Do You Know Your Audience? Designing Higher Education Buyer Personas

by Aden Andrus February 19, 2020

Higher education can be a bit of a tough sell. Tuition isn’t cheap and you’re often asking people to make a significant time investment—maybe even asking them to quit their job and go back to school.

Of course, the results are usually well worth the investment, but getting people to sign up for a major life commitment can take some doing.

If you want to be successful at higher education advertising, you need to understand your students. Who are they? What are they like? What motivates them? Why are they at your school?

However, getting to know your students can be a challenge, one that most higher education marketers never take the time to figure out. And, as a result, they struggle to figure out how to make their marketing campaigns work.

That’s why, in this article, we’re going to talk about how to get to know your students. We’ll talk about how to use that information to create truly effective higher education buyer personas and then use those personas to create truly effective marketing.

Sound like a plan? Let’s get started.

Creating Higher Education Buyer Personas

Ever since Alan Cooper first coined the term in his classic book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, the concept of “buyer personas” has become a marketing staple. If you’re not familiar with the term, a buyer persona is what it sounds like: a detailed profile of a business’s ideal buyer.

Now, you may not consider your students “buyers”, but they’re paying your school money to provide them with something: education. In this respect, students are very much “buyers”, making “buyer personas” just as important and relevant to higher education marketing as they are to any business trying to promote themselves online.

Unfortunately, while the concept of “buyer personas” has been around for decades, most marketers don’t really understand how to build or use them effectively. This is particularly true amongst higher education marketers, who often don’t see their students as “buyers” in the first place!

However, as you’ll soon discover, buyer personas are actually the secret to effective higher education marketing. The better you understand your students, the better you will be at finding and connecting with potential students. But that’s only possible if you take the time to get to know your student body first.

Getting to Know Your Students

Done right, your buyer personas should sum up your ideal student candidates. But to figure out who those ideal student candidates are, you need to get to know the very best student candidates you’ve got: the men and women who’ve already decided to attend your school.

However they found your school, these men and women decided that your program was worth the investment. They’re the perfect example of the kind of people you’re hoping to attract with your marketing. After all, your school was the right fit for their needs and goals.

Now the only question is, why?

To answer that question, you will need to pull from a range of different sources. For some of it, you may be able to use your student database, but for most of it, you’ll need to get out there and talk to people. Talk to your recruitment or sales team. Talk to your admissions officers. Talk to the teachers and the students themselves. Yes, it’ll take some extra effort, but it will all pay off in the long run.

Asking the right people the right questions is the secret to creating an effective buyer persona. Once you understand who your students are, what they’re like and why they decided to attend your school—instead of a competitor’s program—you can use that information in every aspect of your online marketing.


Demographic data is the simplest part of your buyer persona. It basically answers the question, “who is your persona?” Maybe they’re a 35-year-old white male with a Bachelor’s Degree in Horticulture. Or, they could be a 55-year-old divorced woman with a high school diploma.

Regardless of the specifics, your demographic data gives you specific insights into the makeup of your target audience—essential information you’ll need as you set up and run your marketing campaigns.

Here are a few questions to answer regarding the demographics of your buyer persona:

  • What is the average age range of this type of student?
  • What percent of them are male/female?
  • What is their average household income?
  • Are they married? Single? Divorced?
  • Do they have kids? If so, how many?
  • Where are most of the students who fit this persona from? Where is home for them?
  • What is the highest level of education they’ve achieved?

Most of the time, demographic data is pretty easy to track down. Your school should have most of this information in a database somewhere, so you should be able to get at it without much trouble. If not, a quick survey or two will help you figure things out fairly quickly.


Traits tell you what your buyer persona is like. Maybe most of the students who fit this persona are outdoorsmen or women who used to work as electricians. Alternatively, they might be single parents who live in their moms’ basement and are juggling jobs at two fast-food restaurants.

Here, your goal is to get a feel for a day-in-the-life of your buyer persona. What are their challenges and dreams? What do they like to do in their free time? What social groups are they a part of? These traits will help you learn how to find and connect with potential students online.

Here are a few questions that will help you get at the traits of your buyer persona:

  • What did/do your students do for a living?
  • What do they like to do for fun?
  • What are their hobbies, passions and interests?
  • Do they live in an urban, suburban or rural environment?
  • What is the buyer’s daily life like?
  • How tech-savvy are your students?
  • Is social media an important part of their life? If so, which social networks do they prefer?
  • How does the buyer like to communicate? Text? Email? Social media? Over the phone?

As you can probably imagine, most of this information won’t be in your school’s database. To figure out your persona’s traits, you’ll need to talk to or survey students, teachers, guidance counselors and/or your admissions team.


