Evidence-Based Innovation Blog

Want to attract more MBA candidates? Stimulate their lizard brains!

Posted on May 23, 2013 2:49:00 PM

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There are a lot of headlines coming out of Washington D.C. lately, but you could say the most important revelation for business school recruiters and marketers took place last week in a hotel conference room in our nation’s capital. 

Here business leaders gathered for a Corporate Visions sales and marketing presentation. The lessons I learned were captivating and can easily be applied to the business school classroom as well as the corporate boardroom. 

So here are some applied ideas from the session to capture the attention of MBA prospects and convert more candidates into applicants.First, there are two distinct objectives to accomplish in the buying (recruitment) process.

  1. Get the prospect to agree to change.
  2. Get the prospect to choose you. 

Get the prospect to agree to change

One of the challenges of business school recruitment (compared to medical or law school recruitment) is that an advanced degree is not a requirement to practice the profession. So it makes it that much harder to convince prospective MBA students that a graduate degree (and one that involves considerable expense) is necessary to advance their careers.

So, what can MBA admissions and marketing officers do?

The key, according to the session, is to help people discover or self-identify the need to do something different. Demonstrate how the environment around them is changing.  Show how the status quo is no longer acceptable, unsustainable and unable to meet the emerging challenges and demands. Create urgency for change. 

In short, help MBA prospects realize that they have a challenge and that the challenge is big enough to need a new solution. 

In this step:

  • Challenge assumptions
  • Define new sets of needs
  • Align with your strengths

The idea here is to minimize the MBA as a risky change management project. Instead, show a solution to an underappreciated challenge, threat, or opportunity. Develop messaging that describes an unmet need the prospect didn't even know they had. What will keep them from succeeding in their careers? People respond to perceived deficits.  

One idea? For part-time and executive MBA programs, grab attention with a powerful statistic showing the percentage of professionals in the region with graduate degrees.  In other words, this is what MBA prospects are competing against for future jobs. At part-time and executive MBA information sessions, I would show a long list of job openings in the region which required or preferred an MBA.  

The goal is to guide the prospect toward self-discovery to realize the need to do something different. Your job as an MBA recruiter or marketer is to disrupt the status quo.  

Get the prospect to choose YOU

Once a prospect has discovered they need to make a change to a better alternative, the task is to get them to choose you against competing alternatives.  

Here you need to show how you are different and better than other options. What is your unique ability to solve the challenges and obstacles prospective MBA students are facing or will be facing in their careers?  


  • Who you are 
  • How you do it differently
  • Why you are the best fit

Think about how many business school websites mention that they "prepare leaders for a global business environment" or provide an "integrated curriculum" and offer a "flexible format." Many MBA programs are saying the same exact thing. What can you offer that is unique? How does your MBA program solve an unmet or underappreciated need, challenge, or threat a prospective student didn't even realized they had?    

So you need to differentiate your solution. One idea? Take the international field study as a case in point. Many MBA programs these days offer an overseas study trip. Here's an opportunity to differentiate your program. How does it solve an unmet need or threat better than competing alternatives? What about your executive development program? How will it prepare MBA prospects to avoid missed opportunities in their careers better than executive development offerings at competing MBA programs?  

The goal is create messaging that gets the prospect to say yes to you!

The Lizard Brain

So what does this all have to do with the lizard brain? Well, it out turns out that in order to achieve these two objectives, you need to tap into your prospects’ lizard brains.

This is because the old part of the brain (known as the lizard brain) has been proven to be the part of the brain that makes decisions. In contrast, the new brain is the analytical part of the brain that will later on justify and rationalize the decision.  

But here’s the problem (or opportunity). The old brain doesn’t have the capacity for language. But it does have capacity for visuals. Visuals wake up the lizard brain to move away from the status quo and do something different. 

Thus, it is critical that you include visuals in your business school marketing communications to get your story across. That includes websites, blogs, testimonials, information session presentations, lead nurturing campaigns, and social media postings. You name it.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that the old brain (our lizard friend) needs contrasts to make a decision for change. Think of the ways you can use contrasts in your visual storytelling. For example, why not include a visual of two LinkedIn profiles - one with an MBA, the other without - in your MBA lead nuturing programs to help prospects visualize the value of the degree in their social network profile? Include images that are personal and meaningful. 

Remember, the lizard brain is part of our survival system so use images that define deficiencies (like that LinkedIn profile without an MBA) to tap into the "career" survival instinct. 

Imagine the ways your business school messaging could stimulate your MBA prospects' lizard brains into action! 

Influence MBA prospects to make a change 

Barbara Coward, author of this article, is a marketing communications consultant at Percept Research.  Barbara welcomes your questions and comments. 

Topics: Barbara Coward, Admissions, Marketing Strategy