A Case Study of NC State University Online and Distance Education
Online education has been the fastest growing segment of higher education for the past decade and has become the single most competitive market arena in all of academia. In 2014, about 72% of all institutions of higher education offered some form of online or distance education programming, with more entering the marketplace every year.
For more than a decade, for-profit educational providers drove the competition, pursuing online education students with aggressive marketing campaigns to increase market share. But in recent years, for-profits have been damaged by political and economic forces leading public and private non-profits jumped into the online arena. Their strategy, to rapidly expand new students, both nationwide and internationally.
Increased Competition in Online Education
The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested each year into paid advertising in online education for student recruitment. The largest amount of those spends are now coming from non-profit colleges and universities.
Advertising alone, however, does not put students in virtual seats. Once a prospect has been enticed to the institution’s website doorstep schools quickly present him or her with a clear understanding of the benefits of online learning. Additionally, prospects learn of the programs available, the institution’s unique advantages, and how to apply. These features are believed to be paramount to converting today’s savvy consumer prospects into students.
On the other hand, this is where many organizations lose prospects. Websites for online programs are often confusing and off-putting, discouraging potential students.
However, for many online education prospects, the experience of bouncing around an institution’s website is frustrating. Prospect are forced to determine program offerings, cost, and application and enrollment requirements by navigating unconnected pages. Many simply – and quickly – click to a competitor site.
NC State University Distance and Online Education embodied the dilemma discussed above. Their online programs and web pages were managed by departments residing in the University’s various colleges.
The University’s mindset was, “If we offer the program, students will come.”
In similar light, there was little institutional support or budget for creating a central digital marketing and student recruitment infrastructure around online education. Furthermore, many believed that there was little competition for online programs in North Carolina. So they saw little need to invest in marketing or a high-end website.
The outcome of this attitude was a bewildering array of web pages for online programs. There were more than 85 pages, each presented differently and often buried in departmental websites.
The University’s Online and Distance Education programs suffered from three major hurdles:
- Lack of a University-wide format for consistent course and program descriptions, resulting in a confusing presentation responsible for the loss of many prospects;
- Absence of strong and compelling key messages that clearly defined reasons to choose NC State Online and Distance programs; and enrolling in NC State Online and Distance programs was the best choice;
- And no clear motivational calls-to-action that guided prospects along the decision-making path to application.
Prospects were confused.
Moving forward, University leadership acknowledged that the increase in competitiveness in the online marketplace demanded a new approach and it allocated dollars to create a centralized, forward-looking web presence for NC State Online and Distance Education. The website would serve as the primary entry point for prospects responding to University marketing.
The initial process involved developing a user experience (UX) designed from the student point of view. To understand what the experience would look like, EMG created a set of user stories that defined each of the key users of the website. Stories defined:
- attributes of the user
- their characteristics
- reasons for visiting the site
- what they wanted from it
- how they used it
- the frustrations they experienced.
Furthermore, the user stories informed a detailed information architecture and UX-friendly design that strategically:
- identified content
- focused the navigation in intuitive ways
- offered visual cues to help users navigate the site
- provided multiple ways to access areas of interest
- presented clear and prominent calls to action.
Another key goal for the site was to make searching, finding, and viewing programs easy for users. EMG developed a custom application to dynamically pull course information, application deadlines, costs, and other data from databases and websites across the University. To emphasize, this critical programming component was the “secret” behind keeping information on the site fresh and timely, while minimizing workloads for the NC State Online and Distance Education team.
To point out, an online program director recently stated, “We didn’t know what we were missing because we worked in silos. But by working together, we have all gained more by maximizing resources and implementing new strategies to recruit online students through a centralized portal.”
Visit online.ncsu.edu to see the final product.