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Exploring Today’s Hyper-Competitive Continuing Higher Education Market

Continuing and ongoing education units can grow enrollments without focusing exclusively on marketing by focusing on their particular highest-return relationships.

In an Education Advisory Board survey of 104 leaders of continuing, professional, and online education (COE), only 20 percent agreed with the statement that, “I am satisfied with our market share compared to competitors.”

Across a wide range of institutional types, COE leaders express concern that even their niche programs risk losing market share as student choice expands and attention is harder to capture; competitors are growing online delivery and diversifying product offerings at the same time that traditional advertising methods become more expensive and less effective.

Responding to increased inter-institutional competition, COE leaders at non-profit colleges and universities are pressed to re-examine their recruiting processes and capabilities, ensuring the ability to meet complex ”consumer” expectations as competition for adult and online students intensifies. While a favorable search ranking or the right marketing mix may be enough to bring a prospect through the virtual door, today’s student-consumer—no longer restrained by geography, and deeply accustomed to comparing products online —has embraced a new “shopper mindset,” subverting any straightforward notions of “the funnel,” which assume a wide range of intentions, decision times, and entry points into their education.

COE leaders at non-profit institutions worry that this prospective student impetus to “shop around” has further advantaged for-profit universities, who continue to ratchet up their recruiting machines (one secret shopper study demonstrated seven of the ten top for-profits now responding to inquiries in the first minute). Advertising is no longer king; conceivably more important is getting in touch at precisely the right time(s)—a difficult proposition given the complex sales cycles and limited staff resources of traditional universities.

Unable to out-spend the for-profits—and realizing that “competing on speed” is unrealistic under current resource levels—COE units at non-profit universities are instead remaining competitive by focusing on their institution’s highest-return relationships. In particular, leading organizations are pursuing the following strategies for relationship-based marketing and recruiting:

1. Try-Before-You-Buy-Content

A growing number of colleges and universities are building prospect attachment to the institution by promoting free webinars and trial courses that can be applied towards a program should students formally enroll; sample courses assist high-quality leads with evaluating their level of interest and aptitude, as well as course time commitment and quality.

2. Segmentation Strategies

Many COE units have invested in CRM systems designed to (theoretically) help universities better track student information “from first inquiry to last donation,” compete on response time, and hyper-personalize communications. These ambitious cradle-to-grave visions, however, have yet to be realized—despite significant financial commitments by COE units to date. Rather than trying (unrealistically) to use CRM systems for every single component of the student lifecycle, leading organizations are segmenting prospects by motivation, likelihood-to-enroll, and other factors needed to create more targeted messaging and allocate scarce recruiter time

3. Word-of-Mouth Referrals

Anecdotally, many COE units are already finding one-fifth to one-third of enrollments coming from word-of-mouth referrals (friends, colleagues, family). Leading institutions are building upon this organic success by providing incentives to current students and alumni for passing along quality prospects. Additionally, by sharing referral success stories and best practices with their broader alumni base, institutions further encourage their most networked students and alumni to help generate leads.

4. Keeping in Touch and Amplifying Word-of-Mouth through Social Media

A growing number of COE units are acquiring prospective students’ and alumni permission to “opt in” to social media updates related to a specific field or industry, combining value-added, non-commercial insights with reminders of upcoming deadlines and events. A handful of schools are also amplifying their word-of-mouth campaigns through social media; for example, developing “easy ask” ways to tap alumni social media networks (i.e., Twitter retweet campaigns and Facebook status donations).

5. Maintaining Long-Term Relationships with Employers

While tailoring educational offerings to employers is attractive for maximizing tuition reimbursement dollars and potential recurring contracts, COE units worry that the time and investment is not worth the effort, as long-term relationships are difficult to maintain. In order to sustain industry relationships, leading organizations are co-developing and tracking ROI metrics that show how tuition reimbursement dollars and customized learning partnerships have helped meet employer objectives.

By focusing on these highest-return relationships—whether particularly interested prospects, loyal current students and alumni, or industry partners—COE units are able to grow enrollments without committing an unsustainable amount of additional resources.

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