How to Get Into the Minds of Prospective Students

Welcome to How to Enroll Students and Influence People! That’s the guide we’re all looking for as we face the never-ending challenges of enrollment marketing in higher education, right? You know the drill: Competition is fierce; students expect personalized communications and digital experiences; student demographics have shifted; and, to top it all off, many schools don’t have the marketing budget to rise to these challenges effectively. 

I can’t promise a guide on how to solve all of your problems, but I can share how harnessing the power of persuasion and personas in your marketing can make a big difference in your lead generation and enrollment by helping you reach the right audience.

Persuasion in Enrollment Marketing 

Persuasion is more than just the title of an excellent Jane Austen novel. We all know the impact of persuasion in changing minds and convincing people to take an action. Good persuasive marketing is a silent influencer, shaping people’s attitudes while making them feel like they’re deciding on their own. 

Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion               

This influence is anchored in noted psychologist and author Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of persuasion: reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, social proof, and unity. Each principle offers a unique avenue for engaging with potential students, making them pivotal in shaping prospective students’ decisions and behaviors.

1. Reciprocity: Give Something to Get Something

People are more likely to take the action you want them to take if you’ve given them something first — ideally, something free that they actually want. In the higher education context, this could be as simple as offering a free webinar on application tips. By providing valuable information at no cost, you can create a sense of obligation in prospective students, encouraging them to engage further with the university.

2. Scarcity: We Want Things That Are Hard to Get

We all know that the harder something is to get, the more value it often has. The same principle applies to higher education. Offering prospective students something that isn’t widely available, such as a limited-time scholarship opportunity, can create a sense of urgency, pushing them to act quickly to not miss out on potential financial aid.

3. Authority: We Trust People in the Know

Experts can have an outsized influence on people’s decision-making, lending whatever they represent credibility. Naturally, this is already very prominent in higher ed, with institutions built around faculty who are the best at what they do. Showcasing their achievements and expertise in an institution’s marketing content can help establish credibility and build trust with prospective students by highlighting the quality of education they can expect.

4. Consistency: Tiny Commitments Can Make a Big Impact

None of us likes to be a hypocrite, so if we’ve said or done something before, we’re more likely to say or do it again in the future. This means that when you can get prospective students to agree to small things along their enrollment journey, it can feel natural to them to eventually agree to something bigger. This could look like asking prospective students to subscribe to a newsletter focused on tips for successful online learning. Later, you could invite these subscribers to enroll in a free webinar related to their field of interest. This gradual engagement nurtures their commitment from a simple subscription to active participation, making the decision to enroll in a program feel like a natural next step.

5. Liking: The More You Like People, the Easier It Is to Be Persuaded

This one is pretty obvious: If we like someone, we’re more likely to say yes to them. How do you get a student to like you as an institution? By sharing your brand story and building a genuine connection with them. Maybe that means sharing student and faculty stories on social media, or ensuring every prospect gets one-on-one attention from admissions. By presenting relatable and human-focused content, schools can foster a positive emotional connection with prospective students.

6. Social Proof: There’s Safety in Numbers

When we don’t know what to do, we often look to those around us for guidance. If others think highly of your school, it could make an impact on prospective students. Featuring alumni stories and your rankings and endorsements from reputable educational bodies can help you leverage the influence of others to validate your institution’s quality and desirability.

7. Unity: We All Want to Feel Included

Every one of us has a deep-seated need to belong. In higher education, you can offer this to prospects by creating the sense that the students at your university belong to a community with shared values — emphasizing your community involvement and institutional goals, like sustainability efforts or diversity initiatives. This can be highly persuasive to prospective students looking for a supportive and aligned educational environment.

The Value of Personas 

While Cialdini’s principles of persuasion are an excellent starting point, it’s hard to use them effectively if you don’t know whom you’re trying to persuade. That’s where personas come in. To put it simply, personas are semifictional characters, in this case, students, who have been created to represent different segments of your target audience. 

Unlike Jane Austen, we don’t get to create these characters out of thin air. Personas are developed through research, data analysis, and insights gathered from discovery interviews with key stakeholders. I won’t get into the details on how to create them here, but check out our guide to developing personas to learn more.

In essence, personas help you understand what persuades different groups of prospective students and how to react to, anticipate, and influence their needs. Here are two critical ways personas add value to your enrollment marketing efforts:

Personas Help You Appeal to Specific Needs and Concerns of Prospective Students               

Personas help you get into the minds of prospective students and understand their motivations. What pushes a single mom working full time in hospitality to go back to school? How about a middle management professional who’s been in their industry for over a decade? 

You’ll want to know what media these individuals engage with most, what their most pressing pain points are, why they need a degree, and what obstacles may prevent them from enrolling. If you know that, you can speak to them directly, making them feel seen and understood by your institution early on in the marketing and enrollment funnel. And, even more important, it can help you build trust with them so they feel that your school has their best interests in mind.

