Online education is one of the fastest-growing education sectors in the world and institutions all over the world are joining the digital learning sector. The number of students enrolled in at least one distance education course reached six million – or 29.7% of U.S. students - in 2015, an almost 4% increase over the previous two years. For institutions, this change in culture is an excellent opportunity to broaden and deepen their programs - but a strategy is needed if educators are to offer good value and see decent returns as they adapt to these new challenges in both pedagogy and recruitment.
Establishing online programs to a desirable standard is essential: companies and universities such as Coursera, FutureLearn, University of Liverpool Online Programmes, and Walden University have spent a long time developing high-quality online degrees over the past few years. College is the second biggest purchase in a student’s life, and, in the case of online study, they will be more likely to sign on the dotted line if providers proactively highlight the excellent curriculum, employment prospects, and adaptability of a degree program.
Marketers of online degrees should take steps to develop levels of personalization and adaptation: the right ‘product’ for the right buyer. Online study accentuates the trend of student-as-consumer by offering the advantage of greater levels of choice and specialization.
Universities can be proactive in their approach by carefully identifying to whom they are marketing their program and what these potential students expect; this means thinking about the type and level of education that the student might already have, their experience and their needs.
Perhaps a particular degree would benefit from being tailored to professionals already working within the industry, for example, or rural students with limited access to transportation or city or campus infrastructure. Online programs are also an ideal way to expand your international profile and increase international enrollments. Online programs are easy to market to an international audience, and you can use the popularity of this mode to broaden the reach of your institution – both for digital and on-campus programs. Students around the world are increasingly interested in international study programs, but many will need to top up their qualifications or prepare for the teaching language of on-campus learning. Assess your international enrollment goals and use targeted marketing strategies to engage students with online pathway and transitional courses that give access to on-campus degrees. In each case, marketers should look upon their program as a solution to the user’s problem – and think about how to better address that need.
Once that audience base has been identified, providers can reach out to potential online students by utilizing search engine results, providing high-quality original content and email marketing, and optimizing these strategies through the use of data analysis and targeted promotional campaigns.
Given the nature of distance learning, it is only natural that the importance of a provider’s online strategy – already an invaluable marketing tool for educational institutions – should become a dominant factor. For example, presence on a legitimate online platform puts a university and its program on a level footing with the best of the competition, providing a sense of authenticity and objectivity that is less straightforward to achieve on an institution’s own website. This sort of platform repositions the student-as-consumer as a learner with options and alternatives.
Figuring out how to spend the marketing budget is a whole new challenge when dealing with online degrees. Online students find their desired institution and program in different ways to those looking for a campus experience. In addition to higher education marketing and recruitment websites, it’s important to keep a healthy, unique presence across a range of channels, and it can also be beneficial to look at partnerships with schools and community colleges.
With plenty of healthy competition flourishing and geographic factors diminished, marketers of online degrees will need to identify, strategize, and promote to students during their decision-making progress. When an institution takes proactive steps to make its program relevant to the learning and professional needs of prospective students, the outlook for reaching those students is good.