Private School Marketing: Why Word of Mouth is Now Second Fiddle to Digital Marketing

by Trevor Waddington, Principal, Truth Tree Consulting



Blasphemy!! Everyone knows word of mouth is the primary source of most independent school inquiries!


Cool your jets, and let me tell you a quick story.


This story is based on 183 interviews we conducted with parents between 2015 and 2019 who were actively searching for a private school for their child. While not all lived in the New York City or Washington, DC metropolitan areas, all were searching for schools in those areas.


And so the story begins...


Mrs. and Mr. Smith were excited about the opportunity to give their daughter, Sophia, more than they had growing up. Except for the one year, Mr. Smith spent in a Catholic school pre-kindergarten class, both Mr. and Mrs. Smith attended public school throughout their childhood.


It was early spring when Mr. Smith's parents (also the Smiths ;) took Sophia for a long weekend to their cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sophia loved nature and could not wait to see the blossoming wilderness of west-central Virginia. With Sophia out of the house, this was the weekend the Smiths could concentrate on their private school search.


After hugs and kisses goodbye, Mr. and Mrs. Smith got right to it and sat down to discuss what kind of school would be right for their daughter. They had preliminary discussions before while doing dishes or watching television, but nothing planned out like this. A few minutes into their conversation, they headed to their family desktop computer and clicked on Google where they, like 57% of the 183 families we interviewed, first started their search.

Question to 183 parents: Where did you first discover the school(s) you are considering for your child(ren)?


  • Google (many responded with " the internet," but when pressed for an exact platform they identified Google) 57%

  • I was already familiar with the school (alma mater, lives very close, only private school in town, etc.) 23%

  • Word of mouth (friend, relative, neighbor, co-worker, online forum/group) 10%

  • Search platform NOT Google (Facebook, Bing, Yahoo, YouTube, Instagram, etc.) 7%

  • Misc. (signage, camp experience, and "I don't remember") - 3%

Both settled behind the screen where Mrs. Smith types "private schools near me." Because this is their first serious search, they spend a lot of time scrolling and clicking until the annoyance of Mr. Smith's slow, deliberate reading clashes with Mrs. Smith's quick, gut-reaction-based search style. At this point, they each go to separate rooms on their own devices.


During their initial deep search, they both stumble upon sites like Niche and Great Schools to read the reviews. (Oh how we love those reviews).


Every few minutes one would call to the other, 'check out _________________ school/academy.'


After 90 minutes or so, they agree to take a break and start comparing lists. One of the schools that made both of their lists happened to be where their former next-door neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, sent her children. They eagerly call her to find out more about the school. Mrs. Johnson provides a glowing recommendation. That's it! While they both had the school at the top of their lists already, Ms. Johnson's rec. serves to reinforce their interest.


They head back over to the school's website to schedule a tour and in the box for 'how did you hear about us' they check - a family friend.


Word of mouth wins again...or does it?!?


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