Agile principles a necessity in marketing for online colleges

Posted: 10/28/2013
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Marketers in the world of online education often don't have the luxury of time and monetary resources to hedge any big bets. All marketing needs to be tied directly to metrics, so these marketers can quickly change tactics if a marketing channel is performing poorly. Rob Kingyens, chief marketing officer and chief technology at eCornell, champions the use of agile principles in marketing for online education. The marketing team, for example, used A/B page testing to determine that advertising the tuition for certificates as something people could pay monthly rather than in one lump sum yielded more registrations.

Kingyens will be delivering one of the keynotes at Effective Marketing for Online Education. Check out our video with Rob above or read a text version of the Q&A below. For more information on Rob, click here.

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You'll be speaking about using agile marketing for online colleges and universities at our upcoming conference, Effective Marketing for Online Education. Can you talk about some of the benefits of adding agile and some of the potential downfalls?

I think part of the thing to look at first is why would marketing teams even consider this whole agile principle? A lot of marketers, and it doesn't matter if it's online education or not, are dealing with all kinds of different changes going on in the market that really didn't exist five or six years ago. Some of these changes include the hundreds of possible channels that you can look at. Those channels might be LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter. As a marketer, you have to choose which channels do we use. Then, there's numerous ways you can connect to your audience through these channels, so that could include video and blogs, webinars, or even chats like we're doing now. And on top of that, you're dealing with multiple devices. So, if it's online learning or online marketing, you're dealing with laptops and tablets and smart phones, and on top of that, there's all of these new marketing technologies that never existed before. It's almost like every week there's some new technology or some new pitch from a pitch to marketers that will improve your marketing. So with all of that, the issue here is there are all of these different things hitting marketers, so there's tons of rapid change. There's all kinds of rapid response times you have to do. So the quick example is this year's Super Bowl: Oreo came up with this great ad that was really spontaneous because of the black out. A lot of marketers said, 'Wow, that's great!' but a lot of marketing teams don't have a way to really be reactive to that.

That's where agile really comes in. In traditional marketing, you do a lot of up line channels. Whether it's trade magazines or billboards, you really don't have the data to show how that's working. Now, we're in a data driven market. So, if you're a marketer, now you're accountable to ROI and have to show where that data is. That leads up to all of these things that impact marketing. All of us are dealing with limited time, limited resources and limited budgets, we have to decide how do we react to this. That's where agile marketing comes in. How do you define who your audience is? What are the proper channels, proper timing? Five years ago, if you were launching a new program in online education, you're thinking 6-12 months ahead. You're thinking about the campaign and you're kind of guessing what we think the impact or the ROI would be of that campaign. The reality is, if you look 6-12 months ahead, what we thought was going to happen is generally not exactly what did happen. So that's where agile comes from. We really don't know what's going to happen, so it's accepting that, and it's looking at it from the perspective of: How do we understand our audience? How do we collect data? How do we do a lot of small experiments and tests rather than try to do a big bet.

Marketing used to be a lot of big bets. You kind of hope it has ROI. If it's an online learning program, you hope it draws students to your program, but in reality, you really didn't know. Now, if you're a CMO of an institution, you're probably going to a group of executives or a board and now you're going to have to communicate data. So agile basically promotes, you don't know what the results are going to be of a certain tactic. We try it, we track data, we learn from it and then invest time and energy in the things that are working and very quickly eliminate the things that are not working.

Can you give us an example of how agile has been used as part of the marketing strategy at eCornell?

A lot of us online marketers use landing pages. We may have ads that are on something like Google Ad Words or Facebook and you drive that customer to a landing page, so we've done a lot of landing page testing. I'll give you an example: We do online certificates through Cornell. That audience is primarily people looking at professional development. The price points of these certificates is generally $2,000 or more, so our assumption is we would get better engagement if perhaps we offered payment plans where it's more affordable for someone to pay monthly. We ran A/B testing where we split the audience going to our pages. The first viewer would see the full price of our program, and the second viewer would see the option for a payment plan and then what we did is put markers on the landing pages. How many people would actually contact us for more information? How many people would chat with our enrollment counselors? Even, how many people would watch a video that would explain the value of the certificate? So that's an example where we found there was actually a direct relation to the price point and engagement with potential students. We ran several tests like that, and we found that we have a 30-40 percent higher response rate when the student perceived that it was more affordable to pursue that certificate.

You mentioned marketing channels and different ways you approach agile marketing. What kinds of marketing channels do you use? How do you see that changing in future years?

We definitely have a focus on the channels where data can inform our decisions versus what I call more traditional channels that are offline channels. In the past we may have spent more of our marketing spend on channels like direct mail or trade shows or trade publications. We're really shifting ourselves away from those because now we have systems and tools that can see the data and results and how it engages with potential students. We're putting a lot more energy into things like search engine marketing, so that includes Google, Bing, Facebook. Content marketing is another area where we can see the data and the results. And so I think more of our energy is going to those areas and less offline, not that we totally eliminate offline, but it's just so much easier when you can track data and make decisions based upon real information than guesswork.

Lots of colleges use Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn to reach out to prospective students. What about other platforms, such as Pinterest and Twitter. Do they play a part in your marketing efforts?

We'll create infographics and we'll post those to Pinterest and other social networks, and they may not have the direct tie where someone might see an inforgraphic and decides, 'Oh, I'm going to enroll in a program.' There's tools like Google Analytics where you can see that certain people viewed that inforgaphic on Pinterest or another channel and it influenced someone actually becoming a student. So we use all available channels, and we're always assessing if it's effective or not. And if it is, we continue to use it.

Speaking of these prospective students, how have you seen their preferences and behaviors changing as these marketing channels and technologies are changing as well?

I'd say one of the biggest ones is mobile and I think we're seeing that students — both when they're taking courses and even before when they're making a decision — they're coming to us from a laptop at work or at school then on their cell phone, then on a tablet. One of the biggest challenges of a marketer is being able to track and identify the same person who is switching devices all of the time. Another area students are interested in is collaboration. We're seeing more that students want to collaborate with other students online and also faculty that are in the courses.

Looking forward for you, what do you see as the biggest challenges you face and marketing for an online program, and what steps are you taking to address those challenges?

In general, as an organization, I think it's a little more broad, but I think time and focus. It's probably one of the biggest challenges we deal with, whether it's on the marketing side or actually developing a program. There's so many different technologies and desires of students that it's really difficult to find what do we focus on. So ultimately what we try to do is try and focus on what's going to make an impact the customer over making decisions that are based on technology or following the latest trend going on. Overall, it's trying to focus through all of this noise going on in online learning and focusing on what really matters, which is the student.

When you talk about this noise, it makes me think of something that's made a lot of noise in online education: MOOCs. It's gotten a lot of airplay in the mainstream media and it's certainly something that's caused a stir in higher education. Has that at all impacted your job in marketing for online education?

It has quite a bit actually, and I definitely hear what you're saying — there's a lot of buzz and there's a lot of people who are pro and con for MOOCs. From my role and in general the organization, we see it as a good thing. For myself, I've been in the online learning market for 15 years, and in some cases, what MOOCs have done, at least in the academic world is really brought the story up front where people are talking about it. So for us, it's opened up a lot of new conversations about online learning. It's provided increased exposure to Cornell and eCornell where people are now exploring online learning who may not have. We've offered free courses through different MOOC channels and it's a way to expose our brand from a marketing side for people who may be more passive buyers. They may be contemplating getting additional learning and this is a way to try it out to get exposure to the brand. There are still lot of things that are yet to come that I think a lot of people are figuring out, but I think it's a good thing overall.

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