The Impact of Online Shopping on Higher Education
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Today’s students are looking for more than just a financial return on investment from their tuition dollars; they’re looking for a great customer experience that will add value. But even as the customer experience grows in importance for prospective students, how can marketers communicate the service excellence of their institution to prospective students? In this Q&A, Mike King shares his thoughts on the importance of creating personalized experience for students and offering freemium opportunities for students to “try before buying” to accomplishing this end.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Value—both in the customer experience and in outcomes—is obviously a critical factor for non-traditional students in deciding whether to enroll in a program. How do their value-determining factors differ from those of traditional-age students?
Mike King (MK): We’ve got three different types of offerings. We offer a range of online 12-week courses, multi-course certificate programs, and a recently launched degree program—all of which are accredited. The distinct value of each of those is a little bit different and students pursuing these distinct offerings have a different set of priorities.
Students in the non-degree courses tend to be an older cohort of students, and what they’re looking for is self-improvement; they want to be better. With that, our job is to illustrate how they will become better; we want to show the value in the material and how they can grow if they go through the material. There’s a number of different ways that we do that. We host online clinics, where a faculty member sits with a subject matter expert and holds an open discussion. The idea is to show the kind of value that students can access inside the course. We’ve also published lesson handbooks, which share a collection of material from inside the courses so students can really picture themselves getting better by going though this content.
With degree programs, it’s a little bit different. We still tend to have an older cohort of students enrolled in our online degree programs but they’re more focused on professional growth. They want to be better at their job or they want to learn the skills to get them a job from what they’re currently doing. Many of our degree students are already in the workforce, and they want to learn some additional skills. The value proposition is a little bit different, but our overall content-based marketing approach is similar. We really want to provide a look under the hood for prospective students, from a content marketing perspective, and show people exactly what they’ll be getting.
Evo: You mentioned a few different freemium marketing tactics, an approach that’s particularly important to content marketers. How important is freemium marketing to making sure online students understand not only the educational product they’ll be receiving but also get a sense of what their student experience will be like upon enrolling?
MK: When we first got started in 2002, we’d go to trade shows and the number one thing we’d hear from people is, “How can you possibly learn music online?” Over the last 10 years it’s become much more accepted. MOOCs have been very helpful, with their broad reach, in illustrating one way online education is possible, but part of our overall strategy, from a freemium standpoint, is to really leave no question unanswered about the quality and scope of what we offer online.
We do all sorts of things to help people understand the exciting opportunity offered by that online music education. Our admissions team hosts live open houses and clinics with faculty members so prospective students can see first hand who they will be learning with. We have sample courses so people can see inside the LMS and get a sense of how the learning experience works.
It’s less foreign than it was 10 years ago but it’s still a new idea to a lot of people. We’re so confident in the product that we have that, as often as we can, we want to throw the doors open and say, “This is what we offer, and here’s the depth of the faculty involvement and knowledge.” Any time we can show students the kinds of content they’ll be learning in a course, we take that opportunity. It’s still a little bit of a tricky thing for people to grasp, and sharing those experiences with prospective students is very important to our overall marketing efforts.
A lot of institutions are getting involved in MOOCs. I don’t know if they operate the same way we do but from a volume standpoint, we’ve had over a million enrollments from the MOOCs we offer. That said, the MOOCs have been helpful for awareness, but are not a marketing piece alone; they are a true educational endeavor. We have three-week and six-week MOOCs that allow us to reach folks around the world that otherwise would not have access to Berklee. They get a taste of what Berklee is like, they get to take a look at what the content is like, they get to see the type of faculty and breadth of the knowledge that the faculty has. While there’s no direct interaction between faculty members and students in MOOCs, we have a pretty good approach to it. We’re putting it out there with a very specific focus.
Evo: For many students, their first interaction with the university is the website. How important is a robust and effective website to university marketing?
MK: Having a robust website is absolutely critical for us. Organic search is the primary way people find out about Berklee Online. There are a variety of tools we use to measure what people are doing on the site and then A/B test how to get them to their next steps. We can also provide different messaging options to people when they’re on our site, depending on past behavior or what student stage they are in.
The other part of that is, if we’re capturing attention with our homepage, we also want to capture an email address so that we can communicate with people down the line. We can measure what people are interested in, we can change the messaging and then we can provide targeted educational content to people on certain pages. We really are data focused with our website. We’re trying to provide exactly the type of content that people want to see and then from an acquisition standpoint we want to provide things of value to people who are visiting in exchange for an email address.
Evo: How does contextual messaging feed into a student’s faith that an institution is going to meet their specific needs, rather than treat them as “just another degree candidate”?
MK: It plays a huge role. Along with the measurement we do on our website, we use a series of tools to communicate. We’re able to pinpoint the appropriate type of communication for each person. We can measure the drop-off rate, we can measure which emails are opened and which aren’t, and then we can measure the calls that are coming into the advising team. More specific communication is good for everybody. The tailoring of marketing is critical to getting the student enrolled and supporting their success and retention.
There’s so much noise out there and, from a marketing context, you have to be able to provide the right content to the right person or your overall effectiveness rate is going to drop substantially. At the end of the day, it’s a positive thing for both a prospective student and for the online school to give the prospective student what they want.
Evo: What are the differences in what an online student is looking for from their educational experience and what a face-to face student is looking for?
MK: We know that an online, non-degree student wants to be better, so we can focus our communication to help them understand how courses can help them do this. It’s really understanding what the student wants. That doesn’t change whether it’s a physical or online student. The goals of a 17-year-old who’s applying to Berklee College of Music in Boston, that person might have different goals than a 35-year-old in LA who is already teaching and just wants to improve their job prospects. It comes back to understanding the student and providing them with the right level of advising.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the challenges of marketing value and ROI to students who would be pursuing a higher education credential?
MK: The methods of communication are changing all the time, how people want to interact with schools, with admissions advisors, that’s changed drastically over 10 years. We try to focus on all areas. We set up Facebook groups for our students per major so we can communicate and students can communicate with each other. I don’t think marketing communications should always come back to being the institution’s job alone. The most effective institutions provide a platform to allow the students to market and communicate on their behalf. If we do a great job with what we’re doing and the experience is fantastic, there’s a variety of different ways that the students can work with us to help raise visibility around the online school. That’s how you get real scale.
This interview has been edited for length.
Learn to implement eCommerce best practices and create a positive learning experience.
Author Perspective: Administrator