Google’s "Zero Moment of Truth" changes online marketing at Northeastern

Posted: 11/26/2013
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The landscape of online degrees is becoming busier, and it’s increasingly more difficult to stand out from the pack. There’s also the reality that prospective students often will select an online degree program without contacting the admission’s office or visiting the campus. They just submit an application. This process mimics the Zero Moment of Truth, a phrase coined by Google that marketers need to understand and support the behavior of the customers before they’re in front of a metaphorical shelf.

"Our website is now our number one marketing tool," said Julie Corwin, executive director of marketing in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern. "When you think of it as a marketing tool without the intervention of someone walking into your school, coming into an open house, you have to start thinking: What is valuable to the prospect in that decision?"

We sat down with Julie Corwin to learn more about how Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies has changed its marketing efforts in the last few years. Check out the video interview above or the text version of the Q&A below. Corwin will be speaking at our upcoming event, Effective Marketing for Online Education, December 9-11 in San Diego. For more information on Julie, click here.


You'll be speaking about the 'Zero Moment of Truth' in online programs, which is this idea that half of all online students today never contact or visit a program before enrolling. So how has the Zero Moment of Truth affected your work at Northeastern?

The Zero Moment of Truth started as the First Moment of Truth—something Procter and Gamble coined in the ‘80s to describe the moment where a shopper is in front of a shelf, and you have a split second really to make an impression. Google has reinterpreted that and said, actually, for shopping and decision making, a lot of that has moved online, and we need to make sure that before they're even in front of a shelf, that we're present to support or understand the behavior of the customer. For higher education, what has happened at least for the College of Professional Studies, the Zero Moment of Truth has changed a lot of the decision making because there's so much content online that your prospective students can now get almost 100 percent—if not 100 percent—of the information they need to make a decision without ever picking up a phone, without emailing, without going to an open house. They go straight to application.

It changes things in two ways. One is you feel like you've lost control of the message, so you have to really shift through where those messages are and ask: Are those messages tailored to what the consumer really needs? The second thing that is really dramatically changed—and this is me presupposing that the consumer no longer wants to always pick up the phone—prospective students feel like they’ve got plenty of information, so they’re going to make the decision. That said, when you're on the Internet world, our competition is now anyone they can look up. So our competition is no longer regionally. When you're online, prospective students' decision can now go from four prospective universities to 20 or 30 or 40, so the competition has changed because of that quite dramatically.

Because the Zero Moment of Truth, our website is now our number one marketing tool. A lot of people say, "Of course. It has been." But when you think of it as a marketing tool without the intervention of someone walking into your school, coming into an open house, you have to start thinking: What is valuable to the prospect in that decision? It's nothing truly radical, but it's hard to deliver on. What is it really like? We get that question a lot. What is it like to be a student at Northeastern? And we need to help answer that in a real way. We have an initiative now this year in our team, we call it 'Make it Real.' We're trying to not just have a nice pithy quote from a student who's saying "I love my degree" or "My master's degree in regulatory affairs has gotten me a new job." That's true most of the time, but it doesn't sound sincere. So what was it like? We're starting to try to figure out how to make the information more real to the prospective students, so it's believable, but also give them an idea if this program is right for them, and what it will mean for them. So the Zero Moment of Truth has rocked our world. It's changed everything.

Northeastern has a brick and mortar campus as well as a variety of offerings online. Students can get education from professors who teach at both the brick and mortar campus and on the online program. What is the general attitude of Northeastern about online degrees?

I am so glad you asked that question, but not for the reason you think. We are a brick and mortar school. We've been around for over a hundred years. We also have online learning. People can take our degrees fully online, but I think it's time for us to no longer use the phrase 'online degree' because there isn't any difference between a degree you would get through an online learning modality as opposed to doing it on campus. I have started to strike that phrase from my lexicon, and hopefully other people will drop it, too. These online programs are developed for people to learn and to advance, and I'm actually in a program myself. They're extremely challenging and you learn an enormous amount, but there's really not a difference with what you end with at the end of the day. So brick and mortar degree v. online degree, no difference.

One of the things I wanted to follow up on in your initial discussion about students and accessing them: From your perspective, have the behaviors and preferences of prospective students changed in the last few years?

It's hard to say that their needs have changed or what they're desiring. I think people are much more in tune to getting a degree that's actually going to help them get ahead. The College of Professional Studies is designed for that person as well. We have a group of students who are ambitious and driven. Professionals lives are full and they can't take two years off to get a master's, but they know it's extremely important. So a lot of the graduate students are looking for things that will help them get ahead or change careers. We won't have the English literature master's. It would be a master's in project management—something very applicable to people's work lives. We have a master's in leadership; we have sports leadership; we have a very popular master's in regulatory affairs as well.

What kind of tools do you use to help market to these prospective students?

In the past year, we've updated the tools that we currently use. We have a marketing automation system that has been really instrumental in helping us push a lot more online. That has been extremely helpful, and it sits on top of Salesforce, which is our CRM system. The technology is focused on the tools we use to manage marketing programs. If you want to go further into what we're delivering, we're delivering more video, more inforgraphics. We are using a lot more engaging techniques that would interest people as opposed to the written brochure.