Marketing online courses in a crowded field

Editor’s note: This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

What sets community colleges apart from their four-year counterparts is the ability to meet the needs of the local community. To that end, offering online courses is something they’ve done for more than a decade.

Not only do online courses meet the needs of students – many of whom have significant family and professional responsibilities – they also drive enrollment. A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the number of college students enrolled in at least one online course continues to rise, while overall enrollment remains flat. Nearly one-third of all community college students are enrolled in at least one online course, and that number is expected to rise, according to the Babson Survey Research Group.

Instructional and student services colleagues have embraced the trend, but how many marketers can say the same? More often than not, community college marketing departments are using many of the same recruitment techniques from 10 years ago.

For example, historically, community colleges have attracted most of their students from within a 100-mile radius. However, with the rise of online education, this average has shrunk to less than half. In short, there’s an entirely different client base, and many of them don’t know much about community colleges.

So how can community colleges compete in this new world? Here are some tips to make online marketing and engagement efforts work in tandem with your college’s overall recruitment and enrollment strategy.

Be different

The challenge is that today’s online education marketplace is crowded. Face-to-face students are often limited by proximity, but online students have the opposite problem. Differentiating yourself is key.

Keeping the focus on lower cost and familiarity is also important. If you have data on student success or completion rates, share it. Job placement data, including salary ranges and average time to completion, are also good to highlight. Like traditional recruitment marketing, be sure to tout smaller-class size. True, online course seat counts are often higher than in person, but online students still have the chance to interact with their instructor on a regular basis.

Emphasize support services

Unfortunately, success rates for online courses are still lower than face-to-face courses, but they’re improving, in large part, due to the rise in online support services. Often these services, or lack thereof, can determine whether a student passes the class or not.

Support services are important to face-to-face students, too, but they naturally assume your college offers them. Because of this, traditional recruitment marketing focuses on the availability of classes with little attention devoted to support services.

But for a student considering enrolling in an online class, knowing whether or not online support services are offered can be a deal-breaker. St. Charles Community College (Missouri) includes information about online tutoring, early alert interventions, and a helpdesk front and center, thus letting students know about the tools available to help them succeed in online classes.

Expand your audience

As mentioned earlier, traditional marketing tends to favor students just graduating from high school and adults returning to school. With online education, recruitment “horizons” can definitely be expanded.

For example, the California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI) ran a large campaign targeting students enrolled in the California State University (CSU) system. Many four-year students enroll in community college courses over the summer because they’re cheaper and allow them to knock off some lower-division courses in little to no time. Our campaign let them know they can take a class at a community college near their CSU campus or at home.

Other groups worth targeting include working adults who’ve already completed their degree, active-duty military and retired adults looking to learn a new skill.

Focus on digital media

Let’s face it, community college marketing efforts generally have to focus on the immediate service area because budgets aren’t big enough to do much else. However, the advent of digital media allows for greater expansion in marketing efforts.

Digital advertising campaigns can be targeted to potential students, based on their interests, for pennies on the dollar. Because of this customization, college can run targeted campaigns for different programs, something rarely doable otherwise. Campaigns can also be adjusted midway if results aren’t hitting the mark.

Best of all, nearly all digital channels provide real-time, tangible data results that can be shared with deans, program managers and others.

The CVC-OEI has also run campaigns for students who live in a “higher education desert,” which we defined as 20 miles or more from a physical campus location. We used a mix of digital advertising channels, including Facebook and Instagram, but spent the bulk of our budget on geofencing. Geofencing uses global positioning (GPS) to define a geographic boundary. Once you have established your boundaries, you can communicate directly with devices within the space. Because we were able to target specific individuals, these ads had a much higher conversion rate than our others.

Don’t abandon tradition

While it’s important to focus on new trends and strategies, don’t completely abandon traditional marketing channels. For example, many community college students deal with transportation challenges, making commuting to campus difficult. So why not place ads about your online classes on buses or light rail lines? Focus on the flexibility they offer.

Similarly, Foothill College provides another good example. It had a popular apprenticeship program located more than 50 miles away from the main campus. Many of the students enrolled in the program needed to fulfill their general education requirements, but unfortunately, many of those classes weren’t offered on-site.

Instead of having the students enroll in face-to-face courses at a nearby college, flyers listing all online general education courses were placed in students’ on-site mailboxes, and for less than $250 the classes were filled.

Online education does provide both challenges and benefits, and to do it right requires rethinking how to reach prospective students. Using a variety of tactics – including a heavy reliance on digital with some traditional channels mixed in – will help your college stand out in today’s crowded online marketplace.

About the Author

Andrea Hanstein
is director of communications and strategic partnerships for the California Community Colleges’ California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative. She is an NCMPR past president and former member of its board of directors.