Open day snooping: competitor research or industrial espionage?
You know the Autumn Term scenario – a competitor school is holding an open event and you’d just love to know what they’re saying to the same families your school is also working hard to recruit. Do you:
A: Style your hair differently, put on some glasses and pose as a prospective parent, whose fictional son or daughter (loves cooking and rugby, hates languages, borderline dyslexic, keen to learn a wind instrument, have a role in the school play and take part in overseas residential trips) is looking for a place for Year 7?
B: Send a friend to pose as the parent of the fictional child and report back afterwards in return for a large G&T?
C: Call in the professionals to do a mystery shop?
Whichever option you choose, competitor research is a valid business activity, so snoop with confidence whether in real life or virtually, says MTM’s Managing Director James Leggett.
Keeping tabs on competitors is essential for any business wanting to hold on to its position in the marketplace and, while there may be a gentlemen’s or ladies’ agreement on not poaching each other’s prospective families among schools in your neck of the woods, the chances are your competitors have already broken it.
At the end of the day, if it comes down to a choice between seeing your school struggle or upsetting your neighbours, then you know where your loyalties lie.
Open days – whether in-person events or online – present an ideal, if not unmissable, opportunity to get a parent’s eye view of what competitor schools have to offer. But sneaking around a competitor’s corridors (either real or virtual) under a false name, trotting out a well-rehearsed backstory and making copious notes on your phone during the head’s address often sits uncomfortably with school marketers.
It shouldn’t however. Market intelligence and competitor research is acceptable in any business sector and a school that is confident in its offer shouldn’t mind who knows about it.
Phone a friend: That said, the mystery shop element of open day espionage can be ruined if the competitor school staff recognise you as an opposite number, so it’s worth either engaging a third party researcher, or phoning a friend to act as your snooper.
Not only will they find out more about the education on offer at the school, its facilities and the opportunities available to pupils, but you can also pick up some useful intelligence on the school’s approach to communicating with visiting families, collect their marketing collateral (prospectuses, leaflets etc) and find out how they stage and run their open days – with a view to doing it better!
Points of differentiation: Before you send your friend or trusty professional researcher into the fray, make clear to them the aspects of the open day you are most interested in finding out about. These will usually be informed by the points of differentiation between your school and the competitor. It might be the range of academic subjects taught from the entry point up, any setting or streaming, average class sizes, support for pupils (such as wellbeing, pastoral, SEND, EAL, LGBTQ), and any future plans. You will also be keen to find out about facilities for sports and the arts (including how much access the pupils have to them on a daily basis, the age and general state of maintenance). Ideally, you’re looking for the level of detail and insight that can’t be found on the school’s website.
What’s the buzz? If you’re keen to make sure your own school’s open days really stand out in the memories of prospective parents burdened by the choice of schools on offer to them, then a few notes on the atmosphere of the competitor’s event will not go amiss.
Did it run smoothly and professionally like a well-oiled machine, or was it a jumble of staff, parents, tour guides and children all squeezing past each other in the (real or virtual) corridors and forgetting to visit the drama studio?
Did your snooper have to book in advance and were visitors’ contact details taken on arrival? Did members of staff remember your snooper’s name and the name and interests of their fictional child?
How impressive was the head, and other members of senior staff? Were visitors informed of the next steps in the admissions process? What was your snooper’s overall opinion of the school and the event?
Further analysis: All of this information can be recorded for later analysis and, for best results of course, compared to a mystery shop of your own school’s open event.
And don’t forget a fun office sweepstake on who will be first to spot the snooper.
If a large G&T isn’t enough of an incentive for your friend to pose as a prospective parent, just chat to the friendly MTM team about competitor research and mystery shops. We’ll be happy to help.