School newsletters remain the most common tool that administrators use to keep parents up to date. Below is a video from a Montessori Administrator course offered by the CGMS that features Hubbli founder Jono Landon teaching the “do’s and don’t’s” of using emails and writing killer school newsletters that parents actually read.
For more content like this, you can also find Jono Landon hosting webinars with the Montessori Foundation.
If you prefer to read, the video transcript is below:
Okay. So let’s talk about some do’s and don’ts with email in general. Email is a great tool, but it’s really not always the ideal method to use for different forms of communication. So as an example, let’s say you’re working with a parent committee and you want to schedule a meeting, or let’s say you want to reschedule a meeting. I spoke with a school leader recently, they had a parent committee meeting scheduled and they had to just reschedule it. The method that they used to do that was the administrator sent a message from her to an email to the whole committee. So that was about five or six parents. She was trying to just reschedule a meeting. What happened was everybody was sending reply all emails back and forth.
The conversation thread became incredibly hard to manage because everybody’s just sending reply-all’s and then trying to figure out who said what and when that person’s available and then the sequence of the conversation and everyone’s using a different email system, it took about an hour for that person simply to reschedule a meeting. So it’s not a great experience for the parents, and it’s certainly not a great experience for the administrator. So things like that create frustration. I mean, that same thing goes for your staff. When you’re trying to communicate with a specific group of people and you want them to be able to reply to you and you want there to be a pleasant experience, one that’s not hard to actually engage the conversation, you want to think about using social groups.
So as an example, a Facebook group is one method that people use. Ideally, what you want to do is have a group where there can be a thread. So there are comments underneath. There might be one post by one person, and then other members of the group can then comment and continue on the conversation. But that conversation is now laid out so that everybody can see. It’s very clear all the different members that were communicating in that thread. That way everybody can see it, questions can be answered one time rather than people hitting reply all and then having to search through the history of the conversation.
When you use reply-all for group communications, when you’re using emails and using the reply all feature, as an analogy, you end up getting these kind of bowls of spaghetti kind of stacked on top of each other. It becomes very messy and hard to find the information you’re looking for. So again, social groups are much easier and more enjoyable way to communicate with groups of people. It reduce frustration and it will actually increase the enjoyment of parents engaging with you, their staff and one another.
Another good option for replacing emails for certain kinds of conversation is text messages. So you want a system that allows you to also send SMS short messages. So that way parents are much more likely to get the notification. So ideally, your communication system will allow you to post in one place, but it actually goes out in not just maybe as an email notification, but also shows up on that parent’s mobile phone. Again, ideal for broadcasting out to many people at one time, and helping to ensure that parents are informed. So the key is that, again, like I was referencing before, parents’ expectations around communication are really different than they were 10 years ago.
If you consider that today, you can hit a parent 10 times a day with a short message on their phone or through another short message system like tweets or Instagram or Facebook. By doing that, what you’re doing is you’re matching their current communication behaviors. As long as all of your communication is bite-size and 100% relevant, that’s a much more efficient and enjoyable way to be reminded about things that are going on in their child’s classroom or things that are going on across the school, rather than a really long newsletter that has a long, long list of dates and announcements.
Because it’s not like parents really want to ignore your emails. It’s just that everybody’s running around. They’re really, really busy and they’re increasingly more and more busy. They’re also getting pinged all over the place by these short little messages and so everybody is used to that. What happens when an email comes in from the school and it’s really long and it’s got a whole bunch of information, and they know that only a small portion of that information is actually relevant to them, then I don’t think anybody on purpose ignores them, but I think that there’s this cognitive dissonance. When they look at that email, they’re like, “Okay, I’ll get back to it later.”
But what ends up happening is then emails start piling on top of it and it ends up getting pushed down the bottom of their inbox. Not by wanting to ignore you, but essentially they end up missing the information. Of course when parents miss information, they’re not happy. When they come asking you for information on what’s going on, and although you’ve sent that newsletter, and maybe by that time they’re a little bit aggravated, that doesn’t lend to a great experience for either the parents or for the administration or the teachers who now have to work twice or three times as hard to make sure that everybody’s informed because they just keep on not reading those long, long newsletters.
