Published on 2013/06/10

Yours, Mine and Theirs: Differentiating Online Programming

Yours, Mine and Theirs: Differentiating Online Programming
There are some specific steps an institution can take to become visible in a crowded and hypercompetitive higher education marketplace.

Online programs are a lot like noses: everybody has one, but they all look different. What can you do to stand out, or at least establish visibility in that marketplace?

You won’t want to hear it, but the single most effective and expensive way to stand out and build name recognition is to have a top-25 football or basketball program. Complain about it all you want, but nothing beats national exposure on TV and sports channels. People seek out winners and visit the school’s website, because they like being associated with winners. Arguing about this is no more effective than trying to hold back the tide.

Since, by definition, only a few schools can occupy top-25 positions, we all need a practical alternative. I can’t offer a prescription, but I have some recommendations based on successes I have observed or helped develop. Note the key words …

Students are Customers

Students should be treated as “students” only when they are inside a classroom or engaged in the academic work of a class. At all other times, they are customers and you ought to be knocking yourself out to make their interactions with their classes, experiences with university web interfaces and overall customer experience outstanding. Advocate this concept to all campus staff (administrators and faculty) every chance you get, but don’t be surprised when the reception is chilly.

Your Website is Important

It should be substantially updated graphically and functionally every year, certainly within 18 months. Find the money to do this, because your current website is probably outdated and inconvenient. When you’re done, Amazon should be checking your website for ideas on how to be customer friendly, how to provide customer service, how to make technology transparent, how to cross-sell courses (they do it with books and other media) and to make it easy for prospective students to buy your courses. Further, if your website isn’t your school’s single point of entry for continuing and distance students, agitate to make it so. Student customers deserve one point of entry. (Like Amazon, remember?)

The Personal Touch is Key

Give students a human contact, and make that person accessible both before and after they commit to a course or a degree. Colleges and universities tend to operate by voicemail and email, and reaching a human is nearly impossible. Give your student-customers a human contact. If the academic departments won’t do this, provide the contact inside your distance/continuing education operation.

Be an Advocate for Students

Fight to get rid of every unnecessary piece of paper and every user-unfriendly click on the school website. Complain when there is an unnecessary process inconvenient to students, especially distance students.  No one will address the obstacles built into the processes if you don’t. In the process, you will improve your interfaces and services for campus students.

Make Alternative Programming an Option

If you’re semester based, offer something different and test the result. What about two eight-week terms inside a single 16-week semester? What about other ideas? Maybe you have a noncredit professional specialty that can direct students into a degree program. Maybe you have clusters of courses that can be used for a certificate of competency, and that certificate can be a stepping stone to a degree.

Don’t Be Afraid of MOOCs, but Be Aware

If you want to tackle a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), do your homework first and then give it a run. But make sure to get all the publicity you can from doing it, because you’re not going to make money from the MOOC. They’re not soup yet in terms monetizing them. However, you can use it to get both experience and positive publicity. Publicity is advertising, and a MOOC costs less than building a top-25 football program.

Failure is an Option

Be willing to fail. Academics hate failing and suffer from paralysis-by-analysis for years, but they should occasionally practice “ready, fire, aim.” Instead, they don’t do anything creative or innovative. Be smart, don’t take a bath on a random, stupid idea, but do push the envelope and try your ideas long enough to see if they work. If they work, do more of them; if not, laugh and say, “Let’s not do that again.”

What you actually control in the list above is your own performance. If your website is helpful and user-friendly and your staff takes care of customers to turn them into students, you’re on the right track. Work hard to get faculty and departments to do the same and be grateful for small victories, because departments are difficult to change.

It’s a consumer’s world. Hundreds of programs will fit any individual, but your goal is to be so visible, attractive and relevant that a prospective student chooses you. If you build a public presence that would attract you as a student and update it often, you’re probably doing the right things.

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Readers Comments

James Branden 2013/06/10 at 2:59 pm

I’m afraid that attitudes like the one of the commenter above are one of the reasons traditional institutions are losing out to for-profit providers that aren’t afraid to market their “products.” If you’re a quality institution, you should want to make that fact known. Advertising your institution doesn’t lower the quality of your programming.

I agree with Powell that more institutions need to adopt a customer service perspective. With the multitude of choices out there for consumers, something has to draw them to your particular institution. Often, individualized attention and good old-fashioned customer service will make you stand out — and that can be an indication of quality as well.

    Al Powell 2013/06/18 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for the comments. You may have thought that I’m at a private institution, but I’m not. I’m with a Land-Grant University which has as much inertia as any when it comes to how students are regarded and treated. Fortunately we’ve been able to operate in a business mode and overcome much of the obstruction that occurs when these ideas come up.

Eric Csergo 2013/06/10 at 3:20 pm

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with referring to learners as “customers” and education as a “product.” If individuals are making decisions on whether to attend your institution based on how nice your website looks rather than on the quality of your programming, perhaps those aren’t the types of students you should be looking to attract.

    Al Powell 2013/06/18 at 11:58 am

    Education IS a product. In fact, it’s a commodity like coffee or laptop computers. There are distance ed programs all over the Internet. Failure to make all aspects of your institution competitive – including the website – mean that the institution simply doesn’t “get it”. Students see this and it influences their decisions, including the best and brightest.

Tawna Regehr 2013/06/10 at 8:12 pm

I would recommend that institutions hire an agency to help them develop a marketing strategy. I read somewhere that web users spend an average of 30 seconds on a webpage before clicking away if nothing has piqued their interest. In half a minute, you’re not going to have time to sell your faculty or award-winning research; there has to be another ‘grab.’

Traditional institutions, perhaps newer to the competitive nature of the private sector, could benefit from the advice of marketing experts to figure out their 30-second pitch.

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