Five Tips for Developing Personas in Higher Education Marketing

Personas are the foundation of all great higher education marketing plans because they epitomize your potential students and help guide how you talk to them. When you can put a name and story to a specific audience like, say, military students, you can better predict their wants, needs, and educational journeys—and when your messaging is that tailored, they’ll appreciate what you have to say. To start developing the perfect personas for your institution’s marketing strategy, consider these tips.

TIP #1: Understand their goals and challenges

To determine what answers (or content) your audiences would respond well to, you have to understand their goals and challenges—short-term, long-term, big, and small. And to do that, you have to put yourself in your students’ shoes. What questions do your tour guides and admissions team hear over and over again? What concerns do your prospective students come to you with, and what makes each audience hesitant to apply? These are your personas’ problems, and they need you to solve them.

TIP #2: Listen to what they are saying

Even if you think you know your target audiences well, you may be surprised by what you hear when you take the time to really listen. At college fairs, for example, encourage your team to listen closely to what students are asking for; are there any common themes? On your own, try some “social listening.” Run a search on Twitter using your institution’s name, and see what students are saying about your admissions process, tours, and so on. Click on a few of their profiles to get a deeper look into what they tweet regularly. Millennials are often very open to voicing their problems or concerns; you just need to be ready to listen—and respond effectively.

TIP #3: Keep it small

It’s easy to get bogged down with a plethora of personas. The truth is, it isn’t necessary to produce compelling content for every potential student that visits your page or walks into your office (and frankly, it’s unrealistic). In most cases, the content you develop for one persona will, in some ways, be relevant for another. Start by developing two to four personas—the people you absolutely want to reach better. Once your personas start to multiply, you begin to lose focus on your true target audiences.

TIP #4: Data matters

Do you have a Google Analytics account? If not, create one; it’s free to do and can provide a wealth of information when it comes to persona development. The kind of data you can find through Google Analytics can tell you more about your personas’ online habits: where they are coming from, what time of day they are online, and what content is important to them. All of this makes great information to add to your persona stories.

TIP #5: Get out the whiteboard

Developing personas can seem like a daunting task for even the most seasoned marketing professional. After all, it does require research and time to build up each profile… but the payoff is worth it. Tackle it by gathering information from folks from all levels and departments at your institution—admissions counselors, advisors, faculty, and staff. Start by addressing the basics (demographics and backgrounds), then move on to specific goals and challenges. With multiple perspectives, you’ll be surprised by how quickly your personas can come together. Once they do, you’ll have blueprints that your team and any external marketing partners can turn to for all initiatives going forward.

Ready to get started? We invite you to download our complimentary persona worksheet to help guide your efforts. Good luck!

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If you have questions about creating your personas, contact me anytime!

John McKenna
John McKenna
Director of Digital Strategy

From nurturing leads to monitoring behavioral content, John strategically blends technical savvy with creative solutions. He worked as a copy editor before entering the agency world and becoming a senior marketing director for SUNY Empire State College.

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