PTOs and PTAs: Could They Ignite Your Education Marketing Plan?

by Tim Sullivan

Influence of Parent Groups and Volunteers Is on the Rise

Think fast and say the first thing that comes to mind when I mention the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) or the PTA (Parent Teacher Association). You likely think fund-raising or bake sales, and you aren't wrong -- parent groups still fundraise more than ever, and bake sales still happen. But that simple reputation often serves to hide the more nuanced role that parent groups can play in your education marketing plan.

Today, parent groups are more essential than ever in our schools. With teachers and administrators increasingly taxed by testing, reporting, and curriculum requirements, volunteer leaders of parent groups are taking on planning and decision-making duties once reserved for paid staff. The result is that a variety of school activities and dollars filter through school parent groups, which are also taking on more advanced leadership responsibility.

PTA/PTO School-Market Buying Power Is no "Small Potatoes"

I want to explore more deeply the new roles and responsibilities that parent groups are assuming, but first let’s take a look at the market overview, background, and definitions:

  • The vast majority of the 80,000+ K-8 schools in America have a parent group of one sort or another. Some high schools still have a PTO or PTA, though more often the parent involvement at the high-school level breaks off into activity-based support groups (band parents, football boosters, etc.).
  • Groups known as PTOs are independent groups working at their own schools. PTO is the most common acronym for independent groups, though you’ll see an alphabet soup of alternatives, such as PCC (Parent Communication Council) and HSA (Home School Association). Groups known as PTAs are formally affiliated with their state and the national PTA of Harper Valley fame. Today, 77% of K-8 groups are independent PTOs. Only 23% of groups remain PTAs.
  • Parent groups are anything but small potatoes. They raise roughly $2 billion annually from traditional fundraising sales, book fairs, school auctions (auctions and other larger events are growing rapidly), and donations; they spend that $2 billion each year on everything from new playgrounds to teacher stipends to curriculum aids and software and field trips and just about everything else that can make their schools better.

Selling to Schools with PTOs and PTAs

When most school marketers and sales reps think of tapping into parent groups, they have a single solution in mind: to make a product the focus of a fundraiser and let the parent groups do all the selling. And while the fundraising model has certainly worked for many companies (firms like Innisbrook Wraps and Reader’s Digest/QSP and Scholastic Book Fairs move hundreds of millions of dollars of product through the channel), a successful fundraising offering is a complex endeavor. The right product is essential. The product should have a fairly low price point; it should be consumable and require frequent purchase. The company that supplies the product has to have a commitment to a comprehensive support program to make sales work easily and profitably for parent groups. With the right product and a commitment to a comprehensive marketing and support plan, a fundraising plan can yield strong dividends and expand school sales opportunities.

Three Questions for a Reality Check on Education Marketing with PTOs 

Using parent groups as part of your education sales strategy sounds like a great idea, and it might work for your company, but parent groups are not clamoring for more fundraising options. There are dozens of ways for these groups to bring in dollars, and thousands of companies are competing for their attention to help them raise money. A halfhearted, half-baked effort by your company will not break through the clutter. Too many companies mistakenly equate the simple reputation of parent groups with being easy to sell to, when the opposite is closer to the truth. But make no mistake, creative school marketing managers are figuring out where parent groups do need help and are connecting to them with smart education marketing plans. Ask yourself three important questions as a reality check before you get started:

  1. Could your brand and product help connect with family nights for schools? 
  2. Can your brand somehow help parent-group leaders attract more parents to PTO meetings? 
  3. Could your brand connect into the group-to-teacher pipeline that provides funds and supports stipends for teachers?

A Gateway to Parents Who Influence School Buying Decisions

Perhaps the most powerful role of parent-group leaders is the least understood. While leaders make the buying and spending decisions on that $2 billion in annual spending, they also make the go or no-go decisions on just what programs and messages will be delivered home to all the parents, and those parents are the voting populations that push many local initiatives via the school board.

Parent-group leaders become the gatekeepers and key conduits for reaching the 52 million parents who, through voting power, ultimately control much of what happens in the schools. You can market to the leaders in their leadership role -- sell the leaders the merits of your new fundraising option or extol the virtues of your product over another -- and you can also market to consumer parents through the parent-group leaders, provided you understand what kinds of things get communicated through the leaders and to parents.

Engage the PTO by Promoting Pain-Solving Solutions That Matter to Parents

Again, the key to tapping the PTO or PTA channel is to make sure there is some pain-solving involved for the leader of the parent group. The PTO president won’t pass your marketing message to parents out of the goodness of his or her heart. But if you can provide valuable resources for parents (and make the parent group look great in the process), then your brand and product message can ride along as well. Similarly, if you can help make the next spring fling or fall fair a more smashing success than it would be without you, and you can combine that with ready-made promotional tools, then parent-group leaders will become great allies in promoting your brand.

Parent groups have come a long way. Given incredibly tight budgets and increased levels of accountability, they are more active and their role is more essential than ever before. But along with that increased influence and role, parent groups and their leaders have become more discriminating in their program choices. With good planning, your company can tap into these school powerhouses and enjoy greater brand awareness and incremental school sales.

About the Author

Tim Sullivan is the founder and president of PTO Today, Inc., (www.ptotoday.com) an 8-year-old media and services firm focused exclusively on school parent-teacher groups. PTO Today’s flagship magazine mails to all 80,000 K-8 PTOs and PTAs six time sper year. The company also partners with an A-List of consumer marketers (Target, Leapfrog, Hollywood Video, Discovery and more) on win-win programs and promotions serving parent groups and connecting with consumer parents.