Extension Engine

3 Things to Consider before Spending More to Market Your Online Graduate Programs

Imagine this:

A professional wakes up on a Monday thinking, “I need an MBA.” They turn to Google and click their way to an application by that afternoon. They’re accepted into your online MBA program a few weeks later and enroll almost immediately. 

Can’t picture it? 

Neither can I. 

Enrolling in an online degree program is generally not a quick commitment like, say, buying a pair of shoes. Prospective students usually don’t click a few ads, draw some rudimentary comparisons, make a choice, and then apply immediately. 

That’s why marketing academic programs effectively is never as simple as just spending more money on ads to increase your enrollment numbers.

With years of experience developing marketing strategies for our higher-education partners, we’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are three pieces of advice to consider before you spend more on marketing.

1. Figure out how to align your messaging with your audience.

Academic institutions often view online programs as an opportunity to increase the potential audience they can reach. 

That’s definitely possible, but to ensure success, you must create compelling messaging for your target market segments — the audiences that best align with the value your program offers.

Defining what your program has to offer that your target audiences value the most is the basis of your unique value proposition.

Figuring out how to articulate that unique value is your “messaging.” 

Your messaging should be the focus of your ads, website, content assets — everything your potential students experience. 

Messaging really matters. So how do you develop it?

First, define the target audiences that best align with what your program offers and your student acquisition goals. 

For example, if marketing research indicates you’ll acquire roughly 15 local students for the first cohort and your goal is 75, local market segmentation doesn’t make sense. Instead, you might focus on region-specific segmentation across the U.S. combined with demographics such as job titles. Determining the right segmentation is a crucial part of developing the right messaging and spending the right amount on ads. 

As your target become better defined, continue researching to figure out how to reach those audiences through paid media (and how much you’ll actually need to spend). 

Through this research, you should determine the following for each audience:

What are their career aspirations? When it comes to career advancement, what do they care about the most? What will they value the most about your program and why? 

Based on what you uncover, map out what motivates your prospective students and what differentiates your program from others in the same market space. Then start to craft marketing copy that communicates the alignment of those two things — that’s your core messaging. 

Consider creating a document with tables, linking the key messages to your target audiences. Marketers often spend a lot of time on nicely designed persona slides or PDFs outlining audience demographics and interests — and then rarely reference them. You’re more likely to revisit a detailed message document as you build new campaigns and then to refine the messaging as your program and target audiences evolve. 

Defining the right messaging for the right audiences on the right channels is the foundation of your digital marketing strategy and how you can determine ad spend.

2. Rethink your current paid media strategy. 

Remember the beginning of this post, when you couldn’t imagine someone thinking about an MBA for the first time and then applying in less than 24 hours?

The marketing and admissions cycle for online graduate degree programs is long, and there are many “touches” along the way. 

When an institution’s advertising efforts are not generating enough leads, sometimes the first instinct is to throw more money into ad channels. 

That’s understandable, but hold off on increasing ad spend until you rethink your current strategy. 

Let’s look at search ads as an example. 

It may start with someone realizing, “I want to get a promotion. Maybe a good solution is to get an MBA.” 

They type “MBA” into a search engine, and up pops your ad. They don’t click this time, but your brand is visible. You’ve created an impression.

Then their seriousness increases. This increased interest shows up in the search terms they choose. Instead of searching for “MBA,”  they type in, “affordable online MBA.” This time when they see your ad, it rings a bell. They’ve seen your name before.

They click on your ad, reach a landing page, fill out a form, and now you have a bona fide marketing lead and the information necessary to nurture it. 

So what does this mean, and how does it relate to ad spend?

Search ads are the perfect example of focusing on your target’s intent, not just demographics such as geography. That means it’s important for your institution to show up in both the general searches, like “MBA,” and the more specific and intentional terms, like “affordable online MBA.” 

The first ad didn’t generate a response, but it still played an important role in the outcome. It created a first impression upon which you could build and put you on the short list, which magnified the impact of the second ad. 

The challenge is to avoid burning up your budget on the general terms, such as “MBA,” before your efforts pay off from the more specific searches, like “affordable MBA.” 

You can get around this by controlling when your ad displays. You can add filters based on your target market segments: demographics, time of day, time of year, geographical area, and so on. This allows you to cut erroneous spend while maintaining coverage of the students you want to attract.

