Low ROI on MOOCs challenges marketers to think outside the box

About this Podcast...

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are one of the most talked about topics in online higher education. These courses have grown in prominence at colleges and universities throughout the world. But the courses' low return on investment—namely their ability to turn students accessing the content for free into paying students in the future—presents an interesting conundrum for marketers of online education. Beth Smith, director of marketing and communications for distance education programs at Indiana University’s School of Education, explains that MOOCs have a positive public relations and name recognition benefit, but don’t show the same ability to generate revenue as other distance education platforms.

"It is different for me because we're finding we may have different approaches in how we market our involvement in the MOOCs," Smith said. "That may not be and hasn't been to date a substantial investment of marketing funds."

We sat down and talked with Smith about IU’s involvement with MOOCs as well as the institution’s general views about online higher education. Check out the podcast above or the text version of the Q&A below. Smith will be speaking at our upcoming conference Effective Marketing for Online Education, which will be taking place December 9-11 in San Diego. For more information on Beth, click here.

You'll be leading a roundtable about MOOCs at our upcoming event. Can you talk about how these massive open online courses have affected your marketing efforts for the University of Indiana's online education programs?

Well, I represent the School of Education and there are other units within Indiana University as well who have embarked upon MOOCs. I can speak specifically to what the School of Education has done. We've had a number of MOOCs for which our faculty have served as the primary instructors. They were embarked upon more so out of the faculty members personal and professional research interests, so our involvement was not initially driven by a marketing directive. It was something that our organization started out with several years ago for the first time. We've found that it's been a positive vehicle for getting the word out about some of the expertise that resides within the School of Education and certainly some of the related programs, meaning related to the topics that have been addressed in the MOOCs, but I can't say that we have yet determined whether or not this will be a fundamental part of our marketing strategy going forward. The challenge is tracking ROI. We have found that to date the MOOCs have not been a strong revenue-generating engine for us, but they have been a positive public relations engine for us. There are a number of factors to consider and how those things can funnel into one’s marketing strategy.

Does that change your role as a marketer? This sounds like more of a PR benefit and a name recognition benefit, but not necessarily the direct ROI that you're used to tracking with other marketing strategies.

It is different for me because we're finding we may have different approaches in how we market our involvement in the MOOCs and that may not be and hasn't been to date a substantial investment of marketing funds. But it could instead be a more substantial investment of marketing resources, such as time and investment related to promoting the MOOCs in social networking environments or in professional networking environments as opposed to doing a marketing media buy related to the MOOC. So ours have been successfully marketed to our faculty members and extensive professional networks. The most recent ones, the BOOC [Big Open Online Course] that Dan Hickey is doing was the result of a Google grant that he received. He still maintains that one of the most effective methods of getting the word out about BOOCs was through a Facbeook page that they created.

I want to go a little bit more broadly. I know you're dealing with distance education in general, so can you outline how the administration at Indiana University, traditionally a brick and mortar school, views online learning?

The university has taken a very positive look toward online learning and they've very recently developed the IU Online division that represents all of the university's aspects and endeavors toward online learning. So we're taking a more cohesive approach, but not eliminating the independence of the various units or programs to develop their online presence as they see fit. The university has taken more of a supportive role and helped identify tools and practices that are very strongly received particularly for those who may be just entering the online market or the online delivery environment. We have a pretty strong background and history in the area of online education, so we are often asked by our counterparts across campus or even at the regional campuses to serve as mentors for how to do this. How might we share some of the painful lessons learned and some of the wins that we've experienced? We've been given arguably quite a bit of license and freedom to embark upon this and look at what it may generate for us down the road.

Looking at the prospective students attracted to MOOCs—and more broadly your online offerings in general. Have you seen the preferences and behaviors of these prospective students change over time?

We've seen individuals who are very strongly engaged in their commitment to their online learning endeavors. For them, it is certainly a segue to a future achievement that they really want to solidify in their lives whether that be a professional development circumstance where it may offer them a new position in the future or whether it may be simply getting themselves prepared for the challenges they are now facing. We've all had those experiences where your find yourself surprised to see what the challenges are in your current role. They couldn't have been forecasted, but you seek out the tools to gain what you need. We also have a number of folks coming to us because they are changing careers. All of these needs are consistently given to us in the way of feedback from students. What they really want is a rigorous environment where the curriculum is strong, where for the investment of time and effort, they will leave that platform with a very strong understanding of the content, a very strong understand of how to apply what they learned in their environments, and they also want to know they've built a very good network of colleagues, peers and faculty members from who they can learn from in the future. It's very common for people to build upon those networks and keep in touch with one another particularly as they are applying what they've learned to see. We found that even though it's online, it's certainly not lacking in collegiate, environmental opportunities to really build one's connections.

Speaking of marketing channels: What are the marketing channels you're using to reach these prospective students, and will those be changing looking forward to 2014?

We are using our alumni channels for one because in Indiana, in the realm of education, professional development is a requirement. So those channels are very strong for us and continuing to build those networks and those connections who have a strong connection to IU. We're also using our current student database because we want them to look at the opportunity to expand upon their current situation, especially undergrads. They will likely need to embark upon a graduate level education at some point and it will be to their benefit to evaluate at some point if their online program will be more beneficial to a residential platform.

We're also extensively using our professional networks with associations and other environments like that to get the word our about our programs. We found that one of the best introductions for us have been the certificate programs whereby they are predominantly 15 credit hour programs. They do generate a certificate of graduate level achievement from the university and they are often great segues to accommodate the professional development needs and transition an individual into the decision of a degree-seeking program, whether that be a master's or a potentially doctoral program down the road. So we found that these are very helpful to us all the way around, and we're not at this point able to say that a particular channel works better than others because we've targeted these through e-blasts, through social media, through face-to-face presentations in classes. We've done a number of different methods, but we haven't yet tracked the perfect scenario whereby we know exactly what the tipping point was and what the trigger was for that student to make the decision to enroll. So that will be the next challenge for us.

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