How you market your center may make the difference between its success or failure. Marketing plays an integral role in the start-up and daily operations of any business, and your center is no exception. Like any other business, a family day care home has a product/service that consumers want and are willing to purchase. Therefore, you will have to sell your product/service (the center) to consumers (parents) who want care for their children. Your marketing plan can help you achieve this goal.

    Know Your Customers

    Even though the needs assessment indicates that your center is needed, don't expect full enrollment on opening day. It may take from one month to a year to achieve that goal, and how you advertise can make the difference. Knowing your customer is the key to successfully marketing your center. The more you know about the parents' expectations, the easier it will be to develop a program that meets their needs, as well as the children's. The data collected in the needs assessment will help you do this.

    Devise a list of questions that will help you identify what the parents will likely need, want and expect of your center. Use the data collected in the needs assessment and the survey questionnaire to help answer these questions. The questions may include:

    1. What type of service will be provided?
    2. What are the operating hours?
    3. How many staff members have degrees or training in early childhood education or a related field?
    4. What is the teacher to child ratio (e.g., 1 adult: 7 children)?
    5. Will the curriculum be structured/Will there be a curriculum?
    6. Have you or will you devise an activities schedule?
    7. Where is the center located?
    8. Is the location convenient and easily accessible?
    9. Do the operating hours facilitate the parents' work schedule?
    10. Is extended evening care available?
    11. Will means be provided?
    12. Have or will medical/first aid policies be developed?
    13. What are or will be the sleeping arrangements?

    Once you have answered these questions, you will have a base from which to develop your marketing program.

    Developing a Marketing Program

    Many first-time business owners think that by simply placing an ad in the local newspaper or a commercial on a local radio or television station customers will automatically flock to purchase their product or service. This is true to a certain extent. Some people are likely to learn about your product/service and try it, just out of curiosity. But hundreds even thousands of other possible customers may never learn of your business. Just think of the money you'll lose, simply because you didn't develop an adequate marketing program!

    Remember, the key to success is knowing your customers' needs, arousing them to the point of consumption and providing products or services to fulfill those needs.

    Marketing is an essential part of business. It oftentimes determines how successful your business will be. So take the time to plan the best strategy to promote your center. There are certain factors, however, you should consider when developing your marketing strategy. They will aid you in formulating a successful promotion plan. These factors are called the 5 P's of marketing:

    • product/service - child/healthy development
    • price competitive within your market area
    • place geographically located within your market - adequate parking, good street lighting, easily accessible
    • promotion - method of advertising, highlighting business, i.e., a sound business gimmick
    • persuasion - ability to sell yourself and business

    Each requires an investment in dollars, time and effort--but the reward will be worth it. Devise a plan that uses advertising and networking (word-of-mouth) as a means to promote your center. Develop short, descriptive copy (text material as in an advertisement) that clearly identifies the services (your center), its location and price. Use catchy phrases to arouse the interest of your readers, listeners or viewers. Remember, the more care and attention you devote to your marketing program, the more successful your center will be.

    How to Market Your Center

    No matter what advertising media you use, you will have to spend money, so allow for advertising expenses in your budget. There are many ways to advertise your center, but keep in mind that advertising can be very costly, depending on the medium used. Newspaper ads, radio and television commercials are the most expensive ways to advertise your center. If you can afford to advertise using one of these media, talk to an advertising agency before making a final decision. Since advertising is an investment in your business' future, it's important to find out as much as you can before making a decision. Once you've decided on the medium, get the agency to help you design your ad or create a commercial.

    Start advertising your center at least three (3) months before you open for business. And make sure your advertisements are consistent with the image you are trying to project. Whatever advertising media you use, be sure to include the following information:

    1. name, address and telephone number of the center
    2. ages of children who will be accepted
    3. hours the center will be open
    4. fees charged
    5. a paragraph about the program and the qualifications of the staff
    6. who to contact for more information
    7. date you plan to open

    Inexpensive Advertising Techniques

    Since you may not have the money to advertise by radio, television or newspaper, don't be discouraged. There are other inexpensive, yet effective alternatives. A brief description of each follows.

    • Flyers - One inexpensive way to advertise your center is to post flyers in public buildings, such as shopping centers, markets, laundromats, restaurants and community centers. Get permission from the owner(s) or governing body (e.g., managers, board of directors) to use these facilities before posting your flyers because some public buildings may prohibit solicitation.
    • Brochures - Distributing brochures is another good way to advertise your center. Take brochures or flyers to the employment offices, libraries, schools, personnel offices of businesses and industries and to government agencies, hospitals, union headquarters or shops, women's groups, colleges and universities, church groups and the PTA.

      Study written advertisements in the newspapers and magazines; ask yourself which ads appeal to you and why. Try to develop ads similar to those you like. If you know someone in advertising or public relations, ask them to help you design your brochures, flyers, posters or ads; otherwise you will have to pay for the service if you solicit professional help.

