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Megan Youngblood


Persona grata: Why you need personas

January 31, 2017   //   Megan Youngblood

If you’ve ever tackled a website redesign, you are probably familiar with using personas to define your user experience. But did you know that personas can do more than just influence web development?

They can also inform your branding and marketing efforts, and even university-wide decisions.

What are personas?

Personas are fictitious individuals based on real people who embody the actual characteristics and behaviors — needs, motivations, goals, perspectives — of the audiences that are most important to your university’s future. Personas can represent students, donors, alumni, parents, staff, the greater community — among others.

Personas help you understand your audiences by imagining who they are, what they want, how they think, what concerns them and what they dislike. When you know your audiences’ goals and expectations, you can help them achieve what they want while realizing your own marketing and institutional goals.

What real value do personas provide?

Personas put teams on the same page because everyone operates with the same information about your key audiences and agrees on the audience perspectives that are most important to the institution.

Personas enable stakeholders — who may not have direct interaction with audiences or a marketing background — to value outside perspectives and make decisions based on targeted audience segments. Personas help marketing staff visualize and tailor messages to specific people instead of creating generic content for a nebulous audience or leaving out any audiences.

Personas provide specific information that will help you stay relevant to your key audiences. For example, a persona representing prospective students should answer these types of questions:

  • What are their personalities? Shy, creative, ambitious?
  • What motivates them in life? Who influences their decisions?
  • Why are they interested in your university?
  • What are their top goals and biggest challenges?
  • What do their households look like? Do they live with parents or roommates?
  • What are their economic situations? Do they have full-time or part-time jobs?
  • What other schools are they considering?
  • How much time can they devote to college?
  • What are their favorite social media platforms?
  • What do they want most from your institution and their experiences?

How do you use personas?

Areas such as admissions, marketing, fundraising, operations, program development and administrative leadership can use personas to drive decision-making.

Administrators can use personas internally to design new academic programs or make operational decisions. Marketing staff should visualize personas as the real people you communicate with in your day-to-day work. You might create targeted admissions and development campaigns or plan social media strategy based on personas. Here are a few other examples by department:

  • Admissions: Think about where your personas prefer to receive communications. This could lead to segmenting your social media strategy by audience age — targeting high school prospects on Snapchat and older transfer student prospects on Facebook.
  • Communications: Tell stories that show real examples of the experiences student prospects are looking for. If you know your prospects want top financial careers with Fortune 500 companies, share examples of graduates landing jobs at that level.
  • Student services: Develop programs that solve your personas’ challenges and align with their schedules. For instance, consider a non-traditional student persona who has a part-time job, attends evening classes and has limited access to campus resources. What is important to this type of student? You may need to bring on new advisers with specific expertise in adult-student needs, change dining hall hours or add more late-night tech support.

How do you prioritize key audiences?

Start by considering your university’s goals. Are you trying to reach more transfer students? Do you need more donors with greater giving capacity? Do you need to change your image in the public eye? You’ll need to develop personas based on the key audiences that will help you realize these goals.

Partner with a creative agency like Zehno to lead an audience prioritization workshop and help you dig into your research and varying stakeholder perspectives. A workshop will give you key insights from the people who know your key audiences the best — institutional stakeholders across administration, enrollment, student life, alumni relations, advancement and marketing. Your research should also contain data from audience interviews and surveys that capture your audiences’ demographics, behavior, motivations and concerns.

Learn more

Need help creating your personas? Speak with a strategist.

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