In today’s episode of Digital AF, we chat about digital marketing for early learning and childcare centres. No matter if you are a small boutique brand or a large centre with hundreds of placements, you need an effective lead generation strategy to increase enrolments. If your business is within the early childhood education industry, this is the podcast you’ve been waiting for.
In today’s episode of Digital AF, we chat about digital marketing for early learning and childcare centres. No matter if you are a small boutique brand or a large centre with hundreds of placements, you need an effective lead generation strategy to increase enrolments. If your business is within the early childhood education industry, this is the podcast you’ve been waiting for.
Every early learning and childcare centre goes through the same journey from zero to 100% occupancy and eventually a waitlist, or at least that's the goal. We work with some of the best centres in Australia from small boutique brands to big centres with big placements in the hundreds. In this podcast, we talk about lead generation, enrolment, startups, and turnarounds. If you're in early childhood education, this is the podcast you've been waiting for.
Digital AF, the digital marketing podcast that features real conversations from those who live and breathe the digital agency life. April Ford Digital Agency shares their tips, tricks and exposes the truth about what works and what doesn't. Welcome to Digital AF. Let's get into it.
April, without naming names can you give me an idea of the type of centres we work with and some of the problems they face?
Yeah, of course. We deal with two different type of curriculum centres, I suppose. We work with an emerging curriculum, but we also work with a more structured curriculum like Montessori, is quite popular as well.
How big are some of those centres? What are their placement sizes?
Placements from 50 to 150, and even now some super centres which are closer to 300 which is quite incredible.
Yeah, that's a massive centre.
Every client goes through the same journey, so from zero to 100% occupancy and then, obviously, wanting to try and generate a waitlist. Often there are three definitive stages for what they go through.
Yeah, that's very true. You've got the startup phase, which is when they're building their own centre or they've purchased one that is already built and they're putting the business in there. The startup is kind of zero to 50% occupancy. Gone are the days now when people can open a childcare centre and be full in the first month so I-
They might think so but-
Yeah. I think a long time ago or years ago, that was often the case and when we are called into childcare centres people still refer back to that time. I'm yet to experience it in my marketing career, clients who have been able to open and be full or at 50% capacity by just opening the door now so yes, whilst that might have happened 10 years ago it's just not the case anymore.
And in a lot of those cases, they might have a heap of interest prior to opening. They might have a giant list of people saying they've registered their interest, but we know that usually only 10, maybe 15% of those people actually convert to an enrolment.
Yeah, that's correct. In that startup phase, you do generate a lot of inquiry because people are interested and you've got mums that are trying to plan 12 months out or 18 months out from when they're planning on going back to work or whatnot, even people moving to the area as well.
Everyone loves a new, shiny centre too.
Yeah, that's exactly right. You often get a lot of inquiry which are essentially a waitlist until you know when you can open the centre. How much of that converts depends on how long people are actually on that waitlist, to be completely honest with you. If you've built a waitlist or an inquiry list out and it's six months old, I would suggest 90% of those people have actually gone and found another solution.
They've moved on.
And they've moved on. That's because of their own personal circumstances. People are trying to go back to work or all of a sudden they've had a family member that used to be able to look after their kids one day a week and now can't because they're sick or something along those lines. So, what they should consider is that people... Their personal circumstances change, especially when it comes to family and work and money, so those waitlists are great but it depends on how long that waitlist has been growing.
What about the next sort of stage they're going to go through?
Yeah. You have an established childcare centre and could be about 50 to 80%, and that could be going for like 10 years.
But it could also be going for like two years, right?
Correct, yeah. It really just depends on how many enrolments they have. Then you have a mature stage, which is 80 to 100% with a waitlist.
People often refer to... They might say 110% or 100%, the same thing, right?
Yeah, kind of. They have waitlists for different... The goal is always 100%. It's very rare to see it at 100% purely because of the nature of childcare. Usually, Fridays are quieter days, things like that, but having a waitlist so you know as soon as someone moves on, they might move or something along those lines, they can fill that pretty much straight away. Then you'll people or childcare centres that are at close to 100% occupancy that are doing casual days to get it up to 100% as well, and promoting those casual days too.
We get called in to some pretty common scenarios. Often it might be a startup where they've just launched a development application to build a new centre or they're rebranding a centre they've either owned for a while or they've acquired or purchased...
... or even a struggling centre.
If we talk about some of the fundamentals that these centres need to be mindful of because they're applicable throughout the life cycles. Whether a startup or rebrand or a struggling centre...
... all these things still apply. If we talk through those fundamentals, what are they first of all?
Right at the beginning, obviously, brand and your brand identity are really important. It's not just important for positioning the business in the minds of mothers or fathers who are looking for a childcare solution for their children, but also inside of the recruitment aspect as well. It plays hand in hand because you do... Obviously room capacities, et cetera, you do need to have solid recruitment and a solid team and always be thinking about that as well, especially when the market, like it is at the moment, is very competitive. Putting the effort into that brand identity is really important, and that's everything from the logo but also, "What type of imagery are we using? What type of colours are we using?" And really thinking about why that is important and how that applies to the ethos of the business.
That's a really good point because often one thing that should be discussed from the start with an agency or your marketing manager or whoever's going to be looking after your marketing is imagery which is part of your brand because you've got an aesthetic and a style of imagery. The style of imagery, often we have a conversation with centre directors or centre owners about, "Are we going to show kids' faces on them?" Because that is a conscious decision to be made and something you have to actually decide on upfront because it should be rolled out across your entire business.
Yeah. I mean, so you have privacy issues that centre directors and centre owners are thinking about. It becomes not complicated, but it becomes challenging in the rollout of imagery so you've got to think about that a little bit. Even down to things like what don't you want in your imagery, which is really important as well, "What type of clothes are the kids wearing? How do you actually reflect the brand that you are trying to build in the location that you're in?"
