Using Customer Personas to Increase Enrollment

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 inside and out. Apple, for example, understands that their most loyal customers want more than phones and computers. Apple’s customers want stylish tools that help them express themselves and stay connected, and they’re willing to pay a premium price to get them.


Of course, market-leading companies like Apple are able to spend millions of dollars every year to dig deep into the minds of their customers to understand their needs and motivations. However, every organization, even one with a limited marketing budget like your school, should be doing the same kind of analysis to understand what makes their customers tick. In fact, the more limited your marketing budget, the more important it is to understand exactly who you are trying to reach with your marketing efforts. You have to clearly know which families you are attempting to serve in order to market to them effectively.


The best way to understand the motivations of the families who chose your school, as well as the families who you would like to attract to your school, is to create customer personas. In fact, creating customer personas is the foundational first step to creating an effective school marketing plan.


What Is a Customer Persona?

Think of a customer persona like a fictional character you create to represent your current or target customer. Like any character, your customer persona has specific demographic traits (age, sex, income, race, etc.), but they are much more than that. Your customer persona must explore this individual’s beliefs and motivations.


To make this fictional character even more real in your mind, you should give them a name, maybe even a face. When the customer persona is complete, you should understand this person inside and out so you can use this information to help you attract them to your school.


This isn’t to say that the real life families at your school aren’t varied and complex. Of course, they are! However, no matter how unique each family is, I guarantee that as a group they share certain traits. By creating customer personas, you will be able to identify these commonalities so you can more effectively communicate with these families and persuade them to choose your school.


This approach applies to public and charter schools just as much as it does to private, independent, and religious schools. Even if your school accepts all comers, you still want to make sure that you are attracting the kinds of families who will succeed at your school, and who will help your school succeed at the same time.


Customer Personas in Action

Before we begin the process of creating customer personas for your school, it’s important to understand when exactly you will want to reference these personas to help you make decisions about marketing and communication. The answer: all the time.

Your customer personas should influence every decision you make about your school’s marketing and communication strategies.


For example, say you’re trying to determine the most effective way to use your school’s limited marketing budget. Should you invest in print advertisements? Online advertisements? Direct mail?


The answer, of course, lies in your customer personas. Which parents and students you are trying to reach? Are you a new STEM-centric charter trying to find young, busy, tech-savvy parents? Are you an established Catholic school trying to reach church-going families in a neighboring parish? Either way, you need to clearly understand who your customers are before you can decide how to target them.


Notice that in both cases above that the families you may be trying to reach may not necessarily be like the families who are already enrolled. Customer personas are useful for understanding both the families who are already part of your school as well as identifying the families who you would like to attract to your school. Identifying and understand these “target” families is essential for your school to reach its potential.


Customer Persona Case Study: An “Alternative” Charter

One recent success I had using customer personas was helping a charter school that defined itself as an “alternative” high school. Their enrollment was strong, but they weren’t attracting the kinds of students they knew they needed to in order to make their school succeed. Instead of attracting freshman and sophomores who would grow with the school and help create a tight-knit community, they were disproportionately attracting juniors and seniors, many of whom struggled with significant behavioral challenges.

Our first step was to spend time talking to the parents and the students who currently attended the school in order to understand what sort of persona to target. The first key insight that we gained was that the use of the term “alternative school” was very polarizing. Though this term is understood in the educational world, what the school had not appreciated was that to a parent or 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 students who were in trouble with the law, they all answered “no.” By removing the phrase “alternative” from the public descriptions of the school and describing it as a school for students who "had been unable to find success at their previous school", they are now able to attract students who originally didn’t believe that the school was a good fit for them.

To help this school find more of the kinds of students they wanted, we created six different customer personas of different kinds of students who would benefit from their school. Using these personas, we revamped their marketing and communication strategy, shedding their “alternative” image that was scaring families off, and creating a more inclusive, welcoming image of a school that is uniquely set up to help any student who isn’t reaching their potential in their traditional school.

