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Mistakes you might be making when marketing online programs

May 14, 2021, By Tess Arena, Director, Product Marketing

The online graduate market is bigger than you might think. Enrollments in exclusively online programs accounted for 31 percent of all graduate enrollments as of fall 2018. And as my colleague, Will Lamb, wrote, enrollment in online graduate programs grew 6.6% on average from 2013 to 2018—compared to a 1.8% average decline in face-to-face enrollment in graduate programs during this time.

But growing online enrollments doesn’t make it easy to recruit students to online programs. Enrollment leaders have to compete against online programs offered at regional competitors and programs at a handful of online mega-universities—think Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors, and Grand Canyon University.


"Competition is extremely intense in the online space. Local competition still plays a role, but in recent years, we’re competing with large, dominant online players."


Marketing Leader

Adult Learner Recruitment Partner School

These online giants spend more on marketing annually than most four-year institutions’ entire OpEx. And because most colleges and universities can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with these online giants, enrollment leaders have to be strategic and ensure every marketing dollar spent is yielding a return.

Dollar amount each institution spent on advertising and promotion, 2017

  • Southern New Hampshire University: $139M
  • Grand Canyon University: $117M
  • Western Governors University: $88M
  • Liberty University: $17M
  • Median total OpEx for all four-year institutions, 2017: $87M

Here are a few of the mistakes your institution may be making when marketing to and recruiting online learners, and how to address them.

Develop and Market Online Programs in a Post-COVID-19 World

You aren’t identifying students from the right sources

During a recent webinar, we asked 100+ graduate and online enrollment leaders to share the challenges they faced when marketing online programs. 45% said identifying and reaching right-fit prospects remains their biggest obstacle. And it’s no wonder, given the number of adult learners shopping for programs without ever indicating their interest until they actually hit “apply.”

To ensure your marketing campaigns are reaching as many right-fit students as possible, make sure you’re tapping students from a variety of sources. Include students both familiar to your institution—such as your current undergrads, young alumni, stop-outs, and application starters—and students who have yet to engage with your institution. It’s equally important to use a multi-pronged approach to reach those students, whether it be identifying names from test-taker or Phi Theta Kappa lists, leveraging first-party digital targeting, or sources such as the National Student Clearinghouse and consumer databases.

It’s also important to continue to test new sources of prospective students. The targeting analysts in our Adult Learner Recruitment division conduct dozens of pilots every year to identify new sources of prospective students, ranging from YouTube to Cappex. As my colleague Savon Sampson shared recently, no matter how sophisticated your marketing strategy is, it’s not working if it’s not reaching your best-fit students.

How One University Expanded its Audience and Grew Enrollment by 6%

Your marketing doesn’t address students’ concerns about online learning

Even as demand for online programs grows, students’ concerns—and in some cases, misperceptions—about online learning remain a challenge for enrollment teams. Several of my friends and family who have considered going back to school have asked me, “Will I get to know my professors and classmates in an online program?” and, “Won’t an online program be easier than on-campus one?”

The Top 5 Graduate Programs to Launch Online

To best market online programs, institutions should acknowledge and address students’ concerns about online learning proactively in marketing materials. And we’ve seen in the data—and heard from our partners—that content addressing these concerns is popular with students.


"Our foundational content about what online learning is and how to succeed in online programs has some of the highest engagement rates."


VP of Marketing

Adult Learner Recruitment Partner Institution

EAB’s team of copywriters and creatives uses our research into online students’ preferences, needs, and goals and analyses of high-performing marketing copy to craft the collateral that will best address students’ concerns about online learning, like the ones listed below.

  • Student concern: "I won't get to know my faculty or peers."

    Sample marketing copy: Our online programs provide personal attention from faculty as well as opportunities for meaningful interactions with your peers.

  • Student concern: "Online programs aren't as challenging as on-campus programs."

    Sample marketing copy: Our online programs use the same accredited, rigorous curriculum and world-class faculty as our on-campus programs.

  • Student concern: "I won't have the same kind of support services available to students on campus."

    Sample marketing copy: From day one at Nelson U, you will receive 24/7 access to to the technical, academic, and financial support you need to succeed.

  • Student concern: "Employers value degrees earned in person more than degrees earned online."

    Sample marketing copy: Graduates of our online program gain the same competitive edge as in-person learning, leading to strong success rates in a variety of fields.

Your marketing isn’t based on student intent

Although most prospective students will benefit from content that addresses common concerns about online learning, no two students’ journeys  are exactly like. Each student’s unique motivations, priorities, and challenges will impact which marketing messages inspire them to learn more about your online programs.

To ensure you’re delivering a messaging that will resonate, adapt your marketing according to students’ intent. Monitor students’ digital signals including their engagement with your emails and paid search ads to uncover where the student is in their journey to enrollment. And consider deploying short surveys to help understand each student’s interests and hesitations when pursuing an online program. Once you know more about a student’s goals and needs, you can tailor your marketing messages to address those topics, as illustrated by Johnathan’s story below.

Sample student journey to enrollment in an online master's program

Meet Jon, a working parent seeking a promotion, but concerned about balancing school with work and family.
  1. Awareness stage

    ABC University targets Jon on LinkedIn, given his career profile.

  2. Consideration stage

    Jon takes ABC U’s quick surveyhe shares his concerns with balancing family and work.

  3. Decision stage

    Jon gets an email about ABC U’s online MBA with a testimonial from a student who is a working parent. He engages.

  4. Application stage

    Jon receives personalized messages from admissions and ads that remind him of upcoming deadlines.

  5. Jon applies to ABC U


While these strategies are important in the growing online market, they can also be applied to your face-to-face and hybrid adult-serving programs. Students have come to expect personalized marketing—and are eager to hear from your institution about ways your programs, online or otherwise, can meet their needs.

Tess Arena

Director, Product Marketing

Read Bio

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