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Marketing: Selling Business School has never been tougher

The way Business Schools are selling MBA degrees to applicants is shifting, reports Business Week.

As schools and the MBA degree itself face unprecedented challenges in the wake of the global economic crisis, not only the tools and techniques used to reach prospective students are changing, but also the marketing strategies employed to seal the deal.

Print ads and brochures sent via snail mail are antiquated. Business school fairs are already less relevant than they used to be as applicants do their initial research online. Some veterans of the industry even think these events will come to a halt eventually. The McCombs School of Business in Austin, Texas, doesn't even rely on paid advertising anymore. Most programs focus on providing information for potential applicants online through their own websites; social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Many school administrators, though, admit that they have yet to figure out how to best use social networking sites to reach out to potential applicants, who these days more or less live on such sites. One day career coaching might be part of the marketing strategy and will take place online on sites such as Facebook. In addition, the McCombs School already offers webinars about its program and is considering featuring online teaser courses by the faculty.

Schools are also competing for prospective students through diversity. If graduates are to compete in a global marketplace, they need to encounter it in the classroom, and that means recruiting students from a mix of industries, functions, countries, and gender. That mix is then used as a selling point for the program.

Since ethics is top of mind with the public after the crisis, so it is with business schools. University of Virginia's Darden School of Business features regular ethics roundtable discussions and has a new Centre for Business & Society. Those programs are mentioned on the school's website, in recruiting materials, and at information sessions.

Selling the MBA in this age almost requires a redefinition of the purpose of the degree, writes the business magazine. Until recently, most graduates entered careers in finance or consulting. Today, many students are pursuing their degrees to run nonprofits. Schools seek a way to appeal to anyone willing to entertain alternative career paths in an era when traditional MBA jobs are in short supply. To prove how malleable the MBA degree can be, some schools are posting online videos featuring stories of alumni in non-traditional careers, while others put applicants in touch with such graduates directly. Others are transforming their programs to help students who aspire to such careers. McCombs, for example, is building a health-care concentration and offers clean energy courses because those are among the state's growing industries.

With tuition costs at top schools that are upwards of $80,000 the case for the MBA's return on investment is getting tougher to make. More than ever before, program representatives are fielding tough questions on ROI at information sessions and addressing price sensitivity isn't easy, says Lynda Oliver, assistant dean of marketing and communications at the Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. Her job has become more difficult because she must explain why it's worthwhile to invest in her school's more expensive program over more affordable, lesser-known options that were never considered competition before.

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