Insights — Using Design Thinking to Create Better Higher Ed Marketing Strategies

Using Design Thinking to Create Better Higher Ed Marketing Strategies

Thought leadership , Strategy , Future of Higher Ed Marcom / April 28, 2021
Emma Miller
Emma Miller

Design thinking is a methodology that provides a solutions-based approach to solving real-world problems. In the world of higher ed marketing, it can be a framework to help address big questions and solve challenging problems by focusing on a target audience and working backward to find a solution. This can be especially useful in solving complex problems that are ill-defined or completely unknown. According to the Hasso-Platner Institute of Design at Stanford University (more commonly known as the, there are five stages to design thinking: 

  1. Empathize 
  2. Define 
  3. Ideate 
  4. Prototype 
  5. Test 

Today, we're going to focus on step 1: empathize. I'll show you how we used it in a client engagement to better understand prospective students and develop psychographic personas and how you can use the same approach at your institution.   


Empathize: Using Design Thinking to Better Understand Prospective Students

To build and execute a strategy that resonates, you need to deeply understand your target audiences. That doesn't just mean knowing their demographic information or where they live for targeting purposes; it's developing comprehensive psychographic profiles — understanding their motivations, concerns, and needs — so that they are top of mind as you address your marketing challenges. 

In this particular case, we were working with a client who wanted to improve enrollment, so we needed to better understand their prospective students. Usually, this is where deep quantitative and qualitative research would come into play to develop rich psychographic personas. But this client had a pressing timeline that didn't leave room for research, so instead we went through this design-thinking process with their Admissions & Enrollment team to learn more about the types of students their institution best serves, what attracts them in the first place, and why they perform so well there. 

In a perfect world, this design thinking exercise would've been a perfect discovery exercise to inform the survey instruments themselves and test hypotheses. 

Consider holding a similar workshop with your admissions and enrollment teams and include members from marketing communication to make it more collaborative. The more diverse perspectives you include, the richer the conversation will be. In addition to working with your admissions and enrollment teams, we recommend talking to a diverse range of current students in small groups and asking them similar questions to better understand how their experience matches their needs and motivations. 


Design Thinking with Higher Ed Admissions & Enrollment 

We had the admissions and enrollment team list out all the types of prospective students. As we dug into each student segment, we asked:  

  • What are their motivations for wanting to earn a college degree? What is most important to them? 
  • How are they different from other segments of students? 
  • How are they similar to other segments? 
  • What turns them off or annoys them? 
  • What are they looking for in a college academic experience? What about a social experience? 
  • What was their high school experience like? What were they like as a student? 
  • What are some barriers or challenges they could face? 
  • What are their parents like? How involved are they in this process? 

The client team was able to identify 10 different prospective student segments. When conducting your own workshop, don't be afraid to dig deep into each identified segment. Consider organizing the different audience segments with post-its or on a whiteboard for everyone to see.  

Psychographic Segmentation Using Design Thinking

It was clear that across the 10 different segments that there was an overarching thread that tied each student together which helped support the challenge of building an institutional strategy. But when you really dug into each one, the small differences were big enough that when it comes to execution, these students would require unique communication and outreach. Below are four examples of different audience segments the admissions and enrollment team identified: 

  • Psychographic Segment #1
    • 3.8 GPA, 1280 SAT
    • Not sure what to major in
    • Both parents have degrees and all siblings have gone to college
    • Multi-sport athlete
    • Attended private schools throughout high school and took multiple AP/honors courses
    • Lives in-state but mainly applying to schools out-of-state
  • Psychographic Segment #2
    • 4.5 GPA, 1550 SAT 
    • Would like to become a dentist — Mom and Dad are both dentists 
    • Mission trips to 3rd world countries in the summer to help with dental care; captain of the soccer team; president of the science club 
    • Had test prep support, financial support from parents 
    • Lives in-state and looking at staying in-state 
  • Psychographic Segment #3 
    • 3.1 GPA, 980 SAT 
    • Interested in earning a psychology degree 
    • 1st generation student 
    • Works PT job at fast food restaurant; babysits siblings afterschool 
    • Little to no test prep; will need significant financial aid 
    • Lives in-state and looking to stay in-state 
  •  Psychographic Segment #4 
    • 4.0, 1110 SAT 
    • Interested in majoring in business, education, or English 
    • 1st generation student 
    • Needs help navigating the transactional information for college 
    • Will struggle to integrate into the campus community 
    • Will work multiple jobs on and off-campus 
    • Lives in-state and looking at both in-state and out-of-state institutions

If you were to just build personas using demographics, these four students would be bucketed together. However, you can see clear differences when it comes to academic interests, preferences, and academic backgrounds, not to mention the barriers that stand in the way of their collective success. While the broad demographics can be helpful for informing paid and owned media efforts, these more specific details are essential when thinking about personalized messaging, outreach, and institutional support services.   

With these 10 segments in hand, we established three specific prospective higher ed student personas:  

  • High-achieving student who is well prepared for college and knows what they want to study  
  • First-generation student who is hard-working but needs support navigating college and majors
  • Undecided student who excels academically but is unsure what they want to study or which extracurriculars to pursue  

With these three personas, we could better empathize with these prospective students and build a messaging strategy that resonated, especially among first-generation students. It's worth noting: part of this exercise uncovered support services that were needed to support these students if we were going to authentically use them in our marketing strategy. While this helped to shape messaging, it also created action items for the institution itself. This is an excellent example of the type of strategic partner central marketing communications can and should be across a university campus.

After all, the first stage in the design thinking process is empathy. Embrace that process and allow it to inform how your institution can be empathetic in all stages of its students' journey. In doing so, you set yourself up for success with the other steps of the design thinking journey to create an authentic and student-centered marketing and brand strategy. 

As a SimpsonScarborough Strategist, Emma Miller works at the intersection of data, strategy, and innovative thinking to design insightful and data-driven client deliverables. Emma holds a B.A. in Communication from the University at Buffalo where she was a Division I student-athlete and captain of her swim team. When she isn't working, you can usually find her outdoors — skiing, rock climbing, or otherwise adventuring. Learn more about Emma and the rest of our team here.

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