    • Business Cards --are an excellent, inexpensive way to advertise your center. Have business cards printed in lots of 1,000 that include your name, address and telephone number, the hours, and the ages of the children you'll care for. Ask parents, friends and relatives to pass them out to interested people at work. Take them along to pass out when you take the children on a field trip or a walk in the neighborhood. Go to elementary schools nearby, introduce yourself to the office staff, and give them some of your cards and flyers. Anyone who works with families may be able to make referrals to you - ministers or rabbis, pediatricians, parental groups, business or civic organizations are good sources. Provide them with business cards, flyers or brochures on your center. That way if they make a referral they will have an idea of the kind of service you will be or are providing and can talk knowledgeably to the prospective client.
    • Referral Agencies - The number of child referral agencies is growing. If you are licensed or registered, you may be eligible to be listed for referrals by the licensing office and other referral agencies in your community. Check the National Directory of Childcare Information and Referral Agencies for the agency nearest you. For this information, write to the California Childcare Resource and Referral] Network, 809 Lincoln Way, San Francisco, CA 94122.
    • Networking - Perhaps one of the best ways to market your center is through networking. Since most parents choose their child's caregiver from word-of-mouth, talk to people personally. Get the word out about yourself and your program to people who might have the opportunity to recommend you. Volunteer to speak to local civic and church groups and to the PTA. Networking adds a personal credibility to your service that advertising can't. People more readily believe what their friends and families say about a product or service than what an advertisement suggests. This is primarily because advertisements are designed with the intent to get you to purchase a certain product/service at any cost while word-of-mouth referrals are based on an individual's use of a product/service. Since most people value their families' and friends' judgment about a service more than an advertisement, parents will more likely choose your center.

      Furthermore, how easily you find children and parents to serve depends on how good you and your program are. If parents just love the way their children are happy and thriving at your center, they will tell their friends. Good providers are in high demand almost everywhere. You will also more likely draw families if your center is clean, safe and appealing to children. If parents sense that their children would be bored or afraid at your center, they are likely to look elsewhere.
    • Yellow Pages Directories - Directory advertising is completely different from other advertising forms. They are used by people who are ready to buy. Although other media deliver readers, viewers or listeners, directories deliver strictly buyers. With any print vehicle, coverage of the marketplace is important. Be sure your entire market is covered by the intended directory with minimal waste.

      To ensure the success of an advertising program, try to meet your competition head on. Look at your competitors. In what sections do they advertise? What size ads do they use? After assessing your competitors, decide on the type of ad you want to place. Directories are a source of information for buyers. People who use directories need specific information to complete their buying decision and frequently make decisions based on the information in directories. Include as much information as possible in your directory ad.
    • Classified ads -place an ad in the classified section of your local newspaper. Announce your opening in the business section as well as other feature sections. Many people read the business and classified sections of the newspaper during their commute to and from work. Placing an ad in these sections increases your clientele base.

    Once parents begin to respond, you will need to make appointments with them to discuss enrolling their children at the center. At that time, in addition to the enrollment form, you will need policies that address:

    • Illness
    • vacation,
    • holidays,
    • field trips,
    • times the center is open,
    • who is authorized to pick up the child or children
    • what extra clothes, if any, will be required,
    • activities taking place at the center.
    • meals

    It may be a good idea to develop a Childcare Contract that addresses and explains the policies of your center. If you have a contract and parents are willing to enroll their children in your center, have them sign the contract and provide them with a copy. That way if any problems or emergencies arise, the parents know up front, what your policies are. There are many publications available with sample contracts.

    Remember, when you have a good product, "It Pays to Advertise."

    Know the Competition

    A cardinal rule of effective marketing is to know the competition. Assessing the competition and finding a way to beat the competition is the key to success. Many entrepreneurs mistakenly believe that their competition consists solely of firms that offer similar services or products in the same geographical area. However, competition may actually include indirect competitors who are vying for the same clients. Your estimate of competitors should include all those who offer related services. They may be in the same geographical area or in any other area that is accessible to your clients. To determine the competitiveness of your market, you need to find out:

    1. What businesses offer child care service?
    2. Who are your major competitors? a) direct ,b) indirect, i.e., child care centers accessible to your clientele.
    3. How long have your competitors been in business?
    4. How will your center benefit the clients more than your competitor's center?
    5. Is there a need for additional centers in your area or in an area that is easily accessible?
    6. How are the competition's centers similar to, or different from yours?
    7. What are your competition's strengths and weaknesses?
    8. How is the competition's business doing?
    9. How will competitors act when you enter the market?
    10. What are the competitors' managerial abilities, financial situations, facilities, reputations? Financial institutions and investors often place heavy weight on the elements of competition when deciding whether to fund a new business. Whether or not you apply for a loan to finance your center, it is good to know as much as possible about your competitors. Therefore, you should evaluate your ability to compete very carefully. Join the game only if you are confident that you can be successful. If not, you may want to try another field.

    Sources of Marketing Information

    There are several sources available for obtaining market information. They include:

    1. Market research consultants and advertising firms.
    2. Colleges and universities.
    3. Research you conduct on your own.
    4. Other sources, such as the telephone Yellow Pages or state industrial directories.

