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Creating buyer personas is a common marketing practice in private industry. It allows businesses to better understand their customers so they can define and target specific audiences for their products. And it works. More than 80 percent of companies that use qualitative buyer personas exceed their revenue goals.1 So you would think higher education would follow suit to attract new students. But less than half create student personas.2 If your school does, you’ll have a competitive edge, but the real reason colleges should create student personas is because they can help you find, engage with, and enroll more actual students.
Here’s how to get started:

student calculator

Pull Demographic Data to Create Unique Student Personas

No one knows your students as well as you do. And it’s not just because you see them every day. It’s also because for years and years, you have collected information about them. From where they’re from to where they landed after graduation, you likely have a mountain of very useful information that tells you who your students were when they enrolled and who among them were the most successful. Information like gender, age, ethnicity, income level, geographic region, and the like, are all data points about the general population of your school and its programs. Use it to begin a composite sketch.

Talk with Real People to Create Pretend Students

Data are a great starting point, but you have real people with whom you can speak. Talk to actual students—current and former. Find out why they chose your institution over another. Where are they from, what do they do? How do they/did they like their experience? Speak to people from Admissions and find out what makes someone enroll. More importantly, find out what stands in their way. Talk to whomever you can who has knowledge of your student body. From teachers and staff to administrators, they may all have insight that you don’t.

Send Out a College Student Persona Survey

Focus groups and surveys allow you to ask direct questions to fill in missing pieces. If you pull most of your data from a customer management system, you may have limited info that was created from a form fill. Send out a survey to fill in the blanks. The information can be used to learn more about your grads and also to build out new campaigns. For example, if you learn that a large population of past students are nearing a place in their careers where an advanced degree might be worthwhile, you have a whole new marketing persona to consider.

Consider the Landscape

Your students and your institution don’t live in a vacuum. You need to understand higher education, the industries for which you prepare students, and the competitive landscape. Take a look at competitor institution assets and advertising. Can you tell by what they produce who their target audiences are? Talk to employers who hire your graduates. What common characteristics do you hear about over and over again?

Create Negative Student Personas

Just as negative keywords are critical in pay-per-click campaigns to filter out traffic you don’t want, negative personas can make sure you don’t waste time, money, and resources targeting prospects that will not convert.

student faces

Sketch Your Student Persona

You’ve collected your data. Now you get to be creative. Start with the majority numbers. For example, if 65 percent of your students are male, make your first student persona a male. And if most of your students are Hispanic, make your imaginary student follow suit. Give him a name, characteristics, aspirations, and obstacles. Make him as human and believable as possible.

And then make another. And another. Ideally, you’ll have personas for each of your major programs. You wouldn’t build out identical personas for Nursing and Technology because those concentrations would attract a different kind of person. If you’re concerned that this exercise might get out of hand—it can—connect your personas around your enrollment goals. For which programs do you need more enrollments? Those are the first up for student persona development.

Get Buy-In from Others

Once you have built your student personas, it’s critical to get everyone on board to their accuracy and authenticity. These imaginary people have to feel real. From the executive team to sales, everyone needs to agree that you got it right. And if you didn’t, make changes. Add, adjust, tweak. Go back to the drawing board if you need to. Without the support of the full team, personas are not effective.

Use Your Student Personas Cross-Functionally

Now that you really, really know your audience, it’s time to speak to them with the same voice and tone across media. That means whether you build an eBook or an ad, a website or a blog post, you speak in a way that your audience understands, relates to, and wants to engage with. When you get it right, you attract the right audience and don’t waste media spend pursuing prospects who won’t enroll.


Are you ready for engagement that turns into action? Start with student personas. Don’t have the time to build them? We do! At CloudControlMedia, we know your students almost as well as you do. Contact us today for more information.


~Linda Emma


1Benchmarking Digital Marketing in Higher Education Report 2021
2Benchmark Buyers Survey Report 2017