By Published On: January 3, 2014

Expanded Market Areas Raise New Challenges for College Marketers

By Gary McVey

The growth of online learning programs, including hybrid, low-residency and other variations, has created new opportunities and challenges for many colleges and universities, as well as higher education marketers. The part-time adult student market is now one of the largest in higher education, and much of its growth in recent years has been fueled by the untethering of students to buildings, and more and better options for online learning. Of the 20 million people enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, nearly 8 million attend part time — the majority of them adult students.

Perhaps like you, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the early days and steady growth of online learning, to participate in college cabinet meetings where the futures of such programs were decided, and to experience how they continue to change higher education marketing.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant new challenges online learning programs create is that, virtually overnight, your geographic marketplace suddenly gets much BIGGER. For many colleges, a majority of enrolled students have traditionally come from within 100 miles of their campuses. Launching a fully online program, or adding an online component to an existing program that makes remote learning possible, greatly expands and alters your school’s recruitment footprint.

What does this new and larger recruitment marketplace mean for college marketers and admissions officers? Here are some of the most critical implications, along with corresponding recommendations:

1. Your competitive set changes. No longer will prospective students be comparing your institution and its academic offerings with an established peer group within 100 miles of campus. With online learning programs, your toughest competitor may now be 1,000 miles away. And, typically, the more specialized a program is, the larger geographic market pull it will have. You need to undertake a new competitive analysis of who your competitors are, what they offer, how they go to market, and how you can effectively differentiate your school and its offering.

2. Their computer or tablet screen is now your campus. For many online learners — even those in hybrid programs that blend face-to-face and online instruction — your beautiful campus landscape and stately buildings mean little, if anything. Their campus environment, and how they perceive your institution, is based on what they see in pixels. Your online learning platform — like all of your other marketing materials — needs to effectively communicate and accurately reflect your college’s mission, vision and values, as well as its brand promise and identity. And just like your physical campus, your cyber campus should reflect a strong sense of place, be easy to navigate, and offer a successful learning environment.

3. Your marketing plan needs an overhaul. Now that your recruitment footprint has changed, so should your marketing plan. Let’s say part of your marketing mix aimed at prospective adult students has included mass media advertising within 100 miles of campus. Chances are you’re not going to have the budget necessary to conduct similar campaigns in dozens of metro markets. Likewise, campus visits and information sessions that often helped seal the deal with local prospects, aren’t likely to be compelling to more distant targets. This is where the development of first-rate customer profiles (written about in previous d.trio blog posts) can really pay dividends. The profiles, including key demographic and psychographic details of various types of prospects, can be invaluable in guiding new marketing strategies and tactics. They’ll help you determine the types of prospects most likely to enroll in online programs, where and how they live their lives, what motivates them, and how to deliver the right message, in the right way, at the right time.

In next month’s blog post, we’ll focus on strategies and tactics for effectively marketing your online learning programs.

-Gary McVey is a guest blogger for d.trio. He is president of McVey Marketing Inc., a marketing, research and brand consulting firm based in the Minneapolis area. He has worked with more than a dozen colleges and universities, and previously served as chief marketing officer at Hamline University in St. Paul and for the Minnesota Private College Council, a 17-college consortium.

Additional Resources:

“The top five differences between traditional and online student recruitment.”

“Serving Adult Students: Five Key Areas That Can’t Be Ignored”

About the Author: cat-tonic

Born of curiosity and enthusiasm, we’re a scrappy group of smart, passionate marketers who work hard and play hard. We show up every day and fight for our clients who are making the world a better place. We listen with curiosity, explore deeply, ask hard questions, and sometimes put forth ideas that might make you squirm. Because we believe the status quo is good for growing mold but not much else. The way we see it, change is the way forward and the magic happens when curiosity, math, science, instinct, and talent intersect.
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