    Market Research Consultants and Advertising Firms

    Market research consultants are professionals who complete market survey reports. They can also help you develop a marketing plan. Most advertising firms also have a market research department that can help you develop survey questionnaires and analyze and interpret the data. The drawback to using a professional consulting and advertising firm is the cost. Try to locate a consultant or advertiser who will analyze and interpret the data and help you develop a marketing plan for a nominal fee.

    Colleges and Universities

    Business schools in local colleges and universities often have professionals and student groups that offer consulting services. They can help you with both the market survey and the marketing plan as well as other problem areas. Student services, however, may only be available during the academic year. It is important that you approach these services with well defined needs and be prepared to actively participate as the project progresses. Contact local colleges/universities for additional information. Many colleges and universities are involved with an SBA affiliated program, the Small Business Institutes (SBI). SBIs provide many services that include market analysis. If you need help analyzing the market and interpreting the data, contact the local SBA office for the location of the SBI program nearest you and for information on the SBI programs.

    Conduct Your Own Research

    You may choose to conduct your own market analysis. Most market research is time consuming, and the techniques can sometimes be quite sophisticated. If you do not have the time, or the skill, you can still conduct simple research that can yield a tremendous amount of information. This technique is called "focused group interviews."

    First, you need to make some logical guesses about your market. Then you assemble a small group of acquaintances, friends or relatives who resemble your typical potential client. Try to get a good mixture of participants that represent a good cross section of the client group you are hoping to service. Describe your center and the type of service you plan to provide. Ask for feedback. Use the information to determine if your idea is feasible and if your center will be accepted. A marketing or advertising specialist will help you accomplish this.

    Other Sources

    Your local library is usually a gold mine of information. Many publications such as government reports contain valuable up-to-date information. If you have any questions, the reference librarian is trained to find the information. Do not hesitate to ask for help.

    Best Practices for Child Care Business Marketing

    • A Marketing Plan Is A 4-Step Process
      • Define your service and what makes it special.
      • Define your market.
      • Develop your specific strategies to reach your market.
      • Begin marketing now!
    • Describe your service
      • Tell the hours, location and type of care that you offer. Then tell what special features of your business provide benefit to customers. These might include the quality of care, special hours or services, convenient location, or special activities at your daycare.
    • Define your market 
      •  Analyze the competition. Who else is providing services, and what niches do they fill? How will your daycare business stand out? It may be that you are located in an under-served neighborhood, or that your hours cater to particular shift workers.
      • Learn about your market. The local CCR&R will have information about the need in your community for childcare, and the type of care that parents are seeking. They can point out locations needing daycare, types of care or hours of operation that are lacking.
      • Identify Your Customers. Based on the competition and the market information you gather, describe the customers that you will target. Does your daycare meet the needs that your research describes? How? Can you describe your "preferred customer" in terms of location, income, amount and quality of care that the customer is seeking?
    • Develop specific strategies to reach your market. Here are some of the most-often-used marketing methods used by providers:
      • Project a professional image
        • Evaluate your facility as if you were a customer seeing it for the first time. Is it clean, neat, cheerful and child-appropriate?
        • Consider printing business cards. They are cheap and easy, and reflect professionalism.
        • Prepare a one-page business description that describes your daycare philosophy and general operation to interested parents. Have your policies and contracts neatly printed and ready for parents to examine.
      • Use cheap and free advertising
        • Submit news about awards, training and certification that you receive to the local newspaper's professional advancement column if possible.
        • Get to know the owners of local businesses whose employees may need daycare. Leave your card and one-page business description at the business.
        • Visit nearby schools and leave information with the office staff about your business. Advertise in primary school PTA newsletters to reach parents.
        • Give talks on childcare topics to PTA, church, and other local groups.
        • Carry your business cards and hand them out liberally.
      • Get on the referral list of your local CCR&R agency.
      • Network with other providers, who can refer extra business to you.
      • Use current customers as the best source of new business.
        • Parents looking for childcare rely on the recommendations of their friends. So, be sure to tell your current parents that you appreciate their referrals of other children to the daycare. Let them know when you are trying to fill vacancies.
      • Use minimal paid advertising
        • TV, radio and newspaper advertising has not been effective for most daycare providers. (Newspaper want ads can be helpful in smaller towns.)
        • Printed brochures may not be any more effective than a well-stated one-page description of your daycare.
    • Begin Marketing Now
      • Don't wait until you have vacancies.
      • Build the cost of marketing into the annual budget. Marketing costs are tax deductible business expenses.

    "Business cards are cheap- I got 500 of them for less than $20!"

    "I include my business card with the Halloween candy I give out each year- making my Halloween candy a tax-deductible business expense!"

    "I'm excited by my new Marketing Plan. So are my customers--they are ready and willing to help spread the good word about the high quality of my child care services."

    For more ideas and help preparing your Marketing Plan go to your local Child Care Resource & Referral or Small Business Development Center.

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