Creating a Communications Strategy For An Online Program
Online education is an increasingly common strategy for growing enrollment, improving retention and expanding course offerings to students outside of the traditional on-campus setting. However, an important but often overlooked consideration of any online strategy needs to be the “customer experience” for online students, beginning at the potential-student stage and continuing post-graduation. In this web seminar, originally broadcast on October 7, 2014, attendees learned best practices in communicating with online students throughout their stages of interaction with an institution, how to form a marketing strategy that attracts students and drives enrollment, and how to create a successful online experience that fosters learning and contributes to student success.
What does a student’s customer journey look like? It could start with viewing a banner online, typing a search term into Google, attending a virtual or live open house. It could be anything that will get that person to have interest in the program. First the person is thinking about research, looking for the right fit. Do I have all the tools? Do I have all the information I need to make a decision? Then the candidate decides to apply. What’s that process like? How did that feel? Is it fully supported? Then, the person gets accepted and is excited. How is that person welcomed into the program? How well is that student supported throughout the process? Then, after graduation that person becomes a recommender, and this whole cycle of influence takes over. Today’s media world is really cluttered. Marketing and messaging is all about connecting to the right person, at the right time, with the right message. Think about all the different messages that come at us—you are sitting at home with your TV on and your computer on your lap, with your iPad next to you and your phone within inches. You can have different messages occurring in all these different places. So it’s important to ensure that all the messages your program sends align with each other, and that wherever someone wants to accept messaging from you that it’s available.
There are lots of different ways that we can share information. It could be through search engine marketing, direct email, an online education directory, social media, content marketing, etc. At Colloquy, we spend a lot of time working with corporations to promote our partner programs. For example, if we’re talking about technology degrees, we reach out to different technology companies to make sure that we’re finding their people who could use this degree to advance their careers. We also spend a lot of time with content-appropriate conferences. Then, supporting the candidate is important. A lot of schools don’t have the staff to be able to support candidates as calls roll in, or they might not have sophisticated systems to track people and where they are in the decision cycle. When someone fills out an information form, he or she doesn’t want to wait a week to get a call back. It’s important that each interested person gets a call in minutes or hours.
Colloquy has a very sophisticated system that allows us to help build a personalized relationship, allows us to track every interaction, and allows the phone system and CRM to be integrated and connected. What’s also important about these conversations is the one-to-one communication. For us at Colloquy, each school we work with is handled by a specific team of people, so those advisors own that relationship. They get to know everything there is about the programs, the campus, the institution, the online experience. If someone calls in multiple times, he or she is going to talk to the same advisor. A relationship is built. Our advisors know when birthdays are, they understand if people are having challenges finalizing their application package and when someone might need a little push. We know that one-to-one communication builds a positive experience.
The other important piece of this puzzle is setting expectations. We manage a lot of graduate programs and we know that it is challenging to be an adult, to have a job, to perhaps be a parent, or to be charged with one’s parent’s health or something else—there are lots of responsibilities for adults who are also wanting to go back to school. We like to set expectations so that people can find the way to fit an extra 15 to 20 hours of responsibility into their lives. By setting expectations early on, we are helping people to be successful. Our programs at Colloquy are running at about 96 percent term-over-term retention, with graduation rates above 70 percent. We believe these rates are due to the positive customer experience throughout the customer journey.
Associate Executive Director
Graduate Professional Studies
Graduate Professional Studies (GPS) is one of four graduate schools at Brandeis University. We offer eight online master’s degrees and we employ our own adjunct instructors. We have a small staff of about 12, and about 600 active students taking courses across all of our master’s degree programs. Colloquy handles recruitment and advertising for two of our degree programs, and then we are able to handle everything else, from student and faculty services to program creation and online classroom support. Some of our degrees started on campus and gradually converted to online, and we started hearing from students that they were missing the social connections that they had enjoyed in their on-campus courses. So over the past three years we have worked very hard to improve services for our online students and to build community.
Our approach is very multidimensional. It includes the student advisors that we have on our staff, online welcome receptions, a personalized engagement strategy for every student, social media outreach, and online and on-campus events—all of which are equally important. We have two dedicated student advisors who work with assigned students, from the time they are first accepted to the time they graduate. We have a very seamless conversion from the Colloquy advisor to the Brandeis advisor. The advisors communicate by email, sending proactive messages at key points before and during the term. They are also available at all times to answer questions from students. Our advisors email and call students several times during the term for multiple reasons. We have scheduled outreaches and ad hoc communications, depending on what is needed. All the emails are personalized to the students with messages about course suggestions, sequencing recommendations, academic deadlines and policies.
Our advisors also check in with students who are not active in their courses or who have been identified as being at-risk or falling behind. Often our advisors get to know the students very personally, especially when family, work, or health issues arise. The student’s personal situation at home and status in the program affect the advisor’s tone in communications. I think the end of the line for most of us is graduation and beyond. We love graduation. It’s a super-busy time of year, but is very fun for us. GPS has its own diploma ceremony. We have an industry speaker and a student speaker, and we stream the event live on our website. It’s great, because some people live far away and can’t attend. But we also have people from across the country or internationally who come to Massachusetts for the graduation. The faculty and students both like it because in some cases it’s an opportunity to see each other for the first time.
After graduation we encourage students to become active in our LinkedIn groups, if they aren’t already. We also sign them up for “B Connect,” which is a Brandeis software program where students can find classmates, share news, update their contact information and post their resumes and job opportunities. It’s something that we’ve outlined in our strategic plan as an opportunity for doing more—more outreach to alumni, more networking with alumni.
To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: www.universitybusiness.com/ws100714