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 – their ideal student type. This school is now at record enrollment (and opening up an additional campus) but more importantly, many students who could benefit from this different type of school environment are being served rather than dropping out.


Building Customer Personas for Your School

 Now it’s time to create the customer personas for your school.

The first step is to gain a deep understanding of what families you are already serving and what families you are trying to reach. To do that, you need solid market research. Without accurate and actionable data, you will never know who you customers are and what your customers really want.


Another essential tool to understanding your customers is to conduct a customer survey. This is the best way to get a reliable, data-driven picture of who you are serving. Remember, the most important part of a customer persona is developing a real understanding of what motivates your target families – when the day comes for that finally to finally decide where to enroll their child in school, how are they going to be making that decision? What is going to be their biggest deciding factor? If you really want to know, you have to ask them.


Of course, you shouldn’t discount the information you already know about the families you serve. 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 on this information, you can begin to build a basic customer persona.


What does this mean? A lot. Based on just this limited demographic information, you can already begin to tailor you messages to families. For example:

Quick note: Your personas may be either students or parents. I usually advise clients to profile students for high school and parents for K-8, but you should do whatever makes the most sense for your school.


Demographics Are Not Destiny

 One important pitfall to avoid is to relying too heavily on cold demographic data. While age, sex, zip code, income, and race can tell us a lot about a person, they can also lead us to make elementary mistakes.


For example, if I were to tell you about a wealthy British man born in 1948, who has been married twice (amid very public scandal), and who some consider royalty, you might naturally picture Prince Charles. However, in addition to the Prince of Wales, that demographic data also describes Ozzy Osbourne, who is known colloquially as the Prince of Darkness. In the real world, the two couldn’t be more different, but on paper the two can look almost indistinguishable. Unless, of course, we know to ask the right questions.

Prince CharlesThe Prince of Wales

Ozzy OsbourneThe Prince of Darkness

That’s why I always tell my clients that demographic segmentation is a great perfect first step, but if you want to dive deep into your customers’ minds, 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 richer and allows your message to resonate with your target market.  These attitudes might be:

Remember, you don’t just need to understand who your customers are, you need to understand what your customers want. 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.


The Elements of a Customer Persona (With a Special Bonus Worksheet!)

Once you have your research in hand, it’s time to dig in and define who you customers are.

Here’s a worksheet I like to share with clients that separates out the different questions we’re going to try to answer. Remember, you will likely want to create multiple customer personas, so don’t feel as if you need to shoehorn everyone possible customer onto one sheet.  You can download a copy for yourself here (Powerpoint)


 Let’s go through the boxes step by step. To help you understand what each box is for, I’ll use examples from one of the personas we created for the no-longer-“alternative” school I talked about earlier.


Persona Title

The persona title is where you give your customer a name and a one-word description. For the charter school in our example above, we created a persona named “Disengaged Dave”. I like the alliteration because it is descrpitive and helps you to remember who you are talking about.



The description is a broad sketch of the student or parent this persona is based on. Don’t get bogged down in statistics here. Remember, you want this persona to feel as real as possible. This description should help you visualize who this student or parent is. Paint a picture with words.

For my charter school clients, we understood Dave as being a student who skips school frequently and doesn’t participate when he’s there. What Dave needs is a school that will re-engage him so he can get his high school diploma and put him on a track for a more successful life.



Demographics is where you put the cold, hard numbers and other data you’ve gleamed from your research. Age, income, religious affiliation, etc. For Dave, we know that he’s 15-19, behind on his credits, and is on a path to not graduate high school.



This is where we really dig into what makes this student or parent tick. This is also where we identify the problems that the student or parent has, so we can tailor our communication with them to show how the school can solve those problems.

Dave, for example, needs to graduate high school if he’s going to have any kind of rewarding career. To make this happen, he needs an educational environment that is more tailored to him as an individual and is more interesting and engaging than his current school. Fortunately, my charter clients designed their school to help students exactly like Dave. Now the task is convincing him to enroll.

