Foster care recruitment – our method to cut out the money madness
Giving children in care a decent start in life can be expensive for local councils if they need to call on the private sector. CAN has worked with council marketing teams to develop a digital marketing methodology for recruiting foster carers in-house that works. Here we share our insight and approach.
In an article in The Guardian on the cost of private fostering, Coventry City Council said the difference in spend between private sector Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAs). and council placement was £10,000 each. In the same article, a Liverpool councillor said IFA fees cost his council an additional £6million in year.
According to the Ofsted “Fostering in England 2019-20” report released in November 2020, there are now 75,300 foster carers in England with 35% (26,429) coming from IFAs. If these placements cost councils £10k more each, then they are spending £264.3m by not recruiting their own foster carers.
This competition between the public and private sector to recruit foster carers is played out in marketing and advertising. Google “fostering”, and your search results are filled up with paid ads for IFAs. Getting the communications campaigning right on this could save councils £millions. Yet recruitment marketing outlay can also run into £1,000s.
How do children’s services teams ensure they don’t compound their problems by wasting budget on an ineffectual strategy?
Our experience, across 37 fostering campaigns has led to a tried and tested method that allows council messaging to cut through, and eases prospective foster carers through the stages of the “marketing funnel” to the point of recruitment with tactics and tools based on behavioural insight.
The marketing funnel and foster care
Although the concept of the marketing funnel is a commercial one, ultimately leading to “sales”, we can use a truncated, three-step version to explain our digital recruitment campaign strategy: where awareness leads to consideration leads to conversion (or action).
1: Awareness: prospecting and data capture
The key to campaign success when it comes to foster care recruitment is to plan long term. You should not see each piece of campaigning work, and any recruiting success that comes out of it, as itself an end.
Accept that there will be a constant need to recruit foster carers and so a continuing need to run recruitment campaigns. Importantly, each campaign and each stage within it, should be planned to build audience insight to use going forward.
This first stage is about getting as much awareness and engagement as possible from an initial set of campaign creatives.
Visuals and messaging need to be appropriate to the audience you want to reach. Our advice on creatives is not to obsess over coming up with clever ideas. Engaging creatives are obviously useful, but at this stage you want wide audience awareness and interaction. It is more important to have a range of different messages so you can evaluate what works and what does not.
The London Borough of Haringey campaign aimed at BAME residents that we supported in 2018 used a range of images that focused on different child ages from toddler to teen. The results gave insights into the potential foster carer preferences for this demographic.
And people looking at the ‘roads and parking’ menu page are served an iBar promoting the council’s commercial MOT service for residents and businesses (see below).
Digital media channels
Why digital only? Websites and social media channels are the only places to capture the sort of anonymised data at scale, and with the level of insight, you need to build a qualified audience for your campaign.
And the performance of display ads – that appear in social timelines or within the content of news and lifestyle websites – far outstrips the limited organic reach of council social media accounts.
Taking the combined results of a 2020 social care recruitment campaign we ran in London and the West Midlands, for example, the click-through rate (CTR) was just 0.02% for organic, but 1.1% for display (the average for display ads is between 0.35% and 0.46%).
We set up targeting parameters for geolocations and demographics based on the profile of the audience a council needs to reach with a campaign. This could (especially in this initial phase) be quite broad. Or it could be defined by a specific, pressing recruitment issue.
Many London councils, like Haringey mentioned above, have large BAME populations and often need to focus on this demographic. Other councils lack older foster carers and want to target people whose children have moved out of home.
As mentioned earlier, IFAs use paid search continually to generate interest from prospective foster carers. So, to compete, we would always include a robust search strategy as part of a council campaign to appear near the top of any general searches locally.
2: Consideration: targeted remarketing over time
In our conversations with council communications teams, we find their foster care recruitment has been marketed through a series of individual campaigns, buying all types of media (print, digital, radio, out-of-home), and resulting in poor overall engagement rates.
This is because, unless someone shows a keen enough interest from that one campaign to go straight through to the “conversion/action” stage at the end of the marketing funnel, they might be permanently stuck in the “awareness” stage.
