In recent years, online learning has become a major segment in the changing ecology of higher education. Alongside the growth of online education, competition for students is rising, placing increased emphasis on strategic marketing and recruitment efforts of higher education institutions. Crucial components of strategic expansion online include an assessment of successful models, quality of student experience, student learning outcomes, and continuous institutional conversation regarding the role of online education.
Below, we discuss how online marketing and recruitment serves as an example of how institutions are thinking critically about the most effective way to offer online courses by using research to guide their decision-making as they expand and refine their programming.
Marketing Online Education
For-profit institutions have been setting the bar for years now in terms of establishing a highly successful model for marketing online education and recruiting prospective students. Non-profit institutions have been increasingly able to attract online learners by copying for-profits’ model for marketing and recruiting success, leveraging companies with experience in marketing for-profit institutions, or both.
Effective marketing for online degree programs involves identifying and targeting prospective students who would fit the programs, and pricing and communication designed to convince these prospective students to apply and enroll. In other words, understanding the prospective student profile, the factors that influence this individual’s enrollment decisions, and the preferred channels and methods of communication all represent the pillars of online education marketing.
The Prospective Student Profile
One of the most important aspects of marketing is understanding the target audience. Survey-based information reveals that online degree programs typically cater to:
- Adult learners. The vast majority of online students are adults: approximately 60 percent of students enrolled in online programs are 25 to 49 years of age.
- Female students. The majority of online program students are female.
- Low- to middle-income earners. Most online students earn less than $60,000 per year – though it should be noted that income distribution is more even for students at non-profit versus for-profit institutions.
- Adults with families. More than half of students in online degree programs have at least one child – though students at non-profit institutions are less likely to have children.
- First-generation college students. For most students, their parents did not attend college, and fewer than one in five reported that both of their parents attended college. However, the proportions of students with parents who attended college are larger among students attending online degree programs at non-profit institutions.
- Students with decent academic records. Approximately 60 percent of students in online degree programs at for‐profit institutions had a high school grade point average above 3.0, and an equivalent percentage of them scored above 1,000 out of 1,600 on the SAT. At non‐profit institutions, these figures are closer to 70 percent for students in online degree programs.
Factors Influencing Enrollment
Prospective and current adult and online students have several factors in mind when deciding on an online degree program, some of which vary from those of on-campus students. Institutions should be aware of these influences that affect enrollment decision making, which could be invaluable in shaping recruitment strategies. According to a 2013 survey, the top factors for adult and online learners enrolling in four-year programs include:
- Program availability. More than 75 percent of respondents from both for- and non-profit institutions chose the program of study before selecting an institution.
- Convenient scheduling and program pacing.
- Cost and financial aid. In a separate 2013 report, 55 percent of respondents indicated that they “would not/could not enroll without receiving significant financial aid.”
- Credit transfer policies.
- Career relevance/importance. Availability of requirements for a current or future job was a strong factor in enrollment decision making.
- Reputation. Institutional reputation is among the most common factors that online students consider. The chart below shows an in-depth look of the college reputation factors that determine an institution’s standing.
Marketing Channels and Techniques
Marketing channels which are most effective for recruiting online students can widely differ from the most effective channels for recruiting on-campus students. For instance, many of the most effective recruitment strategies in higher education – open houses, visits, and events on the institution’s campus – aren’t as effective to students in online programs.
Online learners value email, search engines, and direct mail for information regarding colleges and universities. Additionally, as prospective students develop relationships with a given institution, phone calls become increasingly desirable. On the other hand, texting and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, are generally undesirable throughout the recruiting process.
A closer breakdown of effective recruiting techniques reveals further differences between online-only degree programs at for-profit institutions and at non-profit institutions. More students in online-only degree programs at for-profit institutions reported first learning about the school in which they enrolled through a TV, radio, or magazine ad, or from a recruiter call. Conversely, more online students at non-profit institutions first learned of the school in which they enrolled from a friend or colleague who recommended the institution.
As the above figure shows, “push” marketing styles, shown in the darkest color, are more common at for-profit institutions than non-profit institutions. “Pull” marketing, which works through branding, recommendations, and referrals, is more common among non-profit institutions.
Lead Generation and Online Enablers
One of the most important components of recruitment is lead generation, where institutions identify potentially interested candidates and create a relationship that could lead to an application. In marketing online programs, one important method for generating leads is a landing page. Up to 50 percent of landing page visitors leave in the first eight seconds, and the average rate of conversion for landing pages is between two and five percent.
Many non-profit institutions leverage the experience and capacity of online enablers to attract students and manage their online education efforts. The below chart presents the most prominent companies providing these services and whom use the same lead generation practices that have helped for-profit institutions garner high enrollments.
Once leads have been generated, the next critical stage is lead management. Effective recruiting requires nurturing leads on the basis of their specific needs and situation. Whether conducted by the institution or a third‐party provider, recruiters should contact leads regularly and develop a clear picture of the prospective student’s background and interests. One important point is that leads are more likely to divulge information during the first 24 hours of contact than at any point thereafter.
In addition to process and channel considerations, there are several keys to recruiting students for online programs. One key that forms the backbone of the process is the creation of a solid marketing strategy. The marketing strategy should set specific goals, clearly define the “product,” specify marketing assets and lead generation channels, and measure success against goals. Moreover, all institutions should adjust their practices on the basis of what is working and what is not.
The keys to recruiting students for online programs also include:
- Search engine optimization. This is one of the fastest and most effective means of delivering quality leads directly to the institution’s site.
- Testimonials. Positive testimonials and strong personal references that emphasize convenience, flexibility, and effectiveness are extremely convincing factors influencing enrollment decisions.
- Face‐to‐face interaction. Similarly, face-to-face interactions offer a more personal way to engage with prospective students, such as at regional career fairs.
- Social media. The pillars of effective social media marketing include consistency, relevance, interaction, frequent updates, and quick responses.
- Outcomes‐based recruiting. Focusing recruitment messages on programs’ expected outcomes enables institutions to demonstrate to prospective students the value of enrolling and completing a particular course or degree.
- Effective material, including an effective landing page and web presence. Materials should reinforce the institution’s brand and alert prospective students of program offerings, in addition to connecting with current students and keeping alumni informed.
Within the last few years, online learning has increasingly gained both popularity (especially among adult learners) and credibility as a major segment of the higher education landscape. With this rise comes a need for institutions to keep up with the competition and determine the most effective strategies to best market themselves and recruit students in this rapidly growing education landscape.
In order to rise above the competition, institutions will need to utilize in-depth research to determine the best and most effective ways to offer online programming and attract qualified prospective students. An in-depth analysis of successful marketing and recruiting practices and channels is one of the first and most important steps for institutions to take in order to fully embrace the age of online education.