To Market a New Degree Program, Start with the Learner

This week we’ve been sharing what the Wave IIIb grantees  heard from experts about issues they identified as key to their efforts when the group convened recently in Anaheim. (As a reminder, Wave IIIb grantees are the institutions and organizations NGLC funded in 2012 to implement breakthrough models for college completion.) To recap what’s been reported so far - Tuesday  I posted a synopsis of what Western Governors University’s Steve Klingler had to say about  assessment in competency-based models. Yesterday Kristen Vogt’s post provided  insight into these innovators’ questions about supporting students and the approach shared by Diego Navarro of Cabrillo College, through the lens of the Academy for College Excellence (ACE).  The third concern of the group, marketing, might seem less crucial than those first two Big Issues for degree programs like these, specifically designed to be affordable and in a variety of other ways to meet the needs of young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. Shouldn’t they essentially market themselves? As it turns out, making the match between the programs and the students for whom they’re designed has two challenging components: 1) reaching those most likely to benefit from enrolling, and 2) making a compelling case with them for a distinctive and different kind of degree program. For these grantees, their institutions’ marketing departments are geared to the traditional offerings of higher education, processes by which to identify appropriate markets are untested, their marketing budgets are comparatively tiny in comparison to those of larger and more established competitors, and building up a brand and interest in a new “product” (the college degree) takes time. What to do?

Enter Misa Misono of IDEO, the global design consulting firm noted for the ways in which they help organizations create impact through design. IDEO’s strengths include the development of brand identity. In her presentation – composed entirely of short phrases and compelling images around which she told stories rather than the usual text-driven PowerPoint – Misono focused on marketing with a human face. She stressed that, in the words of IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown, “design thinking” is an approach to innovation that seeks to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.  Using a range of cases on which IDEO has provided input, she encouraged the grantees to utilize design thinking as they enter into the vital process of looking at the ends and then devising the means. In the spirit of “How might we … ?” she provided three guidelines for this process:

  • Know your customer.
    Getting to know the learners whom you will serve, she emphasized, is a key part of this process: focus groups and other approaches to gathering a clear sense of how the potential learners live and what they want out of their lives is a recommended place to start.
  • Value doesn’t equal price.
    A second point she made is that value and price are not necessarily equivalent: she used an example in which a clothing company had discovered that the less expensive item did not always fare best in the marketplace. In this context, she invited the group to consider how to explore the question of which aspects of a degree program matter most to learners.  Paul Leblanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, gave an example of this when he addressed last summer’s Breakthrough Models Academy and explained that SNHU’s three-year bachelor’s degree program did not immediately prove popular with potential students. Although prospective parents loved the idea because of the cost savings they saw, the university learned through focus groups with traditional-age students that they did not necessarily want to spend less time in the coming-of-age experience that college represented for them.
  • Decide what you want to achieve first, and then figure out the ways and means.
    Misono advised the group to think beyond the “usual suspects” when they think about tools to use for outreach. She provided a compelling example of an unconventional approach, a YouTube video developed at no cost, that allowed a completely new product to break into the market. Rather than designing a print brochure or scripting a TV commercial as your first effort, she recommended, consider leveraging different tools that will appeal to the learners you are trying to reach.

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