Sooner or later it was bound to happen. The more frequently you place your business card in a fishbowl drawing, the more likely it is that you will eventually win something - someday. And so it was that I received two “free” nights at a timeshare in Virginia thanks to a random drawing at Applebee's.
Yes, the word “free” is in quotes. To be clear, there was no charge for accommodation during my stay this past weekend, but I did have to sit through a 90-minute mandatory sales pitch on the Saturday morning. The only problem is that I should have read the small print more carefully as I missed the word “minimum” before the 90-minute sales-pitch messaging on the confirmation letter.
Three hours later, we were still talking timeshares.
At least it explained the complimentary coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts to keep would-be buyers energized.
In the end, we did not return home with another home. However, I did come back with a new perspective of marketing MBA programs.
As my former boss, a senior vice president in the financial services industry, once told me early in my career, “Barbara, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a mutual fund or a sweater at Talbots, the same marketing lessons apply”. (Without doubt, he had a gift for communicating the fundamentals of business to this liberal arts major using language and examples that resonated with his staff).
With a nod to this astute advice, here are some business school marketing takeaways from my brief experience in the world of timeshares when it comes to how to promote (and how not to promote) MBA programs to prospective students.1. Target Your Audience
The timeshare marketers don’t invite everyone to the sales event. They target their best prospects by selecting those willing to make a trip within a certain distance for a short getaway. After all, those are the prospects most likely to perceive value in what a timeshare has to offer. And these prospects self-qualify because they choose to overcome the barrier of actually packing up and getting out of town in order to seize an opportunity.
MBA information sessions and graduate recruiting fairs are the same way. Physically dragging oneself to a presentation at a specific time and place is a barrier that busy MBA candidates must overcome. Those who choose to make that commitment are likely among your best prospects. They will have different expectations than other prospects who may be much earlier in their decision process, so you need to tailor your presentations with that in mind.2. Personalization
I had expected a marketing presentation to an entire crowd of prospective buyers. However, I was interested to discover a 1-to-1 sales “conversation”. Each sales representative met with a family at separate tables allowing the conversation to be tailored to their unique needs. (One of the first questions was what is your ideal vacation?) I’m sure there was a strategic reason for this format, but it did create a more customized learning experience.
One of the challenges of MBA information sessions is that we are often presenting to an entire group of prospective students – each with their own unique backgrounds and goals. Imagine the benefits of speaking 1-to-1 with prospective students at information sessions. I know this is a resource issue, but think of the members of your business school community (colleagues in career services, students, alumni) who could join forces to lower the presenter to prospect ratio and make each prospect feel all the more special.3. Be Personable and Tell Stories
One of the things we really liked about our sales rep (a retired insurance salesman) was that he was a genuinely nice and authentic. He wove stories about his own travels and his family into his presentation so it felt he was talking person-to-person rather than company-to-customer. (He also had a great Oklahomean accent as he talked about "ro-mantic" holidays).
If you are an MBA alumnus or alumna, be sure to mention your own incoming student survey research and decision-making in order to connect with prospects and show that you understand them on a personal level. Weave stories of your professional development experiences as a way to relate to the audience. Speak to person-to-person rather than institution-to-student.4. Show them What You've Got
A highlight of the presentation was when the sales representative lifted the giant resort directory from his briefcase which featured glossy photos and descriptions of every property throughout the world available for exchange. After explaining how to read the directory, he then got up and left us to browse the directory (and fantasize) on our own. By that point, it occurred to me that nothing was spontaneous in this presentation. A key part of the pitch, apparently, was to allow prospective buyers to imagine all the possibilities for endless dream vacations.
While I’m not sure leaving MBA prospects alone with a university course catalog for 15 minutes during an interview will do the same trick as photos of swaying palm trees and palaypas on pristine Caribbean beaches, what are ways that you can show the full benefits of your MBA program? In some ways, the business school version of the timeshare resort directory are class visits. But what if candidates aren’t able to make it to campus – especially international ones? Think about creating short YouTube clips of classes to send in your lead nurturing campaign or invite faculty members to do a “mock lecture” during an information session.5. Use Numbers to Make Your Point
The timeshare presentation included some very simple arguments, complete with financial calculations that supported the value of their offer. (Example: Cost of a hotel for a week. What if that cost you only $164? What do you spend on hotels in a year?) It was hard to argue against these numbers, and it made the decision seem simple.
