One common question reverberates around the country and at the community level where the work of early literacy is conducted—how do we engage parents of young children?
That question caused the Reading Success by 4th Grade initiative (RS4G), backed by The Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation in Springfield, Massachusetts, to undertake a series of focus groups with parents of young children.
Springfield has high poverty and less than 40% of third graders read proficiently. RS4G has had success in aligning the community, educators, business leaders and media around the goal of all of Springfield's children reading at grade level. But engaging parents, where they live and work and recreate, has been elusive.
Focus groups of parents, and largely moms who participated in one of our three sessions, revealed what we knew: that parents have clearly moved into the digital age. Email, for anyone who has children, is almost recognized as a thing of the past. Moms told us almost universally that their primary engagement with the world comes through social media and texting. The smartphone serves as the communications tool of choice.
The bottom line message was clear from parents of young children—text us or find us through social media if you want our attention. So, we began thinking about what would make for a compelling texting initiative. In a world where analytics are now so readily accessible, it might be embarrassing to launch a texting campaign and have no one "opt in."
So, how would we create interesting and engaging content—texts—about something like early literacy? We decided early on it had to be a "community" texting campaign, where early literacy and tips for parents were just one component of the campaign.
We enlisted the local PBS station, which had ventured earlier into texting in the Hispanic community, the local YMCA, the Springfield City Library, the Springfield Museums, Springfield Public Schools, and the local United Way's Stay in School campaign.
We needed to come up with a name—so using the Springfield area code, 413, and attaching "families" and "familias" to it seemed the simple and natural way to go. So, 413 Families was born.
We also conducted some informal research on other texting campaigns, found a national texting vendor and set some goals. Launching in February, we agreed to send two to three text messages per week and that all of the partners would provide content about free, fun things for families to do, places to visit, tips for parents on early reading and on parenting in general. With a large Hispanic population in Springfield, we also decided to render text messages in English and Spanish.
We also set the very ambitious goal of collecting 1,000 family opt-ins to the texting campaign by the end of August 2016. The results have been nothing short of remarkable and as of September 1, 2016 we had 1,089 and still growing.
So here is what we learned from the campaign and from a mid-point survey we asked our opt-ins to take.
Knowing that there is a very large Hispanic population in Springfield, we felt that it was important to offer messages in Spanish. What surprised us was that consistently throughout the campaign less than 10% of our opt-ins chose to receive Spanish texts.
A few issues also arose when sending messages in Spanish. Keeping text messages within the 160-character limit presented a challenge because when translated from the English text, the Spanish was always longer. We also realized that the company we use to send messages does not support accent marks – something we didn't anticipate and a hurdle we needed to learn to work around.
From the beginning, we realized the importance of incentives, offering free tickets to a community event, a gift card to a bookstore. These types of giveaways encourage our opt-ins to participate and engage in our messages.
One of our first incentives was offering the first 100 people who replied to our text a coupon for $4.13 admission to the Basketball Hall of Fame. The message read, "FEB. 20 @ HALL OF FAME: First 100 people to reply HOOPS receive coupon for HOF (up to 4 ppl) for $4.13 each & free WGBY Love for Learning event!" We received 91 responses from the 300 who had opted in at the time.
We asked our opt-ins to tell us the name of a book they read with their children—starting with a Monday message, a mid week reminder and a Friday due date. Respondents were offered a chance to win a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card, and out of the approximately 500 opt-ins we had at that time, we received 149 responses. Nearly 40 of the 149 responses were received within the first five minutes of sending the Friday message, and 120 responses were received within the first hour. One parent responded, "[We read] Dr. Seuss' If I Ran the Zoo...which we received when we brought [our daughter] to family day at the Zoo in Forest Park. Lovely!"
In June, we sent a survey to our opt-ins with general questions like ages of parents/children and location, how they heard about 413 Families (i.e. from a partner organization, the media, word-of-mouth), what types of messages they find most interesting and what they'd like to see more of. We received 124 survey responses and confirmed that we were reaching the target audience (families with young children) and that our opt-ins were finding the messages useful. Nearly 87% of respondents said they were either extremely likely to recommend 413 Families to a friend/relative or already had. As we expected, the top two types of messages that opt-ins prefer are free activities and events happening in the community. The majority told us sending up to three texts per week was just fine.
We also received constructive feedback. In response to what 413 Families is missing or what you would like to see more of, one respondent said, "Maybe offering book suggestions for families." Another person suggested offering volunteer opportunities that families can participate in together. "We love to help out in our community with my 5-year-old."
As we assess the way forward in reaching parents in the critical work of early literacy we have learned that no single strategy works alone and, at the same time, any strategy of parent engagement must employ the tools that have become part of everyday life for parents of little ones.