Don’t forget online learning in your university marketing

University marketing often focuses on the campus experience, so what should institutions do to make prospective students aware of their online course offering?

Ari Badlishah's avatar
11 Apr 2023
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University of Edinburgh

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University marketing efforts tend to focus on reaching prospective campus-based students, yet many institutions now offer online degrees.

Online learning is no longer an alien concept. However, many people still feel daunted and sceptical about online degrees, especially those who have never studied online before.

But there are big benefits to studying virtually. It provides global accessibility, flexibility and the opportunity to learn from top universities. Most online degrees have part-time options, enabling students to continue working full-time, and they usually cost less than campus degrees. So how should marketers effectively communicate these benefits to prospective students?

Based on my experience, here are four approaches that help:

Have clear information about online degrees readily available

There should be a section of the university website completely dedicated to online learning, so that these courses are clearly differentiated from campus degrees. It can be difficult for a prospective online student to know whether certain information is relevant to them or only to campus students, so make a really obvious distinction.

Depending upon what your institution offers, you might want to create separate pages for application information, tuition fees, scholarships, support services and resources specifically for online students.

It is helpful to provide resources for prospective learners to understand how the technical aspect of studying online works – from the virtual learning environment (VLE) to interaction with course mates.

For a lot of universities, location is a huge selling point – especially if it is a nice city. For students who do their degrees remotely, it is more important to communicate the prestige and teaching quality of your institution. However, this doesn’t mean that the city aspect is completely irrelevant for online students. One student recently told me they chose my university because they wanted a beautiful city in which to graduate in person at the end of it all.

Make sure you have contact details for the team specifically dedicated to answering queries for online students too.

Represent online learners in promotional photography

We all know what typical photographs in university marketing materials look like. Groups of students around locations on campus, laughing together while carrying their textbooks and backpacks, or students taking notes in classrooms or writing essays in the library. So how can we make sure online students are represented too?

It might be worth forking out some budget for photography depicting online learners on their devices (laptops, tablets, mobile phones) and engaging with lectures and course materials. Placing university merchandise also helps to add an element of branding to the photos and make it obvious that they are not generic stock images. See examples at the top and below.

Student chatting to peers online

Organise online open days and events

If you expect learners to study remotely, you must make the effort to reach out to them remotely too. Just as open days and tours are conducted on campus, it’s important to engage with prospective online students digitally for a more personal touch. Online events should provide an opportunity for them to learn more and ask questions, as well as to connect with others interested in studying online.

Online open days are a great way to hold sessions featuring students and staff who talk about what it is like to do an online degree at your university. It’s an opportunity to dispel any doubts prospective students have about this mode of study.

Here are some examples of questions I get from online event attendees almost every time:

“Can I work a full-time job while studying?”

“Do I have to attend the lectures live or can I watch recordings?”

“Will I get sufficient support from lecturers?”

You can hold focused sessions offering valuable information about the application process, fees and funding. This is also a great time for lecturers to host programme-specific virtual sessions and meet prospective students.

Obviously, not everyone will be able to make it for the live sessions because of other commitments and time-zone differences – so be sure to send recordings of the event to all the people who signed up.

Feature online students in university communications

Finally, highlight stories and achievements of online learners in all university communications, physical and digital – this means the prospectus, brochures, magazines, bulletins, social media, alumni publications and so on. You might want to create dedicated social media accounts to promote online learning.

The aim is to make sure everyone at your institution knows that online students exist, given that the majority of students at most universities are those studying on campus. You want to make sure your university is equally known for being a top online learning “destination”.

Hopefully, more targeted and comprehensive marketing will help drive higher-quality online degree applications. It’s time to tell the world that online degrees are taken seriously at your university and show that online students are just as valued and visible as campus students.

Ari Badlishah is digital engagement officer in the online learning marketing team at the University of Edinburgh.

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