The rise of virtual education and the marketing response

12 minute read

With COVID-19 keeping millions of students at home, virtual education transformed from being a convenient alternative to a necessity. Even as the pandemic begins to subside in some countries, students are wary of an immediate return to brick-and-mortar universities. Additionally, studying at home has shown itself to offer solutions to a variety of problems - from high travel and housing expenses to less travel time and reduced distraction.

In Australia alone, more than a million students from 43 universities are staying at home, waiting for the pandemic to wane.  With offline education gaining in sophistication and quality-of-experience, no institution can afford to sit on its hands hoping the new normal will resemble the old. Tertiary education providers are being forced to adjust their marketing strategies to cater comprehensively to both online and offline students, and hybrids of the two. 

With universities and other education institutes all over the world working hard to adjust to new demands, we’ve tapped into our international networks to share what we felt might be instructive for Australian educators. We hope you find the results of our search helpful.

What is changing in the education sector?

With borders closed and numerous restrictions in place, more students are choosing universities with virtual education as an option. In some Australian universities, the percentage of distance learners exceeds 79%. While learning remotely, students are discovering cost-cutting and time-saving benefits.

Meanwhile, institutions are working hard to adjust to new needs. Even if a university had an online course offering before COVID, a major transition to virtual education poses many challenges.

The hybrid remote experience

Instead of moving the entire lecture format online, universities are considering a hybrid remote experience. They share lectures that don't require face-to-face interactions over learning platforms in bulk. This cuts costs tremendously while saving time for both students and lecturers. 

For lectures that require a personalised approach, universities arrange video conference calls and face-to-face interactions (when possible).

This hybrid remote learning experience doesn't just save money and effort, it can also reduce the time it takes to complete a tertiary qualification - a major benefit to students looking to move on with their careers or further study.

Universities may also be considering creating branded learning platforms to deliver a unique student experience. 

IT infrastructure

For the online learning experience to proceed smoothly, universities are updating their IT infrastructure. To ensure fast real-time interaction, leading institutions are investing heavily in next generation technologies coupled with fast and secure software. Many universities faced the need to triple their access to bandwidth in order to accommodate a viable online classroom experience. 

While current technologies can help deliver seamless online learning, not all universities, (let alone students) have the financial resources to support them.

The technological gulf between wealthy and underprivileged institutions and students has the potential to lead to unacceptable gaps in education quality. With the inability to support high-quality video-audio speeds and connections resulting in a poor learning experience, students without the latest laptops, stable Wi-Fi connections and video-conferencing capability would be significantly disadvantaged.

Some universities have established schemes to assist underprivileged students to acquire the equipment they need to successfully study online - a relatively small investment in ensuring a uniformly high quality educational experience.

Teaching the teachers

For lecturers, the lack of experience with online learning can lead to poor quality instruction and reduced student engagement..

With virtual education gaining momentum, some universities are developing specific resources for their instructional staff. These can include the development of customised apps, links to IT tools and support, FAQ forums, training tutorials and course checklists.

The social experience

Online education doesn't obviate social interaction with other students, but changes it drastically.

Even if a university is offering  a high-quality instructional experience with video-conferencing software and chat platforms, online interaction simply cannot replace offline socialisation. This is one of the major challenges faced by universities when trying to market virtual education.

Some universities are solving this problem by training professors to facilitate online socialisation through conferencing technologies. Interaction is stimulated through mediated discussions and debates. Others are creating virtual meeting places where students can locate those with similar interests and begin to build their networks.

Cutting costs (or not?)

Students all over the world are demanding fee cuts for online learning. Some universities are responding to these demands by making significant adjustments.

Many universities, however, are facing substantial expenses related to the transition from an offline to online educational experience. These investments in software, hardware and training could negate savings achieved through not having as many students on campus.

Countering this is the fact that the virtual education model allows larger class sizes without diminishing the quality of the educational outcome. Universities have an opportunity to re-route savings from cutting staff (both academic and general) to improving the technical infrastructure. 

