Graduate Management News

November 2015

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

Get Noticed! 5 Strategies for Marketing a Small MBA Program

View your program like a company in start-up phase where it’s essential to grow, evolve, and expand the product offering, all the while focusing on delivering a quality experience.

Marketing Tips for Small Programs

The St. Catherine University MBA program is still in its infancy, but already making its mark. Launched in spring 2014, the program is set to graduate its first cohort of students in early February 2016. The university is located in St. Paul, Minnesota, squarely within an intensely competitive Twin Cities MBA market with many more established programs located within a few mile radius of the St. Catherine’s campus. I came on board as MBA Program Director in summer 2014, having spent the previous 11 years with larger, highly visible MBA programs – the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis and the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. I was excited to lead a program that was new, innovative, and positioned to meet the needs of today’s graduate business student.

The newness and smaller size of the program (we currently have 75 total students) make this both a fun and rewarding challenge. I have viewed this much like a company in start-up phase where it’s essential to grow, evolve, and expand the product offering, all the while focusing on delivering a quality experience for students and other stakeholders…and without the deep marketing pockets of some competitors in the region. It’s a big job, but with a little effort and creativity, we are raising awareness of an MBA brand that is attracting high-quality professionals who are ready to learn and committed to our mission.

To do this, we think (and act) like marketers. It’s a team effort comprised of admissions and recruiting, marketing, and the MBA program faculty and staff. I’ve summarized our marketing strategy into key steps essential for breaking through as a small program. We have implemented many of these, while others are still in development. The focus of this is action – choosing tools and tactics that garner attention and get the program noticed! Here are five strategies designed to help you compete, grow, and carve out your niche in the market:

  1. Get social! It goes without saying, smaller programs have smaller marketing budgets. Thankfully, we have social media, which can be as impactful, if not more so, than traditional forms of advertising. Best of all, it’s very inexpensive (or free). Clearly, LinkedIn and Facebook are important components of any social strategy, but we’re also exploring new ideas including a Pinterest board for current and prospective students to share elements that are ideal as part of their MBA experience. These tools facilitate a dialogue among prospective students, the program, and others. How can you think even more creatively about your social media strategy?

  2. Get creative! Those smaller budgets have a silver lining—the opportunity to think creatively about activities and ideas that will yield the greatest impact. In a previous GMAC article, I discussed leveraging the talent of my marketing students to develop personas for the St. Catherine’s MBA program as part of a class project. This creative approach to learning provided immense value to the program as well as to the students. We’re now looking toward other marketing courses in our curriculum to engage students in a similar way—having them do real hand-on work to understand the impact of different marketing tactics on attendance at recruiting events and the number of MBA applications. What could you do in your program to think differently about your marketing strategies? How could you engage your students in this process?

  3. Get engaged! Another low-cost way to market a smaller program is to encourage the MBA program director and other faculty to actively engage with prospective students, employers, and other MBA program stakeholders. We have formed key partnerships with organizations that will raise our visibility. For example, we have a concentration in health care within our MBA program. As the MBA director, I have volunteered to serve on the programming committee of the Women’s Health TRUST, an organization that promotes women in leadership within the health care industry. This directly connects me to health care and business professionals, raises awareness of our MBA program, and gives me the opportunity to create learning and networking opportunities for our students. Similarly, for our MBA concentration in Integrated Marketing Communications, we sponsor the Social Media Breakfast, a wildly popular organization that brings together people in the digital marketing, branding, and social media space. These are low-cost, no-cost, or in-kind opportunities that yield huge benefits in terms of building awareness. It’s not about being everywhere, it’s about being in the right places with the right target audience of prospective students and influencers. Where are you concentrating your visibility-building efforts?

  4. Get personal! A big advantage of smaller programs is that we can engage with prospective students, current students, and others in a more personal, high-touch way. That’s the hallmark of the smaller program and it’s almost an expectation among  prospective students. We get personal with them, using GMASS, for example, to identify target prospects, reaching out with a personal touch, inviting them to smaller-scale sample classes or lunch-and-learns, and following up consistently. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but the effort is worth it. The higher touch approach resulted in 100 percent yield from application to matriculation for us this year. Now, our focus is to take this higher touch and bring it earlier in the cycle—connecting more personally before the application is started. How do you get personal throughout the recruiting process?

  5. Get analytical! Finally, when budgets are smaller, it’s even more important to understand the return from any investment in marketing. Our marketing and admissions teams are working together on a new strategy to become more analytical in understanding how people come to us and how we can become more prominent. This involves standard techniques such as search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising. We’re taking it even further—engaging our integrated marketing students in an upcoming class in testing the results of new social media content and creating advertisements or boosted posts via Facebook, Twitter, and other tools that can then be easily analyzed for impact. It’s another example of leveraging our students in the process—giving them a valuable hands-on learning experience while providing more insight for the university on our marketing efforts. How can you leverage analytics and data for the good of your program?

When leading a smaller MBA program, there is never a shortage of things to be done. By thinking creatively and analytically about marketing, the smaller program can play to its strengths, make use of free or low-cost tools, and engage the community of learners and supporters in the process


About the Author

Michelle WieserMichelle Wieser is MBA Program Director at St. Catherine University.