The concept of the ghost shopper

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Brief summary

  • Ghost shoppers choose and buy products and services with no (or very little) direct interaction with the seller.
  • Many families who search for schools—a rapidly increasing number—ghost-shop. They research, evaluate, and choose schools without, for instance, speaking with school admissions staff or attending school events.
  • Since families are doing so much school research in this way, your marketing strategy should help them with this.
  • This means giving them the information they crave and spreading an effective brand story across a wide range of media outside your own website, including authoritative, third-party platforms.

Ghost shoppers

A ghost shopper chooses and buys a product or service with no (or very little) direct interaction with the seller. They do the research on their own.

This is common for many low-value retail items, which often don’t require research. For instance, most shoppers don’t need to speak with a clothing store employee before buying a pair of socks.

With consumers spending more time online, ghost shopping is also becoming more common with higher-value purchases. When the benefit of a product or service is complex, customers often seek out answers from multiple sources on their own to develop a more complete and objective grasp of the situation.

When, say, buying a computer, many knowledgeable and savvy shoppers do all (or almost all) their research on their own, often online. The same goes for smartphones, tablets, and even cars.

Ghost shopping for schools

This trend also applies to schools.

Increasing numbers of families are ghost shopping for their children’s education (this trend is evidenced by the significant uptick in’s traffic). They’re researching, evaluating, and choosing schools without interacting with you directly: e.g., without speaking with admissions staff or attending school events.

“We’re getting more and more stealth applications,” says Kathy LaBranche, director of admissions at Trinity College School. “These are applications from families that don’t show up in our database and that have never contacted us before.”

In their decision process, families will visit your website, read school reviews, check out third-party platforms, and speak with school parents, students, and alumni. But they won’t reach out to you!


Here are a few key reasons:

  1. Families want to feel the decisions they make are their own.

  2. It can be challenging for schools to convey certain information objectively, such as their market perception, student experience, and how they compare with their competitors.

  3. Since families compare multiple options, they prefer to get third-party insights, outside of what schools say on their websites or social media.

“Customers have changed an awful lot,” says LaBranche. “This generation is not highly trusting of ‘corporate speak.’ They want an unbiased view of what the school is all about.”

Ghost shopping and school marketing

What does this mean for you and how should it inform your marketing strategy?

Since parents spend so much of their time ghost researching you, you’ll want to guide and influence their research process.

How can you do this?

First, it’s vital you provide the information parents are looking for. You’ll need to answer their pressing questions about your school.

Suppose your school is highly-regarded as strong academically, socially, and in many other ways. However, if your tuition is on the higher end, you may need to address this with parents. For instance, maybe you can provide information about the substantial financial aid you offer (if you do).

Or, suppose you’re an online-only school. You may, then, want to allay some parents’ concerns about what their kids may be losing from the in-person experience. For instance, maybe you could outline the synchronous features of your course delivery.

Second, you’ll want to distribute your information widely and on the right platforms. Sometimes the medium is the message. It’s not nearly enough to just post it on your school website or even on social media platforms. It will carry far more weight on external media where parents research schools, such as online school forums, news outlets (editorial, not ads), and third-party platforms where families search for answers about schools.

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