This is Why Persona Development is Critical to Your Marketing Plan

student personas for higher education

Whenever I begin a relationship with a potential new client, I always tell them in earnest: no one knows your students as well as you do. On the other hand, by the time I get to the point of speaking to an actual school representative, offering ESM Digital services, I just might. That’s because I’ve compiled a small mountain of information about the institution, its programs, the people who work at the college or university, and yes, the students who attend. I’ve put persona development at the top of my to-do list.

You Can’t Be the Answer if You Don’t Know the Questions

Marketing 101 tells you that your products need to solve your customers’ problems. In the case of higher education, those problems are most assuredly aspirational. A program or degree at your institution is going to help future students fullfil their dreams. Persona development, then, helps you define those likely students and their aspirations. Fictionalized versions of your future students, personas represent the ideal candidates for your programs. They should encompass needs, goals and behaviors that will help your marketing team figure how, when and where to build messaging and campaigns that will resonate with prospective students.

Start With a Composite Sketch

The components of a persona include basic demographics that you can pull directly from the students who already attend your school. You have a trove of enrollment and graduation information; use it. From where do your most successful students come? What do they look like? What’s their income level? And remember to be realistic. If your student population is 85 percent Caucasian, you may want a more diverse campus, but it will take more than a marketing shift to make that happen.

Make Them Human

Once you create a skeleton, you need to add meat and flesh. For optimal persona development, enlist the services of a masterful story-teller. The better and more believable the story, the more accurate a reflection your personas will be of your current and future students. What makes a persona seem human? Answers to questions about where they live and work; what they care about; how they navigate life. If most of your students are the first in their family to go to college, make at least one of your personas that kind of family trailblazer. If your students are working adults, your personas need to be too. Remember to consider what need your school could fullfil, what problems your programs could solve. Maybe your future students are looking to save the world. Or maybe they just want to earn more money. Make a clear connection between what your institution offers and what your persona might need.

What Else You Need to Know

One of the most common questions I get asked is how many personas do I need? A marketing rule-of-thumb is three to five personas for your brand, but when you speak to specific programs, you may only need two to three. You may only need one! What’s important to remember is that personas are just sketches, meant to be a guideline, not a bible. If they become so confining that marketing only targets real people who look just like your fake personas, you’ve missed the whole point. Dump the pretend people and start over at square one.

The Benefit of Negative Personas

If you run pay-per-click campaigns, you probably know a little about negative keywords. They’re words you specifically filter out of campaigns. You can also create negative personas. These are personas of prospects you do not want to target in your marketing campaigns. Doing the research for exclusionary student personas may seem a waste of time and resources, but think about how much money you could waste if you target incorrectly.

If you’d like to learn more about building effective student personas to help hone your marketing campaigns, contact the experts at ESM Digital. All we do is higher education marketing—and we do it well.

~Linda Emma