For foster care recruitment, the “consideration” stage is the most critical. Behavioural insight tells us that the nature of foster caring – the impact it would have on every aspect of someone’s life – means that this consideration process is likely to be lengthy and someone’s impetus to act might ebb and flow until a final decision is made. This could take a year or two.
It is at this stage that a campaign gets the most benefit from our approach. The objective should be to encourage a stream of high-quality enquiries from potential foster carers. And the tactic is to retarget those who have expressed an interest (by clicking on one of the initial creatives) and take them through an off-site user experience employing a variety of tools. This keeps that interest going and gradually nudges potential recruits towards a decision.
It follows that the CTR generated from initial creatives should increase as the audience becomes more defined by its qualified interest. CAN’s specific brief for a Telford & Wrekin Council fostering campaign was to stretch the demographic for fostering to reach out to locals aged 30 to 55 years.
When initial display ads were placed across local and national newspaper websites, on social media, ecommerce, and information platforms, more than 1.25 million ad impressions were delivered and close to 2,000 clicks generated. This was a moderate CTR of 0.16%. But once those 2,000 were retargeted, the CTR doubled to 0.32%.
A whole range of campaign tools can be employed through display advertising on social channels and websites at this “consideration” phase to keep up interest and nudge people on to further action. There is flexibility with this approach. Tools and retargeting techniques can be adapted based on campaign performance and feedback.
Our campaign with Staffordshire County Council placed two different videos of the story of a teenage boy – one after a positive fostering outcome and the other without that intervention – to focus attention on fostering older children, which was a problem area for the service.
Swindon Council’s “consideration” stage messaging involved myth-busting to correct misassumptions about who could become a foster carer. A message about household pets being a barrier was the surprising leader in this category amongst people who had shown an interest but clearly had questions that needed answering.
A London Borough of Hackney foster carer campaign encouraged those who had shown an initial interest to attend an event in person. Here they could meet established foster carers, listen to their stories and ask questions. A series of video adverts placed in pre-roll slots on YouTube and in contextual online news content featured real-life stories from foster carers and children’s social workers. There were 5,338 views amongst those re-targeted, and over the following six months, Hackney received 300 expressions of interest.
These tools can be used to capture small amounts of information about potential foster carers if they want to share at any point. You could offer that they supply their email address on a short form that pops up after they’ve seen a video and invite them to an event or phone chat to take the next step and find out more about the foster carer role.
Any of these tools used successfully with councils in past foster care campaigns can be adapted for other comms teams – saving time, budget, and people resources. Tools we’ve employed for different types of campaigns can also be adapted for foster care recruitment.
An interactive social media tool used to test recycling knowledge across four boroughs for the London Waste and Recycling Board could be used for foster care myth-busting, for example. As could quiz tech used by many councils to collect COVID-19 local public awareness statistics.
3: Conversion: timely prospecting bursts towards action
The ultimate goal is to encourage people into the official foster carer recruitment process.
Given that the need is to think long term – building an audience of interested people over months and years – this retargeting to those who have shown an interest needs to be maintained, although not with the same intensity.
Periodic bursts of activity should complement regular search and other low-level marketing. These intense short bursts should coincide with other events on the foster care calendar (Foster Care Fortnight is each May) to amplify national messages to your local, qualified audience. And annual public events could resonate with those considering fostering.
The London Borough of Lambeth retargeted empty nesters (especially women aged 35 to 55) who had already shown an interest around Mother’s Day, with creatives that focused on how it feels at home with children gone and how fostering could fill the gap. Other councils have used a short burst of retargeting at the start of the university year.
BAME campaigns have coincided with Black History Month in October and LGBT+ campaigns have run during Pride Month in June.
There are two stages beyond “conversion” in some models of the “marketing funnel”: “loyalty” and “advocacy”. In the case of foster carer recruitment, this is apt.
Our three-stage foster care recruitment campaign strategy should be viewed as a successful start to a journey towards a committed pool of the right recruits. But following it should ensure councils have a head start on these final two aims.
For more guidance on foster carer recruitment campaigns based on our learning – including a framework on how to make a smaller budget go further – read the blog “New foster carers are out there, just give them time to engage.”