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higher education content strategy and development

As demand for highly personalized, strategically targeted student marketing grows, so does the interest in (and need for) detailed knowledge of what truly influences recruitment audiences during the decision-making journey. After all, schools can’t create customized content for audiences without first understanding their distinct goals, aspirations, challenges, attitudes, and search behaviors.

The concept of buyer personas has been around in business for quite some time. But now we’re seeing educational institutions adapting the concept to suit their own recruitment and engagement goals, creating “student personas” that represent their most valuable and sought-after audience segments.

But there remains some debate over precisely what the student persona should contain or seek to achieve. When personas merely skim the surface, aren’t based on real evidence, or place too much emphasis on non-relevant characteristics, they do little to enhance your strategy for student recruitment and ongoing engagement.

In this post we’ll present some expert advice for creating authentic, actionable personas, plus offer up some of our own tips from working with schools on this nuanced, highly valuable process.

1. Address ALL the Elements that Comprise Personas

When striving to develop personas, many schools, businesses, and organizations zero-in on just one or two aspects of the target segment, thinking these will be enough to flesh out an authentic archetype. Usually, they delve into the motivations for, and potential roadblocks to conversion, perceiving these two elements as most relevant to their own goals.

While it’s true that goals and challenges are crucial parts of any persona, they’re really only one part of the story. Persona expert, Tony Zambito underscores the distinction between personas and “profiles”, pointing out that “while a customer profile can help with understanding buyers, they will not be revealing about buying behaviors.  Nor will they offer any illuminating buyer insights.”

So how do we avoid merely skimming the surface, and construct illuminating, insight-rich representations of our most sought after student groups?

The Buyer Persona Institute follows a comprehensive approach they call the 5 Rings of Buying Insight when constructing personas. Each “ring” looks at a different dimension of the target segment, including but not limited to, their aspirations and pain points. Their model looks like this:

student recruitment content strategy and development

Or, you could think of the process laid in in these terms, which is often what we do when helping schools develop their student personas:

1. Define motivations and goals

2. Identify pain points or perceived roadblocks

3. Isolate search behaviors or key steps in their decision-making journey (where will they look online while researching schools, and what parts of your school’s digital ecosystem will they head to first?)

4. Clarify background information such as age, location, current level of education, professional status, parental status, financial situation, etc.

5. Identity important Influencers: the factors or people that could sway the persona one way or another during the decision journey (could be an agent, parents, peers, guidance counsellor, etc.)

The takeaway here is that your persona should deliver actionable insights – information about their attitudes and behaviors that can effectively guide marketing decisions. The Buyer Persona Institute offers a familiar framework for understanding how genuine insights can be applied to your student recruitment strategy:

content strategy and development

2. Survey Students Directly

Given the depth of knowledge needed to develop actionable personas,  it seems reasonable to suggest that schools  seek out more than the collected wisdom of their internal marketing and admissions teams. While it’s helpful for these team members to contribute their observations (often collected over years of interacting closely with current and prospective students), it’s always smart to go straight to the source – and survey students directly.

Perhaps the most effective way of doing this on a large scale is inviting students to take an online survey.

There are a wide range of surveying tools out there, such as SurveyGizmo, Surveypal, SmartSurvey, or SurveyMonkey. Many offer free features, plus a selection of paid packages that come with additional functionality.

We recently administered an online survey in collaboration with a college who needed our help to develop student personas. We used SurveyMonkey for the project, which comes with handy tools that chart and graph responses for easier visualization and analysis (these get more sophisticated with a paid package).

education content strategy and development

Once the survey had run its course, we took the automated analysis a step further ourselves, and created an in-depth report of important characteristics, statistics, direct quotes, and behavioral trends. This analysis was helpful in two ways. First, it helped us to synthesize the survey findings in a meaningful way (something the automated function couldn’t fully achieve), and second, it gave our client some concrete “evidence” to present to their board of directors. As is the case within many larger educational institutions and franchise models, governing stakeholders needed a breakdown of our methodology and findings in order to endorse the personas we developed and proceed with the digital strategy.

Quick tip for constructing your survey questions:

In order to get at the heart of what influenced our audience’s school decision-making, we used a balance of open-ended and multiple choice questions. For more subjective questions, such as “What prompted you to ultimately choose College ABC?” we left space for participants to describe their experience in their own words.

Not only did this first-person feedback help us develop realistic personas, we were also able to harvest the comments for meaningful quotes, which we integrated into the marketing content we created – adding a layer of authenticity that is crucial to any school’s content strategy and development.

3. Leverage Student Success Stories to Gather Additional Insights

Although surveys can be very helpful in quickly gathering information from a large pool of respondents, they do have their limitations when it comes to persona research.

For example, the Buyer Persona Institute points out that while useful, a “survey-like approach, whether administered over the phone or online, limits our potential to uncover surprising or unexpected information… buyers will disclose minimal information in response to direct questions.”

We seek to mitigate this limitation by including a range of open-ended questions in our surveys ;  but it’s true that the somewhat impersonal nature of the interaction might not cultivate the trust participants needs to really open up, and delve into greater detail.

