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How to Create and Leverage Student Personas for Higher Education

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • What student personas are
  • How they are used in higher education enrollment marketing
  • How to create accurate personas
  • How to leverage your student personas across your marketing efforts

Note: This article was originally published on the Pepperland Marketing Blog, and has been republished here with permission.

What are student personas?

Student personas are the equivalent of buyer personas for higher education institutions. More specifically, student personas are semi-fictional representations of your ideal student applicants which ultimately guide your enrollment marketing efforts.

Because personas are based on research rather than assumptions, they can be used to better understand the goals and needs of your ideal applicants so that you can tailor your marketing efforts to appeal to that audience.

To do this effectively, student personas typically provide enrollment marketers with the answers to four basic questions: Who, what, why, and how.

  • Who is your ideal student?
  • What are their primary goals, challenges, and needs?
  • Why are these goals, challenges, and needs important to them? In other words, what motivates them to take action?
  • How are they addressing these goals, challenges, and needs? How are they doing their research?

What Goes Into a Student Persona

To answer the who, what, why, and how involved in the student’s journey, there are several important details that make up the student persona.

Some of the most common elements of a student persona include:

  • A (fictionalized) name.
  • Demographic information, such as age, geographic location, educational background, etc.
  • Goals, such as career aspirations and long-term personal goals.
  • Challenges, such as financial barriers or time constraints.
  • The student’s story, or a detailed description of who the persona is and what their journey looks like.

Transfer Student Taylor Persona

Once you’ve done your research to analyze each of the components above, you can put it all together by creating a formal document for internal use. You will want to be sure to circulate this document internally and incorporate any feedback or revisions from key stakeholders. Then, once the document is complete, your team will be able to refer to this document to inform their efforts and continue to make adjustments over time.

How Student Personas are Used in Enrollment Marketing

Creating accurate and meaningful personas is a key element of inbound marketing. For college and universities in particular, having these personas in your tool belt will:

  • Inform your content strategy and inspire ideas for new content.
  • Help you refine your messaging so it aligns with your audience’s goals and challenges.
  • Create relevant and effective conversion funnels.

When executed well, student personas can help you realize each of these benefits as well as improve the overall effectiveness of your inbound marketing efforts and increase applications for the year.

Suggested resource: How to Use Student Personas to Increase Applications

How to Create Student Personas

Below are three important steps for creating accurate student personas.

1. Leverage your existing data.

You might be surprised to see how much you can learn from the data that you already have at your disposal. After all, your institution’s current students are prime examples of those who successfully converted from leads to applicants and ultimately enrolled students.

To get started, turn to your databases to identify trends among your current students. Do they tend to come from specific geographic locations or feeder schools? Do they tend to favor part-time or full-time learning options? Do they tend to prefer on-ground, online, or hybrid course formats?

These are just a few examples of the kinds of insights you can gather from the information that you already have. By utilizing your existing information, you will be able to devote more of your future research efforts to uncovering new details that you weren’t aware of before.

2. Conduct interviews.

Once you’ve analyzed your existing data, you can take your research a step further by conducting student persona interviews.

By interviewing your current and past students, you’ll be able to learn more about what really matters to them, rather than what you think matters to them. It can also be helpful to interview someone who decided not to attend your institution— understanding why they choose to pursue a different route can help you discover common objections to your school or program and how you might address them in the future.

When sitting down for an interview, make sure you come prepared with a list of questions that you want to ask. Doing so will help you cover all of your bases so that you can get the most out of the meeting. And, as always, be sure to follow good interview etiquette by being clear about your goals for the conversation and coming to the table with adequate background information.

Suggested resource: Student Persona Interview Guide: 40 Questions to Ask

3. Involve your team.

In addition to getting information directly from the source, many insights can be drawn from within your own team.

For example, consider interviewing admissions counselors to learn about the student’s journey from their perspective. Since the admissions team interacts with applicants frequently, they have unique insights into the specific questions and challenges that prospective students are facing. Additionally, they can help you uncover some of the most common objections they encounter so that you can address those concerns within your content strategy.

You might also consider speaking to the product or marketing managers for specific academic programs, if applicable. These individuals will have a strong knowledge of the program’s value proposition, which can help you understand why your program is the best solution for your ideal applicant’s needs.

Involving the broader team in your research can also be helpful for getting buy-in from internal stakeholders on your marketing efforts. Incorporating their insights can help them better understand how your marketing strategy is beneficial to the organization.

Although it is important to ensure that your student personas are accurate, it’s also important to remember that they should evolve over time. Just as a person’s taste and circumstances change as time goes on, the characteristics of your audience will too. For that reason, marketers should consistently revisit their personas and make updates when necessary.

Student Personas You Might Be Overlooking

As you begin the research process, remember that you will likely encounter several different personas for your institution and the specific programs that you are marketing. It might not be necessary to completely develop these personas in your first round of research, but it is important to be aware of them as you’ll likely want to revisit them in the future.

Below we explore several different types of student personas that you’ll want to be sure not to overlook.

1. Negative Personas

In addition to creating personas that profile the students that you do want to attract through your marketing efforts, it is also helpful to have a persona detailing those who are not a good fit for your institution. Having this handy will help you fine-tune your strategy to appeal to your ideal prospective students while excluding those who don’t fit the bill.

There are many different factors that might disqualify someone from your ideal audience such as financial restrictions or interest in a field of study not offered at your school. To identify these characteristics, consider the different reasons the admissions department might reject an application as well as reasons someone might choose to pursue a different route.

2. Parent Personas

Parents are often involved in a student’s decision to attend college and ultimately which colleges they apply to and enroll in, especially at the undergraduate level. Since parents and guardians often play a large role in the decision-making process, it can be useful to create personas for them as well.

Are they concerned about financing their student’s education? As an alum, are they hoping their student becomes a legacy by attending their alma mater? Is the geographic location of your institution important to them?

3. Non-Traditional Student Personas

It’s no secret that higher education is continuing to evolve alongside the changing needs of the workforce and other influential factors. Along with those changes comes a shift in the types of students that seek additional learning at higher education institutions, and, as a result, the types of “non-traditional” students that enrollment marketers should be aware of.

Some of the more common non-traditional students you should be aware of include:

  • Second career students, who are pursuing additional education in order to make a career change
  • Learning parents, who are balancing academics with the challenges of raising a family
  • Working professionals, who are earning a degree while balancing full-time employment

Since each of these types of students (and many others) are becoming increasingly common and have their own unique needs, identifying and developing these personas can help enrollment marketers ensure that they incorporate these considerations into their strategy.

Suggested resource: 3 Emerging Student Personas You Might Be Overlooking

Leveraging Your Student Personas

Now that you know what student personas and are how to create them, let’s take a closer look at how they can be used.

Student personas should form an essential piece of your school’s inbound marketing strategy. Without an accurate persona at the heart of your campaign, it can be difficult to create content that resonates with your ideal applicants and fulfills their needs throughout their journey from prospect to applicant to student.

Once you’ve developed and validated your personas, you can distribute the finished document to key players throughout your institution for a variety of purposes. Perhaps the most important application will be through the development and execution of your content strategy.

Suggested resource: The Role Content Plays in Marketing for Higher Education

Throughout the process of researching your student personas, you will likely uncover new ideas for content that are directly related to the persona's goals, questions, and challenges. In fact, these ideas can often form the basis of your next campaign, including content such as blog posts, downloadable content offers, and lead nurturing emails.

Not only will your personas spark new ideas for content, but they will also empower your team to create content that effectively appeals to your ideal students’ unique needs in order to increase applications and reach your enrollment goals.