The MBA Marketing Machine

With jobs scarce, competition growing, and the MBA's reputation in tatters, selling B-school to prospective applicants has never been tougher By Francesca Di Meglio

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A quiet revolution is afoot at U.S. business schools. The way administrators are selling the MBA degree to applicants is completely shifting, as B-schools and the MBA degree itself face unprecedented challenges in the wake of the global economic crisis. "We're a stodgy group of academics, and at the end of the day we're slow to change," says Joseph Fox, associate dean for MBA programs at the Olin Business School (Olin Full-Time MBA Program) at Washington University in St. Louis. But change is indeed in the air: from the tools and techniques used to reach prospective students to the marketing themes and strategies employed to seal the deal.

It's no wonder that B-schools are casting about for new ways to sell the MBA. After coming off a period of record-breaking application volume and an explosion of new programs at existing B-schools, intensified competition is inevitable. As Generation X gave way to the Millennial Generation, schools have had to adapt to applicants with new goals, new skills, and new ways of doing things.And the degree itself—once a surefire path to riches and respect—is now something else entirely.Despite tuition costs that are in the stratosphere, many students even at top schools, who used to choose among multiple job offers, are now graduating unemployed, and those lucky enough to land a job are getting paid less.All of them are graduating into a world where their degrees, in some circles, constitute a negative brand: one that's associated with ethical lapses, business failures, and the causes of the financial crisis. In many ways, the selling of the MBA has never been tougher.

Fresh Outreach to Prospective Students
So business schools are starting fresh in ways large and small. Print ads and brochures sent via snail mail are antiquated, says Daniel Poston, assistant dean for master's programs at the University of Washington Foster School of Business (Foster Full-Time MBA Profile).Business school fairs are already less relevant than they used to be as applicants do their initial research online, says Fox, who thinks these events will come to a halt eventually.The McCombs School of Business (McCombs Full-Time MBA Profile) at the University of Texas at Austin doesn't even rely on paid advertising anymore, says Tina Mabley, director of the full-time MBA program at McCombs. Most programs focus on providing a wealth of information for potential applicants online through their own websites; social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; and with campus tours and information sessions around the world.

In attempting to understand prospective students, many business school administrators are planning for a future that looks very different from the past. Mabley admits that she and her peers have yet to figure out how to best use social networking sites to reach out to potential applicants, who these days are almost exclusively Millennials—and as such more or less live on such sites. But she imagines that one day career coaching will be part of her 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.

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