In 2013, officials at Wichita State University set out to expand its online degree profile, targeting six programs to pilot for increased exposure through distance learning. Through an existing relationship with education technology company Blackboard, the school embarked on an ambitious digital marketing plan that in several months, increased applications to the programs by more than 117%, and doubled enrollment to more than 400 students.
Members of WSU’s strategic enrollment management and online learning divisions spoke with Education Dive to share three critical elements of planning and executing an online marketing program for high-demand degrees.
Understand industrial needs and align relevant degrees with workforce trends.
Officials agreed that the initial step to understand how to recruit students was to understand the needs of the workforce. Wichita State is among the top providers of healthcare talent in the state, in an industry that is the second-fastest growing in the city.
“We did a needs assessment on what we were doing in online learning, and developed a plan on moving forward to advance online program to advance programs that meet workforce needs,” said Senior Associate Vice President for Strategic Enrollment Management Richard Muma. “Our real goal was to develop a cadre of programs to do this, and never been to become a 100 percent online university, but just to offer those programs that are really in demand and could be easily offered online.”
Research key Internet search terms and associated costs.
While many for-profit companies use targeted search marketing to increase the potential for business leads and customer engagement, Google's digital marketing platform also presents unique opportunities for colleges and universities. Officials at WSU say that the key is identifying the terms which are affordable, but which are also likely phrases for prospective students to use in searching for online degree programs.
“We were able to leverage data from our office of planning and analysis to identify students who had been enrolled in these programs, and we parsed out that data using information that Blackboard has,” says WSU Online Executive Director Mark Porcaro. “Through that partnership, we’re able to find out who these potential students are and what they are looking for."
"From that, we might take a search term like ‘online nursing’ which is really expensive, but we refine it to ‘online nursing in Kansas’ and refine it even more. And then we make sure that our AdWords displays have extensions which highlight key feature of our program, like retroactive credits, lower tuition rates and scholarships that are available. It’s a mixture of art and science.”
Drive students to targeted messages about future success, and keep faculty involved.
While some experts believe that technology has reshaped the concept of targeted marketing, WSU officials say the effort yielded tremendous results for their initiatives. The biggest challenge; making sure that departments were ready for an influx of applications and new students.
“We did a lot of pinpointed search terms, bidding on adwords through Google, and then we retargeted them with display ads. These were a lot more effective and then retarget visitors to our microsites. Instead of doing push marketing, we are finding students searching for specific careers and degree opportunities, and we happened to be there with the right wording to make sure that we’re seen,” said Porcaro.
“We make sure our department chairs and deans know how we’re doing with applications and interest levels, so they can manage if they need to hire more faculty or to increase the cap on course sections,” said Porcaro. “We haven’t been pushing to upward boundaries, a few programs we’re looking at and telling department chairs that they’ll need to add a few more faculty members to handle capacity. But that’s a problem we want to have.”