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Standing Out: Online content marketing for online programs

Special Issue: Instructional Technology in the Online Classroom

By Ted Cross, Laura Polk / December 2018

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As colleges and universities move traditional programs online and create new online programs, marketing new offerings becomes increasingly critical. Just as institutions are embracing online technology for course delivery they must also become expert in digital marketing [1]. Certainly, other types of marketing are important, but digital marketing has the ability to reach potential online students more quickly. However, finding a starting point for these efforts can be challenging. In addition, budgets for marketing new or niche programs are often small. This can create challenges for getting the word out to potential students. One low cost but effective approach is online content marketing disseminated via social media networks [2]. This was the approach we used to market the new online Master of Leadership & Management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Master of Applied Leadership & Management

The online Master of Applied Leadership & Management (MALM) launched in Spring of 2017. Part of launching the program included generating student interest from around the globe. In an effort to generate leads (interested students) program leadership and staff utilized a content marketing approach aided by social media. Through the creation of live webinars advertised via social media and email marketing, several hundred leads have been generated for the program. Below we describe our experience in using content marketing to generate student interest and offer concrete steps others can use to do the same.


In recent years the growth of online programs has been steady [3]. According to the Babson Survey Research Group there is both an increased adoption in overall acceptance for online education and student enrollment. Universities have also increased online offerings to include a larger percentage of curriculum and programs [3]. In this way, institutions seem to be increasing their reach via digital course formats. While the increase in options creates greater choices for students, it also results in a crowded market for institutions. As such, students hoping to pursue their education online are now bombarded with an overwhelming number of choices [4]. Even more, institutions must compete for a global student audience and employ sound marketing tactics to stand out from the crowd [1]. From the institutional point-of-view, efforts to grab prospective student's attention must be scalable and cost effective.

One of the best ways to meet the criteria of scalable and affordable is to use content and social media marketing strategies [2]. Kabani's three step approach of: attracting potential customers, capturing their contact data, and then working to transform those prospects into converted clients is a simple framework that can produce real results. Content marketing utilizes interesting content to attract people to a place (web page, blog, video channel, podcast) where prospect information is gathered (name, phone number, email address) [5]. The content that attracts prospects to a personal data capture mechanism is often shared via social media [4]. Through the use of content marketing and social media syndication, universities can effectively showcase online programs and garner new enrollments. However, it is often difficult for educators and administrators to know what kind of content to create and what type of format to capture it in.

There are many content marketing tactics or channels. Channels are vehicles for interesting content, such as a blogs, podcasts, or videos [6]. Each channel has its upsides, but we have found video, in particular, webinar formats, to be very effective in generating prospective student interest. Live webinars populated by relevant content and lead by faculty members can be a way to create an engaging experience for potential students and can transform a static experience into something much more real and dynamic [2]. No matter the channel, the content must be useful to the prospect in order for them to engage [5]. Also, video content can be inexpensive to create using webcams and simple webinar software such as Not only can captured video content be reused in email campaigns later it can also be shared via social media platforms for little or no cost. As students become more aware of the program from a faculty or university representatives, they gain a better understanding of how it can help them achieve their goals. Once this shift in mindset occurs within a potential student they become more likely to fill out a request for information (RFI).

Case Study

In order to generate interest for the online Master of Applied Leadership & Management program via content marketing we first had to develop basic digital assets. These included: a landing page, email and social media scripts/content, webinar content, and webinar delivery technology. The landing page is a simple web page that describes the program, its curriculum, pricing, duration, and benefits. We also created a separate landing page for the webinars. The webpages are not only places for prospective students to learn more about the program they are also places where students are asked to share personal contact information via a "request for information" (RFI) form. Webinar content was created along two themes: "how to" and "leadership skills." The "how to" content included webinars on: how to write admission essays, how to prepare a graduate school application, how to balance work and going to school etc. The "leadership skills" webinars included: the science of happiness, the science of persuasive leadership, and decision making. These webinars were delivered using the video conferencing platform and recorded for future use. Webinars were advertised in two ways. First, via email marketing to existing lists of prospective students. Email campaigns were crafted to introduce students to the program and add value to potential students by offering free webinar seats. Similar content as in the emails was converted into formats suitable for Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn and syndicated through Thunderbird's social channels. New emails and social posts were sent out at least once per week. As potential students received advertisement in email or social media formats they could click on linked buttons to sign up for webinars or fill out RFIs for program information. In short, we followed Kabani's three step approach of "attracting" interest via webinars, "capturing prospect data" via our landing pages, and "transforming" prospects into enrolled students by following up.

As more students expressed interest and signed up to attend at least one webinar, there were more who followed suit. From October of 2017 through March of 2018, interest for the program and those who attended webinars increased. During the initial offering, the very first webinar in October had just 18 registrants. As the popularity of the webinar series grew, there were then 48 webinar registrants in November and 32 in December. As the MALM program hosted more webinars, interest and attraction continued to increase. One of the largest webinars recorded was in January of 2018 with 179 interested prospective students. Then in February there were 169 webinar registrants. March of 2018 brought the largest webinar pool with 371 people registered.