Examples of successful virtual education marketing campaigns

While virtual education comes with many benefits, it can be tricky to promote. For many students, tertiary education is an opportunity to leave home, travel to a new country, and start a new life. Doing this in the comfort of their own home is virtually impossible.

Universities are responding with creative marketing campaigns to ensure high enrolment numbers during the pandemic and beyond.

At DPR&Co, we believe the key to success here is to shift the thinking paradigm away from the imposition of COVID on in-person learning to focus instead on how the pandemic has accelerated a shift toward freedom of choice, promoting the new student experiences that have been created and how this freedom can contribute meaningfully to students’ lives. We feel a bold adoption of this approach could offer something new and true around which an institute could build a compelling position. Our approach to distilling this value is called The New Real for good reason.

Meanwhile, after scanning some international institutions from North America and Europe, we wanted to share some initiatives we felt were noteworthy.

University of Michigan – Pinterest campaign

The University of Michigan launched a Pinterest marketing campaign that highlights all the programs, including the online offering. More than 680,000 people view the page every month, including prospective students.

High-quality photos pique the interest of many applicants, who are researching universities online.

Lesson learned: With more than half of the world's population using social media, SMM (social media marketing) is an efficient way to attract potential students.  

Johnson & Wales University — Career-oriented blog posts

Johnson & Wales University created a series of blogs, in which it described the career benefits of choosing virtual education. It framed the value of working and studying simultaneously, taking advantage of flexibility, and focusing on subjects that interest students the most.

With these blog posts, the university appealed to students who were looking for a faster way to complete their studies while making the entire learning experience more pleasant.

Lesson learned: By creating high-quality content and promoting it through SEO and SMM, it's possible to highlight the benefits of virtual education and make it more appealing to some potential students.

Southern New Hampshire University — Student testimonials

Southern New Hampshire University based its marketing campaign on student testimonials. Current students wrote blog posts and filmed videos in which they described the benefits of online education.

Hearing about the benefits from students themselves rather than from the university or parents went a long way toward boosting the enrolment figures.

Lesson learned: The power of word-of-mouth marketing works for online education promotion.

Fleming College — Specific audience 

Fleming College is focusing its marketing campaign on a specific segment of its target audience. It highlights the benefits of online learning for nurses from rural areas. Its distance learning program allows nurses to upgrade their skills without travelling.

Lesson learned: Aiming the marketing effort at a specific segment can bring in students with a high enrolment potential. 

INSEAD — Hashtag campaign

INSEAD university is promoting itself with  #INSEADmoments hashtag across social media. Through this campaign, it is turning students into brand ambassadors and helping applicants learn more about the university's offering, including remote learning. 

The hashtag has been around for more than a year, and it still helps generate multiple posts daily. 

Lesson learned: Giving students a tool to view related content helped the university market itself on social media without major investments. 

Changes in marketing approach with online learning in mind

Even though the pandemic is subsiding in some countries, virtual education continues to gain momentum. In order to effectively compete for students who prefer to study online, we found the following initiatives and examples:

1. Funding the hardware

Numerous online universities understand that students require high-quality hardware for their virtual studies. To bridge the gap between wealthy and no-so-wealthy students, many offer free laptops or iPads to first-year students. If a student drops out before the trial period is over, the university recalls the hardware, thus providing an extra incentive to continue studying.

This kind of support could reduce the financial burden on a student and make a difference when choosing between two universities.

Example: This is how Strayer University is doing it.

2. Enhancing the student experience

The challenge of delivering a positive student experience through online learning has led to some highly creative approaches, including virtual newspapers, student chat-rooms, and virtual laboratories. But when education and entertainment are merged, the possibilities become genuinely interesting.

Example: The University of Oklahoma created a TV network-branded online college course for credit. This interactive online course became highly appealing for students at the university and beyond. Satisfied participants became brand ambassadors by promoting the course to their peers.

3. Promoting flexibility

The hybrid education model gives students a chance to arrange their learning according to their preferences. With proper dedication and commitment, this could mean completing tertiary education faster. 

The flexibility of this hybrid learning experience could become the leverage needed to bring more students into virtual classrooms.