Limit your spend by focusing on terms that give you the best ROI by showing greater intent on the part of the searcher. If you do this, though, keep a careful eye on the numbers: You’re forfeiting the power of the repeat impression by not showing ads for more-generic terms like “MBA,” so make sure you don’t experience a drop in conversions.

Also, consider branded campaigns. A branded campaign is a type of Google AdWords campaign where you bid on search terms that include the name of your institution. For example, the search term “Your University’s Name MBA.”

I realize this may sound counterintuitive. If someone searches for your organization, you’d certainly be high in the search results, right? Why pay for an ad if you are going to be prominently displayed anyway?

To answer that question, Extension Engine Demand Generation Manager Drew Katz recommends doing a search on your own program and several others. Go ahead and give it a try...

In many cases, the institution in the search term will, indeed, rank at or near the top of the search results. But above them there will likely be an ad, and if they didn’t invest in their own name, it may be an ad for a competing school or program.

When someone searches on your name, you want to own that space — and the impression the potential student receives there. Don’t take the chance that an ad for another program, or someone’s else’s article or blog that merely mentions you, might dominate that space. Also, branded campaigns tend to be more cost-effective and may offer higher ROI. 

Before you increase that lead-generation budget, take a second look at how what you’re already spending is working and determine what you can do to increase conversions without increasing spend.

3. Nurture, nurture, nurture.

Given the importance of the decision and the investment involved, a typical prospective student conducts a significant amount of research as they explore and compare various programs before they apply to any.

That’s what makes lead nurturing so important. Without the right nurture programs in place, spending more on ads is unlikely to increase enrollment. 

Effectively nurturing a lead goes beyond sending deadline reminders and nudges to “Apply now!” It means examining your prospects’ path, from inquiry to application to student, and providing the information — and eventually the admissions support — required every step of the way. 

At first, your prospective student may be unsure that they even need the type of graduate degree you offer. At this awareness stage, your messaging would have to demonstrate what this degree can do for them. 

Focusing on the value of the degree based on their needs helps build a relationship of trust, and they will begin to view you as an authority. 

At the same time, through digital marketing technology, you should be tracking their activity to better understand where they are on their journey to enrollment. 

As a prospect progresses from awareness to demonstrating more seriousness about your program, you’ll want to track lead behavior such as:

  • Engaging with consideration content that describes your program
  • Attending an information session 
  • Scheduling a call with your admissions team 

Doing any of these is a good indication of seriousness, and through your marketing automation system you can build triggers and workflows to nurture prospects as they move from the awareness to decision stages.

“Effective nurturing is about delivering the right message at the right time to address what your lead is thinking and needs to hear most.”                               — Drew Katz, Demand Generation Manager, Extension Engine

Don’t overwhelm leads with complete program information at the outset. It’s more effective to reveal information one step at a time in response to where they are in their decision-making process. 

At some point, their behavior will indicate a readiness to apply, and you should support them with the appropriate application-related messages. 

Think big picture, not big spend

In a perfect world, applications for online graduate programs would be turned around in a day. In reality, it takes a strategic marketing approach to drive enough applications to hit your student acquisition goals. These three pieces of advice are part of a much bigger picture. The bottom line? Be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to digital marketing. 

Being proactive means identifying target audiences before you launch new campaigns. It also means conducting research to determine the optimal channels to generate quality leads and crafting messaging that aligns with those audiences to build assets that work for your ad channels. 

Once campaigns launch, review your current strategy before upping your spend.

Last but not least: Nurture, nurture, nurture. 

A graduate application isn’t built in a day and neither is your marketing strategy. But with the right strategy in place, you can meet and even exceed your student acquisition goals, and you might not even need to spend more to do it. 

Keep learning

What are the financial implications of developing multiple online learning programs? And, beyond that, what are the organizational and strategic implications?

This financial model can provide your school with insights into the inflows and outflows over 5 years and up to 5 separate programs: Multi-Program Financial Model for Online learning.


Rebecca McNeil

Rebecca McNeil is the Director of Marketing Services at Extension Engine. Her team recognizes that recruiting learners requires expertise in digital marketing. This includes SEO and retargeting, but also understanding the value proposition that appeals to each learner persona. With a background in B2B product marketing for the learning technology space and consumer marketing for an education company, Rebecca’s experience lends itself to learner acquisition. She is a graduate of the University of Vermont with a BA in English.

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