Voices from Accenture Public Service

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When prospective students search for an online course, they rightly expect to be able to investigate and research their options online. Most universities’ marketing strategies give students that opportunity. As prospective online students look for courses, seven out of the top ten marketing channels they report seeing are digital.  

That’s a good starting point. However, digital marketing is complex and requires considerable resources and expertise to achieve maximum effectiveness. Simply posting an ad on a digital channel doesn’t maximize the potential of engaging new applicants through targeted content and social networks. Universities need to find ways to bridge the talent gap and acquire the digital marketing skills they’ll need to meet the demands of ever-changing technology and user preferences.  

But there is an even bigger disconnect between the digital-focused marketing approach and the offline process of what happens next – after a prospective student has shown interest. For example, a prospective adult learner, looking to take an online course to build skills and enhance their employability, is almost certainly working in one or more jobs. They have precious little time. If they find the online course that they are looking for, they want to find out about what they need to do next quickly. But in many cases, they will have to wait days or even weeks for a response. There are often not any dedicated digital channels or tools that can help guide their choices. What they typically encounter is a process that functions the same way, regardless of whether they are applying for a four-year undergraduate degree or a short, focused online course.   

That’s reflected in my personal experience talking to universities. One community college system in the US offers online degrees, but the student must physically visit the campus in order to enroll. At another, the admissions process for an adult online learner is the same as a traditional campus student. The result for these universities, and many more like them, is that prospects drop out of the conversion funnel. They’ll either give up or look elsewhere.  

Because prospects make their decision quickly (61 percent say they enrolled in the school that got back to them first), they need to be engaged within minutes, not days or weeks. Universities must be available to online prospects as soon as they make digital contact – whether they are adult learners or students looking for a certification. So, what does that entail? It means transforming admissions processes with online advisors (human, digital, or both) available after business hours, which is when many prospects are researching. It means developing digitally-enabled admissions forms that require only minimal information from the prospect. And it means making sure that digital course information is easy to find and digest. 

This matters because a significant and growing percentage of prospective students are viewing tertiary education as not just a traditional four-year degree but rather a never-ending learning process anchored by online and modular training and education. If universities can’t address those changing needs and realign their marketing and processes accordingly, they risk losing a valuable share of the students of the future.  

What are your views on this? Leave a comment below and/or visit www.accenture.com/digitalstudent. 

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