With so many options for online academic programs available today, higher ed marketers must find unique and innovative ways to reach prospective students. One way to do that is to promote academic programs as products. Marketing News caught up with Bob King, managing director at Collegis Education, to get his thoughts on how to put this plan into practice.
King has built his career by establishing entrepreneurial marketing teams and integrating industry best practices into developing organizations. He started his career working in admissions for DePauw University, and since then has held various leadership roles in marketing and admissions on the college side and services side. In 2003, King joined Rasmussen, Inc. to oversee both the Rasmussen College and Deltak marketing teams, and helped each organization transform into a leader in the delivery of online education. Here’s his advice for executing successful academic program marketing strategies.
Video: Bob King, Managing Director at Collegis Education interviewed by AMA CEO, Russ Klein
Q: In a market where online academic program saturation is leading to commoditization, how does a school differentiate?
A: Colleges and universities need to be more forward-thinking about their academic program portfolio. Sometimes you need to sunset older programs to make room for new ones that capitalize on trends that are on the horizon. As marketers, we need to constantly be on the lookout for programs that we can bring to market – ones that are driven not only by consumer wants but by future needs of the market. Are we applying the latest and greatest concepts to our program portfolio? For example, years ago big data was all the rage but has become commonplace. Now, the Google search trends for AI (artificial intelligence) are skyrocketing. Implementing programs that cater to this future need will allow schools to stand out from the crowded market of programs that focus on the present.
Q: When promoting their academic programs, higher ed marketers can find success by applying product marketing management and development principles to those programs. Explain how this works.
A: Marketing is the groundwork for launching a successful program. Understanding what your unique value prop is and how you are different from your competition. Research is so important in this phase – and can’t be shortchanged. You may be bringing a new program to life, but so what? People need to know the benefits of your program, not just the features. You can differentiate in your experience – whether it be support, learning platform or cool tools. Or, you can differentiate on what students actually learn. Are there skills they are getting in this program they cannot get anywhere else? In a commoditized program, experience is the best and fastest way to differentiate. You also need to understand the difference between your table stakes message and above and beyond what is standard.
Start by understanding the target audience. What is unique about that demographic? What are the behavioral attributes of your student that need to be considered and catered to? You really need to know who you are talking to – students are not all the same program by program. You need to understand the unique characteristics to make this relevant to your prospects. There is a continual learning process that comes with product development – and you should periodically assess to see if your audience is really what you thought it would be.
Q: Part of the product marketing management strategy is gauging customer demand, including determining what stage in the funnel the consumer is in. What are the best steps for doing this?
A: First, there is always Google data to refer to – but it is not perfect. You have to supplement with your institutional knowledge and your student preference data. It is not one end-all-be-all for gauging consumer demand. You have to look at it from different angles – perhaps it is paid media trends, search trends, job demand trends. Pulling all of those together helps illuminate where you will make an impact. Try using tools such as Burning Glass, BLS and Google to uncover where prospective students are interested in pursuing knowledge and degrees.
Q: Employer demand is another factor in executing a successful product marketing strategy. Talk about what’s involved in this.
A: Students want marketable skills when they graduate. They also want better jobs, more fulfilling lives. Employer demand is part of the equation you need to look at. If students cannot get jobs in this field, is the program really successful?
Q: After marketers have considered customer demand and employer demand, a competitive assessment must be taken. How should they measure the competition for the best results?
A: You can start with conferral data in IPEDs [the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data system, a data collection program for colleges and universities]. This gives you a sense of how students are progressing and succeeding in a program. Next, look for in-market advertising: How are the competitors in your community positioning themselves? What is differentiated about them? Then, you can take those results and apply them to your marketing efforts.