Why Higher Ed Marketing Needs a Seat at the Table During Online Program Planning & Development

While launching hundreds of online degree programs over the last decade, we at Archer Education have seen most colleges and universities consistently make the same mistake. During the program planning and development stage, stakeholders often fail to include marketing teams in their decision-making processes. As marketing is typically one of the greatest challenges for online degree programs, this is an oversight that can’t be underestimated.

Market penetration and enrollment aren’t guaranteed, even for the most well-known brands. Launching a higher education program requires market assessments, search strategies, and detailed marketing investment plans. Without these inputs, your program development team may end up launching in an oversaturated market or failing to gain adequate search volume, ultimately leading them to cancel the program after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars on a project that wasn’t commercially viable to begin with. 

Including higher ed marketing leadership in the program development process from day one will ensure your institution is positioned to meet or exceed short-term benchmarks and achieve sustainable enrollment growth for years to come.

Benefits of Engaging Higher Education Marketing Professionals During Program Launch 

It may seem like your marketing team is jumping the gun by proposing they be involved in the early stages of your launch. But, without them, your launch team risks losing out on meaningful collaboration. By planning ahead and building your program alongside your internal marketing experts or engaging a higher ed marketing agency, you’re saving your future program from a lot of unnecessary struggle.

Data-Driven Decision-Making               

Many higher education professionals have been in the field for years. Their experience through the growth and evolution of the industry plays a big role in how they lead their marketing teams toward enrollment goals. However, these well-seasoned professionals may tend to make assumptions based on their gut instincts or personal experiences. 

While this expertise can be integral to a new program’s creation, it can also lead to less discipline when it comes to understanding the state of the industry from a data-driven perspective. As much as historical trends are important, higher ed is undergoing a transformation driven by data analysis and technology innovations, and the past doesn’t always lend a hand to current decision-making. 

Internal pressure to create new programs can sometimes be misguided, led by competitive concerns or excitement around the prospect of a new project. Although team buy-in and calculated landscape considerations are important, they only make up a small portion of what should drive program development decisions. Instead, research and data should be king.

Marketable Program Names   

If you understand the importance of a tight search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, you know website word choice is directly related to student traffic. Prospective students are exploring programs online, and SEO plays a foundational role in that process. With this, program names (at the very least) need to align with search volume. Even the slightest variation in a degree program’s name can limit your reach and total addressable market.

Many program developers want to focus on having names that “stand out” or “inspire.” Ideally, you can accomplish this while also making sure that your program is discoverable. SEO effectiveness needs to be a top priority, and without your marketing team’s insight, you may overlook important details like program names and the strategy behind choosing them.

Clear Budget Expectations   

The competition in higher ed is fierce. Not to mention how the shift toward bootcamps and alternative education programs is affecting the industry. Because of this, organic content strategies are not enough to drive enrollment today. To have a chance at reaching prospective students, certain levels of expenditures are needed to keep up. 

Your institution should assess the spend required for effective marketing efforts when deciding whether or not to launch a program at all. In some instances, your available budget may not be enough, and all that money could go to waste if this isn’t clear and accounted for upfront.

Optimization Opportunities

Even when business is running smoothly, institutional leaders are likely looking for ways to free up the time their teams spend on less important tasks so they can spend more time doing work that pushes the business forward. Sometimes that means creating a costly new project management system. However, it may be an opportunity to evaluate cross-functional workflows. 

By including marketing in program development, along with learning design, enrollment, and retention representatives, you may be able to identify economies of scale and overlapping processes among different functional groups. For instance, the marketing and learning design teams can collaborate on persona development instead of wasting time and money creating personas independently, leading to stronger marketing messages and learning experiences. 

Collaboration is key, and putting intelligent, trustworthy brains in the same room almost always leads to bigger and better ideas and increased efficiency. Rather than doubling up on calendar invites to share repetitive information, use that time to strengthen your marketing efforts as a collective.

Shared Goals

As you embark on creating a new program, you need to set enrollment goals and marketing benchmarks to measure your efforts. To do this most effectively, you should include representatives from all the departments that will have goals to hit in the discussions for setting them. 

Leaving team members out can create a disconnect between goals, budgets, and tactics. Although five hundred enrollments would be great, that’s likely not realistic with a $10,000 marketing budget, for example. You’ll need to steer clear of unrealistic expectations and get everyone on the same page, so the entire team is satisfied with the progress and results as you move along. 

4 Higher Education Digital Marketing Tips for Developing a New Online Program 

Now that the marketing team is looped in from the start of the process, here’s how they can impress the rest of your team members with ideas and suggestions for a well-planned program launch.

1. Gather Research

Bring together as many key stakeholders as possible to discuss program ideas. Consider team members from marketing, enrollment, retention, and student services, as well as faculty and administrators. Kick things off with research and brainstorming. All involved parties should come prepared with ideas, insights, and data around the current landscape in their field. This is an opportunity for the team to closely examine the market and narrow down the best programs to explore.

2. Perform a Market Feasibility Study 

Beyond the initial market research, a market feasibility assessment should be done. The exact framework of this exercise will depend on the strategies you typically employ, but it should start with the basics. What is the monthly search volume for the program you’re considering? What does the keyword difficulty look like with this in mind? What are you up against in terms of organic competition? 

Once you’re able to answer these questions, you can take it a step further. Consider how many leads per month you might need to hit the marketing benchmarks you’ve set up to define success. Knowing what you can spend, do you have the ability to compete for those leads? Getting a holistic understanding of your cost per lead (CPL) is essential to determining how much you’ll need to invest to generate enough leads that will generate enough engagement in this specific market and, ultimately, enough enrollments.

3. Conduct a Readiness Assessment

Once you’re clear on what’s required to be successful for the launch, consider how feasible it all is for your launch team members. At Archer, we typically work with a “Good/Better/Best” model. This way, we can understand what is absolutely required, what the nice-to-haves are, and what would be the best case scenario. 

Knowing these different levels of execution is helpful when you’re assessing the readiness and availability of the different departments that will be involved. Since you ensured everyone was included from the beginning, you should have some idea of each team’s preparedness as you head into this exercise. 

4. Collaborate on Marketing Guides  

Institutions will often develop a new program with each functional group operating separately. And because each of these groups are disciplined, they’ll often do some sort of discovery on their own, on top of what the launch team prepared when laying the groundwork. 

For instance, you wouldn’t believe how many times we’ve received different persona documents from multiple sources within the same organization. Not only does this mean teams performed unnecessary extra work that could have been avoided, it also weakens the impact of the personas. 

Aligning on things like unique value propositions (UVPs), positioning, voice, and messaging as a team allows for smarter, stronger results without wasting any resources. Just like every other part of the planning process, strategic marketing guides should include inputs from anyone who will be working on the contents of these guides. 

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late to Bring in Higher Ed Marketing Experts 

Your marketing team is a key component in the success of every one of your programs, whether they’re old or new. Higher ed marketers spearhead the process of bringing your programs to the public and ensuring that prospective students have accurate information and realistic expectations about them. Looping marketers in from the start will create more collaboration among your team members, operational ease, realistic goal setting, and so much more. Set your launch team up for success and strengthen your program development with the help of your marketing team. 

If your Good/Better/Best models require more resources than your marketing team is able to provide, Archer Education can help. Archer partners with dozens of institutions to help them overcome program launch and enrollment challenges using tech-enabled, personalized enrollment marketing and management solutions. Request more information about Archer’s full-funnel engagement strategies and digital student experience technology.