Why More Business Schools Should Invest in Content Marketing
There was a time when elite business schools selected the candidates they wanted for their MBA programs. Now, candidates select the schools.In 2003, 41 of the world’s top-50 MBA programs ranked by the Financial Times were offered by business schools based in North America. By 2019, that number had fallen to 25.
In that same period, the proportion of international candidates with the U.S. as their preferred study destination dropped from 52 percent to 40 percent, with schools in Europe and Asia Pacific growing in stature.
In a crowded market, now even top-ranked business schools need to promote themselves to stand out. To do so, a strong ranking will help, although it’s often difficult to achieve. Accreditation can serve as a stamp of quality. There’s admissions tours and events and traditional advertising.
Then, there’s content marketing.
Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.
—Content Marketing Institute
What Makes Content Marketing Different?
By using content marketing, schools can tell their own stories, define and develop their brand, and get into the minds of prospective students.
London Business School, for example, attributes the 8 percent increase in applications it received in the year after the Brexit vote partly to its efforts in content marketing. The school focused on its existing strengths—successful alumni, academic strength, and brand—creating a variety of written and video content touching on themes like the future of work. It also initiated the #WhyILoveLBS on Twitter, encouraging students and alumni to photograph themselves with their reason.
Likewise, after prospective students expressed concerns about studying in Baltimore, which historically has had a reputation as a high-crime city and saw large-scale riots in 2015, Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School created a virtual campus tour that highlighted the benefits of its location. A direct mail campaign saw a 358 percent increase in visitors to the virtual tour, with recipients over seven times more likely to convert to an applicant, compared to before the campaign.Three things distinguish content marketing from other types of advertising:
- The value it offers the audience. This is not a billboard at a train station. This is something of genuine use and interest to the audience.
- Its relevance to that audience. It should be targeted and created with the audience in mind.
- Its consistency. Every content campaign should be built around consistently promoted themes that tie it together.
Content marketing is different because it’s subtle. It’s designed not to explicitly promote a brand but to stimulate interest in its products or services.
I had a conversation on the topic with Benoit Banchereau, MBA marketing director at HEC Paris, who put it best: “When we want to stress something about our campus, careers, or top position in Europe,” he said, “we don’t say ‘we have a great thing’; we show that, more subtly, through a story. That’s more effective than any other advertising campaign.”
When I speak with business school professionals, I often hear talk of “being different.” However, business schools ultimately perform the same function—educating future business leaders—and every school talks about being diverse, international, and impactful.
In his book How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp says, “Consumers simply don’t perceive brands within the category as being particularly different.” And that’s the case with business schools.
The key is not to be different, but to be distinctive. There’s a term in marketing called “mental availability,” which refers to the probability that a consumer will think of your brand in a buying situation. Content marketing helps schools achieve that.
If your school wants to be known for its strength in finance, and you start consistently creating and sharing content around that theme, people will start associating you with it.
Similarly, content marketing can help you communicate the true value of your school in a way that other promotional tools don’t.
I’m working with a school with a master’s program ranked number one in the world. This program naturally attracts a lot of what the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) call Respect Seekers—people who care a lot about ranking and reputation.
Instead, the school wants to attract more Global Strivers—people wanting international careers—and Impactful Innovators—socially-minded entrepreneurs. It’s using content marketing to reach candidates that it can’t by ranking position alone.
Almost half of U.S. adults aged 18 to 49 years old—the key age demographic for graduate business school programs—get their news and information online. Reaching them with inspiring, actionable content makes sense.
One of the best ways to do effective content marketing is through storytelling, which is especially well-suited for graduate management education. Alumni stories, for example, already have the narrative arc of before, during, and after business school.
When schools create any sort of content, the first thing they should think of is their audience—who they are, what they’re interested in, where they are in the application process. Schools should think about how that piece of content will serve the audience and which social media channel it is best suited for.
According to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing generates over three times as many leads as outbound marketing (advertisements) and gets three times the leads-per-dollar spent compared to paid search.
In today’s competitive business education market, schools need to create compelling content that both matters to prospective students and speaks to the school’s distinctiveness. When done in the right way, content marketing delivers results.