This is where success stories come into play to allow for greater depth of disclosure. Interviews used to gather these stories give the marketing team an opportunity to meet one-on-one with students, and ask them to describe their journey toward enrollment, their hopes and dreams, and the obstacles they’ve overcome to get this far.

Not only are these stories excellent material for your content marketing, they yield a level of understanding we need to develop truly actionable personas. We suggest combing through previously gathered interviews, or soliciting brand new ones, as primary sources for qualitative persona research.

George Brown College features student success stories on their website, and encourages students both past and present to submit their own experiences via an online form. This won’t be quite as personal as a one-on-one experience, but is nonetheless helpful as a narrative-gathering tool:

student recruitment content strategy

content strategy and development

4. Don’t go Overboard: Limit Yourself to 2-3 Personas

It’s frighteningly easy to start micro-segmenting your audience and wind up with so many personas, you descend down a rabbit role of data points,  tactical options, and conflicted key messaging. This miss-step is so common, marketing expert mStoner mentions it as one of his top three “habits to break” when constructing personas.

While it’s true that large universities may have 10 or more legitimate personas, smaller colleges, private schools, and specialized programs should probably limit themselves to one, two or three archetypes.

When evaluating your target segments, consider your goals. Is there a particular program you wish to recruit for and need a better sense of how to connect with its prospective audience? Or, are you hoping to reach an entirely new audience (younger, older, working professionals, online students, internationals, etc.) and need to create a persona for that segment before launching your next campaign?

To avoid straying off course, remember that personas should align with the specific goals of your student recruitment strategy, and don’t need to represent every single group or segment of your student population.

content strategy and development

5. Treat Your Personas as Living Documents

Persona research and development is never really done. Over time, new insights will emerge about what truly moves your target audience, and as the years go by, the preferences and behaviors of this audience could even change.

Think about social media, for example. The top platforms and networks your personas use now could very well have fallen out of favor by this time next year. Or at least, there may be a new platform or two that they’re simply engaging with more- and you’ll need to understand those new preferences when creating your content strategy for student recruitment.

Continue to actively test the legitimacy of your personas by:

  • Periodically polling and interviewing students
  • Taking note of discussion trends on your school’s social media channels
  • Considering feedback on the persona-oriented content you’ve published
  • Tracking or mapping your personas’ interactions with your website
  • Checking in periodically with admissions to see if they’ve noticed any new trends in terms of questions asked during the inquiry process

Evaluate and improve your personas throughout each campaign to further refine your understanding and appreciation of more subtle characteristics – and vigilantly guard against unhelpful assumptions and misguided conclusions.

content strategy for student recruitment

6. Don’t Go It Alone: Ask the Marketing & Admissions Team to Weigh In

Speaking of avoiding false conclusions or assumptions…this is best achieved when more than one solitary person is responsible for researching and crafting personas. Sure, you’ll have a designated individual who will take the lead on the project, but drafts of the persona(s) should be circulated for input and critique from at least a couple of additional marketing and admissions team members. With fresh eyes, they’ll be better positioned to spot inconsistencies, information gaps, or characteristics that just don’t seem to ring true.

7. Revamp Personas Post-Graduation for Alumni Engagement

As some of your most convincing “brand ambassadors”,  alumni can and should play an important role in recruiting your next generation of students, and even retaining the students you’ve already enrolled. But this only happens if you’ve got a solid alumni engagement strategy – which of course begins with solid alumni personas.

After they graduate, students will develop a different set of aspirations, challenges, attitudes, and behaviors vis-a-vis your school or program. In order to retain them as committed members of the academic community, you’ll need to understand how to segment them into groups, and tailor communication to suit each persona.

For example, alumni engagement expert Beth Kanter reminds us that alumni typically operate along a continuum of engagement with their alma mater – a concept schools can use to help guide messaging to grads at various stages of involvement. Here’s an adaptation of Kanter’s continuum, which could be used as a basis for segmentation:


alumni engagement strategy

Your institution will need to determine how the Connected Alumnus differs in motivation, pain-points, and behaviors to the Committed Alumnus, etc. You’ll be looking to interview or survey your alumni to determine answers to questions like:

In what ways do your various alumni personas most want to “give back” to their alma mater?

What is the easiest way to engage with overseas or out-of-state alumni versus those who live close to campus?

What kinds of in-person events would your different alumni  personas enjoy attending?

What alumni persona would be most receptive to hosting a Q&A with prospective students?

It would be wise to survey your alumni periodically, to understand their changing priorities and giving preferences – adapting your engagement strategy so it truly resonates with their needs (and not just your own institutional goals!)

When you think about it, frequently checking in with students and alumni, and facilitating meaningful conversations about their hopes, fears, and progress toward goals is all part of effective community building – which is so important for schools who want to personalize their relationship with prospective, current, and graduated students.

The folks at The Buyer Persona Institute really drive the point home by reminding us:

The ROI is this simple: When you know how to help buyers evaluate your approach on their own terms, you build a bond of trust that competitors can’t match.”

How do you develop personas that lead to trust-building engagement with your most important audiences? If you’ve got questions or tips to share, please make them known in the space below!

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