Imagery is such an important part of the brand for early learning and childcare.
100%. There are stock imagery solutions but nothing beats the real thing.
I think with stock imagery, and we would spend an eye-watering amount on subscription websites for stock imagery, but because they've been used so much even if you get 20 pages deep in your search for images, the chances are another childcare centre has probably used them.
If there was one big, big, big bit of advice I would give people, it's just budget the few grand cost to shoot your own unique imagery because you'll use it not just on your website but your collateral, your social media. It will be the best value you get out of a marketing activity and it will set you apart from everyone else, and that's the critical part because if you just look like everyone else you'll be treated and compared to everyone else.
Yeah. I mean, I think back to if it looks like marketing, it smells like marketing, it is marketing. How authentic do you want to be?
If you've put a lot of effort and energy into the experience of the child and the parent and what the centre means and the flow of the space, the energy, the landscaping, all that type of stuff, good imagery will capture that.
Well, it's the only way to capture that because stock imagery won't reflect it.
Correct, and you've invested all of this time and energy into creating a beautiful space, why not take advantage of it with imagery? The challenge with that is you have privacy issues, so making the decision as to whether you hire child models and whatnot, you've got issues around educators potentially moving on to other jobs, et cetera, so you've really got to think about how much you're going to invest in that asset of imagery because it is so... I cannot explain how important it is. How much you're going to invest, what longevity do you want out of it and what are your ongoing plans with it? Are you ongoingly going to have photographs taken or is this just a one shoot wonder where you're going to try and use this image for two years across your brand?
Or you might have a couple of different shoots. Often we'll do a brand shoot, we'll refer a photographer in to do a brand shoot where it's imagery for website, it's imagery for a couple of key social media posts, but ultimately a lot of it's to do with collateral and so forth. Then you might actually have ongoing shoots... We've got clients who do them weekly and other clients who do it monthly and other clients who do it quarterly, but ultimately it's having fresh imagery constantly.
We've even got clients that don't do them at all.
Yeah, that's exactly right. To be fair, they do make it difficult for themselves by not investing in it.
It makes life really... I think it actually impacts the quality of their marketing when they don't do photography. It's often a decision made out of an ideological belief as opposed to...
Well, often it gets put in the too hard basket because it is a time investment as well.
But it's worth it.
Yeah, it is 100% worth it. You've got to think about that. Then a website that explains who you are, what you are, et cetera, so once again it's not just about enrolments, it's about future research that parents are doing.
It's all about enrolments because all roads lead to enrolments. It's how you get there which varies.
Yeah. You're not necessarily going to get someone that lands on the website today that will book an enrolment or book a tour but they're looking. They might be moving to the area in six months' time or at the end of the year so they are starting to do some research to kind of think about, "Well, where can my child go to childcare, et cetera?"
They might be pregnant.
They might be pregnant, like myself, where you are looking at, "How do I go back to work? When do I do that?" I know I was at a childcare centre the other day and I was actually leaning on the centre director. She gave me a little bit of advice there on what I should actually do, what should I consider because I am a new mum, which was interesting to be on the other foot, not just doing the marketing but I am asking questions relevant to my life now. I think that's another thing to think about, is the website needs to provide a bit of guidance for parents who are trying to problem solve like, "How do you go back to work? What do you do? How many days should I do? What's safe?"
I think it's actually been really interesting. It's highlighted, I think, the importance of what we put on early in our piece when we started doing a lot of marketing for early learning and childcare where we actually had mums on our team involved in the marketing process because only a mum or a father can speak from experience about what's really, really important. You can't just have a 21-year-old guy or girl making the decision. For those who are running marketing for early learning and childcare centres, if you don't have kids yourself then make sure you're seeking opinions to really get into understanding what they're going through when they're making decisions about putting someone into childcare.
Yeah. I also think people are... They have different... At different ages when they are thinking of putting their child into childcare, they're considering different things. Looking at putting our child into childcare as a baby, I'm not so caught up on the curriculum, I'm more caught up on the safety aspect and the nurture and the care aspect and that to me is actually more important right at this point in time. That's how I'm making a decision. It's not about the curriculum, but in a couple of years being two or three, it's a different conversation. Thinking about the different age brackets that people are looking to enter their children into childcare and what's important to them as part of that journey, I suppose. You can use your website to demonstrate that as well, and a good website answers a lot of questions for potential parents.
If we talk about websites specifically, like about the fundamentals that a website needs to have for childcare, what are some of the features and where, ultimately, should they be? Because over the years we've developed a very systematic approach to it because we know it works. Without spilling the beans too much, what are some of the fundamental things that childcare centre owners and centre directors need to be mindful of?
Once again, I think it's thinking about the different ages that people enter into childcare and it's different for every parent. Some people are going into as pre-kindy and kindy, some people are going in as three-month-old babies so thinking about that and then what's important to the parent at that point and at that age, so showing things like the activities, the safety features, the food menus, what's included. Are nappies included? Is food included? What are the sleeping arrangements? How does that work?
What about fees?
Yeah, fees are important, obviously.
It's usually a sensitive subject.
Yes. It is a sensitive subject, and it plays in depending on the bells and whistles, I suppose, as well. It can be really important when... The information you have on your website is more important as your pricing increases, so people need to understand what's included and why.
Yeah. It's a features and benefits equation...
... that substantiates the fees you're going to charge.
Yeah. There's also the recruitment aspect as well, so showing the culture of the business is really important. And as well parents like to see who's in the room, who they are, what is their education, what do they look like, just so they can put a face to the name and know who they should be talking to when they're going into the centre, et cetera, and their roles.
No one likes faceless carers looking after their children.