A big part of the decision to seek an MBA is a financial one, and by providing simple examples, you can make the benefits and return-on-investment seem more concrete and personal. Until prospects take the time to run the numbers, most of them will naturally fear the worst - they’ll assume the financial burden is bigger than it actually is.
By addressing it earlier in the process, you can remove a barrier and enable prospective students to focus on other aspects of their decision. Providing promotion, salary increase, and other student ROI metrics (such as from an MBA Alumni Survey) will bolster your message with data and concrete examples to which prospects can relate.6. Anticipate Objections
The timeshare salesperson very aggressively addressed almost any objection I could think of during the sales presentation. In fact, he addressed most objections proactively—even before I brought them up myself. This was very effective because it began to disarm my ability to say “no”. Examples included a lack of time to travel for which he quickly replied "well, you made it down here for the weekend".
Every MBA prospect is going to have objections and barriers to overcome in order to make a decision to attend your program. Prime examples include time and money. Or, maybe a prospective student is considering another business school that's ranked higher. You have to be ready for them - and have a compelling answer.
Above all, the best way to approach objections today is in the spirit of HELPING a prospect make a decision. Provide them with the information they need to handle the objection in their own way, so they can make a decision that’s right for them.
In many cases, they may not have all the information. In the spirit of being helpful, you could point out that some of your faculty members, for example, were educated at the more prestigious insititutions they are considering to reinforce your reputation. Maybe they are concerned about tuition. Have you clearly and thoroughly presented scholarship information (both internal and external) in all your marketing channels?7. Be Upfront/No Hidden Agenda
The timeshare pitch sounded appealing at first. They had a polished presentation managed to address a lot of objections in a convincing way. But after we politely said we’d have to think about it, we were introduced to a new person with a clipboard who said he wanted to ask us a few short questions to get our feedback. This soon turned into another sales pitch with a secondary offer at a lower price. That raised red flags for me and screamed “hidden agenda”!
As soon as they crossed that line their chance of making a sale to me vanished. I think this is an “old school” approach to sales that no longer fits today’s consumer. People are highly sensitive to any hint of misrepresentation, are savvy consumers thanks to our digital age, and the backlash can be substantial.
I’m not worried about any reputable graduate management program intentionally trying to intentionally misrepresent itself, of course, but my point is that because people are so sensitive to that today you have to be sensitive to the way you tell your story. People expect transparency, and have to make an effort to deliberately be open about your offering or risk having prospects perceive that you’re hiding something.8. Don't Be Pushy
Had I conducted preliminary research online before our stay, I would have come across articles with adjectives like “high-pressure” and “aggressive” when it comes to describing some of the marketing techniques used in certain timeshare sales. It appears from my reading and this experience is that the primary objective is to close the deal right then and there.
We talk about the importance in marketing of creating a sense of urgency – and there is no doubt that there is pressure to meet enrollment goals in an increasingly competitive marketplace - but above that is the importance to establish trust by allowing candidates to make thoughtful decisions and provide time and space for them to consult with family members and other important stakeholders on one of the most important buying decisions in their lives.
Like undergraduate education, the choice of whether or where to attend business school can have a profound impact on a lifetime of career journeys and destinations. Allowing time to make sure your program is the right fit will strengthen retention rates – and is the right thing to do.9. Value Prospect's Time
How many times, excuse the pun, do we hear about the value of time? Granted, it was my fault that I didn’t carefully read the confirmation letter from the timeshare, but my patience started to wear thin when 90 minutes ticked away to 2 hours… and then 3 hours. When conducting information sessions, pay attention to body language and expressions to gauge interest and engagement. End by the promised time. If there are still many questions, invite candidates to speak one-on-one afterwards. Don’t keep the entire group hostage.10. Incentives
It was a long three long hours during the presentation, but I was holding on for that $125 pre-paid VISA and $50 Applebees gift card that was promised at the end of the tour. Incentives do bring people in the door and keep them committed during a sales pitch.
What incentives can your MBA program provide to prospects to boost attendance at information sessions or leave prospects with a good feeling after a recruitment fair?
Granted there are rules about financial incentives in most public universities, but here’s the chance to think outside the box. How can you thank MBA candidates for their visit and show that you value their time and interest? Maybe it is something as simple as a photographer on hand to take head-shots for LinkedIn profiles at the end of the information session.
What other ideas do you have?