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What If You Could Grow B-School Enrollment by 155%? Inspiration from Inbound15

higher ed marketing

Picture yourself at one of the biggest tech conferences in Boston with more than 14,000 marketers from all over the world.

There are five prominent keynote speakers and more than 170 breakout sessions. The week features experts on marketing automation, website redesign, and mobile conversion strategies. What topics would you expect?

How about these?

  • The Changing Face of SEO in 2015
  • How To Measure Your Social Media Activities Using Google Analytics
  • 50 Actionable Tips For Launching A Successful Lead Gen Campaign
  • How To Effectively Use Twitter To Elevate Your Marketing Strategy
  • How To Create Videos For Your Brand That Go Viral And Get Millions of Views
  • Facebook Marketing Success: Proven Ways To Generate More Traffic, Leads, and Profits

Yup, all those were on the agenda.

But what about these?

  • Alive and Amplified: A Rock N Roll Guide For Developing Your Personal Brand
  • How To Read a Person Like A Book
  • If You Could Do Anything You Wanted
  • Everyday Courage – The Power of Motion In Overcoming Adversity
  • Stop Domestic Violence – The Ultimate Sales Pitch
  • Honor Flight: Connecting With The Greatest Generation

Really? Yes, REALLY.

Here’s the thing. Hubspot knows that attendees at their conference, event, movement are not just marketers or sales professionals. They are PEOPLE. Human beings with interests, goals, causes and challenges outside of their job descriptions.

It’s a formula that works well. Very well.

This was my third year that I attended INBOUND and the growth is astounding.

Back in 2013, there were 5,500 participants. In 2014, that number nearly doubled to 10,000. This year, there were 14,000 enthusiasts jammed-packed into Boston’s Convention and Exhibit Center. That’s a growth rate of 155% in two years.

So, I started thinking. If INBOUND attracts thousands upon thousands to this educational experience on steroids, why can’t business schools attract even more students to graduate management education programs each year?

What can we learn from their success?

So, let’s take a look. Here are five lessons for business schools from INBOUND15.

1. Messaging Matters

Want to capture attention and generate interest? Think about the words used in your communications.

For example, Hubspot could have a breakout session called “Seven Tips To Get Prospects To Open Your Email”.


Instead, the session title was, “Seven Reasons Even Your Mom Would Ignore Your Email”.

More compelling, right?

Here are some other session titles:

  • Hungry for Better Content: What The Mighty Hamburger Can Teach Us About Repurposing & Personalizing Modular Content
  • Couples Therapy for Technology and Humanity
  • Built Unstoppable: What I Learned About Life From Seizures, Shattered Shoulders, And Brain Surgery

And there were these ones:

  • Strip Naked To Avoid The Emperor
  • From Sex Cult to C-Suite

Salacious? No, smart.

The last session on the list was actually about how the speaker developed an interest in building better organizations and what he learned about great business and teams.

While I’m not advocating that much spice in course titles, thereby sparking some interesting dialogue with the Registrar’s office, it does speak to the need to cultivate curiosity. What will make people open and click? Think about creative blog titles. Think about creative email subjects lines. Think about creative event names. Be interesting.

2. Draw Attention through “Keynote Speakers”

Big names draw crowds. This year’s INBOUND featured Seth Godin, Brene Brown, Daniel Pink, Aziz Ansari, and Chelsea Clinton.

Wharton’s Adam Grant and HBS’ Clayton Christiansen need no introductions, yet there are many talented faculty members at business schools throughout the world that “fly under the radar”.

How can you promote your faculty and their research in a way that connects to the real-world interests and challenges of potential students?

There’s a reason why headliners like Seth Godin, Brene Brown, and Daniel Pink are on best-seller lists.  Ask yourself the question how did they get there? And how do they stay there?

Seth Godin

Seth Godin, for example, connects with his followers on a daily basis through his blog. He also pays attention and listens – really listens – to his audience.

Here’s a photo of Seth listening to my question of how business schools can best market to prospective students.

How do you connect with potential students? And perhaps even more important, how does your school listen to potential students?

As Seth Godin mentioned in his keynote, we live in a connection economy. He explains that a connection happens when someone listens to you, when someone sees you. It’s about turning a group of people from “outsiders” to “insiders”.

How can we turn more prospective students from “outsiders” to “insiders”?

Brene Brown

In her keynote, Brene Brown talked about changing behavior by speaking to emotions.

  “We are not thinking feelings who occasionally feel. We are feeling beings who on occasionally think.”

She also spoke to her signature topics of vulnerability and risk.

 “Being vulnerable feels terrifying and dangerous and sometimes a bad idea. What is more dangerous and terrifying is getting to the end of our lives and look back and ask what if I had shown up? What if I had said yes? What if I had tried that day? That is a far more dangerous option than showing up and being seen.”

While business school media rankings are all about the rational metrics of GMAT scores, GPA, and acceptance rates, the fact of the matter is that human beings make big purchase decisions based on emotions.

How are we addressing the very real and high barrier of risk and vulnerability that comes with applying to business school? How are making an emotional connection with prospective students in our outreach?

Aziz Ansari

The Parks and Recreation actor talked about the problem of choice in our culture.

“If you have more options that’s better.  But the more options you have, the more difficult it is and the less satisfied you are when you do make the choice.”

What are the biggest problems for prospective students? The GMAT? Essays? Recommendation letters?

How about choice? There are so many options. Online programs. Residential programs. Hybrid programs. Domestic programs. International programs. It’s overwhelming, exhausting, and paralyzing.

What are we doing to make it easier for prospective students? How are we helping rather than selling?

Daniel Pink

Best-selling author Daniel Pink talked about information asymmetry in our modern culture. The customer has much more information available in the buying process today than they did in the past.

