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Riding the Distance Ed Carousel

Angela Brennan
VP, Web Development

When you were a child, the carousel used to be so magical with it’s bright lights, vibrant colors, and loud music. It had horses, tigers, and other wonderful animals you could ride. Slowly, the carousel started to go around and around, gaining speed with each second. All the while, you had to focus on looking ahead because if you looked to the outside, all the images were a blur as it went faster and faster with you holding tighter and tighter. You had to carefully strategize how to get the best mount and whom you wanted to sit next to. If you were a risk-taker, you waited until the ride started and then jumped on; less adventurous ones would be carefully seated holding on with two hands before the ride even got started.

Online education in postsecondary institutions is like that carousel from your childhood. The online ed carousel has already started and is swiftly gaining speed. The rider, your institution, must strategize how you want to approach it.

You can either grab the best seat now by expanding and promoting online programs as an institutional priority, or you can wait as the online learning carousel just gets faster and faster – you might be able to find a seat later, but maybe not. Either way, the ride has already got a head of steam and nearly two-thirds of higher education institutions already understand the importance of providing online education.

If your institution is the other third that believes that online education is not strategically important, it can be difficult to digest the numbers that were recently reported by the 2010 Sloan Consortium Survey of Online Education (pdf). They found that nearly 5.6 million students are taking at least one online course (close to 30% of total enrollment). This a 21% growth of online enrollment compared with less than 2% growth of overall enrollment in higher education between 2008 and 2009. This survey also found that online enrollment has not hit its saturation point and continues to grow.

Very similar to higher education, online education in the K-12 programs is showing large growth. Due to numerous roadblocks (deep budget cuts, No Child Left Behind competition, the need to improve graduation rates, the inability to offer variety, etc.), many states are looking to virtual education as a viable solution.

As of 2009, more than one in four high school students were enrolled in an online class, double the number from 2008. The numbers will continue to grow as schools find that online learning is able to serve a variety of students cost efficiently. Studies are showing that students perform at least as well, if not better, than traditional students, and there are major cost savings to boot.

Also note that half of all postsecondary students who took an online class had a child who also took a virtual class.

If your institution is one of the two-thirds that treats online education as strategically important, you need to reflect this in your marketing plan. As of right now, nearly half of higher ed institutions do not include online education in their planning. Lack of strategic planning will result in missing out on your chance to ride the carousel lion!

Six Things You Should Have Done Years Ago To Position Your Online Programs (And If You Didn’t, You Need to Do Now)

  1. Become a proactive planning partner with your online education unit to help track national online ed trends, research growth and expansion opportunities, assess product and tech innovations, identify marketing opportunities, analyze marketing investment, motivate faculty support, and drive overall positioning and marketing tactics. It’s a shame that many – maybe most – online ed programs operate unilaterally, without input or assistance from the central marketing team. It can be a rocky relationship at first, but a close strategic partnership benefits everyone.
  2. Make sure your online programs are listed in the top online education search websites that specialize in distance learning. These are in addition to the typical college listing websites. Here are the top five websites to consider:
  3. Market online offerings to current students, both full-time and part time. Already, 30% of all college students are taking at least one online course, and that percentage continues to grow exponentially. The old canard that online programs “steal” students from bricks-and-mortar classrooms is outmoded and fails to accept reality that online learning is a disruptive technology that has changed higher ed forever.
  4. Create an online learning landing page on your website that summarizes all of the online class and degree opportunities as a one-stop-shopping place. Also demonstrate all of the benefits and outcomes of online learning, and offer student and faculty testimonials with the logistics of registering and class schedules. The online learning link should be on a priority on par with your website with other school and college landing pages. Online learners want to see what’s available, and making them root through academic programs individually is an unfriendly way to do business.
  5. Launch a strategic advertising campaign for online learning products…online ads, of course. The call to action is a link to your online education landing page mentioned above. Online classes should typically be positioned under a “sub-brand” product line to maintain separation from the bricks-and-mortar offerings, but should be strongly linked to the core brand. Search word marketing along with banner ads and mobile campaigns are the platforms of choice. Track data on clicks and conversions and use A-B-C testing techniques to hone in on most effective creative. Support the ad campaign with social networking sites, too, and make sure you calculate ROI to convince leadership of marketing effectiveness!
  6. Create an “Available Online, too” tag or icon and use in academic brochures, viewbook, and other collateral to identify courses and/or degrees that are available via distance. All marketing materials should include general statements of the availability of online courses, along with the landing-page call to action.

If you’d like to learn more about specific marketing strategies and tactics that achieve major ROI while promoting and growing your online education programs, just contact us.

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