February 3

Marketing Personas for Higher Education


There’s a lot of hype out there around big data—but without strong marketing personas, most big data solutions will become a big waste of time and money for higher education marketing teams.

Don’t get me wrong. Knowledge is power—you need good data sets to make informed decisions.

But more information doesn’t necessarily mean more success in marketing. You’ve got to put that information to good use to drive your marketing messaging and strategy.

Case in point: The New York Times, the same publication that wrote this article championing the importance of big data, also wrote this article on how big data wasn’t enough to accurately predict the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

What happened in the 2016 election is the same thing that happens when marketers try to craft effective messaging by simply looking at massive gobs of data–the data is stripped of its context, resulting in messaging that just falls flat.

In her Forbes article, Mary Meehan stresses the critical relationship between data and culture:

“When people try to take data and apply it to their business, something is often missed. Data easily gets decontextualized from the culture. That leads to ill-informed decisions, wrong assumptions or sometimes, no clear decision at all.”

Later, she adds, All the historical models available don’t matter if you fail to view the current cultural environment, potential influences and value motivators.

So how do marketers take the insights offered by big data and put them to good use? The answer is personas…

Marketing personas are fictional representations of audiences used to gather insights from data to target marketing messages.

Personas put a human face on the data to help marketers better understand buying triggers and move audiences toward those desired behaviors.

For example, instead of defining our audience as a “45 – 60 year old female,” we would say this is “Sally, a stay-at-home mom who worries just as much about her children now in college as she did when they were home—maybe even more.”

In that description, we have more than information. We have a feeling of who Sally is, what she cares about, and what she’s afraid of.

By giving lifeless data a fictional human profile, the marketing team can stay on the same page in regard to messaging, design, and objectives.

With personas–distributed and visible to all your teams–everyone can quickly and easily craft content that is targeted specifically for your audience.

Examples of Marketing Personas in Higher Education

Every organization is different. You might have one or two different personas to add to this list, or you might have one or two you need to take off.

But most higher educational institutions are going to have a list of personas like the following:

The “Customer”

    • The traditional student
    • The non-traditional student or adult student
    • The graduate student

The “Influencers”

    • Moms and Dads
    • Siblings
    • Coaches
    • Youth Pastors
    • Teachers
    • Friends
    • Upperclassmen

And, of course, don’t forget to create personas for your advancement strategy like…

    • Young donors & alumni
    • New donors
    • Recurring donors
    • Legacy donors
    • Major donors  
    • Mid-level donors
    • Grant makers

Chances are you won’t need every single one of these personas. In fact, if you have more personas than your marketing team can handle, it can be counter-productive.

So how many personas do you need? Depends on your marketing strategy.

Most of the time, you’ll only need to write out personas for the constituents that fit the objectives of your marketing plan.

Also, if you find your team writing messaging or creating content for a specific group of people over and over again, then you should have an official persona mapped out for that group.

Personas are the stories your data is trying to tell you.

Learn to see your data as stories waiting to be told, and you’ll be amazed by what you learn.

When you begin writing your personas, you’ll be imagining the life and feelings of the individuals you are trying to reach with your marketing message.

You’ll realize where they go for answers—which is what you need to be providing…

                           …You’ll discover what channels and platforms they use to get their info…

                                                         …You’ll see who they trust and who they avoid.

These are all insights into your audience that you simply can’t get from a data table. But you can glean these insights from the stories around your data.

Remember, too, that crafting marketing personas isn’t an exact science.

It takes practice “to view the current cultural environment, potential influences and value motivators” in all the big data. Writing marketing personas is the art of analyzing data and then making good guesses.

And if you aren’t seeing the results you need from your marketing, consider revisiting or refining your personas. They should be dynamic until the point you see consistent results from your messaging.

Schedule a personas brainstorm meeting.

A great next step you can make is to pull your marketing and/or development team together into a brainstorming meeting.

Make sure your data team is  represented as well to present the data sets that you have.

Then, it’s time to start crafting stories about the people your data refers to. Pull photos and post them in a character sketch of the personas you’re creating. Then, share the new personas with your marketing team.

Have fun with this, and don’t let the brainstorming get so complicated that you don’t pull the trigger.

Get the main personas that your team needs posted quickly so you can get to work creating irresistible content for your audiences.

If you and your team need help facilitating a personas discovery meeting or assembling the personas for your institution, give us a call. The consultation is free, and there’s no obligation.

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