Correct. Yeah. Also, the ability to literally book a tour or enrol quite easily and contact people easily. Or is it a live chat? Is it the ability to at 3:00 am when you're up and you're feeding your child and you've had a conversation with your workplace about going back to work, how easy is it to close them when they are doing that research? That's always hugely important to me as a lead generator for childcare centres, making it just really, really simple for the parent.
And social media... Well, actually, no. Let's talk about collateral because I think it still forms a part of the fundamentals. What are some of the typical pieces of collateral that a centre should have?
Yeah. A handbook.
A parent handbook.
Parent handbook, yeah. There's nothing worse than going to a centre and being given about 50 sheets of paper.
Well, it looks like an afterthought so, "Here are your activities on this sheet which is in this different font that we've used on a Word document, here's our menu which is written by the chef in another font." It just doesn't feel cohesive so thinking about that. We build our templates for people in Canva and all that type of stuff for our centres to use so they can actually manage that type of communication in-house that does change on a weekly or monthly or regular basis. Even things like the posters that they have when parents walk in for the first time.
You've got to have so much compliance documentation on your wall when someone walks in...
Yeah, but even what activities are the kids doing today or what have they learnt this month, so giving the educators the resources as well so it feels like it is on brand and that the brand follows through.
You're talking about a parent handbook as a cornerstone piece for a centre, and they might be anywhere from the smallest 20-something pages up to the biggest could be 60 depending on how much stuff is going on at that centre.
Well, and what they want to be included in there. A parent handbook is essentially a place for parents to go so they are your existing clients that want to know the tiny details that go into everything and they can turn to that instead of having to make a phone call to ask a question. That's essentially what the parent handbook is.
But is that also given out when someone books a tour?
Yep, yep. So they can get more of an understanding of the centre.
That's a physical document?
I guess the reason why I just bring that up is because as much as it might be a big exercise to spend... You could spend 10 or 15 grand designing one of these things. It's not cheap, but you only do it once and then you've only got small updates over time but it's such a price signal and a value signal to a potential parent coming in when they get a beautifully designed printed booklet...
... that they'll keep that's full of rich information that answers all their questions. Then they go to the next centre, because, let's face it, no one ever shops at one centre, they always shop at multiple centres, they go to the next place and get a whole bunch of random printouts.
Yeah. Yeah, it's a comparison tool as well and it's also... You might only get... Say there are two parents in the equation. One might only have the time to do the tour so they come back, and they are showing the other parent information about the centre or their grandparents or something like that, so it is a tool that people can show and also keep for like, "Okay. I saw that. I'll come back to that in a month once I've had the conversation with my employer about going back to work or something along those lines." It is really important, and I just think having that cohesiveness through all collateral, whether it's posters on the wall, what you hand people when they walk through the door, what you hand existing clients that have been with you for three years, all that type of stuff, it feels very thought out and process-driven and not rushed. When you are a parent who's thinking about a childcare centre, that's what you want.
Yeah. Detail is everything.
Yeah, detail is everything but you're kind of judging... It's like going to a restaurant where you can see that they've scratched something off the menu and they've whited it out, you know what I mean? You just...
It says, "We don't care."
And if they can't care about a booklet, how are they going to care about a child?
Yeah, that's exactly right. All those little things are really important in childcare and early education so it is one of the industries where everyone judges a book by its cover.
Very much so. What about social media from physical to digital collateral?
Yeah. Social media is really important for early learning and childcare centres.
Well, it's a non-negotiable. It really is because every single parent has grown up with social media.
Yeah, so not only is it a lead generation tool, it's actually an educational tool for existing clients. Yes, it is a sales tool for new business coming in but it is education for existing clients that are in the system already.
Also, a good communication tool as well because you might be having events or issues or whatever it might be that you need to communicate with your audience too, and it's a platform that you can actually communicate very quickly. It doesn't always have to be like "sell, sell, sell," it can also be about communication to let people know what's going on.
Yeah. I mean, COVID was the perfect example of that. All of a sudden, all of our communication had to change across social media because they had compliance issues for COVID that was changing all the time for childcare centres. That applied to not only the people who are enrolled and parents that are enrolled there, but new people coming in and even suppliers coming into the buildings. Social media was a great way to just reinforce that messaging. Obviously, with enrolled parents, there are apps that the centres are using to communicate to parents already, but you kind of want that messaging everywhere if it's really important because people are looking at it in all different locations, and you never know who's watching and you never know who's thinking about potentially inquiring as well. With childcare, or with any marketing really, you've got to do it and you have to do it well. You can't just do it for a month and then forget about it. It looks like an afterthought then and you're like, "Well, if they've forgotten about that what else have they forgotten about?"
I think one of the things to consider here is the market that you are dealing with. Parents of, say, the younger end of the scale, early 20s or even younger, late teens, whatever it might be, up to, let's say mid to late 40s which is usually the scale we deal with, and then sometimes it's grandparents as well but let's take that mid to late 40s all the way down to high teens. They've all grown up with social media whether it be TikTok, Instagram or Facebook. They're living on one of those three platforms, if not all of those three platforms. To think that, given how much time they spend on that and what they go to those platforms for and you're not going to have a consistent, cohesive, well thought out marketing strategy on social, it's just non-negotiable. You must be doing it as an early learning childcare centre today even if you're at 100% occupancy because at some point-
Yeah. But you can't stop, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, if you stop it looks bad. Something's changed here. What's changed? I think because it's children and it's safety-related anything that you do is judged so you have to think about that at all times, and it's not just you judging it, it's potential clients judging it or friends of your clients judging it or parents of your clients judging it. You've really got to think about your messaging and your frequency and your quality because, once again, especially with childcare and early learning everyone's judging it by its cover.
