our school in a way that we have never had before.
Simple steps to get started
If you are thinking about how you might be able to do your own market research, here are some suggestions:
1. Create a list or database of your current families along with key demographics (i.e. affiliation, why they chose your school) and start to look for natural groupings; these groups will form the basis of your marketing personas.
2. Create a list of “affiliated” and “non-affiliated” families who fit each of your personas.
3. Consider using a third-party researcher if your budget allows. If you are planning to do the market research yourself, figure out what kind of information you need from the personas to have a deeper understanding. Simple yes-or-no or multiple choice questions can be easily answered via survey, whereas open-ended questions or responding to headlines and photographs is better in an interview or focus-group format.
4. Using simple technology like Survey Monkey, send your survey to key stakeholders.
5. Review the data and look for trends to support or debunk your assumptions. Summarize your findings and share with your school’s leadership.
6. Leverage your new findings to update your marketing strategy and tactics.