A Five-Step Guide for Using Personas to Bolster Admissions

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By Miranda Stephen — Apr 18, 2019 11:00 AM



With over 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, the market of higher education requires dynamic marketing strategies to captivate the attention of prospective students. Marketing methods have evolved to be compatible with digital platforms which render traditional marketing methods insufficient. Blanket awareness campaigns and constant recruitment emails are losing traction with the younger generation. Colleges and universities communicate with a variety of audiences all with different priorities, backgrounds, values, and motivation to pursue higher education. With such a varied collection of potential students, how do you insure your institution conveys the appropriate message, to the right person, at the ideal time?

Personas: What are they?

Of the most effective inbound marketing strategies is the deployment of personas. Personas are distinct characters that represent psychographic traits of a larger bracket individually. Personas are unique in their ability to go into greater depth with limited words and target a wider range of prospective students on an individual level. Personas within higher education include academic interests, previous academic experience, hobbies, and intended post-graduate profession. The persona is created as a proxy for your target demographic. To stand out amongst the masses, colleges and universities must understand the needs and interests of prospective students. Personas are to be employed for their ability to effectively nurture individual attributes of prospects.

In this white paper, we identify the manner of which to recognize and create an effective persona. Once we have established effective personas, we dig deeper beyond the surface to examine the most effective platforms for personas and how they ultimately enhance the engagement your higher education institution practices with prospective students.

Step #1: Identifying Personas

Traditional marketing campaigns fail to target the wide variety of prospective students. These methods typically apply to traditional undergraduates while the scope of prospective students is far beyond that singular group. At this first step, identify who your prospective students are and how their background, interests, and location provide insight into how you mold your personas.

Step #2: Allocating Personas

Prospective students approach your institution with a multitude of questions pertaining to their interests and needs. Provide filters so that you may best identify who they are, what whey seek, and how you may best attract them to your institution. To successfully provide insight to prospective students, allocate resources through internal research. Your resources can be identified as your existing students or alumni. Existing students are on-location resources you may inquire for real-time feedback and first-hand knowledge. Considering existing students recently went through your admissions process, they are capable of providing relative information and reflections that may aid in the development and creation of your personas.

Maintaining communication with alumni will further aid in your creation of personas. Higher education is a consumer good and when consumers seek a good they require positive reviews and feedback. You may integrate your alumni in your marketing strategies by allocating their perspective of previous marketing strategies during their admissions process. Most importantly, they can pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of your institutions capability to connect and communicate with prospective students. Through the utilization of existing resources, the development of your personas will be relevant and contain crucial traits and interests that best match the inquiries of prospective students.

Step #3: Obtain Data through Digital Platforms

Social media has revolutionized the manner in which colleges and universities attract prospective students beyond a college website. Inbound marketing utilizes social media through a social listening approach. The 2017 Social Admissions Report detailed that 63 percent of students use social media in their pursuit of a college or university. The report further found that 60 percent of students “liked” or “followed” their prospective choices. Social media has been revolutionized as a formidable force that influences decision-making as it introduces students to personalized access to the campus and student life. When in the first stages of drafting personas for your institution, turn to social media for crucial insight and data. Personal surveys and polls can be utilized on social media to create an overarching image of the average prospective student and their academic pursuits. By knowing your market, you can utilize personas that apply to a wide-scale audience. Polls and surveys can provide clarity in understanding what the interests and priorities of prospective students possess when seeking further information from a college or university. Prompt prospects to share their interested major, desired learning outcome, and expected student lifestyle.

A study conducted by Microsoft found that the average attention span of users is about eight seconds. With several departments, information pages, resources, and areas of study, it is important to condense your content. If the average person offers eight seconds of their time, the organization of information should be easily condensed to be obtained within that time frame. Examining your web content, dive into analytics to measure what content on your website is frequently visited in regards to views, inquiries, and comments. For example, perhaps a blogpost tracking the success of an alumna in the tech sector is frequently visited at a record rate by prospective students. This proves beneficial in understanding the interests, background, and target demographic for persona usage in digital media marketing campaigns. With this information, you may narrow down interests, background, and academic pursuits of prospective students in the creation of exemplary personas for your web-based marketing strategies.

Step #4: Creating your Persona

71% of companies have credited personas as a major key to their success. Once you have created your personas, brainstorm solutions your institution may provide to your personas. Identify what your persona expects, challenges, and questions of the higher education process for prospective students to resonate with. The more dynamic and diverse the personas are, the more effective and efficient your marketing outreach strategies will be in the long-run.

To effectively create your persona, draft a template with the following prompts:

  • Name: _______
  • Gender: _______
  • Age: _____
  • Location: _________
  • Academic goals: _________
  • Expected learning outcome: _______

Entering your persona information into a template will provide a structure to the content you absorbed. The template above conveys meaning by allocating humanistic traits and thoughts. Templates prove to standardize the manner of which information is condensed. Collecting the data you obtained through the utilization of current students and alumni and digital platforms, you can easily pinpoint what specific market you want your persona to reach. Create real-world scenarios based off the profiles you analyzed. This method will enable you, the marketer, to place yourself in the position of the student by increasing awareness of the individual admissions experience. By drafting your persona through a template, you humanize your persona for greater common ground when marketed to prospective students.

Step #5: Relevant Content

Creating personas will aid in your production of relevant and informative content for prospective students. Personas assist in guiding marketers to understand their consumer by placing themselves in their shoes through various scenarios. Once you have developed your institutions personas, publish content that is relevant to the material prospects seek. Conducting market research will help in ensuring your personas stay up to date and relatable to each wave of incoming students. Through careful market research and persona usage, Georgetown University developed a mobile app to connect with incoming students. The centralized mobile app can be tailored by the student to best fit their interests and needs. The app further transitions to provide insight for existing students and alumni. Creating your persona is one giant step to engaging your students and prospective students by providing a realistic and humanistic marketing approach.


Personas are a dynamic and innovative marketing strategy for marketers in higher education. The personalization and humanistic format engages prospective students and aids in providing insight to their personal academic goals. Marketing strategies require relevancy to individuals on a global scale. By drafting and publishing personas, higher education institutions possess greater capabilities to reaching out to students and establishing a common arena through which they may navigate information relevant to their academic pursuits.

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Miranda Stephen
Sales & Marketing Intern