Not every need is going to be the same.  Education is obviously the end goal - but are you a school that sends students to Harvard?  Do you emphasize social and emotional learning?  Are you about creating a richness of experience that transcends the classroom?  Just thinking about those three different paths shows you how "quality education" can be described in a dramatically different fashion against a parent or student's needs.


Barriers to Choosing Your School

Of course, getting a student to enroll isn’t as easy as telling them about your program. Part of the process of creating customer personas is understanding what is keeping students from enrolling. Once you understand these barriers, you can work on overcoming them.


For Dave, the biggest problem is that he has never liked school, and he doesn’t see why a new school will be any better. Since academic success isn’t important to him, he sees no reason to change schools. In fact, he might not even know that a different kind of school exists. On a practical level, Dave doesn’t own a car, so he would never imagine going to a school outside of his immediate neighborhood, since he isn’t aware that some charter schools provide transportation.


How to Reach Them

Here’s where we turn what we know about this customer into action. Based on what we know about this customer, what are the most effective tools for getting their attention?


When it comes to Dave, he’s pretty obviously not going to show up to an open house or thumb through brochures at a school fair. If we want Dave to enroll, we’re going to have to meet him where he is. The best way to do this is likely reaching out to his current school and letting them know that you’re looking for a student like Dave. Additionally, Dave’s a teenager, so if you want to reach him directly, you should focus on digital/mobile ads.  Since he has rejected most authority figures at school - perhaps a peer driven / student outreach effort would be best?



Families don’t make big decisions like choosing a school in a vacuum. Typically, they solicit opinions from trusted sources around them, in addition to doing their own research.


For Dave, the likely influencers are probably the administration at his current school and his parents, although an even better influencer might be a student who used to be like Dave, but whose academic career has turned around at his new school.



 Earlier we discussed the goals for your target student, but here we’re going to look at your goals for getting that student to enroll. Notice that these goals aren’t independent of each other. They’re a progression, creating a path that starts with reaching the student or parent and ends with them walking through your doors as an enrolled student.


For Dave, your first goal is to make sure he knows your school exists. Nothing will happen without that. However, once he knows you’re there, you need to let him know that your school is different. Your school is designed for students like him, and your school can help him achieve his goal of graduating. Finally, your goal is to convince him to embrace your school’s approach to education and have him enroll.


When you’re finished with the process, you’ll end up with a sheet that looks something like this:


Congratulations! You’ve taken a huge step towards knowing who your students are and how to reach them.


How Certain Characteristics of a Persona Can Change Your Marketing

 Of course, a persona can only be useful if you are able to use the insights gleamed from the process to make better decisions down the line. How exactly do you do that? Let’s go through a couple examples and see.


One situation I run into often is Catholic schools who are rightly proud of their traditions, and whose marketing often reflects their faith. However, about 20% of Catholic school students aren’t Catholic, and even among those families who are Catholic, many of them want to find a school that offers a great education, first and foremost, whether or not it’s affiliated with the Church


By constructing a customer persona of their Catholic and non-Catholic families, schools may come to see how balancing their emphasis on faith with their emphasis on academics in their marketing can help them reach this important group. By stressing their academic offerings in an equal amount to their religious offerings, Catholic schools can often improve their image with Catholics and non-Catholics at the same time.


Similarly, private schools are often seeking families who might be slightly outside their tuition range, but who may bring other aspects to their school such as athletic skill, diversity, or academic excellence. If this describes one of the personas for your school, you need to make sure your tuition page doesn’t scare them away. Make sure these families know that financial aid isn’t just available, but that you are eager to give it to a family like them in a helpful, non-judgmental way. Remember, these families aren’t going to know they’re wanted unless you demonstrate it to them.

This may seem challenging and to a certain extent it is.  Customer persona development is one of the most important (and foundational) elements in creating good marketing.  It doesn't matter if you are Apple, Porsche, or Pope John Paul II Catholic School, you need to understand your customer before you can actively market to them.   

Need help creating and using customer personas to help your school reach its potential?

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