It's also going through a little bit of a change in the industry where there are a lot more younger centre owners. Traditionally childcare was one of those businesses, and I remember 15 years ago when I used to live off selling businesses, companies, a lot of childcare centre owners weren't from education... They weren't educators, they weren't from that space, they just bought the business because they liked the business and spent a couple of million bucks buying a business.
They were typically late 50s because that was the only one who could afford it at the time, whereas now there are a lot of centre owners who are quite young. There are a lot of female centre owners. We've got some incredibly inspiring centre owners with multiple centres who've done an amazing job building big brands and providing the most amazing care to the children. It's unbelievable, but it is very much changing as well. I think what's happening is you've got some of those older legacy centres that are now really struggling with occupancy as well because they're not keeping up with modern marketing techniques, such as the basics of social media.
Yeah. Well, they're also not keeping up with modern education and modern fit-outs and inclusions, et cetera, so the marketing is really important, but the marketing is reliant on the experience that they are selling to the customer. If you're not including food now, which was really common to not include food, but if you're not now everyone else is, so you've got to think about that.
It's not even just-
You've got to price for that.
It's not even just food, it's like gourmet food.
What about advertising because, ultimately, that does sit on social media as well?
Yeah. Advertising is really important once again. Obviously, your social media content is organic, and people are following you, et cetera, but because of interest categories... You've got two types of advertising that work really, really well for childcare centres and early learning centres. You've got Google Ads, which is a no-brainer.
Yeah. It's intent based.
Intent based. You've got someone who is looking for a solution today right at that second, so you're just mad if you're not investing in it. The thing to think about, though, it is highly competitive, so it is not a cheap medium and we see a lot of wastage and we see a lot of poorly targeted early learning and childcare centre advertising.
You really need to know what you're doing when it comes to Google Ads early learning.
Yeah. Yes, definitely, because there's a lot of potential waste. We see a lot of wastage. Then you've got Facebook and Instagram advertising as well, even LinkedIn—yeah, we're doing—because you've got the recruitment side or they're trying to position themselves for suppliers, et cetera. Facebook and Instagram is great because, one, we can target... Because people put milestones on their Facebook and so you can actually target people that have children under the age of three or that might have toddlers, so it's great for that. Instagram as well, and because people are using that platform quite regularly, kind of crazy not to be considering that as a lead generation source. I mean, it's not as intent based as Google Ads but a good mix of the two-
One's short term, one's long term. You've got a long-term sales cycle using social media advertising, whereas Google is a short-term sales cycle where someone needs a childcare centre today. Yeah.
Yeah, or they're looking today for a solution.
You'll get conversions out of Google, but at the same time they actually integrate with one another because you've got to think about it, and this is probably a little bit more about the second bit, there is a strategy behind integrating your Google and your Facebook ads or your Instagram ads so that you actually generate the highest possible level of conversions. Then lastly just want to quickly touch on email marketing as a fundamental. What sort of email... When I talk about email marketing, what are we specifically talking about?
You've obviously got two types of clients, you've got potential clients and then you've got enrolled parents. With email marketing... You've got a lot of apps and software that communicate to your current database which is your current clients about your child or about major changes, et cetera, but email marketing could be things around... It might be a newsletter once a month that goes out to potential parents as well as parents and it might be talking about what's coming up next month or some new team members that you're excited to introduce or new activities that you're excited to introduce, new menus that you're excited to introduce, things about what's coming because, essentially, you need to show that you are evolving and innovating and providing a considered experience for the children that are there and the parents that have enrolled there as well. The other side of it is follow-up for people that have done tours and trying to close them out and helping aid that enrolment process as well because that can take the pressure off your enrolments team.
I want to talk just a little bit about lead generation because obviously over the last few years we've created our own lead generation system for early learning and childcare centres. Are you happy to talk a little bit about it?
Yeah, of course. Can't give specifics but I can talk about generally the industry and what we know works.
Yeah. Yeah, don't want to give any trade secrets, but tangibly so people have a bit of an idea what are some of the key things they need to consider when it comes to lead generation?
Yeah. We talked about social media content earlier so that is really important in positioning the brand and for when people are doing research on what their solution is to make it really easy for people to get a feel of who you are, what you are, what you do, what you stand for.
What's good social media content, just for clarity's sake?
Ideally you want authentic content, and when I say authentic it isn’t an educator taking it with their iPhone that has smudges all over the camera lens. It's thought about with a photographer that attends the centre whether it's once a month, once a quarter, et cetera. You've got the issue of privacy and parents allowing children to be photographed for social media so that's a different story and that's a different thing to talk about, but content that shows what you actually get when you're there.
Yeah. It's like a behind the scenes...
... instead of the child experience.
Then what about advertising?
Yeah. Advertising is how you would generate the lead, and so things about... We talked about Google before where someone is looking for a solution right then and there, really, really important, making it really easy for them to then close them out for a tour which is the next thing, booking a tour, so they go hand in hand.
Because all your advertising is driving traffic to the website, right?
100%, yeah. And Facebook where you know people are interested in that topic so you're putting it in front of them in a hope that they are still looking for a solution essentially, making it really easy so they can book a tour or request an enrolment pack, request a callback or ask a question so things like live chat, et cetera, are really important.
Some kind of lead capture. You've mentioned book a tour a couple of times, that's a big, big part of it. Obviously, that falls on the self-service category and you gave the analogy of the mum up in the middle of the night attempting to feed or whatnot. That's a specific kind of plugin or software or something that we use, right?
Yeah. There's lots of different scheduling software that you can use, and I even think some of the childcare centre software’s have the ability to embed that onto the websites now which we're doing for a couple of clients, which is really cool. The childcare software is amazing at what they're doing and it continues to improve and really suit the client not just in managing the child, but also potentially enrolments and things like that. Either works quite well, just has to match in with your management and your calendars, et cetera, on your brand.
