A few weeks ago we met Susan, a fictitious School Nutrition Director who just took the plunge and adopted online applications for student eligibility. While Susan is thrilled with the adoption she realized some roadblocks may appear on the road to successful implementation. Susan wanted to know the best way to take advantage of the online application processing technology in order to avoid some of these disturbances. She felt once she knows how to properly use the technology she will be able to successfully market it. After marketing has occurred Susan is hopeful that she will see acceptance of the new technology across her district.
Susan knows the transition is going to be challenging because paper applications have been used by both parents and districts for many years. She needs to understand how to market applications that are now comprised of pixels on a computer screen instead of paper. Susan took it upon herself to come up with 4 marketing techniques to accelerate school and parents’ adoption and use of online free and reduced applications.

Gain Internal Support

The first step in Susan’s adoption process is to get the school principals on board. Susan believes once she has these people on her team she can use their advocacy to her advantage. Principals are swayed by the benefit of receiving fewer applications to handle—Susan plans to emphasize this in her discussions. She also plans to speak with the principals about setting up stations to complete applications during student registration or “meet the teacher day”. While uncommon, it is still possible that some families do not own a computer. Susan believes the option of signing up on computers at school events will be extremely advantageous.

Raise Awareness

Susan knows that having a successful online application campaign will be dependent upon the awareness of administrators, teachers, and parents throughout the district. This year, she plans to do things as normal but just include information about the online application. Susan will process Direct Certification first because these students are automatically eligible for free and reduced-price meals. After this is complete, Susan and her staff will encourage parents of non-DC students to apply for benefits by sending them a letter. Letters hitting parent’s mailboxes will include a traditional free and reduced paper application as well as a flyer that spotlights how to apply for meal benefits online. The flyer will also highlight the quicker response rate and processing speed of the online application. It is Susan’s goal that the flyer grabs the attention of parents and will be implemented by early adopters. Susan will also provide step by step instruction sheets to anyone who is interested. The school staff will be informed of the new system through in-service trainings that highlight the technology. Susan hopes all of this will end with increased awareness of online applications in her district.

Voice Reminders

It is a known fact that people prefer to communicate in a variety of ways. This is something Susan took into consideration when creating her marketing plan. To reach all audiences, Susan also plans to implement a call system. This system benefits parents who respond better to a voice reminder. Susan and her staff will set up an automated phone system to make weekly calls to households with expiring eligibilities. In this call the parent will be urged to use the online application system due to its quicker response rate. Susan hopes that this will gain more participation in the online application process.

Make Access Easy & Secure

How are parents going to start using the online application if they can’t even find the website? This is a question Susan has continually faced during the adoption process. Her answer is simple: we will make the site easy to access. Susan plans do this in a variety of ways. First, she will decide on an internet address that will be easy for parents to share with friends and neighbors. The key is to create a URL that is a snap to locate on the internet. Also, Susan plans to make sure that the site has a security certificate so applicants can be confident their information is safe and secure. Finally, she will ensure each piece of communication supplies the website address where the online application is located. Susan’s communication efforts will also emphasize the security of the online application.
Using consistent messaging on various district web site pages is an integral portion of Susan’s plan. She thinks this will increases the likelihood that parents find and use the online applications. To reinforce the availability of the online application, echo messages will be placed on the district’s main web page, each campus home page, and the food service department page/web site. Hopefully the constant reappearance of the message will also solidify the benefits to parents in Susan’s district.

Proven History

Susan is not alone in her use of marketing techniques for the adoption of online applications. Some school districts have effectively used marketing to exceed expectations when integrating online applications into their programs. For example, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District had about 99% of all applications completed online in their first year. Not long after implementation began Pearland Independent School District, who recently began using online applications, was pleased to learn that approximately 99% of applications were filled out by parents using the Web.
These two school nutrition departments give Susan hope that her district will soon see majority adoption percentages. However, her district must first follow their lead and use targeted marketing principles to inform and persuade parents to apply online. What has your district done to successfully implement online applications?