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Personalized connection. It’s the guiding light of inbound marketing, regardless of industry, company size, location or product.  When Top Rank Online Marketing consulted industry experts to compile its impressive list of top trends, customization and personalization continued to reign supreme. Hubspot, Go Digital, and Econsultancy all agree that in order to be personal, digital marketers must reach out to audiences in meaningful, genuinely useful ways. And the general consensus is that this practice benefits both consumers and producers:

Incentives for Personalization

In the world of higher education marketing, authentic engagement with prospective students is essential for the success of any digital marketing initiative. For many new students, the transition to post-secondary is an emotional journey, characterized by excitement, apprehension, doubt, and even anxiety. In order to generate new leads and enrol more students, colleges and universities must deliver content that speaks directly to the concerns, motivations, interests and backgrounds of their most prominent audiences.

Student Personas: Segmenting the Target Audience

Understanding and connecting with prospective students starts with surveying your primary audience and segmenting it into logical groups. For example, a career college may decide to segment by program, dividing target audiences according to their pursuit of health care, business or technology diplomas.

Another college may decide to segment according to age, placing recent high school grads in one group and older career-changers in another. A focus on international recruitment may inspire a college or university to segment by geographic region, defining student groups by their countries of origin and program of interest. Each school has its own unique student population – segmentation is the first step to identifying common themes and patterns, and developing a deeper understanding of what drives enrollment.

Approaches to Segmentation

segmentation snip

Developing the Persona Portrait: Key Characteristics

Once your school’s target audience has been segmented (typically into 3 to 5 groups to start), your marketing and admissions team will zero-in on each group, and develop a clearer sense of what members have in common. The student persona will represent these commonalities – ultimately it will stand in as an archetype for the entire group.

Bringing each persona into focus requires digging a little deeper into their key characteristics. Converge Consulting and Fourth Dimension Partners recommend constructing personas based on four or five essential perspectives:

  • Background
  • Motivation/Goals
  • Challenges
  • Interests

Each persona should have its own image, and many organizations assign them names to add that all-important humanizing touch that will inform your personalized student marketing campaigns.  An early stage college healthcare student persona might look like this:




Verifying and Enhancing Your Student Personas

Hubspot reminds us that effective personas are created through research, and by reaching out and talking with your target audiences. This is why it’s best to start simple, adding characteristics your admissions staff, marketing team – even instructors – can confirm are authentic. Then, consider how you might fill in the gaps and enhance your portraits by consulting with students, either in person or online. Basing personas on assumptions defeats their purpose (to connect with prospects and students in meaningful ways) and can diminish the ROI of your digital marketing initiatives.

Use Your Social Channels and Your Website Forms

To learn more about your college’s personas, reconsider the questions you ask on important application or inquiry forms on your website.  Although you don’t want to be intrusive or demand overly personal information, forms can be leveraged to capture persona-verifying data, such as:

  • program of interest
  • whether financial aid is required
  • whether the applicant works full/part time
  • whether the applicant has children
  • when they were last in school

Social channels also provide opportunities to learn more about your current students and prospective applicants. If you were looking to authenticate our sample Healthcare persona, you might consider posting questions or conversation prompts on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook on topics like:

  • why did they enrol in the Healthcare program
  • how much time they spend volunteering
  • what they find most challenging about resuming their education
  • what they consider the most important job of a healthcare professional
  • how they find time for work, kids, and school work

By continually gathering nuanced data on their personas, higher ed marketers can begin to personalize and customize their content marketing, advertising and lead generation initiatives in ways that prospects will notice – and naturally respond to. Which leads us to our next point…

Leveraging Personas for Customized Content

In their recent webinar, Fourth Dimension Partners suggest that higher ed marketers focus on motivation when first learning to design content around their personas. Your persona profile should tell you what prompted students to enrol in a particular program, and what they hope to achieve with their diploma or degree.

Higher ed content, such as blog posts and social media messages should reflect and respond to these motivating factors. Help personas see how your college will help them achieve their unique goals. Ensure that program pages speak directly to personas’ motivations and provide actionable solutions to their concerns. Take a look at this example from the Canadian Tourism College (CTC) website:

CTC career compass
CTC has discovered that their student personas are often uncertain about which tourism program to pursue. This Career Compass page provides a simple, yet personalized and useful tool to help prospective applicants zero-in on appropriates programs. Not only does the page provide helpful advice, it works to establish CTC as the next logical step in pursuit of relevant career training.

In order to stand out from the crowd, colleges and universities must find ways to effectively guide prospective students toward enrollment with authentic and engaging material. Personas are the first step toward ensuring your social media messaging and website content is on target. Tailor CTAs according to personas. Use persona insights to refine and personalize your email marketing campaigns. Re-tool your advertising copy in response to persona concerns and interests. There is no higher ed digital marketing initiative that student personas cannot help customize, personalize, and enhance.

Have you tried developing personas for your college or university? Tell us about how persona-knowledge has impacted your digital marketing results.