So if you can match the behaviors of the parents the way they communicate today, you’re going to find a much higher rate of parent engagement and of your parents being informed of what’s going on. Ideally, parents actually engaging the communication rather than just letting it sit there at the bottom of their email inbox. One thing that’s really important that I’ve heard from a lot of different schools where they’re getting feedback from their parents because of different school communication systems that schools adopt is that you really want to make sure that parents don’t have to log into a system to get information. All the more so, you don’t want them to have to log in to respond to something. So there’s a lot of different parent portal applications out there that are being sold to schools.
What you want to look out for is that when you have a system that sends out information to the parents, it doesn’t require parents to actually log in. It’s not just a notification of, “Hey, you’ve got a message. Click here to log in,” because these are just added steps that parents don’t want to go through, and the more steps, the more labor you put in front of parents to engage the information that you need them to see, the more steps there are, the less likely they are going to actually get to seeing that information.
So ideally, whatever system you’re using, notifications should come out of that system. Ideally, it should always be filtered to the specific parents so that the only information they’re seeing is 100% relevant, shorter bits of information. It should hit them in their email inbox or their text messages so that it’s going where they are used to seeing information, and as well, when they want to reply or send a followup question, they shouldn’t have to log in to do so. Let’s say they get an email notification, they should be able to reply right from that email notification. So something you want to look for is that whatever system you use, it doesn’t do what’s called a no-reply email where it sends a notification, but it comes from no email@example.com. It actually allows the parents to reply. Therefore what you’re doing is lowering the barriers of parent engagement and facilitating higher parent happiness.
Another great way to improve the content and the quality of your newsletters is to actually remove a lot of the information around events. But you also have to make sure that parents are completely aware of what’s going on with the school calendar. Of course, events for things that are applicable to the whole school, and very specifically to their children or the programs that their children are in. The way you can do that while also removing that kind of boring information from your newsletters is to adopt a calendar tool that allows parents to connect and synchronize with their mobile or digital calendar of choice.
Something that we see at schools quite often is that they’re still using paper calendars, requiring parents to download PDFs and print them off. That’s not a great experience for schools. You really want to cut down the amount of paperwork that you require parents to manage, likewise for the school administration, of course. But specifically on the topic of parent engagement and increasing your retention rate, a great way to keep parents informed of what’s going on in the school regarding the calendar is to use a tool that synchronizes either with Google Calendar or what’s called iCal, and that allows parents to synchronize the school calendar automatically with any mobile device that they use or their online calendars like Google Calendar or Outlook.
That way, whatever is going on in the school is right there in their main calendar system, without any effort, they don’t have to manually input it themselves, right? You’re removing the levels of labor that it takes for parents to remain informed of what’s going on. Additionally, a good calendar system will send out events reminders automatically to the parents, remind them of things that are coming up, whether a day or a couple of days, or a couple hours beforehand even. This is great for keeping the parent conferences flowing nicely so that… Or let’s say school tours as well, you want a system that automatically reminds parents after they have booked the tour, or they’ve submitted a request to show up to an open house.
You want a system that sends them reminders, ideally without you having to do it manually, because that’s very time consuming for you as the administrator. The reality is the harder it is for you to manually manage a great parent communication system, the less likely it is that you’re going to have an optimal parent communication system because school administrators and school leaders are just too busy to do all this stuff manually. It takes too much time to always only send every parent 100% relevant information regarding their child or the program that they’re in. So you want a system that does that automatically, filters communication out to parents by way of their child, filters them by way of the programming, and then also sends automatic reminders, and of course, synchronizes with the calendar applications of choice of your parents.
So now that we’re getting a lot of the kind of boring busy work out of the newsletters, not using a newsletter tool for simple reminders or announcements, and generally sending these really long newsletters that have everything that’s going on in this school and kind of blasting the whole parent body with everything for everybody. Now, that you’ve got a system that is pulling out events, allowing parents to synchronize their calendars that’s sending notifications about certain programs to certain child’s that are more bite-size and 100% relevant, that really frees up the content in your newsletter to focus on really engaging topics, things that parents want to learn about, things that are specific to challenges that the parents are experiencing.
Again, when you think about a newsletter, it should really involve and incorporate content that parents would actually share with their friends. You want to think about the content that you’re sending out in your newsletters to parents almost like you’re a magazine and you’re sharing content that they might actually pay for otherwise. That’s how you really engage parents. That’s how you keep parents looking forward to opening up all your emails. If you’re sending them let’s say weekly or monthly newsletters that they find engaging or inspiring or entertaining, that’s how you get parents to look at you like a source of leadership and a source of wisdom.
