Meeting the Challenges of Marketing Non-traditional Programs

As every organization launching a new service is aware, readying the service for use is only one item on the checklist. Organizations must also envision and attract clients, explaining the offer to them in ways that make clear why they should use it. In short, they must successfully market the service.

Institutions that make the bold commitment to offer innovative degree programs or competency-based models face particular challenges when it comes to marketing. Not only must they redesign operating processes, reengineer information and learning systems, rethink business models, and develop learning material for a different kind of delivery, but they also must find students who are interested in non-traditional programs and make their advantages so clear to those students that they enroll. Ranjan Daniels, principal at consulting firm Five-Tool Learning LLC, recently offered a webinar on this topic to leaders of the NGLC Breakthrough Models for College Completion and the 2014 cohort of the Breakthrough Models Incubator.  

Working from survey responses provided by potential participants from both groups, Daniels discussed key elements to consider in marketing a degree program:

  • the competitive landscape, surveying other non-traditional online offerings, traditional online programs,
  • the market analysis in which program leaders benchmark their offering against alternatives and competitors, considering such factors as market size, the cost to acquire students, and their points of differentiation,
  • the careful determination of target audiences, identifying what group(s) of students exactly the program has been designed to serve best – working adults? independent learners? those over- or under - 25? and directing messaging as appropriate
  • the specific message or story that will have the greatest appeal for those target audiences,
  • the selection of communication and social media channels, from the many currently available, to reach them, and
  • the metrics that can support or challenge program leaders’ assumptions about succeeding in attracting the kinds of potential students who could most benefit from your program in sufficient numbers to enable it to be sustained.

Daniels spoke specifically to the ways in which potential students make choices. Potential students, he noted, can easily be overwhelmed by the array of programs and educational providers available to them.

Think of the breakfast cereal aisle in your grocery store:  the range of possibilities can be paralyzing, as Barry Schwartz asserted a decade ago in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. By way of illustration, Daniels invited participants to think about how they themselves proceed when selecting a doctor, an experience that they can draw upon to understand the ways in which problem-solving, adaptive choice, and conscious and subconscious motives factor into the process of making consequential decisions.

Among the takeaways from this presentation (with a nod to NGLC colleague Holly Morris, who captured these in her notes):

  • It may be less important to explain competency-based education, or other unfamiliar program components, than to show potential students an experience that is inviting.
  • Consumer behavior is oriented around trying to secure an outcome rather than making a choice.
  • Consumers make decisions based more on factors they can grasp - quality and reputation, for instance - than on elements of value to the designers of a program, such as course syllabi or maps of competencies.
  • Price, while certainly a factor as students think through their options, isn’t always the most important consideration.

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