Finally, we have motivations. Motivations tell you why your buyer persona is interested in your school or program. Maybe most of your students joined your program because they’re looking for a career change. Maybe they’re tired of working multiple low-end jobs and want a better, more stable situation where they can take care of their kids.

Motivation is perhaps the most important part of your buyer persona. Demographics data and traits are great, but if you don’t understand why people attend your school, it’s going to be hard to motivate more people to make the same choice.

On the other hand, if you understand your buyer persona’s motivations, you can create a marketing message that will resonate with your target audience. By addressing their needs, wants, aspirations and/or goals, you’ll speak to them in a way that matters…and motivates them to action.

Unlike demographics and traits, motivation data will require a little more digging. Getting at the why behind people’s actions will require you to think deeply and ask the right questions.

To help get you started, though, here are a few questions you may want to answer regarding the motivations of your buyer persona:

  • What problem are your students trying to solve by attending your school or course?
  • What positive outcome are your students expecting/hoping for?
  • What are your students afraid of?
  • What do they aspire to?
  • Are your students primarily motivated by their fears or their goals/aspirations?
  • Why did your students decide to enroll in your program? (vs the competition).

Surveys can be a helpful way to get surface-level insights or a broad perspective on your students’ motivations, but to really get the info you need, you should interview several students and/or teachers. If your school has guidance counselors or an admissions team, that can be another great resource to consider.

In the end, the goal of building your buyer personas is to really get to know your students. The better you know your student body, the easier it will be to find and market to potential students online. But, for your buyer personas to be truly useful, you can’t stop with demographics or even traits. You have to understand everything about your students—the who, what and why.

Using Your Buyer Personas

Once you’ve created in-depth buyer personas, don’t be surprised if it completely changes how you approach marketing. For example, let’s pretend that you’re in charge of marketing for a coding school. Your most popular class is a JavaScript certification course and your average student is a 29-year-old white male with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business.

For many higher education marketers, that’s about where their understanding of their student body ends. They might assume that their target audience is white males who want to learn JavaScript and decide to run a “Learn JavaScript in 8 Weeks” campaign on Facebook.

However, you’re no ordinary higher education marketer. You’ve just read this article, so you decide to take things a step further.

After building out an in-depth buyer persona, you discover that while your demographics data is accurate, most of your target audience doesn’t really use Facebook. They spend most of their time on Instagram or Reddit.

In addition, when you dig into why your students attend your JavaScript certification course, you discover the following:

Reason for Attending Percent of Respondents
Career advancement 73.9%
To gain general technical training 49.9%
To follow my passion and interest in programming 48.1%
To learn in an immersive, fast-paced, and social atmosphere 42.6%
To learn a specific language or skill 36.3%
To gain important contacts with employers and job support 30.9%
To network with other students and mentors 25.1%
To gain technical skills to create a start-up company or other personal project 15.4%

All of a sudden, that “Learn JavaScript in 8 Weeks” Facebook campaign isn’t looking like such a great idea. Your buyer persona barely uses Facebook, so you’d be running your ads in front of the wrong people.

To make matters worse, you’d be running ads with the wrong marketing message. Only 36.3% of your students actually care about which language they’re learning. Their main goal is career advancement. By creating ads about learning a specific language, your campaign wouldn’t appeal to most of your potential students.

At the end of the day, your campaign would have fallen flat, and you would have no idea why—just like most higher education marketers.

Do you see why buyer personas are so important? If you don’t take the time to really get to know your students, you’ll end up making decisions that seem logical on paper, but don’t really appeal to your target audience. To really speak to your audience, you have to really know your audience. And to do that, you have to create effective buyer personas.


Higher education advertising is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes, higher education marketing will always have its obstacles, but if you’ve taken the time to build out your higher education buyer personas, you’ll be well-equipped to overcome those obstacles.

To make things even better, since most higher education marketers don’t bother to build in-depth personas, you’ll be in a great position to beat out the competition. In our experience, taking the time to create great higher education buyer personas is just a win all around.

So what are you waiting for? Now that you know how to create your buyer personas, it’s time to get to work. Reach out to your students, talk to everyone and create the kind of buyer personas that will set your campaigns up for success.

Oh, and by the way, if you’d like some additional help putting together your personas or marketing your school, let us know here or in the comments. We’d love to help!

How do you approach higher education marketing? Have any tips to share for creating higher education buyer personas? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

  • Marketing

Aden Andrus

Aden Andrus

Over his career, Aden has developed and marketed millions of dollars of successful products. He lays awake at nights figuring out new marketing tactics and is constantly upping Disruptive's internal marketing game. He loves to write, dance and destroy computer monitors in full medieval armor.

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