Then when they leave the website, say they haven't booked a tour...
We do remarketing. You may do remarketing through Google Display, we may do remarketing through YouTube, we may do remarketing through Instagram and Facebook, just reminding them of the centre essentially and what they get when they go there.
I guess a bit of a caveat to say, lead generation, the quality and the quantity of your leads and, therefore, the conversion rate of those into enrolments is directly correlated to your brand awareness of the brand in the marketplace. You can run all the intent-based marketing in the world, but if people don't know you are you're going to have a hard time trying to convert it. Whilst you might have a bunch of marketing running purely to try and get tours, you still have to have a bucketload of brand awareness running and that's across not just social media and Google, it can also be things like... It can be traditional, it can be a digital technique that works phenomenally well because, again, you've got the same demographic targeting options or even better in some cases.
Yeah. Yeah, and also you can turn that stuff on and off and around peak enrolment times too. Towards the end of the year is peak enrolment inquiry time purely because that's when people are planning to move. A lot of people move locations at the end of the year and then they're looking to get their children settled in school in January, so those inquiries from, say, September and those enrolment campaigns from September are really, really important. You also have a changeover of kindergarten, kindy kids leaving and moving into prep so you've got a whole new room you've got to fill. Some kids move up and you have spare spaces so that key marketing period is really important.
Yeah. Just so we can give people a bit of an idea of cost because everyone's going to be like, "How much does it cost?" I mean, I know from our experience when I'm quoting up different proposals and strategies to clients they're ranging anywhere from in the bottom end three and a half to five grand a month for a really small centre. Yeah, let's call it circa up to 70k a year on marketing budget, which is not a lot for a small centre even if it's a 50 or 60 placement centre.
I mean, the biggest mistake that we see which is very challenging on the centres and is... We see a lot of marketing budgets that have been set based on previous centres that the group might have owned and previous marketing budgets. If they opened five years ago or they opened 10 years ago they're like, "Oh, we spent like $300 on photos."
Or it's been set by a CFO who's doing a cash flow forecast who actually has no idea what's necessary to fill the centre.
Correct, or what things cost...
... Because it's a new centre so they haven't actually costed things out correctly and what's required. There is a lot that needs to be done in the marketing of childcare centres. It's not just turn one little component on and see how you go because there are so many places that people can search you and look at you, and it is actually... We keep going back to the fact that people do judge a book by its cover in this industry. It is so important and the budgets are often underestimated.
Oh, so, so often. I mean, going back to the example of a small centre spending 3 to 5k a month, a big centre that might say, have north of 100 places, because once you get over 100 it's a pretty big centre, you're spending 10 grand a month, 15 grand a month. But it's interesting how often we'll get called in to... Because going back to what we spoke about initially where you've got that zero to 50%, 50 to 80, 80 to 100, it's amazing how many centres hit a growth roadblock where they get stuck on 50. If they're stuck on 50, it's usually because they've probably got internal issues that aren't necessarily related to their marketing, but marketing will be a part of it.
Or they've turned their marketing off.
Off. Yeah, that happens. Thinking that they've crushed it for the first six months and thinking that they'll just organically grow to 100%. I can say with absolute confidence no one organically grows to 100% occupancy and anyone who thinks that way, it's purely that they haven't experienced it yet to find out unfortunately and they're about to, that you can't get there organically. It's done through spending money on marketing. Someone who's hit 80 and struggling to get over it, they probably just need a bit of help with fine-tuning their marketing strategy and they're probably doing the fundamentals right but just not quite good enough. That's often when we'll get called. I would say there's... I can think of quite a number of scenarios where we've been called in to go, "Hey, we're stuck at 80." Let's face it, 80 to 100% is where you make all your profit in a childcare centre.
Yeah. I often find that as well it becomes... I don't own a childcare centre so I don't know 100% the ins and outs of the centres, what they're facing on a day-to-day basis which, based on the compliance that they go through and what we've gone through over the last couple of years, it's pretty hectic, right?
Right. How they've kept it together is beyond me.
Yeah. I often find that it's the centre director's problem and the centre director's really busy, very, very busy and so they just can't make the fast decisions that needs to be made because they're trying to make decisions around safety and compliance.
Well, their focus has got to be care whereas a business owner's focus needs to be the business, which is the marketing.
Yes. Yeah, correct. I find when you have a business owner that's making marketing decisions it works really, really well and they are faster and we get to a result faster, whereas if it's left to the centre director it's slower and they just can't quite make the decisions that need to be made. I 100% know it's purely because of the other decisions that they've got to make that are more important.
Well, I think there's a clear line between centre directors who are there to look after children once they're there and to run the centre, but it's the owner's responsibility to fill the centre unless they've got a marketing manager or sales manager, something like that, or a sales director.
Even when they do have those people in place it's still not enrolment-focused and capacity-focused.
Yeah. I think the business owner has always got to be involved in the initial setting of the strategy because if they're not and they don't have buy-in to that then they're going to wonder what's going on when they're struggling to get to 100%. I guess the-
There's some type of marketing that you can turn on very quickly, but then there's... If they've got the right assets that's been created already. If you turn around and go, "Oh my gosh, we really need to push for leads today," we can spend Google search budget very quickly. Not spend it very quickly, but we can turn that on and crank that up really quickly. If you turn around and go, "Oh, we've got to reposition everything. It's not reflective of who we are. We need to do photo shoots, we need a new website, we need social done," that is a longer process because you've essentially got to do one after the other. It could be...
