Decisions, Decisions. How Online Schools Market their Programs and Services

Decisions, Decisions. How Online Schools Market their Programs and Services

If you are in the process of deciding which online school to attend, how will you make the final decision? Especially when more than one school offers the degree program you are interested in pursuing. It is a challenge for students to make a decision based upon a school they may never physically attend. This is also a challenge for online schools as they must be able to connect with potential students in a manner that demonstrates their commitment to providing effective educational opportunities. It is a perceptual process and schools rely upon a strong marketing message to get your attention, create interest, and ultimately lead to your contact with an enrollment advisor.

When making a decision about what school to attend, look beyond their marketing message and attempt to evaluate what this prospective school is likely to do to support your academic experience once you are enrolled. I’ll review the marketing strategies utilized by three of the largest online schools and provide suggestions for how you can evaluate any school’s potential to meet what’s been promised within their messages.

Marketing Strategies

It’s important to understand the purpose of a marketing strategy. The goal of a successful campaign is not just to communicate a message and sell you something; rather it’s about communicating the value of a product or service. For online schools, the products are their degree programs and the services offered include student support. Institutions use these methods to inform you about the school and explain how these programs are of benefit to you, your academic goals, and the experience you are likely to have as a student.

Even though it may seem that selling is the driving force behind a business’ marketing strategy – it is more about shaping your perceptions as a potential new student. A challenge for any marketing strategy is that perceptions may not always be real or apply to everyone as you create a perception based upon your interpretation of the message, which is influenced by prior experiences.  For example, if you have purchased goods or services online – without the benefit of being able to visit the company’s store – and you had a positive experience, you are likely to have a positive perception about the company and the process of ecommerce.

It is very likely that an online school you may be considering will not have a physical location in your city; therefore, it becomes important for the school to advertise to their target students. This is another reason why a school must establish a strong academic reputation as the school’s name becomes a marketable brand. If there are negative reports about the school, the brand is at stake. How much do online schools spend on advertising to promote their brand and the degree programs? While data for many schools is not readily available, it is estimated that the University of Phoenix spends an average of 100 million dollars annually on advertising.

Here are marketing examples from three online schools reviewed for this post.

University of Phoenix: When you visit their website you’ll notice that the photos are inclusive of a diverse ages and ethnicities. Their message indicates: Committed to student success for over 30 years. As champions for the working learner, our degree programs are built around your goals. You’ll get the accredited education you deserve and the support you need. This message is directed towards your needs and suggests that their strength based upon experience – although, doesn’t everyone expect to receive an accredited education?

Kaplan University: In response to questions raised about student loans and the cost of online degree programs, Kaplan University has implemented a program as described in the following statement from their website: At Kaplan University, we are committed to your education, your goals””you. That’s why we’ve introduced the Kaplan CommitmentSM. We believe you should have the opportunity to experience Kaplan University for an introductory period with no tuition obligation. It’s part of our core principles that ground us, guide us, and ensure our dedication to helping you succeed. This is heavily promoted on their website so you will “take a chance” and “try out” their school. It’s also linked to their “core principles” that you hope are related to your principles.

Ashford University: Ashford takes a slightly different approach with their website and utilizes a series of statements and images. Their messages include: You’ll love what you’ll learn. A tradition of 21st century thinking. Ideas expand when shared. Defining the modern college experience. The photos utilized represent diverse ethnicities; however, it appears to be targeted to a younger demographic than the other two websites reviewed.

Conveying the Message

As you look at the school’s website, you can begin to assess the purpose of the marketing message further by reviewing the school’s mission statement. A mission statement is a foundation of guiding principles that represents what the school stands for – or how they develop marketing messages and translate their mission into educational programs.

University of Phoenix: Their mission statement indicates that the University of Phoenix provides access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the productivity of their organizations and provide leadership and service to their communities.

The important question for you to ask is how will they provide support for you to accomplish these goals? Their website discusses degree programs, experience of its faculty members, and more importantly, the student resources that are provided. One of those resources includes writing services and the University of Phoenix Center for Writing Excellence (CWE) aims to help students with that intimidating aspect of their studies.

Kaplan University: Their mission statement takes a slightly different approach: At Kaplan Higher Education, we believe that every person with talent, regardless of age or circumstance, deserves the chance to develop it. That’s why our schools provide a variety of academic opportunities””from certificates and diplomas to graduate and professional degrees, including a juris doctor degree. Kaplan Higher Education serves more than 78,000 students through online, campus, and blended learning, giving you the opportunity to experience the power of higher education on your terms.

The choice of wording is interesting – what type of talent do you need? What if your talent is limited and that’s why you have decided to pursue a degree program now? As you explore their website you’ll find an indication of student support, from academic advising to student clubs and organizations, to 24/7 Technical Support and the unique resources of our Academic Success Center. We even offer a comprehensive array of career services such as resume writing and job search and interview skills.

Ashford University: Their statement indicates that the mission of Ashford University® is to provide accessible, affordable, innovative, high-quality learning opportunities and degree programs that meet the diverse needs of individuals pursuing integrity in their lives, professions, and communities.

As you can see from this description, each university has a unique view of what they want to provide students. Ashford talks about “pursuing integrity” and you have to wonder how that’s related to obtaining a degree. Isn’t every student concerned with integrity? And how about the integrity of the school, doesn’t that matter as well? When you explore their website further you’ll find that there is information provided about meeting your needs, including the online library and career services that are offered to students.

Evaluating a Potential School

You are taking a big step in your life when you decide to pursue a degree and there are many online schools that offer various programs and choices for your academic goals. This is a decision that should not be taken lightly because of the investment of time and finances you will be required to make. As you explore your options be sure to look beyond the marketing messages and consider the school’s primary educational purpose. From that point, review the website and talk to an advisor about elements that make up a successful academic program, including:
“¢    Accreditation: Is this school accredited?
“¢    Quality: Does the school list any quality measures, such as the Quality Matters (QM) certification?
“¢    Faculty: Does the school list any information about the faculty members, including their background and experience?
“¢    Student Services: What does the school offer to support your progress, such as writing services?
“¢    Tech Support: You have an ability to access your classes virtually any time of day. Is tech support readily available?

What matters to you when you are making a decision about which online school to attend? Share your feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Tetra Images/Corbis

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