Online Education - What Matters for Marketers?

by Matt Allen, Group Business Director at Eleven Inc

While the media paints a picture of the college admissions process as something embarked on by highly competitive high school kids who’ll do anything to get an edge over other students, these days, the heaviest competition is often between the schools themselves, particularly when it comes to increasingly popular—and rapidly proliferating—online learning programs. 


According to according to Eduventures, online education enrollment increased 4% to 3.75M students in 2016, as adult learners with careers seek out flexible educational options, and younger, digitally native students see online courses as a natural fit. This would be great news for schools offering online programs, if not for the fact that between 2013 and 2015, the number of online degree and certificate programs being offered increased by an incredible 25%, with 25,000 programs available to students. 


In this booming and rapidly changing marketplace, there are plenty of eager students looking to connect with the right school, creating an incredibly valuable opportunity for institutions that go above and beyond to understand, attract and serve them.


A recent study by The Learning House dove deep into the preferences and expectations of these online learners, uncovering valuable lessons for marketers in the space. Here’s what they need to know to stand out. 


Foster a Sense of Community

More than half of respondents to the Learning House study say interaction with classmates and instructors is important to them. About a quarter say online courses could be improved by more contact with their instructors and more engagement with classmates. 


Like most people, prospective students don’t want to feel isolated, or left on their own. The most successful students tend to have support not only from family and friends but also from mentors, teachers and other students. Fostering a sense of community benefits not only the student, but also the university, as this kind of interaction improves retention and referral rates for new students. 


Institutions have new tools at their disposal beyond calls, texts and other digital means to foster a connection with their students and encourage community building. A recent article in The Atlantic outlined a strategy that 2U, an online-degree provider, took to address this cultural challenge and the needs of adult students. 2U partnered with WeWork, (a company that provides co-working spaces) to let students use space at any WeWork location to take tests, work on projects or meet with study groups. This hybrid approach allows students to support and learn from each other, while also facilitating the study of physically-oriented subjects that are difficult to learn online alone, such as architecture. 


Buyer’s Remorse is Widespread

60% of students in this study who enrolled would have changed some part of their search for an online program if they had to do it over again. Twenty-three percent of current and past online college students wished they had contacted more schools during the selection process, while others wished they learned more about the tuition and fees (17%) or their financial aid package (16%). 


There are brands in this space that have been vilified—in many cases rightfully so—for their inconsistent approach to enrollment, tuition costs, quality of education and student outcomes. Unfortunately, this has affected the perception of the entire category, including non-profit institutions. They have preyed on prospective students who don’t fully understand the financial implications of the decision to return to school, the amount of effort it will take to matriculate or what their degree will be worth following graduation.  


In order to guide prospective students to take ownership of their own educational success, transparency is key to building trust and credibility. A student bill of rights that clearly addresses the institution’s commitment to student success, financial viability and support throughout their degree, is an essential first step.   


Price Plays a Big Role - But it’s Not Everything

Price is a key driver in school selection, but students are willing to pay more for perceived quality or a program that meets their unique needs. In fact, more students choose their school because the programs best matched their interests than on cost alone. 


In a category that is lead gen driven it’s important to understand and adhere to a well-defined brand position that very clearly communicates the value you provide beyond price. In this new era of outcomes based, Demand Driven Education, the question is: Is your institution communicating—and more importantly, delivering on—the promise of a better future for the student in a unique and compelling way? 


Mobile Matters Most 

It’s no surprise that online learners are mobile first. Eighty percent of online students use a mobile device during their search for an online program and school, and 40% go on to use their device to access their online coursework. 


This requires new thinking on how educational brands should insert themselves into the conversation around higher education on mobile channels. It’s critical to take steps to stand out in a crowded, ‘scrolling’ environment by providing content that addresses common questions across the journey as prospects do their research. 


Does your institution have a unique point of view on education that could be used as long-form thought leadership? Do you have easily digestible content assets that address specific components of your offerings and educational approach? Of course, these approaches are supplemental to traditional advertising and SEM, which remain important components of a holistic approach to driving interest and applications. 


Institutions also need to be more thoughtful than ever to build websites that are not just mobile friendly, but also provide meaningful content on your approach to education and the student experience. Otherwise, you risk leaving mobile leads on the table. 


Give Prospects a Reason to Keep You on Their List

While the majority of students continue to stay close to home, the number of schools students consider has expanded. More students contacted or requested information from three or more schools (52%), an increase from 2016 (29%). The number of students considering only one institution fell from 30% to 18%. In addition, two-thirds of students decide where to apply in four weeks or less. They expect schools to respond quickly, with easy to understand information about how much financial aid they will receive, and how many transfer credits will be accepted before they complete a formal application. 


We are in an information overload as a society–and prospective students are no exception. In past focus groups I’ve been involved in, prospects are looking for reasons to take schools off their list and narrow down their choices to something manageable. This is where clearly articulating the value and unique offerings you provide will help keep you in consideration. 


Lead with personality, tell them what you believe in as an institution and why it matters. Invite conversations with prospective students and demonstrate responsiveness. Develop a comparison tool that allows students to easily match their needs against your value offering and that of other universities. This is an incredible way to demonstrate transparency and your primary interest in helping prospects make the best and most efficient decision.


As automation, globalization, and other economic factors continue to impact the workforce, online education will only become more popular, and more critical in helping adult learners evolve with the times. Institutions must evolve as well, keeping up with the needs of these new types of learners, and finding new and innovative ways to interest and recruit them.