4. Offering free trials

Testing the university before enrolment could be an excellent marketing strategy. Offering students the opportunity to engage in free trials of online courses to help them understand what virtual education is all about.

The free trial system can also create a worthwhile orientation experience, which in turn may reduce dropout rates.  

Example: This is how Capella University is doing it. It doesn't just allow the students to check out online education for free. It helps them choose the most suitable format.

5. Turning to social media

More than 80% of students use social media when researching universities. Promoting an offering through this channel should be integral to any marketing campaign.

If the online education approach is a new part of the university's program, social media should be among the first channels to reflect the change with links to landing pages that, in turn, offer connections to information that compellingly describes the experience on offer..

The institution's presence on social media platforms is the reflection of how well it can function in the virtual world. As an example, the University of New England is promoting its orientation event through its Facebook account. 

6. Capitalising on positive student experience

More than half of marketing experts believe that word-of-mouth is the most efficient form of marketing currently available. User-generated content can become an excellent way to promote virtual education.

Asking students to share their positive experience with online education can help attract new applicants. The substance of such testimonials (both text and video) is likely to be scrutinised by potential students. Authenticity is the key here, not glossy production values. 

Example: Here is a ILSC Toronto student testimonial in which she praises the benefits of courses as well as opportunities for socialisation.

To encourage students to create testimonials, universities are employing tactics such as:

  • Incentives — offering perks (e.g free lecture, extra video lesson) to students who leave testimonials, good or bad.
  • Surveys — by asking the right questions in a survey, material can be gained for a useful testimonial.

It's also possible to set up an online referral program. This is how the University of New England is doing it. 

7. Using video content and VR

To give students an idea of their offering while stressing the quality of its lectures, it's possible to repurpose some course videos to turn them into marketing materials. An important advantage of incorporating such videos into the marketing campaign is their high sharing potential.

It's possible to use them on social media, websites, and even as part of paid ads. These videos also reflect the university's ability to create comprehensive learning content.

The newest approach to promotional video is using virtual and augmented reality.  Creating such videos has the potential to differentiate a university from its competitors. It also says a lot about the university’s willingness to adopt new technologies - a trait many students would find attractive. 

Some universities like Wayne State are already using VR to attract new students.  Universities with a remote education offering could use this technology to showcase their ability to create an immersive experience for remote learners.

  1. Creating content

Promoting online education involves creating large volumes of helpful content. Students who are searching for virtual learning opportunities online may not even consider the institution that doesn't share sufficient information about the offering.

One of the innovative methods to appeal to students with content is to live-stream lectures that discuss popular issues across the available channels. Another one is to create high-quality guest posts to generate backlinks and improve SEO efforts. 

Standard inbound marketing strategies can work for universities just as well as they do for businesses. With 67% of prospective students using search engines to research universities, SEO is an integral part of a marketing campaign.  

For example, such universities as USC, Bentley, and Tufts are using HubSpot to improve their inbound marketing efforts. 

9. Turning disadvantages into advantages

For many students, virtual education comes with some inherent disadvantages, such as the lack of socialisation, poor motivation, absence of face-to-face interaction, more opportunities for procrastination and the need for greater self discipline.

A smart online education marketing campaign can turn all these disadvantages into advantages:

  • Lack of socialisation — more opportunities for combining work and school (or take advantage of online socialisation options)
  • More responsibility — an opportunity to learn more in a short period of time.
  • Poor motivation — a chance to practice self-discipline (or work with a professor individually to create a learning schedule).

It's important to show that online learning isn't a forced alternative to offline education. It's just another way to earn a qualification.

Adjusting your marketing strategy to the demand for virtual education

The pandemic gave online learning a giant push forward. In the race to win over online students, universities are adjusting their marketing efforts.

Many institutions have been promoting their virtual offering for years. Learning from their experience can help tweak your marketing tactics to include the benefits of online education.

By digging deeper into the changes in the education environment and studying the new demands, it's possible to create a unique marketing strategy and stay ahead of the competition.

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