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Snuggle Up to Online Education Marketing

Bob Brock

A lot of institutions have allowed, even encouraged, a wide gulf to develop between the central mar/comm. team that serves “traditional” programs and the individual or unit that does marketing for online programs. I’m not sure that’s wise.

It’s common knowledge that online programs continue to grow at a stunning clip. In 2009, the number of students taking one or more courses online grew by 21.1%, while overall enrollment in degree-granting institutions grew only at a 1.2% pace. In 2009, nearly 3 in 10 students took at least one online course (data from Sloan-C Consortium). So already, a significant segment of your customers are experiencing your products in the online environment:

Another mile marker is a study just published by the Pew Research Center, which found that just over half of 1,055 presidents of 2-year, 4-year, public, private, and for-profit institutions surveyed earlier this year believe that online courses offer educational value that is equal to that found in traditional classrooms. That’s a sea change.

And while the Pew study found that the public still has some reservations about the quality of online education, it’s only a matter of time before the majority of students will have taken one or more of their courses online. That’s a tipping point, when facile acceptance of online credits becomes, suddenly, a broad public norm. Given the rapid rise in online course enrollment, that day is just around the corner.

So savvy communicators should be cozying up to their online academic divisions, not shying away from them. As the source of big-time credit-hour production and rising incomes, online courses are suddenly seen as the Golden Boys on campus. Institutional marketing pros will want to provide online programs with more and more marketing and PR attention, and should consider collaborating closely with the online programs marketers, maybe even merging with them. Smart, future-thinking marketing.

There will be a few challenges in meshing bricks-and-mortar communications with online program marketing. Many colleges find it immensely helpful to both operations to position online programs as a related brand (sub-brand) because of the big differences in the overall academic experiences, different motivational factors for online audiences, and different competitive advantages offered by each modality.

Online education is to bricks-and-mortar education as Diet Coke is to Coca-Cola: All the flavor without the “added calories” (or loss thereof) of actually trekking to the classroom.

But if you’ve established clear and synergistic positioning and integrated messaging/design guidelines for each modality, no worries. After all, Diet Coke brings in beaucoup bucks for its parent brand, right?

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