What the Data Say About Marketing to and Recruiting Online Students

Aaron Mahl, PhDVice President, Graduate and Online PartnershipsJune 22, 2022

Where do online students start their search? What supporting channels do they use to advance their search? How do you maximize the impact of a limited budget? How do you get your intended target to click (and enroll)?

These are just a few of the questions we discussed in a recent in-depth exploration of what new RNL data on prospective online students search practices and decision-making priorities means for marketers and enrollment leaders.

Watch this 3-minute excerpt and then watch the 30-minute webinar.

Among the topics we discussed are:

Search engine optimization (SEO)

With upwards of 90 percent of online students indicating that search engines were among the primary ways they looked for programs, it is critical that search engine optimization is priority. This is not a “one-time” project, but an ongoing effort that continuously reflects the changes happening in search patterns. A significant investment needs to be made in ensuring that when students enter their search terms—which 70 percent of the time do not include an institution name—your programs shows up high in the results.

Social media content preferences

It’s not surprising that Facebook is the top platform in program search for undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree students, but what caught our attention is what prospective students want to see once they’re on a social media site. Video tops the list, but not just any video. They want authentic, student-focused content, with a smattering of other perspectives. Why? Because even though they intend to study online, they want to feel a part of a community. They want to know that where they’re investing their time, energy, and their resources is a legitimate place with real people.

Channel diversification further down the funnel

Only one-quarter of respondents indicated that podcasts were used in their search for or research about online programs, but that’s a huge increase over a few years ago. RNL consultants are seeing increased movement and diversification in channels being used further down the funnel and podcasts are gaining traction. This is not surprising because content is king and podcasts generate content. They present an opportunity for you to showcase content in a way that increasing numbers of people want to use—audio.

Clicks and personas

Three-quarters of online students—regardless of level—click on the digital ads they are served, so this approach isn’t one that can be ignored when developing your marketing strategy. This strategy works best when the ad, the message, and the channel align with the right person. Too few programs are developing research-driven personas of the intended student, and when personas are built, too few programs build a single persona for each program. It is critical that programs develop at least two personas – unless they can honestly say that there is only one kind of student who enrolls in their program. We’ve heard “we just don’t have time.” When you think about it, what could be more important to prioritize ensuring that the precious dollars you are spending on marketing are “landing” on the right target?

Watch the full webinar on online student marketing and look out for more in our upcoming series

This webinar was the first in a series of deep dives into the most important segments of the data gathered in RNL’s survey of 1,600 prospective online students (published in our 2022 Online Student Recruitment Report).

Our next deep dive webinar (on June 28) will explore the data on just how important “speed to lead” and “speed to accept” is—and what institutions can do to meet those expectations.

About the Author

Aaron Mahl, Vice President for Graduate & Online Partnerships

Dr. Aaron Mahl possesses broad knowledge and experience in all areas of enrollment management including recruitment, retention, marketing, and the strategic use of financial aid. He joined RNL in 2013 delivering enrollment management consulting and...

Read more about Aaron's experience and expertise

Reach Aaron by e-mail at Aaron.Mahl@RuffaloNL.com.

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