Developing customer personas for your private and charter school

If you think about the best brands or products – from Coca-Cola to Amazon to Apple –  they all have one thing in common: they know their customers extremely well.  Market-leading companies spend millions of dollars to try to get deep into the mind of their customer and understand their needs and motivations.  As schools face increasing competition to attract students, using the same tactic of developing customer personas is a smart step to add to your marketing plan.

What are customer personas?

In its simplest form, a customer persona is a fictional representation of your current or in some cases, ideal, customer(s).  Though every customer is unique, many of them share certain commonalities which allow you to group them by type and to create marketing programs that target that persona. By going through the persona-building exercise, you can bring your customers to life and create more targeted marketing messaging.

How do you build a customer persona?

You already have a lot of the data that you can use to build simple personas.  For example, let’s say that you operate a K-6 school located in an urban area.  You primarily serve a demographic that is in a lower socioeconomic level.  Just based upon this information, you can build a basic customer persona.

Customer Candace:

  • Age range: 30 – 40
  • Lives in the neighborhood (you don’t offer bussing)
  • Lower economic level (due to % of free and reduced lunch)
  • Parent’s educational level is a HS graduate or below

So just based upon customer demographics, you know an awful lot to allow you to be a more effective marketer:

  • People in a low-income bracket tend to primarily use their phone to access the internet. If your website is not mobile enabled, you are potentially giving a poor customer experience for customers accessing your site via their phone.
  • Your potential customers are at a lower educational level. You need to tailor your communication to resonate with them.  You should always run your material through a Flesch-Kincaid analysis to know if your material is understood by your audience.
  • Facebook is the number one social media platform for all people within your demographics per Pew Research. If you are spreading yourself thin by trying to hit every social media platform, concentrate on Facebook and really knock it out of the park.
  • By 2019, 85% of traffic on the internet will be video. You definitely need more video on your website.


The different layers of personas

A demographic persona or segmentation is a great perfect first step, but if you really want to dive deep into your customer, then the best way to do that is through individual interviews or focus groups to truly get at their motivations and desires.  This “attitudinal” segmentation is much more rich and really allows your message to resonate with your target market.  These attitudes might be:

  • A prioritization of character building over pure academic results
  • A desire to find a school that is more responsive to parents needs vs. test scores
  • Desire to find a community of like-minded parents

Having messaging that resonates with customers on an emotional level is the most effective form of marketing you can create, but it can be difficult to pull these out of customers.  This might be when you bring in some professional help.

How does this look in action?

I recently worked with a client that wanted to gain a deeper understanding of their customers.  This school defined itself as an “alternative” high school and generally gained students through referrals from the traditional school system.  Though enrollment at the school was strong, they were disproportionately attracting higher numbers of senior and junior level students versus freshman and sophomores, as well as students with significant behavioral challenges

Our first step was to spend time talking to the parents and the students who currently attended the school.  The first key insight that we gained was that the use of the term “alternative” was very polarizing.  Though this is a term that is very common in the educational sector, what the client had not appreciated was that to a parent or to a student, this phrase conjured up images of students who had consistently been in trouble with law enforcement.  When students were queried if they considered themselves “alternative,” they all answered “no.”  By removing that phrase from the public description of the school, they are now able to attract students who originally didn’t believe that the school was a good fit for them.

Additionally, by clearly defining their six target student types, based upon social and emotional needs research, this client could have better and more fruitful conversations with the schools who were referring students to them.  Their referral base had been caught in this narrow definition of “alternative” as well.

The client was also able to explain to referring schools, based upon customer feedback, that many of these students felt out of place in their traditional schools much earlier than their junior or senior year.  Suddenly, the conversation shifted away from the senior who had been a discipline challenge and a drop out risk, to the freshman who was being bullied – the ideal student type.  This school is now at record enrollment but more importantly, many students who could benefit from this different type of school environment are being served rather than dropping out.

Building personas allows you to bring your customers to life in a way that you probably haven’t done before.  But not only that, it really allows you to tailor your marketing to your target customer.


Nick LeRoy is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board.  Bright Minds Marketing provides marketing and recruitment consulting to private, Catholic and charter schools.  For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve your marketing, visit us at, send an email to or call us at 317-361-5255.

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