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3 MBA Recruitment Lessons Oprah Shared at Harvard

It has been a stratospheric rise for the former daytime queen of talk show.  From humble beginnings and hardship, Oprah went on to achieve super-stardom as the world’s most powerful celebrity – not to mention a net worth of $2.7 billion.  But perhaps her most shining moment came on a bright day last month when the media mogul addressed graduates at Harvard University’s 362nd commencement.  And here in Harvard Yard she paused at the incredible awesomeness of it all.

“Oh my goodness.  I’m at HAAAARVARD!  Not too many girls from rural Mississippi have made it all the way here to Cambridge. … I consider today to be a defining milestone…”

As you would expect from Forbes’ most influential person in the world, Oprah’s remarks resonated and inspired.  But it’s not just 21-year olds in crimson regalia who were coached on how to achieve their best selves.  Oprah had words of wisdom to those of us working in business school education, too.

Here are some highlights of her speech with applied lessons for MBA recruiters and marketers:

blog beyonce-oprah-mba-marketing“The single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people was that there’s a common denominator in our human experience.  The common denominator I found in every single interview is we want to be validated.  We want to be understood.  I’ve done over 35,000 interviews in my career.  And as soon as that camera shuts off, and inevitably in their own way, everyone asks this question: ‘Was that okay?’ I heard it from President Bush, I heard it from President Obama…I even heard it from Beyonce in all her Beyonce-ness…They all want to know: ‘Was that okay?  Did you hear me?  Did you see me?  Did what I said mean anything to you?’”


There are lots of cognitive reasons for an MBA, but many times there are underlying emotional currents as well.  Quite simply, it boils down to validation.  Think about what comes across again and again at the heart of your applicant interviews or between the lines in an admissions essay.  Candidates who seek validation of a stronger education brand on their resume.  Liberal arts or engineering majors who seek validation of a business degree.  Ambitious prospects who seek validation to gain access into prestigious firms.

As you refresh your MBA marketing collateral for the coming recruitment cycle, think about Oprah’s lessons.  Take a look at your digital MBA brochure, business school website, information session PowerPoint, social media messaging, and digital advertising.  How are you emphasizing a value proposition of validation?  In other words, how does your MBA program help prospective students achieve the validation they are seeking?  And how does your business school do it better than the competition?

Consider segmenting your target market according to “validation” personas.  Think about all the different type of validation that an MBA provides for prospective students and then develop distinct messaging for each audience.  For example, you could develop testimonials from alums who talk about how the MBA gave them an educational boost on their resumes.  The idea is to develop personas that enable you to connect with candidates on a deep and personal level so that each person feels you are speaking directly to them.  Show that you hear them.  Show that you understand them.

Simple Imagery

Also, simple imagery showing the power of contrasts offers a validation proof point.  For example, show side-by-side images two identical resumes.  One has an undergraduate engineering degree.  The other adds an MBA from your school.  Simple images get the point across and speak volumes.

blog twitter-logo-oprah-marketing“Your class will be armed with more tools of influence and empowerment than any other generation in history.  I did it in an analog world.  I was blessed with a platform that, at its height, reached nearly 20 million viewers a day.  Now, here in a world of YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, you can reach billions in just seconds.”

In today’s world, business school marketers have access to more tools of influence than ever before.  Remember the days when it was just print brochures?  Now, we can reach an infinite number of prospective students in seconds through Twitter and other forms of social media as well as traditional communication channels.  So, how is your business school leveraging social media platforms to influence the largest reach of prospective students possible?  One of the key benefits of social media is that content gets propelled exponentially.  It’s not just what you post to your connections but what they share with their connections.

Compelling Content

So, give prospects many options to read compelling content and many reasons to share compelling content.  Consider innovative ways to start discussions that create buzz.  For example, start a dialogue on a popular topic that’s trending in business such as Facebook COO’s bestseller, Lean In.  People express themselves when they’re fired up about an issue.  Just think about the all the buzz that was created when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch.

blog building-a-website-image-oprah-mba-marketing“Build a resume that doesn’t simply tell a story about what you want to be, but who you want to be.” 

Just as business school admissions directors evaluate the credentials of prospective MBA students from their resumes, prospective students are evaluating the credentials of the business school from its resume.  And, yes, business schools have a resume.  It’s called a website.

That means that a business school website has to shine in terms of skills, experience, and achievements.  Like a resume, make sure it stands out in a crowded and competitive marketplace.

And be sure to keep in mind how resumes have changed.  Career advice bloggers like the author of the 10 Differences Between The Job Search Of Today And Of Yesterdayarticle argues that resumes today need to focus on what value the job seeker can bring to the organization compared to resumes in the past which focused on what the job seeker wanted.

Just as a candidate’s resume need to show how they can bring value to the MBA classroom (and then to an employer), a business school’s resume needs to show how it brings value to the candidate – and how soon the candidate can realize that value.

Channel Oprah to build a business school resume (website) that tells stories not just of what students want to be, but who they can be as a result of your business school.  For example, I recently attended an information reception for the U.S. Naval Academy.  The presentation slides included a long list of prominent alumni including a U.S. President.  Make sure your business school resume is aspirational and appeals to a higher purpose.

“At some point, you are bound to stumble.  You will at some point fall, and when you do, I want you to remember this – There is no such thing as failure; failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

In each recruitment cycle, business school enrollment targets are set and one of three things happen.  They are either met, exceeded, or they fall short.  If targets are missed, think about what the numbers are telling you.  Perhaps it is the market sending signals to move in another direction.  For example, if a weekend Executive MBA program is losing candidates due to busy travel schedules, maybe it’s time to consider a hybrid or online component.  Maybe it is time to engage a custom market research study into the attitudes and usage needs of your target prospects.

Whether it has to do with disappointing enrollment numbers or a fall in media rankings, learn from the experience and have the determination to turn things around.

Oprah explained that she held the highest ratings of any syndicated TV talk show for 21 years because she kept “raising the bar every year, pushing, pushing , pushing myself as hard as I could.”

How can you “raise the bar” in your MBA marketing plan next year?

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