Persona-Building 101: An Experiential Assignment for Marketing Students Yields Benefits for B-School
How an MBA Director tapped into her students’ marketing talent and perspective to enhance her program’s outreach strategy and provide an experiential learning opportunity.
At this year’s GMAC Annual Conference, I presented on the topic of personas, an effective marketing tool that can help you gain a deeper understanding of the prospective students you want to recruit for your next incoming class.
During my presentation, Michelle Wieser, MBA Director and Associate Professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, shared with the group her experience turning the task of creating personas into an experiential learning opportunity for her MBA students.
My GMAC colleague, Matt Hazenbush, recently caught up with Michelle to learn more about what she did, how it enriched her program’s use of the GMASS® database, and how it gave her students the chance to put marketing theory to practice.
Matt Hazenbush: What gave you the idea to do this?
Michelle Wieser: As the instructor for the core MBA marketing management course, I wanted to create a "persona building" assignment that would bring to life some key elements of marketing, such as marketing segmentation, targeting, and marketing research. When I first started thinking about how to do this, I tried to think of a product or service we could all explore—preferably one everyone was familiar with. Then it occurred to me that the one “product” that everyone had purchased was the St. Catherine University MBA. I was curious to see how they viewed this product from their own experiences, and to see what different types of students they thought would be a good fit for what we offer here.
MH: What background information did you provide to your students to complete the assignment?
MW: Their marketing textbook had a one-page overview of personas as a useful tool to identify market segments and bring them to life in ways that everyone can understand. Other than that, I tried to keep it as open as possible. I told them to identify four or five different personas that describe different target "consumers”—prospective MBA students, in this case. They then had to give each persona a name or archetype (they had fun with it and got really creative...Frugal Fiona, The Career Climber, The Do-Gooder, etc.) and include a brief description of each one. I also asked them to identify different strategies the university could consider to market effectively to each persona.
MH: Were you surprised by what the students came up with?
MW: Yes and no. They are a pretty amazing group, but even still, they far exceeded my expectations! One of the best parts was seeing students who had no prior marketing experience really get into this. For example, many of the students in our healthcare concentration come from clinical backgrounds where they haven't spent much time thinking about their customers or potential customers. It was really great to see them not only come up with great personas for the St. Kate's MBA program, but also to apply the same process to their customers or patients in their workplaces.
MH: What are the advantages of having actual students create the personas?
MW: I think the students’ perspective added a level of richness to the end product. They all had made the “purchase” decision just six months before we did the assignment, so they understood that thought process deeply from their own perspective. They also understood the diverse range of students that are a good fit for our program because they’ve had the chance to get to know one another really well by being members of the same cohort. The personas they created reflected the diversity and uniqueness of our program very well, particularly in terms of age and experience.
MH: Did the students seem to enjoy the assignment? What were their key takeaways?
MW: They did! They were very creative. I gave them the freedom to submit the assignment in whatever form they choose—most did visuals with pictures that really brought them to life. Honestly, they far exceeded my expectations in what they came up with, and I think everyone had some fun putting them together.
MH: From the personas created by the students, how did you decide which to actually integrate into your marketing strategy?
MW: We’ve used elements of several of them. The students were given the option of creating personas for our program generally, or for one of our three specific concentrations: general management, healthcare, and integrated marketing communications. What we ended up doing was taking elements from the ones we thought best reflected the applicant pool we’re seeking, and we agreed on some general program personas and specific ones for each of our concentrations.
MH: How does your office use the personas as a part of your candidate outreach?
MW: These personas have been immensely helpful in all of our marketing efforts. They provide a direct voice from our target consumers back into our marketing efforts. As part of the assignment, I asked the students for their ideas on how we would market differently to each persona. They came up with awesome ideas using traditional marketing, social media, events, one-on-one marketing, etc. As the MBA Director, it has allowed me to "get in the heads" of a prospective MBA. It takes some of the guesswork out of wondering how best to reach our target audiences.
MH: How frequently does your office refer to the personas?
MW: The personas are something I refer to on a near daily basis as we work through our website redesign and refine our positioning and social media strategy. I found them to be so helpful that I printed them out and had them bound into a book that sits on my desk. I also gave one to our head of admissions and enrollment, and we’ve found that they give us a common language to talk about our prospective students. Instead of referring abstractly to millennials or career changers, we talk about our personas as if they are real people we are trying to connect with.
MH: How has using personas informed your use of GMASS®?
MW: It has helped us hone in on different search criteria that allow us to target more specifically. Some of the elements of personas are more psychographic than demographic, but there are still ways we can narrow the criteria to fit the type of person we are aiming to attract to the program. GMASS® is really the only reliable tool out there that allows us to reach people who want our type of program in the Twin Cities. Using the GMASS® database, I’m able to pull a targeted list of prospects and use my personas to craft a message specific to that segment. The message is tailored to what the personas tell us they want or need to hear, and it’s very effective.
MH: Would you recommend this be replicated at other business schools?
MW: Yes! In my case, I’m the MBA Director and I teach a marketing course, so that perhaps makes it a little simpler. But, with some coordination among faculty and staff, I think this offers a unique opportunity for business students to contribute to a strategically important business function of the school. It benefits everyone: It gives the faculty member a cool project to do with his or her students, it gives admissions and marketing staff new ways to think about how to engage prospective students, and it gives the students an awesome experiential learning experience and the opportunity to do something as a part of their coursework that will actually be put to work for their school.
About the Authors
Paula McKay is GMASS Product Management Director at the Graduate Management Admission Council.
Matt Hazenbush is manager of Research Communications at the Graduate Management Admission Council.