Whilst we are very quick as a business, a new website for us takes three weeks for a multipage website. Photo shoots can be done quite quickly depending on if you've got to get models or if the centre's complete. Social media can take two to three weeks to get up and running, social media advertising can take about two weeks to get up and running. Google Ads search can be done quite quickly depending on whether you're onboarded with us already or not, but if you're a new client takes us about two weeks to get into the system and enrol. There are some marketing that can be turned on very fast, but if you don't have the right assets it takes a bit of time to get it turned on and moving and the momentum.
Also, you can't rush or speed up brand awareness either. That takes time.
I mean, you can throw a lot of money at it, but ultimately it's going to take months and months and months and months. It's interesting. If we think of all the different centres we've worked with over the years and some believe in marketing and some don't, some sort of enter the discussion around marketing as if they're entitled to generate enrolments. I hate to say it, but if someone doesn't know you then you're not entitled to look after their child. You have to earn that right. Others really believe in marketing and it's those who actually reach waitlist far, far, far quicker and for far, far less money invested than what those who fight marketing do. I think before you start even talking about agencies, you need to think about which side of the coin you sit on or which side of the table you sit on, do you believe in marketing or do you fight marketing? Because the reality is, is you and I don't care what your position is but we can only help people that believe in it.
One thing that probably... To be really fair to those who don't believe in marketing or tend to fight marketing, I think it's not been well enough explained to you that you could fight it for 12 or 24 or 36 months and it's going to be a hard, long grind to waitlist versus those who embrace it.
You just won't get there now. Honestly, you just won't get there.
Yeah. The competition's too fierce because there's too many centres out there that are employing agencies like us.
Yeah. The one 100 meters up the road is doing it so you can either be not doing it and complaining and saving money on your marketing budget but losing money because you can't get your enrolments and you also will lose parents because of that as well, or you can invest.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think that's one thing whether it's a startup... Because we can sit down with someone and forecast what their budget needs to be for marketing to get into a certain percentage in enrolments or occupancy.
I think one of the things that just isn't discussed enough upfront is to say, "Hey, guys. It's necessary. Let's just work out what it's going to cost to get you where you want to be, but let's also consider the influences of the variables involved with that, your position, your pricing, your presentation, all those sorts of things, your competition."
How you're answering the phone, what's the experience when they're doing a tour, what's the follow-up afterwards, and how were the educators when you went into the room. We can do so much to get someone to the door, but once they're at the door you have to close and so marketing will get you so far but that experience when they are at the centre is just as important.
Well, it's probably-
Well, it's more important but it needs to match your marketing, you know what I mean? You can't have fancy, shiny marketing and then have a poor customer experience from someone because one bad review in childcare and early learning is very detrimental. You have to put the effort into that positive word of mouth, that positive experience of potential people coming through, people enrolments coming through, the positive experience of your current clients that are there and your current parents that are there, and also how they leave the centre as well. That needs to be positive as well so you've got to think about all of those things and they really need to match each other. For people that don't match it, we can generate the leads but it might not turn into an enrolment and we've seen that.
Yeah. This discussion, it's one thing we often have in meetings with clients is we can see the leads coming in. What we don't often see is how many enrolments they're getting unless we ask and they're happy to share it. It's important to share it because then we know, "Okay. Well, where is the lead falling off? Where are we losing the sale?"
The other thing that a lot of people don't think about when they either start or even if they rebrand, because we do a lot of centres who will be acquired and then they'll rebrand the centre, which effectively then becomes a startup again even though you might already have some kids enrolled and obviously you try and roll those over into a new enrolment under the new brand, but it is kind of like a startup again. Or if you're at 80%, you need fine-tuning to get you to 100%, a lot of the time there's not... There's often business owners think that they're different, but when you shop it around and you really look at it they're not and so your marketing can be a way to differentiate yourself. It can also be the cheapest way because there's only so many yoga classes for kids and so many swimming lessons and so many gardens and so many wildlife things that a business can do before everyone copies them, and it's only a matter of time when they do.
But what another centre can't copy is culture, and your culture is actually one of the most important things that you can be integrating into your marketing to then create a point of difference to generate new leads and generate conversions to enrolment. We've talked a lot about, obviously, generating enrolments and you've touched on recruitment a couple of times and that is an interesting area as well because obviously childcare is a really fierce space for recruitment, it's getting harder and harder and the more centres open up... It's not the highest-paid industry in the world so the pool of talent is not exactly exponentially growing. What can centre owners be doing to try and be a business of attraction?
I think things like your social media is really important to become a business of attraction and to be thinking about that. If recruitment is one of the problems you are trying to solve, then it needs to be incorporated into your social media to show the culture of your team. That can come down to just photos of team members interacting with each other or professional development days that you're putting on for your team members so they know that... When someone's researching, they see the job on SEEK or they it on LinkedIn and they go, "Yeah, I'm thinking of applying," they will go and do their own research before they apply. They will look at their social media, they will look at your website and so what are they looking for and thinking about the things similar to parents, what are they looking for to make the leap to go somewhere else? What's included in things that as a person that works there... Are you giving them lunches, you know what I mean? That should be included in your social media strategy.
What I often say to my team as well, but not only to clients but to my team is the target market and marketing is not necessarily the obvious target market so use your platforms to solve the problems that you are facing and think about the problem and what people are doing to research to find the solution. As someone who's looking to apply for the job, they're trying to get an understanding of your culture, they'll ask their friends or they'll ask other people in the industry, they will go research themselves. They might drive past, they might look at your website and see all the team members' faces, all the types of roles that you have inside the business to get an understanding of how established the business is. They might look at what information you have on your website about working there, what perks do you offer or what standards do you offer people that work there. Is it really clear and really obvious and really easy to find out even how they can apply for a job with you?
Like a page on the website for careers.
