Developing Buyer Personas for Higher Education

Higher education is more competitive than it has ever been. With public and private colleges and universities, online colleges and universities, trade and vocational schools, community colleges and everything in between vying for the attention of today’s students, it is increasingly difficult to attract and enroll the best students for your school.

So how do you attract the best students? First, you need to know exactly who they are, what they do, where they go, and what they are most likely respond to. It all starts with the development of higher education buyer personas.

The problem with many college marketing programs is that they treat all prospective students the same. They develop marketing materials around what the school has to offer and then push them out through various channels without giving much thought to how they could tailor messaging to the interests of particular groups of students, and how the message corresponds to the channel that is being used to deliver it. For example, some students may be enticed by the prestige of a university while others are drawn by the future career opportunities it promises. The same university may attract those who are financially conscious, as perhaps it provides more value to its graduates in the potential for higher lifetime salaries, or it may gain the attention of those who seek to complete their degree in a shorter period of time or online from home. How could that university possibly tailor their message to ALL of these types of students while maintaining its core message and adhering to its brand identity?

Enter buyer persona and lifecycle segmenting, paired with marketing automation.

Here’s how it works:

  • Develop a buyer persona profile for each type of student who would be a ‘best fit’ for your school. *Emma may have participated in a wide variety of high school sports and activities, was student body president, has thousands of followers on Instagram and may be very excited about the many sororities on campus or the opportunities to shadow alumni in her career field of choice, while *Jacob has longed to travel his entire life and never had a chance to leave his home state, so he is looking forward to study-abroad opportunities and the chance to meet new people from around the world in his dorm.
  • Create the messaging and campaigns that will appeal to each of these groups of students, while remaining true to your brand identity. While the two prospective students in the example are likely going to be attracted to very different types of messaging, it is important to maintain your brand identity on all platforms. An urban university and a small liberal arts school should have very different brand personalities reflected in their messaging and visual graphics – and it should be extremely easy for students to differentiate between the two.
  • As prospective students self-identify with a persona, shift them into segmented lists for follow-up marketing and direct outreach. Students will take actions that allow you to shift them into lists based on their interests and personas. For example, requesting an application lets you know that they are in a late-stage lifecycle and are very interested, while reading several articles, blog posts, and email messages related to student groups and civic organizations lets you know that campus life is very important to them. Establish the triggers that will help you identify a student’s interests, and then feed plenty of content to help them along the way.
  • Pay specific attention to the lifecycle stage of each group – are they high school juniors/seniors narrowing down their final choices and submitting applications, are they nearing the end of a gap year and deciding their next move, are they in the early years of high school and just trying to get a feel for what they like, or are they working adults who have chosen to go back and pursue the education they didn’t get after high school? The lifecycle stage will inform your decisions on how often to contact them, and what type of information they are most likely attracted to. For instance, a working adult probably doesn’t care about on-campus activities, and a high school senior may need additional support completing their application before the deadline.
  • Test variations of the message, images and graphics, marketing channels, and processes; analyze results and revise campaigns. It is crucial to test out a variety of elements to determine which are the most attractive.
  • Rinse and repeat. Year one is going to be a learning curve and that’s okay. Once you see what worked and what didn’t, you’ll be able to improve results in year two and beyond.

buyer personas



Melissa Albano-Davis
Principal at Grapevine Marketing, LLC

With experience in traditional, digital, and experiential marketing, Melissa founded Grapevine Marketing in 2009 to help businesses convert their marketing and advertising activities into trackable sales opportunities and reduce advertising budget waste by focusing on high return-on-investment programs. She is certified by Google, Hubspot, and Constant Contact, and speaks on the topics of inbound marketing, social media, SEO, and lead generation to business and nonprofit audiences. Melissa writes a monthly series for the New Hampshire Business Review on Inbound Marketing topics and is a member of the Boston Women's Leadership Council and the TechWomen | TechGirls initiative.