100% Online Programs: Just like everyone else

With 5.8 million students now learning online, your institution’s online programs are no longer novel simply for being located in the digital space.* Representing roughly 28% of total enrollment for degree-granting institutions, online learners illustrate the opportunities inherent in online education. Yet the competition is also onto this fact, and distance learning today is a saturated market. Touting their online educational opportunities are thousands of colleges and universities in the US, to say nothing of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or the roughly $107 billion dollar e-learning industry (as projected by Forbes) dominated by companies like Lynda.com and Pluralsight.com. Needless to say, the internet is teeming with institutional ads for programs that are online—the term “online” featured largely and boldly.

Yet the term “online” is far from a differentiator, and what it offers in traffic it lacks in dynamism. Like Animal House-style “College” t-shirts, higher ed marketing ads prominently featuring the term “online” will often do little to direct a student to your college. Headlines which feature terms like “online” front and center place more value on the modality of the education than the producer. What often gets lost in ads that prominently and proudly promote programs as “online” is the institution itself and why a prospective student shouldn’t just study online, but should specifically study online with a given institution.

The need for differentiation in college marketing isn’t unique to online programs. Institutions from all over the US are increasingly recognizing the need to embrace their role as a business and distinguish themselves from competitors. As Roger Dooley pointed out in a 2013 Forbes article, “one of the key differences in who survives [in higher education] won’t be the academic output of the faculty or the amenities available to students. It will be a factor seemingly unrelated to the schools’ mission: branding.” This has proved to be true in the time since the article was published, and many schools are making a concerted effort to enhance their brand identity, prominence, and integration.

Yet branding efforts often fade into the background when institutions enter the digital advertising space promoting online programs. With modality often eclipsing an institution’s brand itself, we find ourselves promoting the product category but not the product itself—and certainly not why anyone should buy it from our specific institution.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As important as “online” is, it’s importance is in its placement. The reality is, “online” describes the product, but doesn’t answer “Why buy?” It’s a necessary descriptor, but not a reason to believe. It’s valuable, but not a value prop. We’re not saying cut it out, we’re just saying cut out letting modality be the hero, rather than the unique, amazing things that actually make your institution – and your offerings – special.

In an industry as complex and competitive as ours, differentiation is key, and it’s critical to remember that when it comes to advertising:

Don’t sell the industry, sell the institution.



*Based on 2014 data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education System. 

Seth Odell

Seth Odell brings his award winning creative talent from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to Helix Education as the General Manager of Marketing Services. While at SNHU, Seth was responsible for concepting, writing, and art directing SNHU’s national advertising efforts, including its heralded 2013 cross-country bus tour campaign. Now at Helix Education, Seth collaborates closely with colleges and universities to develop their brands, craft meaningful messages, and deliver integrated, results-driven campaigns.