Like a page on the website. Expressions of interest page. Is it really easy to just see whether you've got any available positions? You've got to really think about how you can market to potential recruits just as much as how you're marketing to potential parents and your existing parents as well. Social media is one of the best ways to do that so you can run ads for recruitment, however, I think you can't really fight the normal places that people go to find jobs.
Like SEEK and stuff like that.
SEEK and stuff. So you're better off kind of using your platforms to reinforce your message.
Telling a story.
Telling a story of the culture. An example of that is with April Ford, recruitment is always at the top of our mind so we always want to be recruiting not only new clients, but we want to be recruiting great people into the business. It's really, really important so we use our Instagram stories to show the culture of April Ford and what we do on a daily basis and how the team works together, the variety of the client work that we do and the tiny perks that don't cost us much that we kind of try to install and bring into the business, so even things like Brendan bakes. We do that every week and that's-
What's this ‘we’ business?
Where you bake for everyone once a week, and that's shared on our social media. Our clients see that, but potential recruits see that and it's often mentioned inside of interviews so people are-
Yeah. Every single one.
You'd be surprised who's watching what you're doing. It might take them 12 months to consider applying for the job...
Actually, it's an interesting point. I guess our business is a classic example I'm happy to talk about. If you look at our agency, you would think that we have a lot of fun and eat a lot of cake.
If you look at a lot of other agencies, it looks like they drink a lot of booze and play a lot of ping-pong. Whilst we have a ping-pong table and our team will often use it, we have fun in the work we're doing and then we don't go drown our sorrows after work.
I know that's a bit of a sort of harsh comparison but it's a similar thing with any business you look at, including an early learning and childcare centre, is does it look like a place that talks to you and that you relate to that you would want to work at? Because the reality is, someone who wants to party and muck around all day and get blind after work is probably not going to come and work for us.
I guess in the case of a childcare centre, you want... If you're trying to recruit respectful, talented, passionate, empathetic, responsible people then you need to put out those same messages in your marketing, whether it be social or on your website and so forth.
Yeah. It doesn't have to be the giant inclusions, it just shows the little things that you think about.
It is all the small things, and it's the small things done over a long period of time.
Yeah. Consistency is boring but it's so important. It's the hardest thing to do in business, is to be disciplined and consistent.
Yeah. Agreed. Childcare centres are putting effort into what they're doing for their team members because, at the end of the day, they're only as good as their team, like we all are, right?
So they're all doing it, it's just a matter of showing that they're doing it and how to show it in the right way and to show potential recruits your point of difference.
Obviously we talked a bit about recruitment. The last thing I kind of want to talk about is when people go from centre to multi-centres because that's becoming more and more common. You've got the big giants of the world where they might be a listed company that got 200 centres, et cetera, but there's a lot of groups out there who have two, three, five, 10, 15 and there's a lot who are growing. Some are doing it because obviously they might be private equity and they believe it's a great business, others do it because they just love early learning and education and that is what drives them.
Yeah. Yeah. Their passion.
And they want to help as many children as possible. So irrespective of your motivations behind it, there are a couple of common things that I often get asked and I just wanted your thoughts on them.
A classic one is the dilution of social media channels where all of a sudden, they end up with pages of profiles for each location. Should people have a page or profile for every location or should they have one brand page that lists out all their locations?
It depends on their budget and it depends on what they're willing to invest.
What's the... Well, I know what they're going to ask. What's the cheapest one? What's the most cost-efficient way of doing it?
The most cost-efficient is one brand, one page, and one Instagram account. The trouble with that and the problem with that is you don't necessarily... Each centre is in a different location, with different demographic, different features and benefits, different activities, and different playgrounds, so it's hard to customize the experience for that location.
So the reality is if you've got multiple centres, you just need to have a social media budget and page for each site. That's best practice.
Then what about website? People probably are hoping that they don't have to have an individual website for each location.
No, they should definitely have one website as long as it's thought about all the different locations because, once again, parents are only looking at... They are only interested on the one that they live near.
They're not interested in what the one in Melbourne looks like, they want to know what the one in Buderim looks like, "Who's working where? What does the food look like? What are the activities, et cetera?"
If someone lands on the website for the brand, there's a locations page obviously that then has... Let's call it the Toorak centre page. That page in itself is almost...
It's like a landing page just for that one centre, so then-
It's like a mini-website for that centre by itself. Yeah.
100%. What that allows us to do is send ads to that centre's page that we might be... We're obviously only wanting to target people around that centre in Toorak so when they see the ad that looks like the Toorak centre. Then they land on the Toorak one when they're on the website, it all links together and it all matches in their head and it's customised to the experience that they're expecting.
Then we talked about it earlier, fees on a website. Should you put your fees? Should you not put your fees?
Well, if you would like to receive a lot of phone calls asking about your fees don't put it on there.
If you want people to self-service, put it on there. The problem with not doing it is someone else is doing it so you might potentially lose a lead because you've created a barrier of entry for someone. I'm a big fan of just being really upfront.
If your marketing's good enough, put your fees up.
Then what about maintaining brand consistency across multiple sites? They could be 50 placement, they could 150 placement. Should you have the same brand?
It depends on... I'm a big fan of it. However, often when brands are acquiring another centre they've got to make that decision as to whether they rebrand it or not.
What if it's a greenfield site, though, and they're developing it?
As long as it all links together, you know what I mean? Does the ethos and the philosophy-
So you can have a shared brand, and shared philosophy around education but centre can be slightly different in terms of placement sizes and educators. There might be a common belief in standardised marketing and inclusions in terms of the experience, but often there are some little nuances based on the site, the demographic, et cetera.
Yeah. Yeah. I think if you keep them separate brands, it is more costly. If you bring the brands... If it's under one brand then there is cost savings, obviously, especially in design assets and all that type of stuff as well, however you've got to think about the experience. Does the brand in Toorak match the brand in Brisbane?
