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What Do Diapers, Banking and Continuing Education Have in Common?

Diaper Manufacturers, Bankers and Continuing Educators: Common Lessons from Commoditization
In a commoditized marketplace, the product a particular company is selling becomes less important than the services or supports they can bundle it with.

The field of continuing, online and professional education has come a long way since the early days, when having a flexible program for adults or an online degree in a professional field was enough to bring students to an institution’s door (not that getting to that point was easy — a lot of my research contacts point to battle scars earned getting early efforts up and running).

Today, such education is past this first stage of market maturity and even past the second, which was marked by a flood of entrants into the space, increased competition for students and the subsequent beginnings of product commoditization. In the eyes of many research contacts — and my team and I spoke to about 250 over the course of our study — the world of continuing, online and professional education is in a third, more advanced stage of maturity and increased competition. This third stage is driven by prospective student-consumers’ sophisticated shopping practices.

Facing more products and distribution channels than ever before, prospective students seemingly have unlimited and instantaneous options for anything they might want to buy.  Armed with shopping behaviors developed elsewhere in their lives, they are comfortable and skilled at finding and comparing educational options, and they are willing to look for programs that precisely match their educational “re-entry” points and career advancement objectives. As a direct result of what we began to call “Search and Shop” students, mass web advertising and conventional prospecting funnels are decreasing in appeal, thus forcing continuing, online and professional education marketing experts to adapt in order to stay competitive.

One example of such adaptation is an attempt to add value in the search process. The concept is not novel. Flipping through the channels recently, I landed on, of all things, a commercial for Huggies (I must have been drawn in by the prospect of chubby, giggling babies). Featuring a couple that just finds out they’re pregnant, the excitement that follows and the question of “Now what?” that comes soon after, the ad leads expecting couples to a website where Huggies will answer their every question. It never even mentions the word “diapers” (sadly, there were no babies either).

Supporting a moment of need as opposed to just selling a product is a strategy with which the banking industry is similarly familiar. Over the past several years, banking executives have had to deal with the “Search and Shop” customer. One of their responses was developing and deploying resources that supported the life changes that precipitated the need for more and/or different financial products (e.g. financial advice for newlyweds, college savings advice for young parents and so on).

Though the banking industry was an unexpected analogue from which to learn, my team and I soon began looking for innovative institutions also responding to the “Search and Shop” consumer by adding value in the search process. In the continuing, online and professional education space, this value usually came in the form of making prospective customers aware of the risks and opportunities associated with making a career change and/or a large investment in education. (Our search for ideas was warranted; all too often, we’ve found, Continuing and Online Education (COE) unit websites focus on transactional information and ignore the more emotional questions and concerns that truly underpin the decision to purchase). After extensive searching, here are four of the approaches we found building momentum:

1. Industry Intel Communications

Encouraging prospects to “opt in” to emails or social media updates with content primarily focused on non-commercial industry news, but also designed to keep the university top-of-mind through a potentially long decision cycle.

2. Profession Entry FAQ Portal

Designing website content to help prospective students understand the end-to-end requirements of entering a new career, while also reducing the “search costs” for students by aggregating into one place all of the information needed to weigh the cost, risk and benefits of breaking into a new field.

3. Career-Changer Diagnostics

Developing online career assessments for career changers to evaluate whether a new field is the right fit and, in so doing, providing an opportunity and discussion points for the university to meaningfully converse on topics where the prospect needs life guidance,

4. Customized Career Services

Crafting and advertising career resources to meet the unique needs of an institution’s target market as opposed to providing generic, one-size-fits-all tools that are of nominal value.

More variations on these themes are out there, and we’re constantly looking for them. We’d love your ideas about ways of adding value in the search process. What’s working for you (or not)?

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