Reinventing and redefining your online college program's value proposition

Posted: 09/24/2013
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For years, online college programs have promoted their convenience and flexibility. Lisa Hickey, vice president of marketing at Drexel University Online, says its time for online programs to update their value proposition to align with what prospective students are looking for. At Drexel, that meant emphasizing the high quality of the education and faculty. Students today are savvy consumers, who aren't just looking for the quickest or cheapest program, but rather want to know which online degree-granting program will give them the best value and return on investment.

Lisa will be speaking about the need to change value propositions for online college programs at our conference Effective Marketing for Online Education. The conference will take place December 9-11 in San Diego, California. Check out our video interview with Lisa above or the transcript of the Q&A below. For more information on Lisa, click here.

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I understand you'll be speaking about the fact that the value propositions for online arms of colleges and universities often have not kept pace with business and economic developments. From your perspective: How would you define Drexel Online's value proposition?

The value proposition for Drexel University resides in the quality of the education that we're providing students online. We're really focused on the fact that it's the same degree with the same well-renowned faculty that teaches on our campus and offers students the same advantages that they would receive if they were attending the bricks and mortar campus here in Philadelphia.

What steps did you take to come up with that value proposition? How has that adjusted over time?

What becomes more relevant with regards to the competitive marketplace that we're in right now is messaging that will resonate with students. With regards to the changing economic times that we're in and that takes into effect how we're going to change our messaging as well as how we stay competitive in the landscape. So it's really about going beyond the convenient, flexible, anytime messaging of online education to focusing on the very foundation of that, which, for us, is the quality of the education that we provide, the access to the same faculty that teach here on campus in an online environment. So we're really viewing online education as merely a vehicle of how students are receiving information. That is now increasingly more necessary and the economic times that we're in and the workplace environments that many of our students are in.

I know one of the benefits you are bringing up is that people going to Drexel University Online will have the same academic potential they would if they went to the brick and mortar campus. As both a traditional higher education institution and an online degree-granting program, I'm wondering: What is Drexel University's attitude toward the future of online education?

Drexel University Online was really one of the first pioneers of fully-online accredited course to fruition in 1996. Again, the quality was important then and it still is today. I think in terms of innovation in online education, we really have focused and are committed on increasing our global brand awareness and really accelerating the development and the delivery of the programs that we're offering online. We're also focused on students outcomes, so not only how convenient and flexible is this educational experience, but is it going to advance your career? Are you going to receive increases in salary? Are you going to become a better you, which is really what we focus on in some of our messaging currently. So that's important to us as well--as well as really creating target offerings for our students. Is there a need in the marketplace for a specific certificate or a specific degree and are we fulfilling that need? We really rely on not only our students, but a lot of our corporate partners that we work with to kind of direct and guide us to the needs that they're seeing in the marketplace to kind of grow the professional development of their workforce.

You alluded to these new types of programs you've added. I've seen two schools of thought present in the online education world in terms of growing a program: one would be increasing the number of degree programs offered and the other would carving out this niche where you develop a monopoly in a specific market. Does Drexel Online fit into one of those models?

I don't think we have a model per se in terms of how we continue to develop our offerings and increase the amount of offerings that we have. We've seen growth in some of our traditional offerings. It started in IT and engineering and now we've certainly seen growth within our nursing offerings and healthcare. That's probably across the board, regardless of the university that's making those offerings. That's where a lot of competitive pressure is being put and so I think within those specific areas, there's opportunities within there and there's also opportunities to go and grow additional marketplaces. So we're probably taking a little bit of both of those approaches in terms of figuring out if we have everything in our offerings that our students are looking for.

As one of the first degree-granting online programs, how have students preferences and behaviors changed or evolved in the last decade and a half?

In terms of the demographics of our students, that's pretty much remained the consistent. What we've noticed is that the students are becoming savvier with regards to when their pursuing their course offerings online. They're really asking themselves the question: Is the degree I'm looking for being offered? Is it going to make a difference in my career? Is it offered at a time that fits in to my schedule? Is my company going to help me through tuition reimbursement? How long is this going to take in terms of when I can get this completed? What's the outcome of me going through this process?

As I mentioned before, in the past I think students were really looking for "How can I get this at the most affordable rate?" or "How can I get this a quickly as possible?" Now, that has changed to: "Is the investment that I make, not only financially, but in my time, am I going to get a return on that investment?" And again that leads back to what was at the core foundation of our value proposition with regards to the quality of the education experience. So, yes, we have an offering, a lot of universities do, but in terms of the outcome and the return on investment, I think that's really the value that students are looking for now. And the value that employers are looking for. There's a lot to be said about offerings that are coming from an accredited university, from a university that has a traditional brick-and-mortar campus, and has an established brand. Those are important things that not only students are looking for, but also employers are looking for from students who attend universities in an online environment.

Speaking of these prospective students: What marketing channels are you using more in 2014 and which channels are you using less?

We've had a nice mix in terms of direct-to-consumer approaches with marketing to students as well as a lot of corporate partnerships efforts. So we've partnered with over 500 corporations to bring the value of Drexel as a benefit to employees and to the employer. We've expanded our social media platforms and we've gotten in front of students in an event format, whether it be face-to-face events for students who reside in the area or events via webinar. These are bringing more content to the students and getting them introduced to our faculty, introduced to some of the content that they might learn in one of our course offerings.

For these marketing channels, are there tools and technologies you've implemented recently?

Every marketing executive, whether it be at a university level or in a corporate setting, is always looking to measure return on investment. I think we constantly seek out new opportunities to better wrap our heads around what's resonating with our students. So we've definitely made investments in terms of getting to know our market with the help of outside research companies. I think what we'll do in the future is take that information, use it to investigate new avenues for marketing and then really try to measure our return on those investments that we're making.

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