Seeing students as customers helps UW Platteville expand to national audience

Posted: 10/09/2013
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For the past two years, Karen Adams, corporate marketing director at the Distance Learning Center at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, has helped expand the Wisconsin school's marketing reach from the 200-mile radius surrounding the brick-and-mortar campus to break into the national market. Part of UW Platteville Online's success stems from its focus on students as customers and Platteville as an institution providing a product. The online program has further helped differentiate itself by focusing on the niche market of graduate school degrees, rather than the undergrad focus of the physical Platteville campus. This defined value proposition, however, is difficult to communicate via online marketing channels like banner advertising, so UW Platteville Online still works with many high touch channels including phone calls, personalized emails and face-to-face meetings.

Karen Adams will be speaking about the shift in viewing learners as customers at Effective Marketing for Online Education, which will be held December 9-11 in San Diego. Check out our video interview with Karen above or a text version of the Q&A below. For more information on Karen, click here.

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You'll be speaking about the shift to seeing learners as customers in online colleges and universities. Can you explain how that shift happened and what it means for your specific institution?

I think it happened fairly gradually, but it has definitely accelerated with the increase in online education offerings and so suddenly students realized that they had more than one option. They didn't just have to go to the college down the street or around the corner or where their dad worked or whatever the case may be. All of sudden, they had this huge menu of opportunities. So students began to become very savvy shoppers. They're technically consumers now, rather than just being a student — and I say "just" in the kindest of ways. There are just so many more opportunities now, so they are definitely a customer and we are now providing a product.

Getting more in depth in your institution, I know you work for the University of Wisconsin System, which has a combination of online programs and brick and mortar institutions. What is UW's general attitude toward the future of online degrees?

Well, obviously we're embracing it whole heartedly. We're one the leaders within the UW System, as far as online education goes. Many of the other colleges within the systems do offer some online education, mostly it's to pick up a class here or there or a certificate program. Our bricks and mortar campus here is basically an undergrad campus, and most of our offerings online are graduate studies. So that's kind of our niche as far as online programs within the UW System. The UW System is a little different than other state systems in that the two-year schools, the four-year schools, the PhD schools are all together in one system and each school has their niche. So, for instance, the UW Platteville campus is well known for its agricultural studies, for its engineering school and other select areas, and then we're also known at the graduate level for the online education.

I think there's two schools of thought in terms of expansion in online degree programs. One being what you suggested: Carving out a niche and getting a monopoly within your system or even more regionally than that. The other one is growing and having more and more programs to get more students. It sounds like UW Platteville has gone the niche method. Can you explain the thought process behind that?

We have grown at a nice steady pace and offer programs that respond to business, industry and economy needs rather than offering everything to everyone or trying to be everything to everyone, we have grown in specific areas that we feel will provide students with a long-lasting education that will be very relevant throughout their careers.

I'm wondering about challenges. That's always a hard thing to talk about. What do you see as the biggest challenges you're tacking in marketing for online ed, and how are you going about addressing them?

I think the biggest challenge as far as marketing our prorgams is talking to, having that good conversation with students about what they're really looking for in a program. Are they looking to just get through quickly? Then, we're probably not the school for them. Are they looking for a really good quality program with an institution that has a reputation and a history? Then, we're the right school for them. I think that's the biggest obstacle in marketing is you can't always say all of those things very quickly when you're doing web banner advertising. So you have to find other ways to get that thought process across to students. So we try our very best to get them to talk to us. We do so much phone calling or telephone conversations and face-to-face conversations for being an online school. But that's really our best way to get those thoughts across to people.

Segueing into another topic I wanted to touch upon: the preferences and behaviors of your prospective students. I imagine over time those have probably evolved in terms of how they're reaching out to you. It sounds like you're using high touch methods to reach out to them. Have you seen their personal preferences change?

Their personal preferences have changed, although that personal touch remains. They really like that. One thing that we do see is that they're making decisions much more quickly than they had in the past. So that doesn't give us as much time to make as many touch points as we would like. So students are very much researching, finding out what they're looking for and making a decision fairly quickly. They're also making those decisions closer and closer and closer to the deadline for getting registered, for getting apps in, for all of those things. And I think that's just a sign of our busier times. I think it's a sign of an economic up turn where more folks are working more hours.

I want to talk about marketing channels. You've talked about phone calls and face-to-face interactions. What other marketing channels are you exploring?

Prior to the last several years, our marketing focus was really in about a 200-mile radius of our campus. A lot of that had to do with the fact that our name was known here. There were plenty of students that we're right for online education. So obviously that's not going to sustain us into the future. We've really had to do a lot of work in the last two years to break into the national market and make a name for ourselves alongside some of those other schools that you see everywhere you go. So that's been a huge paradigm shift for us, to take our name to the national level. So we have really aligned ourselves with a lot of professional organizations that align with the majors we offer.

With the integrated supply management degree, we've aligned ourselves with the Apex organization as well as ISM. We go to their national shows, we talk to them face to face, so we're really working to find those markets that will benefit us. As far as channels, obviously more and more web advertising, less and less print advertising. Also, we have more of a focus on social media and live chat. We do have a sustained communications plan that we use for all prospective students through getting their application completed. So on day one, they receive a phone call. On day three, they receive a personalized email from their admissions specialist. And from there on, those admissions specialists have a communication plan, so those students are continually getting the service they need.

Talking more about the tools and technologies you're using: It sounds like you're utilizing an email-based system, you also mentioned social media and banner ads. Are there other ones we missed in that conversation?

LinkedIn has been very good for us. We do a lot of PR through LinkedIn as well as a lot of advertising there. With the professional organizations, the social media is just exploding. And thank goodness we have people who keep up with that because it changes every day and you just have to stay on top of all of those things because that is where people are looking.

Before I let you go, the big buzz word right in online education is MOOCs. Has that craze affected UW Platteville Online and more specifically your role in marketing online higher education?

We haven't participated yet in MOOCs. We're kind of taking the lets-watch-and-see-what-happens approach. We do have people who are keeping their thumbs on the pulse of that at all times. We haven't seen a lot of kickback from students at this point. We definitely have different types of students, and for some students, MOOCs are absolutely right. They want one or two classes. They want to not necessarily get in depth into an entire degree program, and those are a great alternative. But we're still seeing a huge number of students that really want that degree. They want that master's degree because they know that will take their career to the next level. So we're seeing people who are very career focused, very long-term focused. So it hasn't really affected us yet, our student population hasn't fallen off. It's not like they're all jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at this point. We certainly talk to students about it when they call. We have that conversation: Is this right for you? Is that right for you? Obviously, we want the right fit for a student because that's where they're going to be most successful.

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