Personas Foster Personalization to Enhance Engagement               

Remember when I said that students today expect personalized communication and digital experiences? Personas are how you create that personalization. 

Which do you think would be more impactful: a series of communications that highlight the general aspects of a school or degree program, or content that speaks directly to what matters most to a given student group? Obviously, the second is preferable. And if you skip those earlier stages of general content, you’ll be able to get to more meaningful engagement earlier on in the funnel — you’ll be getting at the meat of what a student cares about and needs from your school. 

How to Harness Personas to Be Persuasive 

We have persuasion, and we have personas. Now we combine them. 

Emotional Appeals vs. Logical Appeals: Knowing When to Use Each               

We already talked about some of the different approaches to persuasive marketing in higher ed and the importance of tailoring communications to meet the needs and interests of different personas. Now we’re going to add another layer: emotional and logical appeals.

  • Emotional Appeals: Emotional appeals can be used to create a personal connection with prospective students and to inspire, motivate, and encourage loyalty, making the institution more relatable and appealing. Examples of emotional appeals include student success stories, branded content that explores the school’s mission, and personal attention in the admissions process.
  • Logical Appeals: Logical appeals cater to prospects seeking practical information they can use to make informed decisions. These include program outcomes, accreditations, flexibility and convenience information, and common FAQs about tuition, modalities, and time commitments.

You need both for a successfully persuasive marketing strategy. Together, they provide a balanced approach that addresses both the heart and mind of prospective students, maximizing engagement and catering to different preferences and decision-making processes.

The Importance of Storytelling in Creating Compelling Messages               

Storytelling is at the heart of crafting compelling (and persuasive) persona-based messaging that resonates with prospective students. It involves connecting the unique features of your institution to the specific needs and preferences of your personas. 

I’ll dive into a few core areas of what makes your school unique below, but if you’d like deeper insights, check out our article on how you can harness your unique story to increase enrollment.

Value Propositions

Let’s start with value propositions. Whatever unique value your institution offers is great — but only if it matters to your different prospective student audiences. As a test case, let’s look at how you might communicate with a career-focused persona:

  • Relevant Value Proposition: Feature strong industry connections and high post-graduation employment rates.
  • Persuasive Content: Highlight success stories of alumni who have transitioned into prestigious companies or roles directly from campus. Use testimonials and case studies to showcase the career support services, networking events, and internship opportunities that helped them get there.

Core Brand Story

Each school has its own core brand story that can be incorporated into the emotional appeals that I mentioned earlier. Your story as an institution is key in helping you connect to prospective students. Once you have your foundation figured out, you can then determine which elements might resonate most with a given persona audience. 

Using that same career-focused persona, you could tailor messaging to them that encompasses important components of your brand story, like your university’s connections with industry leaders, your role in pioneering research, or your innovative programs designed to equip students with marketable skills. By weaving these elements into a compelling narrative, you can illustrate how your university not only values academic excellence but also prioritizes the career success of its students, making it enticing for career-focused prospects.

Brand Advocates

We’ve already talked about how faculty and alumni can be persuasive spokespeople for your university. You can think of those who are particularly aligned with and representative of your school as your brand advocates. Use them, and use them thoughtfully. Their stories are one of your best tools for helping prospective students see themselves at your university. 

Returning to our career-focused persona, whom do you think they’d find most persuasive: a faculty member who has spent most of their career in academia or an alum who went on to start a successful multinational company? While both are valuable as brand advocates, in this scenario, clearly the second would be more impactful.

Final Example: Two Schools, Two Messages               

To conclude this article, I’ll leave you with a recent example from my own work that highlights the importance of everything we’ve learned so far. 

Archer Education recently worked with two very different institutions, a trade school and a religious university, with the same core mission: helping students build and advance their careers. Without first determining what made each school unique and outlining key persona audiences for each, we could have ended up with similar messaging for both schools. But that would have been a mistake. 

The trade school largely serves students with little to no college experience who are looking for an alternative route to traditional higher ed. Meanwhile, the religious university serves largely nontraditional students looking to complete their bachelor’s degrees and advance their careers in a way that aligns with their values. Clearly, there are some important differences in what those two audiences would find persuasive.

For the first, we focused on the idea of students taking back control over their work life and doing something they’re proud of. For the second, we highlighted the school’s commitment to putting students first, building a familylike community, and helping students grow personally, professionally, and spiritually. For both, we made sure to also include plenty of logical appeals.

Now Go Out and Persuade 

We’ve covered a lot. Now you should have some tools of persuasion, ideas for how to use personas, and tips for combining them to improve your outreach and engagement efforts, which can ultimately lead to more successful enrollment outcomes. Remember, using one is not nearly as successful as using both: You have to know your audience to be able to effectively persuade them. 

If you still want more insight, make sure to check out the articles I linked throughout this article. And if you need help developing persuasive persona-based enrollment marketing strategies, Archer Education has decades of experience helping our partners do just that. Contact our team to learn more and explore our offerings today.

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