Published on 2016/03/29
—With Mike King | Chief Marketing Officer of Berklee Online, Berklee College of Music

The EvoLLLution | Marketing Online Education Today: A Look At Tactics
By developing a community environment for students, both online and offline, marketers can help to strengthen students’ experience and develop a bond that starts long before enrollment and lasts long after graduation.

Marketing in higher education today means a lot more than designing a strong pamphlet or starting a Twitter account. Students today are savvy consumers with immensely high and very specific expectations of their colleges and universities. In the first installment of this two-part interview, Mike King and Emily McInerney reflected on some of the strategy that underlies their marketing efforts. In this conclusion, they discuss some of the tactics that helps them execute their plans.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): To your mind, how effective is social media as a marketing tool for institutions trying to speak to prospective adult students?

Mike King (MK): One thing that we try hard to do in the online school is create a sense of community. We invite all of our online students to our Boston campus every June to meet each other and our faculty members, which creates a different kind of connection with Berklee, but we can only do that once a year. With social media we can extend that community online. For example, we’ve set up dedicated Facebook groups that any newly accepted student can join. These are gated communities where students share their own insights on their experiences and ask for input from their peers. They really can get a sense of community using social media within these groups. So one part of social media for us is providing that platform where students can talk to one another.

We also use social media as a communication tool. We want to be part of any kind of conversation that’s happening out there. We are not very focused on using social media as a sales tool—which is similar to the rest of our process—but we use it to be part of a conversation that’s already happening out there and adding content to that conversation.

We’re measuring our social media engagement in the same way we measure a lot of our other marketing endeavors. We want to talk to people over social media in the way that they want to be talked to, so it’s important we know what types of content people are interested in and how they want to consume that content. Like any marketing activity, it’s critical for us to measure the effectiveness of our social media engagement.

Emily McInerney (EM): Any notion of adult learners not being as open to using social media has been disproven, and this is especially clear when you look at the Facebook group we set up for our degree-seeking students. This is a collective of people between the ages of 30 and 45—some younger, some older—and it is our most engaged group. There is constant conversation in those Facebook groups for degree students. Ultimately, it’s all about being smart about what channels you’re using to reach those adult learners. We’re not using Snapchat, for example, but focusing on Facebook and Twitter has proven to be pretty successful for us.

MK: Social media also gives us the opportunity to identify issues or hear about positive course experiences in real time from our students. Our entire team—not just marketing people but our senior administrators—talk to students in the Facebook groups about their experience. We look at it as a great way to communicate one-on-one with our students, not just as a tool to promote.

Evo: How has the role of marketing grown to encompass retention activities as well as early stage access and enrollment?

MK: We’re very lucky in that we are in control of the entire funnel at the online school.

We have marketing actions in place to make people aware of us, and we try to acquire permission-based contact information so we can properly engage with them through nurture campaigns, focused communication, and advising. If they become students, we continue to engage with them, as all students have the same advisor for the duration of their studies with us. We maintain continuous communication with our students throughout their entire lifecycle. For us, the student lifecycle is like a figure eight, it doesn’t end. Students can study as long as they like. Even if they have completed a degree program they can enroll in standalone courses to just keep up to date with software or a new approaches in the music business. We try to take the route of being helpful by offering additional content that could be of value. We’ve talked in the past about the wedding cake analogy: Our different educational products all feed into one another.

There is a thread between everything that we do, and we view marketing as being more about communication than promotion. It’s content, but that thread goes between everything that we do from prospective students finding out we have online offerings to graduates maintaining their relationships with us.

Evo: What are a few other marketing approaches that you have found to be highly effective in speaking to this audience?

EM: The first thing that comes to mind is the landing pages that we have built and customized for our campaigns. We’ve centered every major campaign we’ve done over the past year around a landing page where prospects can provide their email address in order to download a piece of content. We recently published a number of handbooks, for example, which have proven to convert at a strong level. People, regardless of whether or not they go on to enroll in a course, have shown that they want content from Berklee. That fact that they can get it for free through our landing page is still great for us, even if they don’t enroll, because it increases brand awareness.

MK: We’ve got a good process in place. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We know what works, so we have a great baseline, but we are continuously looking for new tools, partners, and outlets to complement the evergreen marketing we’re doing. Right now we’re really interested in the continued optimization of the tools we’ve found to have a big impact for us. There’s a lot more that we can be doing, and a lot more we can be doing with the tools that we currently have.

I would love to continue building out our nurture campaigns, for example, where prospective students come in and engage with some of our freely available content and we communicate with them contextually to let them know what educational option might best suit their needs. The goal is to make the right people aware of the right study options. We’re doing a good job with this right now, but one area of focus for our for next year is providing a more curated approach to outlining our study options to prospective students on our homepage.

EM: One more thing I will mention that we didn’t really touch on too much is the role of video in our marketing. A big piece of being a fully online institution is creating access to video content, but from a marketing perspective we are working to optimize video, including our YouTube channel. We recently hired for a new position that handles video strategy at a high level for Berklee Online. It’s definitely becoming more of a priority for us.

We’re looking at new tools that we can use to better capture information from leads in video, and we also want to figure out how to market our videos better. We have a wide array of video content and our focus is on content marketing with video. We can repurpose some of the videos that we have in our MOOCs—the little lessons or tips and tricks that are short and digestible—and we see people engage with the material. You can go into the YouTube comments and see people say, “I would’ve never thought to do it that way! Thank you for sharing this information.” We offer a mix of lesson-based content and then more of the aspirational marketing types of content that helps people understand the value of the programming we offer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • It’s critical for marketers to invest in tools that improve their outreach efforts and help to better define the factors that went into a student’s decision to enroll.
  • Creating a continuum of content—from freely accessible to degree programs—helps to forge pathways for prospective students to get the information they’re looking for while becoming more engaged with the university.
  • Relationships with students no longer end at graduation for institutions; students need to continue to grow and build skills throughout their career and a positive experience ensures they’ll come to their alma mater first.
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