Written by Tom Copeland for Resources for Child Caring, November 2008
All signs point to a coming recession in the US. This is bad news for everyone, including family child care providers.
When our economy slows down, parents are laid off work and often stay home to care for their children, thus reducing the demand for child care services. At the same time, some of these parents will start offering child care in their own homes to earn more income for their families. The supply of child care increases while the demand for care decreases, making it difficult for providers to fill their spaces.
I've been hearing from providers across the country who are losing parents from their programs. Economists expect that unemployment will continue to rise in 2009. If so, providers may continue to experience difficulties in maintaining their enrollment.
How Providers Can Succeed in These Tough Times
Providers need to know how to answer two questions:
1. Why should I enroll my child in your program?
2. What does your program offer that other programs don't?
Your answer will largely determine how successful you'll be. You may believe that you run a wonderful program, but unless parents agree, you won't succeed. It's important to learn how to communicate the benefits of your program to parents.
Quality vs. Cost
When parents are shopping for child care, they are looking for programs of the highest quality for the money they can afford to spend. If they are looking at two programs and can't see a difference in the quality of those programs, they will choose the one that is cheaper. As our economy weakens, there will be an increasing number of providers who will lower their price to attract such parents.
I believe this is a mistake.
Instead, providers should put their energy into improving their communication skills and showing the benefits of their program to parents. Competing on the basis of price alone is a losing strategy. Competing on the basis of quality has a much greater chance of succeeding.
Features and Benefits
Parents want to know how your child care program will benefit their child. All providers can offer a basic description of their program to parents: "I serve preschoolers Monday through Friday and participate on the Food Program." What's often missing is a follow-up statement about how your program will help children learn: "I offer planned learning activities with weekly themes tailored to your child's needs."
All parents value education for their children, so use learning-related words to help them understand what your program offers: "I teach your children;" "This is what your children learned yesterday, are learning today, and will learn tomorrow;" "I charge a tuition;" "Your children will graduate from my program."
More and more parents understand the importance of early childhood education. Child care programs that promote themselves as "preschools" usually offer a structured time for planned learning activities. Even the word "preschool" itself evokes a learning environment.
However, all family child care providers who care for children of preschool age are offering, by definition, a "preschool program." Consider describing your program as a "preschool program" and point out to parents what activities you offer (whether highly structured or informal) and how these activities help children learn. Do not let a parent think that they must take their child to a "preschool program" in order to ensure that their child is learning.
Accreditation, Credentials, School Readiness, and Quality Rating Programs
Because parents are looking more and more for objective standards of quality, providers should seriously consider becoming accredited through the National Association for Family Child Care; obtain a Child Development Associate degree; or participate in a school readiness or quality rating program that may exist in their area.
Such programs set higher quality standards for providers than existing state regulations. Providers who participate in these programs can make a stronger case to parents that their children will learn more and be more successful in school.
If you want to learn more about these programs, contact your local Child Care Resource and Referral Agency.
Specific Marketing Strategies
Competing Against Child Care Centers
You may not offer everything that a child care center does, but you always have some benefits that a center does not. Visit local centers near your program and collect their fliers and marketing materials. Compare your benefits with their stated benefits.
In particular, family child care providers have the advantage in these areas:
* A home environment for children with lower child/staff ratios, which will help them learn more quickly
* Individually prepared, nutritious meals
* A consistent caregiver as the child grows older
* A safe, comfortable, familiar environment for infants with individualized care to help them thrive
* Mixed age groups that allow siblings to be together
Work with your local family child care association to promote family child care in your area. This process could involve running group advertising about the benefits of family child care with a slogan like, "Family Child Care: Where Your Child Is Always At Home." You could also attract media attention to special events or services offering by local providers.
Competing Against Informal Providers
During a recession, it is likely that there will be an increase in the number of providers who operate outside of your state child care regulation system. This includes providers operating legally and illegally. In either case, these providers are likely to be charging less than you do.
As you interview parents, promote your program using these techniques:
* Emphasize the health and safety aspects of your program: "I am licensed, which means that my home has been inspected for safety, and my family has been screened for criminal background or contagious illnesses. If you are considering enrolling with an unregulated provider, you should consider the fact that I have met higher health and safety standards."
* Tell parents that their child will get nutritious food on a daily basis because you are enrolled in the Food Program.
* Don't compete based on price. There will always be someone who charges less than you do. Instead, stress the value of your program: "I offer a variety of planned learning and play activities that will help prepare your child to succeed academically and socially in school."
* Emphasize the benefits that unregulated caregivers are unlikely to offer: "I have specialized training in child development, so I can respond quickly to your child's needs."
* Work with your local family child care association to initiate a public campaign about the benefits of regulated child care. Direct this campaign at both parents and informal caregivers. To parents, stress issues of safety, training, and professional care. To encourage informal caregivers to become regulated, emphasize the benefits of the Food Program, access to support, and the ability to earn more money.
You can't hope to appeal to everyone, and some parents will always pick the cheapest care. Let those parents go. People usually get what they pay for. If parents can see the value in your program, most will pay more for higher-quality care.
Competing in a High-and-Low-Income Neighborhoods
Your neighborhood may be located in a high- or low-income neighborhood, or it may contain a mix of families with varying incomes. Since not all parents will respond in the same way to how you describe the benefits of your program, you may want to listen closely to what parents want from their caregiver, then emphasize different aspects of your program.
Here are some strategies for marketing your program to parents:
* Prepare a brochure describing the benefits of your program. Include testimonials from current and past parents in your program.
* Some parents are looking for a formal education environment for their child. For these parents, consider adopting a business name that highlights the educational aspects of your program: The Little Academy, The Little People's School, Preparatory Schoolhouse.
* Other parents may want a program that emphasizes a more homey, loving, and caring environment. For such parents you may want to give your program a more friendly name: Country Critters Child Care, Just Like Home Day Care, Little Cherubs, Lue's Tiny Tots.
* In describing your program to parents, highlight any special services you offer (piano lessons, second-language training, numerous field trips, computer training, swimming lessons, etc.) and explain how these will enrich their child's education.
* Offer parents daily notes about their child's progress.
* Distribute a parent newsletter filled with tips and articles about the latest in child development.
* When talking to parents, stress the family nature of your services. Hold gatherings at your home (holiday parties, summer picnics, etc.) and invite all the family members of your clients.
* Talk about how important it is to you to build a strong relationship with the children and their parents. Show how you can help the parents by answering their parenting questions.
* Help parents identify community resources and services such as local clinics, low-cost stores, garage sales, etc.
* Get involved in community activities and connect with your neighbors so you will receive word-of-mouth referrals.
For more information, see the Tom Copeland's Family Child Care Marketing Guide.
Last updated 18 June 2013