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Connecting with Students through Inventive Marketing
Five (or Six) Questions for ... Keith Bourne

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / March 2009

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Lisa Neal Gualtieri: No online program can be successful without a marketing strategy. Given the current economic state, what are the primary advantages and disadvantages of a solely online marketing strategy?

Keith Bourne: When I suggest a solely online marketing strategy, it is usually due to a very limited budget, in the $10,000 to $50,000 range. Even then, I would encourage tapping into existing campus resources, such as the public relations department and current students of the program. Unlike most industries out there, right now business is booming in online education for institutions that have a good grasp on what they are doing. It's the budget-side where the effects of the economic downturn are being felt. State budget cuts, endowment losses, and a number of other non-core service related issues are all taking their toll. It probably means there are a number of programs out there that are in this limited budget range, despite the opportunities in the marketplace. Online strategies are the easiest to track; they also tend to cost less, and have a low cost of entry, meaning you can start with just a few thousand dollars. On the downside, this is not a scalable strategy. Once your budget increases, you will certainly increase your success by utilizing multiple channels and integrating your message across those channels.

These days, online marketing is really starting to splinter into multiple channels that are significantly different from each other. For example, utilizing online social networks holds incredible promise for higher education, but I would certainly not lump this channel with advertising through search engines. With new channels come new opportunities and I believe this will expand the potential for solely online marketing strategies.

LNG: What does someone need to know about search engine optimization (SEO) to market an online program?

KB: If you are a program director, in charge of launching a new online program, I would not say you need to be an SEO guru. Get to know the basic issues and why this is an important part of any marketing campaign. I blogged recently about learning SEO basics at Marketing In Education. If you understand all of those (there are eight short blogs), then you are in good shape. In particular, you should focus on these key aspects:

1. The difference between paid results and organic results;
2. How to label images in your Webpage;
3. The concepts associated with offsite optimization; and
4. How search engines prioritize the placement of keywords in a page, from the domain name and page title, down to the bottom of the page.

Beyond that, you should have at least one person on your staff or access to a consultant that has a more in-depth knowledge of how to fully apply these concepts to your marketing campaign.

LNG: Everyone has a Web presence, but what are the five most important aspects of a Website for effective marketing?

KB: You should certainly know why your website exists; its ultimate purpose. In most cases, this is to turn a visitor into a student. So, all the most important aspects focus on this conversion process. All pages should have a way to collect student leads. The lead collection feature that appears on every page should stand out. In most cases, you should also provide a phone number, as a part of the market prefers this mode of communication. The lead form should be as short and concise as possible, so as to not create any barriers to someone providing you with their initial contact information. In many cases, just collecting an email is ideal. And last, but very important, the overall message that your website delivers should tell your potential students how you are different from everyone else, how you stand out from the crowd.

LNG: How can social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook be deployed?

KB: The quickest way to test out a social networking website is to create an account for your institution. How to do this varies depending on the website with some having more options than others. Be sure to be transparent in your intentions The worst thing you can do on a social networking website is try to portray yourself as a person when you are really trying to gain interest in your education programs.

The next level of participation in social network marketing is to advertise. If you have a Google Adwords or Microsoft Adcenter account, you can place ads directly through those services on most social networks. You can even apply some fairly sophisticated targeting on these websites, since they have pretty thorough demographic information on their users. But in many ways, this is the same as advertising anywhere else on the Web and you want to just make sure you are spending your time steering the ads to the places you will have the best return.

For those willing to fully embrace these new social network websites, and to utilize them in ways that are much more natural for how they are used, I would recommend hiring a marketing firm to develop an "app." LinkedIn and Facebook, as well as many others, have an application interface that allows you to develop your own applications for users. When done well, these applications can take off like wild fire and have the potential to generate an incredible return relative to what you would spend. If you integrate your application strategy with an advertising campaign and the page you create for your institution or program, you will gain the full impact of what you can do with social networks as an outreach tool. As more people catch on to this concept, however, the potential goes down. This is especially true with the applications, since they must be relatively unique in nature. I would encourage everyone to take advantage now before it is too late.

LNG: How do you know when you've been successful?

KB: A well-planned marketing strategy always includes the development of metrics. If you are hiring an outside marketing firm, metrics should play a key role in reviewing that firm's success, but I believe it is a crucial element in any situation. Historical data is a good place to start, and then apply adjustments based on any plans that you will be implementing soon. If there is no historical data, such as with a brand new program, look at other similar programs. Consultants can provide estimates based on their experiences with other programs. And you may have colleagues at other institutions that have had experience with a similar program and that would be nice enough to let you explain your situation and gain their insight.

It is common for you to discover your initial metrics, or the levels you intended to obtain for those metrics, to be off, but you certainly need a starting point. In most cases, many ways to fine-tune your forecasts become apparent within the first 12 months if your staff is making a concerted effort to track this aspect of the campaign. Build a review process into your implementation process that can help identify how to continually improve on the metrics.

LNG: Finally, what advice do you have for someone who is trying to market their online program?

KB: When people talk about marketing, they tend to think of just communications, such as advertising and outreach. Marketing starts with understanding the needs of a market, developing an educational platform that meets that need, and then apply communications implementation. If you fully embrace this holistic marketing approach to the development of your program, you are almost guaranteed success in any field of education. You will also realize that everyone in your organization is a part of the marketing function, whether they realize it or not.

About the Author
Lisa Neal Gualtieri is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine and an e-learning consultant. She shares her insights on how professionals "search" for graduate programs in her most recent blog.

©2009 ACM

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