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How MBA programs can set a winning messaging strategy

Tips to lower your cost per lead

October 25, 2022, By Dan Olson, Managing Director, Audience Development

I’ve seen firsthand how fierce the competition for potential MBA students has become. With rapid growth in MBA programs and fewer students taking graduate admissions tests, this competition can easily drive up digital marketing bottom lines. It’s more important than ever to optimize your digital marketing strategy for effective messaging and cost-efficiency.

Through my work with Cappex for Graduate Business Programs, my team and I have worked hard to do just that. The steps I’ve outlined below have helped lower our overall cost per lead by nearly 42%, and business schools can replicate this approach to increase conversion in their own marketing efforts.

Introducing Cappex for Graduate Business Programs: Cappex matches institutions with qualified, high-intent inquiries. With 15+ years of experience supporting undergraduate enrollment, Cappex now serves graduate business programs, too. Contact us to learn more.

Step 1: Understand your students and your goals

As competition for graduate business students increases, so does the average price of buying quality business program leads: today, it can run you over $300 per lead. That’s why it’s critical that your institution define the messaging that will resonate with your specific prospects while also helping you meet your enrollment goals.

Online MBAs


increase in the number of institutions offering an online MBA from 2017 to 2021.

The simplest approach is to start with what you know – or at least what you can easily find out. Rather than guessing at what to include in your marketing, use your actual audience to inform your strategy. When our team went through this process, we first had to clarify who our intended audience was, beyond their demographics. What were their motivations? What digital platforms were they already using? What pain points are they experiencing as they look for MBA programs? To help us gather those answers, we sought out and interviewed students who were in the process of researching MBA programs.

During this exploration, you’ll need to account for how your marketing serves your program or school’s enrollment goals. For instance, say your school has a goal of increasing geographic diversity. Or maybe you want to promote a program that helps you stand out from the crowd. Incorporating these topics into your digital ads will help you work towards your goals-and give you valuable feedback about what resonates with prospects. Every institution is different, and this is your opportunity to lean into the things that make you unique.


Step 2: Define your messaging themes and testing framework, then test and iterate

Now that you’ve spoken with your audience, you’ll want to develop a few overarching themes. From there, you can craft messages based on each theme, with variations in ad imagery to test alongside each message. Here’s a diagram of the approach we used in some of our digital ad testing, showing two of many possible themes:

Sample Ad Testing Framework

Theme Updated Image

In this example, we are testing each message with an image of a man vs. an image of a woman, but the variations are endless: you could test different colors, showing images of families vs. individual people, or people vs. views of your campus. This approach allows you to convey your message while also homing in on the highest-converting creative combinations.

The themes our team developed were issues students consider when looking for an MBA, such as the ones above. For you, the themes could include addressing potential concerns students may have about your institution or promoting unique features of your school or program. Whatever they are, treat them equally. Our team put aside our theories and let the data tell us which ad was the most successful. And the results were clear: the top-performing ad resulted in a 59% lower cost per lead than the next best ad.

But the work doesn’t stop after your creative is live. In today’s highly competitive environment, business school marketers need to be constantly testing and innovating. That can help you ensure your ads don’t become stale and overlooked.

Cost Per Lead Difference


difference in cost per lead between our top-performing ad and the next best ad.

In surveying graduate students, we found that prospects aged 26 and older were especially likely to research programs for at least one year before applying. Continuously refreshing your ad options allows your marketing to adapt to students’ lifestyle changes. Plus, it allows you to stay on top of your institution’s ever-changing recruitment goals and adjust ads accordingly.

These steps may seem simple, and really, that’s the idea. Without a wealth of expertise on this subject or resources to invest into marketing, it’s easy to get carried away and overspend to try to keep up.

Instead, I encourage you to go back to the basics. Use your resources. Know your audience. Be rigorous in your testing. These basic approaches can help guide you as you navigate this complex market. Our team looks forward to continuing to work closely with our partners to test and optimize their digital ad presence, and to sharing these results with you.

Dan Olson

Dan Olson

Managing Director, Audience Development

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