And we know that holds true for higher education as well.

So how do we address it?

As Daniel Pink described, we can do so through attunement. In other words, getting inside their heads and seeing things from their point of view.

How many times when we write content do we write from the school’s point of view? Instead, try writing from the reader’s point of view. Write with him and her in mind. What matters to them? Why should they care?

Also, Daniel explained that we need to switch from “problem solving” to “problem finding”.

Many of our business school communications are about solving stated problems for prospects such as career advancement, higher compensation, a desire to start a business. But what problems can we solve that they didn’t know they had? Now that would be a way to grow programs overall by tapping into more non-traditional applicants.

Also, we need to think about our “sales” pitch. The purpose of a pitch, Daniel argues, is to invite people into a conversation.

He calls it a Pixar Pitch. So, it would look like this:

What would be the Pixar Pitch for your business school?

Chelsea Clinton

What I loved most about Chelsea’s keynote, beyond her message of promoting women’s and children’s rights around the world, was her use of contrast as a powerful technique to influence. Check out some of these slides in her keynote video here. (From 2:35-11:08.)

How can we better use contrast to draw attention to the powerful call of a business education and all that it can do for the individual and society?

In addition, I thought these words of wisdom hold true for recruiting students as well as mobilizing societal change.

“We need to find the right balance between data, statistics, and stories to effect change.”

3. Cultivate “FOMO”

I’m still not sure if 170+ breakout sessions over the course of 3 days – roughly translating to 15 choices for EACH breakout session – is actually a good thing or a bad thing. What I do know is that there are so many outstanding sessions, they make for a “can’t miss event” overall.

With that in mind, what we can we do in business schools to show prospects all the incredible learning that takes place? How can we elevate a “maybe” to a “must”?

Think about the most exciting takeaways you can share though testimonials, messaging, and images to heighten interest and spark curiosity. Here are my notes from some of the sessions  I attended at INBOUND.  Notice how when you read a little something, you want to learn more.  That’s the idea.

(Consider these notes in the context of marketing your business school, too. You’re welcome.)

Brand Positioning: How To Tell Your Story

  • Need to figure out the emotional driver of prospects beyond the observable demographic attributes.
  • What is your emotional value proposition?
  • We are not hard wired to consume products. We are hard wired to form relationships.
  • Repetition breaks through. When you say it seven times, most people have only heard it for the first one.
  • Introduce a contrarian data point in your story to get your message across.
  • If you are not where you want to be in the rankings, create your own criteria.
  • Avoid being a stain fighting power. Every laundry detergent says that. Stand out.

How To Create Videos For Your Brand That Go Viral And Get Millions of Views

  • Be unforgettable.
  • Show something that hasn’t been seen before.
  • Don’t tell a story. It’s about the money shot.

Spotlight: Jonah Peretti, CEO Buzzfeed

  • Think of content as a way to connect with other people.
  • What are the new and different ways you can use content to capture attention like quizzes.

Your X Factor: The Key to Success Is In Front of (You)*

  • Runa Magnusdottir helped transform Iceland’s economy by rebranding their uniqueness (their X factor) following the economic crash of 2008.
  • In Iceland, they didn’t lose money, they lost their identity.
  • They asked the questions – Who are we? What do we really stand for?
  • It’s all about determining who you authentically are and what makes you unique.
  • What makes you unique?

*Modified title for all age groups. 

The Neuroscience of Memorable Content

  • People make decisions based on what they remember.
  • But people forget up to 90% of what we share with them.
  • Are you controlling the 10% that people takeaway?
  • Use brain science to control the 10% that people remember.
  • What would you like them to remember?
  • What is the most important message?
  • Habituation kills marketing.
  • With habituation, people move away from content. As we are exposed to a stimulus, we gradually are no longer focused on it.
  • Once you give the brain a reward it is now habituated and waiting for the next reward.
  • So, you need to change the stimulus to get attention.
  • In what ways have you become predictable?
  • Give something the brain recognizes with something that surprises.
  • A tiny bit of surprise allows the brain to move away from habituation.
  • Give them something they expect and something they did not expect and you have a much better chance for memory.

4. Surprise & Delight

One of my favorite experiences of the week was totally unexpected. At the end of a long day, and a long week, spent running back and forth across the convention center so that my Fitbit was lighting up like a Christmas tree, I decided to forgo the last session of the day on the opposite side of the building for the next session in that same room. It was a primer on inbound marketing so it wasn’t “new” material and I thought I would spend the session chilling. But I was blown away when a “guest” speaker came out – the creator of the #itwasneveradress campaign. How cool is that?

What can you do to inject something new, something surprising, something totally unexpected in your business school marketing to draw attention and get people talking?

5. Entertain

While I didn’t attend the signature entertainment event, INBOUND Rocks, (opting instead for dinner with old friends in Boston), I heard it, well, rocked. Even Hubspot co-founder Dharmesh Shah tweeted:

Okay, so maybe Amy Schumer isn’t exactly the right person to be the poster person for your school, but how can you communicate the entertaining as well as educational side of your programs?  How can your content address the “serious” and the “playful”?

Remember, too, that group images of orientation happy hours and international field trips can seem meaningless to someone on the outside. Link the moment and the message back to the reader. Be sure to “invite” candidates into the experience in a way that connects so that they can envision themselves there.

Because, after all, that’s what we want to do. In the parlance of inbound marketing, we want to turn strangers into visitors, visitors into leads, leads into customers (students), and customers (students) into promoters.

And that, my friend, will turn business education into a movement.

One Comment
  1. Kathy Hagens #

    Many lessons to be learned here. Great article once again Barbara. And who wouldn’t want to grow enrollment by 155%? Or attendees at an event? Or prospective customers?

    September 18, 2015

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