Children's Voice May/June 2006

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Today's Foster Care Campaign: An Integrated Marketing Approach

By Daniel Stein

If you were to ask people living in New York City's highest-needs communities what they think about the quality of their local foster care system, what answer would you expect?

If you're like most people in the field, you would probably assume an overwhelmingly negative response and expect to hear that the system is broken, right?

Wrong. When True Insight Marketing researched this and other questions, we were surprised and delighted to learn that, contrary to popular belief, people in New York's high-needs communities are more positive, interested, and knowledgeable than anyone had anticipated. This information is significant and has been critically important in developing the core messages we've embedded in marketing materials for New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS).

Beginning in 2001, True Insight Marketing started working with ACS on an advertising campaign called Today's Foster Care to improve ACS's recruitment and retention of foster parents--a daunting task in any system, no less in New York City.

We've operated under the premise that if it is everyone's job to recruit new families, then we need consensus around what we are saying and how we are saying it so we don't send the wrong messages. Our work, therefore, has concentrated on five areas: business process improvement, community engagement, branding, marketing and communications, and leadership and development. This work has yielded positive, measurable results, and we have learned a tremendous amount.

Our marketing research, in particular, revealed powerful information that can contribute to fundamentally changing awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. Individuals and organizations outside New York City responsible for recruiting, supporting, and retaining foster parents may find this information useful and applicable in their own communities.

The Key Objectives

Today's Foster Care campaign, which ran from May 2003 to November 2004, had four key objectives:
  • Increase recruitment of new families to care for the types of children coming into care today, and within the communities where the children live.

  • Encourage retention of foster parents by acknowledging and reinforcing their important contributions.

  • Create more linkages between the contracted foster care agencies, the community, and ACS. More than 95% of the more than 16,000 children in foster care in New York City are cared for by nonprofit agencies that have contracts with ACS.

  • Create a statistically reliable baseline to track and measure results over time.
The Today's Foster Care advertising campaign is only one part of a multilayered program that also includes community outreach, distribution of campaign materials, agency collaboration, and training for recruiters on subjects such as customer service and marketing fundamentals.

When most people think of marketing or advertising, they think of funny, witty, or inspirational commercials that appear on television, the radio, or in print ads. What the average person might not realize, however, is that it can take a year or more to research, design, and craft a message that clearly articulates the real benefits, attributes, and unique selling points for a specific target audience. Given the high cost, overwhelming media clutter, and complexity associated with advertising, it has been critical for our message to capture the attention of prospective foster parents but not alienate current foster parents, birthparents, and youth.

As we started working, we quickly discovered that fundamental consumer information didn't exist for child welfare in general, and specifically not for New York City. So we designed and executed a research plan that began with a series of focus groups to test various advertising concepts and gather qualitative insights about the current issues and opportunities among our target populations. We then implemented 602 in-depth phone surveys with prospective and current foster parents. We gathered quantitative data to build a baseline of perceptions associated with foster care, the child welfare system, licensing requirements, and sociodemographics to measure our marketing program.

After the first five-week flight of media--the industry term for the period of time during which advertising is run--we fielded another 604 in-depth phone surveys to measure communications and whether the campaign had any impact on viewers' awareness and attitudes toward foster care, ACS, and the child welfare system.

Let the Data Speak

So what did people think about New York's foster care system?
  • Contrary to popular beliefs, most prospective foster parents (58%) believed the system was doing a good or very good job.

  • Nearly all current foster parents (95%) were satisfied with their experience as foster parents.

  • Most people were familiar with most of the requirements to become licensed.

  • Only 25% knew or guessed the actual number of children in foster care.

  • Most interesting and surprising was that nearly 25% of those surveyed said they were interested in becoming foster parents themselves.
Before designing and creating the advertisements, we took all of the relevant research information and ran it through a sophisticated statistical regression analysis to determine the most important information to include in our communications. The statistical modeling predicted that four factors, when combined, would have the most influence on people's consideration about becoming a foster parent:
  • People want to join a winning team--they want to know the system of care is healthy and stable and provides appropriate support.

  • They are motivated by the magnitude of the problem--the absolute number of children in foster care in their community makes the issue personal and close to home.

  • People want to know they can help a specific child right now.

  • People feel they have what it takes to make a difference. They might not have a lot of money, a big house, or higher education, but they can provide a safe, stable, caring home.
We also confirmed that people who are already acquainted with foster parents were more likely to be interested in becoming foster parents themselves. Socioeconomic, education, or employment factors had little predictive importance.

Results Validate Research Predictions

So, was the research right? Absolutely. The campaign was highly effective in helping to achieve our goals. In fact, during the 10 years I worked in marketing at Kraft Foods, I never saw an ad campaign that was as effective in changing awareness or attitudes from an introductory flight of media.

We measured results in several ways. First, we tracked call volume through the ACS hotline, which increased 63% during the initial five-week flight of media, and 25% over the first year, 2003-2004, compared with the previous 12-month average--excluding calls that went directly to provider agencies. As intended, these calls were disproportionately concentrated in the targeted high-needs communities, which had received more media and marketing support.

After the first media flight, we conducted follow-up research and confirmed that our messages were understood and resonated well with our target audience. The most striking finding was that the campaign statistically improved people's awareness and positive attitudes toward foster care, ACS, and the child welfare system.

Finally, our measurements of new foster parent certifications in high-needs communities, associated with campaign-related inquiries, revealed an 18.4% increase from January to May 2004, compared with the same period in 2003. We measured new certifications beginning nine months after the initial media flight, since we know it takes approximately that long to complete the certification process in New York City.

Information You Can Use

Because the quantitative data is specific to New York City, I can't guarantee the findings are applicable to other locations. Based on our work across the country over the past seven years, however, I strongly believe many of the core messages are transferable to other markets.

Incidentally, we expect to learn more from this year's National Foster Care Month campaign. Since 2004, True Insight has coordinated this national publicity campaign using messages similar to the New York campaign. The 2005 National Foster Care Month campaign generated some 145 million advertising impressions during May, which increased awareness of foster care, and also generated a four-fold increase in inquiries to the National Foster Parent Association, and a 50% increase in inquiries to the National Court-Appointed Special Advocate Association--2 of the 14 partners involved with National Foster Care Month.

The potential pool of foster parents could be much larger than anyone thinks. Successfully reaching even a small percentage of people with latent interest would significantly increase this pool--remember that 25% of people surveyed in New York City said they had interest in becoming foster parents.

Also, by combining several select message points, it's possible to increasing the power of your communications. If true for your system, these message points should include the existence of positive attitudes toward foster care and the child welfare system, high satisfaction levels of current foster parents, the specific magnitude of the problem locally, and the opportunity for regular people to use their innate desire to help make a difference in a single child's life.

Finally, targeted marketing programs can be effective for stimulating interest, changing attitudes, and generating new certified homes. These programs can also provide a positive halo for your organization's other initiatives. For public systems, it provides an opportunity to begin proactive discussions with the people in the communities where foster homes are needed most.

My hope is that in the near future, the field of child welfare can definitively provide the answers to some of these fundamental questions about its "customers." If the whole system really depends on good foster parents, we need to use all the tools available to recruit, support, and retain them.

Daniel Stein is President and CEO of True Insight Marketing, Huntington, New York.

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