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Lessons Learned

Integration of program webinars with additional content marketing helped increase overall traffic to the MALM degree landing pages. Offering webinars on a monthly basis gave prospective students the ability to better understand the online program and gave them further opportunity to submit interest. At the start of the very first webinar, there were very few prospects who both registered and attended. However, by the sixth sequential webinar, there was quadruple the amount of registered prospects.

Two items are of note: first, we have learned that in order to keep momentum and have repeat viewers, we need to offer at least one webinar per month. In the future having at least two or more webinars per month could lead to a higher amount of overall lead generation. Secondly, we learned that in many cases prospective students are less interested in the "how to" type webinars (these are the ones we tried first) than they are in content specific topics (leadership, science of happiness, etc.). In a way, our experience has been that students seem more interested in having a preview view of a class topic (in our case something related to leadership) than a nuts and bolts webinar on how to apply to graduate school. That said, we will need to offer different content in the "how to" model to confirm our suspicions.

Email and social media push frequency also seems to matter in terms of how many students sign up for the webinars. We first started with only one email per week and no social media posts. This resulted in few sign ups. However, we switched to two emails per week and at least one social post per month. This seemed to increase sign ups. The biggest increase in sign-ups was related to "boosting" our Facebook posts (paid promotion of our posts that linked to our landing pages). Additional content marketing delivered through boosted social media, and continued email marketing should increase both interest and program enrollment.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Standing out in the busy online education market is important-no matter how great a program is, attracting prospective students to it takes more than great courses. In an increasingly crowded space, prospective online students need information that is fast and engaging [2]. This information should not just be descriptive of the program. Gone are the days of dangling degree titles in front of prospective students and having them enroll. Today, students want to experience a program's offerings before fully committing. While some institution may be worried that an entire social media and video department is needed to get their efforts off the ground, content marketing via webinars is an ideal way to engage students using existing technology, content, and social media channels. In addition to critical information, the integration of social media and content marketing gives a prospective student something more interactive and engaging. It is through this engagement that webinars provide a cost-effective way for institutions to get the word out about online programs.

Webinars are ideal vehicles for the content marketing of programs because they show potential prospects what kinds of content they might learn in a program. Webinars are also scalable and cost effective. They can be advertised on social media, online program websites, and by email [7]. Live webinars can also be recorded and repurposed for other marketing campaigns at a future date. This reusability makes webinars a scalable outreach method. Each webinar can serve as a tool that captures both student data and interest. To fully leverage webinars to attract potential student interest we recommend:

  • Creating simple landing pages with embedded "request for information" forms
  • Tailoring webinar content to meet audience needs, but reflect programmatic themes
  • Have webinars run by faculty members or program administrators
  • Advertise webinars via social media and email campaigns (weekly or more)
  • Reuse popular webinar recordings as part of social media and email marketing efforts
  • Track progress of webinar sign ups and subsequent enrollment conversion rates
  • Adjust content as needed


[1]Edelman, B., and Brandi, W. Risk, information, and incentives in online affiliate marketing. Journal of Marketing Research 52, 1 (2015), 1-12.

[2]Kabani, S. The Zen of Social Media Marketing: An Easier Way to Build Credibility, Generate Buzz, and Increase Revenue (3rd Ed.) 2013.

[3] Allen, E. and Seaman, J. Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education Enrollment Report. Babson Survey Research Group. 2017.

[4]Demiray, U. and Sever, S. Marketing online education programs frameworks for promotion and communication. Information Science Reference, Hershey, PA, 2011.

[5] Baer, J. Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is About Help Not Hype. 2014.

[6] Content Marketing 101: Shweiki Media Printing Company Announces the Publishing of a New, Must-Watch Webinar on Key Strategies Businesses Should Implement for Success. PRWeb Newswire. (January 19, 2016).

[7] Blessinger, P. The impact of social and mobile media and networks on learning environments in higher education. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education 7, 1 (2015).

About the Authors

Dr. Ted Cross is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Leadership and Management, as well as the Director of the Master of Applied Leadership & Management program at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Cross brings his expertise in leadership and higher education innovation to his teaching and administrative roles. Previously, Ted was the Deputy Chief of Staff at EdPlus and a University Innovation Fellow in the Office of University initiatives (a Special Projects Unit of the Office of the ASU President). Before coming to ASU Ted worked in a variety of faculty and leadership positions at Grand Canyon University. Cross holds a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University, an MA from Arizona State University, an MSed from The University of Pennsylvania, a doctorate from Pepperdine University, and a Post Graduate Certificate from The Wharton School of Business.

Dr. Laura Polk is a Senior Program Manager & Associate Professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and currently teaches Organizational Leadership. She has over 10 years of experience working in leadership and specializes in organizational leadership, succession planning, small businesses management, manufacturing, aerospace & defense. In the research for her dissertation, she oversaw the engineering and building of many metal parts at a manufacturing plant, which now reside in NASA's Exploration Rover on Mars (MERS), defense weapons mechanisms for the US government, and medical equipment. Dr. Polk holds a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership, a Master of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University.

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