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Increase MBA Applications in 2012: Lessons from the Campaign Trail

The presidential election season is in full swing as contenders travel throughout the country delivering stump speeches and courting voters in anticipation of the general election in November.

Meanwhile, business schools are embarking on a lengthy campaign of their own.  With an eye on enrollment goals, directors and deans are also looking to the fall when they will welcome a new cohort of students to campus.

But MBA recruitment can be even more challenging than running for office since “election day” (or the first day of classes) occurs not every four years but annually – and more frequently for multiple or part-time programs.

Here are five lessons from the presidential campaign trail to increase MBA applications.

1.  It’s a long road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Some of the most successful presidential candidates start planning their campaigns well before election year.  Likewise, many MBA hopefuls start mulling the idea of graduate school years before they actually apply.

I know of several EMBA students who started researching business schools ten years before they filled out an application.  As part of your marketing strategy, collect data on your prospects and cultivate them with tailored marketing communications throughout long lead times.

For this year, identify and re-ignite interest with prospects going back as far as possible.  Also, reach out to applicants who deferred their acceptance in prior years.  Even one or two re-activated applications can move you closer to enrollment objectives.

2.  Field of dreams

The corn is high and the candidates are plenty at the time of the Iowa straw poll – but then it quickly starts to winnow down as caucus and primary season gets underway.

Many business schools are justifiably proud of their achievements and accolades but it’s important to remember you are not their only choice.

MBA prospects are also going through a winnowing down process – especially as visitors to information sessions shopping different programs. How well are you marketing your MBA program in your information sessions? Are you optimizing your student and alumni testimonials to demonstrate the MBA return on investment?  Think about the best way to reach out in your pre-session communications to increase attendance and provide a compelling experience during their visit so they elect your school.

3.  What’s your Stump Speech?

Presidential candidates have a carefully scripted message they articulate to constituents to differentiate themselves in a crowded field.  Perhaps it’s a catchy phrase like 9-9-9.  Make sure that the content on your website and your marketing communications resonates with your prospective students so that they remember you.  What is your unique value proposition?  How do you stand out?  How will your program provide them with a better future?

4.  Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

Retail politics is an old-fashioned yet tried and true strategy to elected office. Candidates go door-to-door in an effort to get to know voters on an individual basis. It can bring impressive results – especially if a lesser-known candidate doesn’t have the organization or big money of some of the frontrunners.  (Think Rick Santorum visiting all 99 counties in the Iowa).

How well are you connecting with your prospective students?  Do you know their goals, their concerns?  How will your program help them achieve their dreams?

Also, presidential candidates spend countless hours in planes and campaign buses to cultivate voters all across the country. Think about taking your message on the road and hosting information sessions at some of your top feeder employers.

5.  Who will endorse you?

Presidential candidates pick up influential endorsements from respected leaders to enhance their appeal and credibility with the electorate.

Who is advocating on your behalf?  Make sure you have compelling testimonials from high profile alumni and corporate leaders who discuss the mba return on investment and make the argument for your business school. Include their testimonials on your website, in your brochures, in your advertising.

Increase your applicant pool and diversity by featuring testimonials from students or alums of under-represented groups.