Just as a couple of ideas for topics, you could be sending parents tips on how to get kids to listen, how to toilet train their toddlers. There’s so much wisdom within your school, you need to bottle it up and send it out in these kind of utility driven or engaging how-tos or funny, write about a funny incident with a couple of kids at the school. Obviously make sure that you’ve got the permission to share this information. But if you are able to aggregate the years of knowledge and wisdom and entertaining scenarios that can be pulled out of the amazing staff at your school, that’s information that will keep parents engaged, because that’s probably the type of interaction they had with your staff when they came into the school, that’s probably what got them to enroll in the first place.
So you really want to keep that up with them. You want to be engaging them in lighthearted, inspirational, funny conversation, and you can do that with newsletters. Again, if your parents are finding your newsletters engaging and something that they want to read and would even share with their friends and their family, then instead of training parents to ignore you by sending really long emails that are mostly irrelevant, you’re actually training parents to pay attention to your emails. That’s one of your surest ways to make sure that they’re staying informed when you send them other communication about event reminders and announcements and other things that are really, really critical to the operational functionality of the office.
Another critical form of communication is using a blog. When you think about how to engage prospective parents, very similarly to the newsletters that you’re sending out, that same information is generally universal to all parents. So you want to be sharing that information on a blog on your website so that prospective parents can find you by searching for these topics. So if you have a parent, parents are in your area and they’re even a Google search for how do I get my kids to eat vegetables, or how do I get my toddlers to play together better, they’re going to find that content on your website, and then they’re going to be connecting with your school. Of course at that point, they’re going to be very likely to want to learn more about your school if they’re looking for a school for their child.
Also, they might just share that information. They might share it on Facebook to all their friends in the area. So it’s very likely that if they have a whole bunch of other friends that live in your neck of the woods that are also have school-aged children, and by making the content on your website share-worthy, by putting it on a blog and having the right buttons for clicking to share on Facebook or clicking to share on Twitter, you’re increasing your awareness and getting your name out there by being shared with parents that don’t even have children in your school.
So let’s talk about blogging for a second. There’s a couple of really important things to do before you launch a blog. Number one, you need to have a bit of a content strategy. So a really easy way to go about organizing a blog. What we suggest to schools very often is to get your staff together and just plan to have one blog post written up and posted on your website on a monthly basis. You probably have enough staff to share that around and have everybody write one or maybe two blog posts a year, it’s not that big of a commitment, and allow them to be creative and come up with a topic that they think parents would like to read about. All you need is to get with a calendar and schedule who’s going to write the blog posts and when. As you share the responsibility of writing the posts, it’s a good idea to also share the responsibility of editing the posts.
But if you spread it around, then it’s really easy to manage and it’s really easy to have a consistent timeline of blog posts. That’s something that’s incredibly important for a couple of reasons. So you want to make sure that you’re always putting a blog post out on the same day of every month. That’s good for helping you be ranked higher in Google searches. It’s also really good when parents, when prospective parents especially, look at your blog posts and then they look at all the different blog articles that you’ve put out, it shows a well-organized school if they can see that the post dates are consistent.
Otherwise, it could actually look a little bad. So if let’s say there’s two blog articles in one month, and then there aren’t any blog articles for three months, and then there’s three blog articles four months later, that kind of looks inconsistent and that doesn’t give your school really the best light. So not only is it about the content, you also want to be showing parents that you’re a well-organized school, because when parents are looking to enroll, they want that sense of trust. They’re going to be noticing things all over the place. So if you’re well-organized, if your communication is very consistent and standard, that’s going to help engage, that’s going to help impress a prospective parents. That’s also going to help keep parents in the school.
So we’re touching on another topic, which is really important, right? Being consistent and standardized with your communications, because the more parents can come to rely on how you communicate and when you communicate, they can feel more trusted and they’ll also know when to expect communication, which is another really key element to keeping your parents engaged so that they know Friday at 3:00, they’re going to get this message from the school office, then they’re going to keep their eyes out for it. But if you’re not consistent with the timing and or the method, that’s when messages get lost and parents don’t know what’s going on and you get complaints in the office. So we want to avoid that of course.