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How and Why to Create Your School's Personas Right Now

How can you market your school if you don’t know who you’re marketing to? Sure, it’s easy to say “parents in Princeton, NJ.” But what parents, specifically? Not every parent fits within the mold of the “ideal prospect” — and trying to reach everyone isn’t going to make the most of your time, budget, or resources. This is why developing personas for your school’s marketing, communications and development efforts is essential.

What are Personas and Why Do Schools Need Them? 

Personas are fundamental to the inbound marketing philosophy and are a semi-fictional representation of your ideal applicant or family based on research and data about your enrolled students and alumni. 

Depending on the size of your school and type of school (pre-school, boarding, day, all-girls, etc.), you may have as few as one or two personas, or you may have as many as 10 to 20. But, don’t get overwhelmed; we recommend three personas to start!  

Personas are shaped around: 

  • Backgrounds, age, demographics

  • Personality

  • Goals

  • Challenges

  • Common objections

  • Budgets

  • Interests

  • Academic focus

These in-depth profiles are proven to make your marketing and communications more successful. Websites that take personas into account are two to five times more effective, and emails with personas get 14% more clicks, according to Hubspot. However, less than one-third of schools surveyed by Finalsite have developed personas. 

Based on market research as well as personal insights you already have of your actual families, developing your personas might not involve new information, but rather a new way of applying what is already known. The exercise of developing personas involves looking at what motivates your families, what their obstacles are, and what the best way is to reach them.

Informing School Marketing Strategy through Personas

In the broadest sense, your personas can be identified as falling into general categories – for example:

  • Prospective Parents

  • Prospective Students

  • Current Parents

  • Current Students

  • Former Parents

  • Young Alumni

  • Alumni

From a marketing and admissions perspective, it clearly makes sense to focus on developing detailed personas for prospective families, but this is also an exercise that can be used to help guide the communications strategy for alumni/development activities at your school.

At Finalsite, we underwent a thorough persona development process for our independent school clients in 2016. We continually update our personas with new information and tailor our communications efforts accordingly as we know directors of technology don’t want the same content as athletics staff! 

Similarly, we know that public schools, charters, independent schools, and higher ed are very different! Using personas helps us be effective with our time and budget and share the right content at the right time. 

For your school, personas can be used to better inform your marketing strategy with actual data, rather than opinions and perceptions of families and alumni. 

Persona superintendent example displayed on a macbook

Why Should Your School Care About Personas?

If you think you don’t have time for personas, the 2019-2020 school year is the right time to make time! For schools looking to enter new markets, like expanding to a lower school or adding a PG year, correct declining enrollment, focus marketing activities, or spend money the right way on campaigns, persona development is invaluable. 

Example of the student and parent journey through the enrollment process

From awareness through evangelizing, it’s essential to know as much as you can about your constituents to target effective, impactful messages.

For small shops, personas can be even more impactful; with the right insight into your constituents, you can boost your effectiveness and tailor messaging while saving your (limited) time. Here are a few stats to back up that bold claim:

  • Using marketing personas makes websites two to five times more effective.

  • Personalized emails improve click-through rates by 14% and conversion rates by 10 percent.

  • In one study, targeted personas lifted sales leads by 124 percent.

How to Create Your School’s Personas

The key to forming personas is hosting a focus group. Hosting a school focus group requires some planning, time and money, but the results are worth it: the development of key family personae that will shape your marketing and communications efforts to grow enrollment and retention. (We’ve already written a blog on how to host a focus group. Check out this blog post to learn more!)

At your event, you’ll use survey questions and group discussion to develop your personas. We recommend using the Who, Why, How approach when developing your personas:

Personas Blog Graphic explaining the who, why, and how of personas

We’ve also created this simple Persona Worksheet that allows you to think about how you’ll create content that reaches these personas.


This example of a parent persona shows how the persona exercise and the Who, Why, How questions were used to create this story about Nancy a new-to-the-area mom.

Persona example of a mom new to the area

Your goal is to create three personas like these for prospective parents, current parents.

We Have Our Personas, Now What? 

It’s now time to think about each of your personas in relation to their place in their ‘journey’ with your school. We’ve all heard the term ‘customer journey’, but what does that really mean in relation to a school?  And how can it help you formulate and plan your marketing activities?

The customer journey is like a roadmap detailing how a family becomes aware of your school, the type of interactions they have with your school, and critically, how those interactions influence their decisions.

Using this approach involves identifying the phases of decision making that families go through when selecting a school, considering what their needs are during those phases , and tailoring your marketing efforts to match those needs. 

After you’ve created your personas, you’ll begin developing marketing content based on what resonates with them. This includes content for your website, ads, social media, emails, and even print media. This process can be overwhelming, so consider the following questions before getting started:

  • Which persona(s) are you going to prioritize & why?

  • Are some customer journey stages more important than others right now? Is that different per persona? What kind of content do you need to create? 

  • What new ideas fit within your budget? Don’t forget you have to keep paying for old ones too!

  • Are you able to request more money/resources if you can make a sound argument?

Developing your marketing strategy in this way helps you prioritize your work, and shows stakeholders the scope of the work facing the marketing and communications team – as well as give them an overarching view of what you are doing and why.

The persona process can be a fun, rewarding experience for everyone involved, but don’t let all of these steps hold you back if you feel you don’t have the time or budget. The best thing to do is to get started! Simply surveying your current families and working with your team can be a great step towards developing more effective, resonant marketing with your constituents. Good luck! 

Key Takeaway

Developing family personas helps your school target marketing content, best spend its budget, and to be more effective in recruitment and retention. By hosting a focus group, developing three key personas and conducting a marketing activity audit, you’ll be able to plan out your content plan to reach key personas at every stage of their customer journey with your school. 

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