I have just (well, last Friday) come back from the AACSB conference in Hawaii. As previously noted, I am on the board of a small but quickly growing company called Masterstudies.com, and this was our first “in the flesh” meeting with customers and partners. I tagged along on the theory that since I am an academic, I probably know how to talk to academics as well.
I am no stranger to academic conferences, but attending it as a vendor, not a regular participant or speaker, was new to me. I usually walk through the vendor section of a conference with downcast eyes, trying to not be cornered and pitched to. It was very interesting to stand there and see other people trying to avoid you – as a result, I have resolved to be much nicer to salespeople from now on.
That being said, the conference was a resounding success for us as a company – we talked to more than 60 universities and many of the other vendors and conference partners came over to our booth to congratulate us on the high interest and many compliments we got for our product. And I found it rather fun to market something – especially when it turned out we had a service that addressed a real need for many of these universities.
The problem with recruiting students is selectivity and quality control – you want students that are both good (in the sense that they have good grades and other qualifications) and also are environmentally compatible (for lack of a better term) with the other students. The first criterion is pretty easy to test for – grades and GMAT scores provide good indicators. Ensuring a proper mix of students for a program is harder.
For the prospective students, finding a school can also be very hard, since few students (at least outside the US) know more than a few business schools’ names and nothing about their quality. The result is a power law of prestige: At the top (“the fat head”), you find a few extremely well known schools (such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Wharton, INSEAD, LBS and IMD) with thousands of extremely well qualified people applying and very few getting in. Harvard, for instance, tend to receive 10 times as many applications as they have spaces, and of those people applying at least half of the people are good enough to make it through the program, if they only got in. At the top, finding students is not the problem – selecting them is.
For the students, another problem is avoiding the very bottom of universities: The outright frauds and degree mills that will sell you a certificate for a fee and an overview of your “life experiences”. (See this list for some suspects, but they tend to pop up like mushrooms after a rainy night.) A degree from a very weak place is not something you want to attach to your CV at all.
Most schools and most students fall somewhere in the middle, though: Decent schools providing good programs, and reasonably smart students prepared to do the required work to obtain a degree. Masterstudies.com provides a service here by maintaining a database of quality-controlled schools which prospective students can search without having to go to each school’s web site, and quickly submit requests for information to interesting schools.
Selective international recruiting
If this was all we did, we wouldn’t provide much value, however. Most students can search in Google for business schools, and listings abound. The problem for schools trying to recruit internationally is not that they don’t get responses when they advertise on the Internet – it is that they get hundreds or thousands of “leads” from people who clearly are not qualified to be admitted, either because they don’t have the background or the finances.
In certain countries, such as a large African country beginning with N, most of the requests for information have nothing to do with getting an education: Enterprising men request glossy business school brochures to show women, saying that they are applying to a prestigious school and thus are attractive partners. Given the cost of an information package, this is clearly not a service most schools would want to provide.
To avoid this, we have the students put in their characteristics (education, work experience, managerial experience, age, desired industry they want to work in, etc.) and then match them to schools where they have a chance of getting admitted. The schools can filter the incoming leads so that they only get students they want, doing things such as selectively market in certain countries – say, perhaps they have enough people from Northern Europe or India, but want more from China or Southern Europe. Since we track where the prospective students log in, we can filter based on geography as well.
It works surprisingly well, which is why I am willing to be on the board. It is also very cost-effective: We charge the industry standard price for a lead (i.e., a prospective student), but the lead is qualified, meaning that every reference that comes from us has passed the hurdles the schools have set up themselves. That means that information packets go out only to students that actually a) have the requisite quality, and b) are in target markets the school want to serve.
(Of course, since I have read Shapiro and Varian, we also have a Pro package, where schools can pay a little extra and get promoted on the front page and so on – perfect for that newly launched MBA with a special twist that you secretly worry filling up.) As we start to build up good logs (we have had more than 100,000 unique visitors and growing per month since the new site launched in January) we should also be able to provide some pretty good and detailed overall statistics. For my own research, I am thinking about doing text analysis on the language in the program descriptions, to see what the main differentiating strategies of the schools are.
Check it out for yourself – though if you are a school, you should probably contact Linus, our Irish CEO (a former professional racing biker), or Bernt, our VP of Business Development (who tried to teach me to surf in Hawaii, with decidedly mixed results) to get a peek under the hood, at the statistics and filtering pages which allow schools to select carefully and measure the results of their marketing.
And now, back to our regular programming….