That could be an extreme example. You have a centre in Toorak, the same brand might apply to a centre in Clayfield-
You might have some brands...
But it might not... The brand identity you've built for a specific site in Toorak probably wouldn't fit within Logan on the south side of Brisbane where it's a totally different socio-economic demographic, so obviously, the brand's got to fit the market that you're going into.
Yeah. I mean, I think you've just got to think about it. We've worked with clients that do both, we've got clients that have multiple brands.
One brand super high fees or moderate fees.
Yeah, and then the other side of it, we've worked with the same brand where they've got multiple centres that are just very different. It's a bit of a struggle to get your head around and to run the marketing under one brand so you've just got to... As long as it fits the mold then it can work. If it doesn't, then you've got to look at the next solution. Is it a sub-brand, you know?
Things like that you can think about as well.
Yeah. Is there anything else that centre directors, owners, and developers should think about that you want to say?
I think the biggest hurdle we face as an agency dealing with childcare centres and early learning centres is they just haven't thought about the budgeting correctly. What does it-
Yeah. Yeah. You don't know what you don't know.
That's exactly right. I said it earlier where they're basing their costings on a centre that they did 10 years ago. Well, you're not going to do that in your build cost, are you?
Or it's their first centre point blank.
Yeah. Yeah. They may have spoken to their accountant on what they should budget. Things to consider are what do things actually cost, and what do you actually need, so speak to an agency as soon as possible. If you are thinking of opening a centre get a costing for the budget to open the centre and the marketing. It's not hard for us to put it together.
Do it at the same time you're pricing up your fit-out or your build. I mean, you have a surveyor price up your build, you should get a marketing agent price up your marketing.
So you understand what things cost and how long you need to do them for.
Yeah. Actually, length of time is an interesting one because some people think you do it for three months. They don't realize once you turn it on, you can pare it up and down but ultimately, you're going to have a certain level of commitment over the long-term.
Well, I said that earlier. You can switch the advertising costs on and off, up and down, all that type of stuff, but you need to be consistent in other areas of your marketing because as soon as you turn it off someone goes, "What's going on there? Something's wrong there."
What stage... Because we deal with a lot of developers who are either developing sites that they're selling as an approved site to a tenant who will then operate so we have a mix of that, and we also have developers who own the business as well so they're building their own sites. At what point should they speak to a marketing agency? Is it when they've launched, is it when they've got approval? How early or late?
I just think it's once they're working out their... They actually need to start budgeting. It depends on everyone's journey, but what I can tell you is that people do not understand what is required in childcare and early learning centre marketing. It isn't just one photo shoot that lasts you for two years anymore, it's not one website that you don't update every week, it's not one TV ad that you run for two months.
Let's assume, for the purpose of the exercise so there are some numbers around it, at a bare minimum when someone starts a centre or rebrands a centre because they're kind of the same thing, you're not going to get away with any change out of between 30 and 50k including brand, website, collateral, design.
Yeah. Social media content, advertising content.
However, you do get a long-term value out of that and then ongoingly. Let's say 30 to 50 grand is the starting point and then ongoingly at a minimum you're talking five grand for a tiny centre, but realistically even still that's skinny. You need to be budgeting somewhere between probably more like seven and a half to 15k a month. Your marketing is probably depending on the size of the centre.
It also depends on the size, depends how competitive it is where you are.
Yeah, and competition is obviously a huge thing, and the fees that you're going to charge obviously impact as well because if you're going to price yourself 30 or 40 or 50 or 100% more than anyone else, which we've dealt with and there's nothing wrong with it, with charging a premium fee.
Yeah. No. No, and with those types of clients you... If you listen to the reasons why...
Oh, it's totally worth it.
... you'd sign on the dotted line.
If they'd take me, I'd go play there all day. But ultimately, there is an investment that correlates to the type of service you're selling so you need to think about what is the service you're selling and how much you then need to budget in marketing to achieve the enrolments to fill that service?
Yeah. I mean, honestly, the best thing to do is as soon as you're thinking about it, speak to an agency.
Yeah, it's actually never too early.
Speak to us.
Yeah, preferably speak to us.
Because then you can get an idea and an understanding, and so not only for us... You can actually go talk to other centre owners and go, "What did you do?" Because go look at something that's amazing, very well positioned and talk to them and they'll you their experience. Then you talk to someone that doesn't do anything, their sign's falling off the front of the centre, their enrolments are going down, down, down and ask them what they're doing for their marketing. You can actually run the comparisons, but the biggest thing is understanding what is involved, what it costs...
How long it's going to take.
... how long it's going to take so you are educated, ironically.
April, that's been awesome. Thanks so much.
It's one of my favourite industries to work in because you just meet some amazing people in this industry, and you can do some amazing work. It's one of the places where we didn't mean to do work in early learning and childcare centres, but we've ended up doing it since we opened and have loved every second of it. Our entire team actually works across the centres that we work with, so we get really excited when we get new clients that are...
Childcare's one of those ultimate lead generation spaces.
Yeah, it's fun.
It's super, super fun. Marketing.
From a numbers perspective, it's fun, and from a marketing perspective, you can do some really amazing, beautiful things depending on if we can use the kids, if we can use the educators.
Just on that, it's not the end of the world if you don't want the kids' faces to be in photos.
There's other ways to do it.
Well, like I said, you can do things like you can hire in models, that's really common. Every industry does that so that's a really common thing you can do. There's ways around that and where we work with both, you know what I mean? We work with every type of childcare centre and early learning parameters in marketing so we've worked out how to do that.
April, thanks again. Best of luck with being a mum. I can't wait to be a dad.
It'll be a fun adventure for us all.
It will. We'll catch you on the next one.