Graduate Management News

July 2015

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

Persona Power: Putting a Face to Your Target Audience

Gaining a deep understanding of who you market to can be tremendously powerful in creating a truly effective marketing strategy—one that delivers the right message, to the right audience, at the right time.


How do you gain a deep understanding of your prospective student target audience? Data and other information can take you part of the way, but how do you turn raw data and anecdotal observations into strategic marketing insights?

A useful tool to accomplish this is developing personas—a technique I presented last month at GMAC’s Annual Conference with my colleague Anne Daugherty, director of School Marketing.

What are personas?

Personas are detailed profiles of your school’s or programs’ prospective student target audience. They are a representation of a group of similar people as a fictional, synthesized individual.

The main idea is that personas allow you to assign a face, name, values, career goals, and other characteristics to a group of people, allowing you to gain a better understanding of the group you are targeting.

Personas typically include demographic information—like age, gender, geographic location, and educational background—as well as details about their point of view, including psychographics, motivations, and reservations within the context of their business school decision making process.

How do I create personas?

Before you bring your personas to life, you need to think strategically about what segments of the prospective student pool you want to target. At this stage, you are deciding which segments are your desired market—the groups and types of prospective students you want to make up your next incoming class.

From these segments, you’ll want to create between two and six personas—enough to cover the majority of your desired market while also keeping them distinct. The personas themselves are typically a page in length, and include a name and photo for the full effect, as depicted below.

The data to fully flesh out personas can be gathered from a variety of sources, both internal and external to your school. Examples include:

  • Admissions professionals who speak with, interview, and meet prospective students on a regular basis.
  • Focus groups and surveys your school has conducted with prospective students or alumni.
  • Interviews with applicants who don’t end up attending your program.
  • Social media sites, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.
  • GMAC surveys, particularly the Prospective Students Survey Report, which explores the motivations, behaviors, program choices, decision making timeline, and intended career outcomes of nearly 12,000 prospective students who registered on Schools that accept the GMAT exam have exclusive access to the survey interactive report, which allows you to create custom slices of data—the perfect resource for building your personas. 

Below is a sample (click to view larger image) of a very general persona of “Olivia,” created to represent the larger group of millennial business school prospective students.

User personas

Note that a feature of Olivia’s persona is her decision-making timeline, information that is critical to ensuring you reach your target audience at the optimal time to influence their business school choice. This aspect of the profile, along with the rest of the persona, was created using data available in the Prospective Students Survey interactive report.

Why should I use personas?

There are a number of benefits to using personas as a tool to thinking through your messaging strategy:

  • Personas allow you to see the world through your prospective students’ eyes, providing insight into their values, motivations, and reservations surrounding their decision to attend business school. Armed with this insight, you can craft marketing content that truly resonates with your target audience.
  • Personas can save you time and resources. Stop flooding prospective students with generic marketing materials—they don’t resonate with them, they aren’t generating your desired yield, and they aren’t effective at attracting the types of students you want. Send the right message at the right time by thinking through your messaging with the use of personas.
  • Personas give your team a common language. By having well-thought-out personas that everyone on your team understands, your team will instantly be on the same page when someone says “this marketing content will definitely speak to what ‘Olivia’ wants out of business school.”

We first decided to use personas for our MBA program at the Cameron School of Business, University of St. Thomas in 2014. Our research was extensive and included looking at three years of prospect, applicant, and enrollment data in addition to conducting focus groups with groups of students at each stage of the funnel and MBA faculty. The Offices of Graduate Admissions and Marketing have found that using personas helps to target our e-mail messages more effectively through crafting campaigns to reach students where they are at in the funnel.

Vickie Alleman
Vice President, Marketing Communications & Enrollment Management
University of St. Thomas – Houston

How do I tie personas into my marketing plan?

The most effective way to think of personas in the context of your marketing plan is as a tool to help you identify with your prospective students. By thinking through the various aspects of a persona’s characteristics, behaviors, motivations, reservations, and more, you will feel as if you know this fictional person and can then better create marketing content that will resonate with the larger group the persona is meant to represent. Better marketing content will generate a greater yield for your programs, both in terms of quantity and quality.

How do you ensure you are delivering this persona-specific content to the correct audience? The perfect pairing with your personas strategy is the GMASS® database, which allows you to purchase the email addresses of prospective students using more than 30 search criteria. Simply match your search criteria to your persona to find your target audience.

Are you ready to harness the power of personas? You might just make an imaginary friend or two in the process.

About the Author

Paula McKayPaula McKay is director of School Products at the Graduate Management Admission Council.