On banning the words “prospective parents” from schools marketing

By Posted in - Content & Schools on January 9th, 2018 0 Comments

You work for a school. You want to encourage more parents to send their child to your school. So when you’re talking about this target audience, what do you call them? Well, “prospective parents” of course! But is that actually the right term to use? Use of the term “prospective parents” to refer to this audience is so ubiquitous in the schools sector that we barely give it a second thought.

But, let’s consider it for a moment. Parents deserve it. If we unpack the term, we see the perfect example of us imposing our colloquial and – yes, I’m going to say it – lazy internal working language onto our audiences.

Prospective parents. But they already have children. So, technically speaking they’re not prospective parents at all. They are parents of prospective students. Grammatically there is nothing wrong with the term. Semantically, it’s completely wrong for the context in which we use it.

Towards user-centred content

Shifting from the use of our own internal working language to the language of our audiences is one of the central necessities of a user-centred approach to content creation. We see internal language creep into external engagement at every turn. How often do ordinary everyday people who don’t work in the education sector really refer to themselves as an “alumnus” of a particular institution or employer? Do those who plan to study for a masters degree know that they are a “prospective postgraduate”? In some countries. that word isn’t even in their vocabulary. Do I see myself as a “supporter” of an institution when I’ve not yet done anything to support them? The ease with which we slip into using our language, not theirs, is widespread in our sector, and beyond.

I recently called a school out on the prospective parent problem. The reply I received was “well, it’s okay because it’s all about the context”. The implication was “it’s okay, as they know what we’re talking about”.

Whose context?

Now, I’m all for considering context in the content that we create. And I don’t think we consider context enough. The question that we need to ask ourselves though, is whose context? To dismiss something as okay because we assume they – the user – understands the school’s context, is to dismiss the central tenets of user-centred design.

In the education sector, we have a great many terms that describe the audience’s relationship with us and our relationship with them through the use of the same word. Student. Alumni. Teacher. All of these terms work in both directions of the relationship. For example, I am a student at this school, and the school has students.

However, “prospective parents” does not work in both directions. Instead the term forces our – the school’s – context on them. Our language choice determines that they are the prospect, when in fact from their perspective we – the school – are actually the prospect in this relationship. Especially when they’re considering multiple schools. This is less true in highly selective schools, but even then the school or the child is really the prospect, not the parents.

The responsibility to craft considerate content

There is also a sensitivity that we might consider in our language choice here. What about the family who truly qualify for the term “prospective parents” in as much as they want another child? Maybe they’re going through a painful and drawn-out IVF process? Or worse still, those who are trying and struggling to have their first child, but a search result for “prospective parent” merely rubs salt in the wound by presenting them with lists of schools websites. We have a moral obligation to be sensitive in our choice of language.

What about the family that does not speak English as their first language? When they translate the words literally, they’re lost for why we’re talking about people who might one day have children. Clearly this content is not for them since they they already have children. Any school with an interest in international engagement or communities of non-native English speakers should immediately wave caution to the wind with a semantically incorrect colloquialism.

The contextual laziness of the adoption and adherence to this term in schools marketing is something that we must re-evaluate if we’re to really design user-centred content for our audiences. Just because everyone else also uses it is not an excuse for us to continue to do so. The words that we choose must show our audiences that we put their needs first, and not our internal language and processes first.

So what are the alternatives? Task-based language

If we want a term that describes who they are, then “parents of future students” would be more appropriate (I’d be happy with replacing “future” with “prospective” here). Or how about just “parents”?

When we consider, however, that people tend to be looking for task-based words to find information online, then shifting our focus away from a audience-bucket approach might also be more appropriate. “Explore our school”, “Learn how to apply”, “Get to know us”, and so forth, are more task-based approaches rather than an approach solely shaped around who the audience is.

There are multiple other ways to approach this, but for now, let’s at least try to do away with a term that’s semantically incorrect for the audience with whom we so dearly want to communicate. Let’s take some steps forward and show a willingness to adopt language that means something to them, instead of terms that mean more to us.

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