First, Win at Home.
If you can’t figure out how to win the enrollment battle at home, there’s little chance you’ll win somewhere else. This is why it’s imperative to focus on your local market first.
Fully leveraging home court advantage requires a hard look at the effectiveness of your current brand strategy. Since online programs should never be viewed as independent of the larger institutional brand, a tight brand strategy is often a better long-game play than leaping to national online expansion.
Bolster your brand at home by conducting a feasibility study to determine precisely who you are, who your audience is, and how integrated your brand is across channels, colleges, and departments. Only after you’ve collected this data will your path to increased brand salience become clear. Take the time to do it right and build up your presence in your local area. If your offerings aren’t resonating with those who know you, why would someone unfamiliar give you a shot?
Then, Advance to Regionals.
If you’ve seen success with local marketing and branding efforts and you’re still looking toward expansion, incrementally increase your presence by strategically identifying opportune markets in your region. Look for areas with similar demographics to your community, similar demand, and ideally lower supply. If your institution offers any novel programs, find comparable communities that have a need for those programs with little or no competition. Once you identify these market opportunities, implement the same branding best practices that earned you success at home.
If You’re Still so Inclined, Go for the Big Dance.
If national expansion is still in your sights, you must come to the dance with a robust brand, a multitude of programs, and a formidable budget. As Eduventures pointed out in their 2014 Regional Online Opportunity report, “after nearly 15 years of rapid market growth, only 3 percent of [national online education] providers now command 45 percent of total national market share.”
To get the necessary brand exposure to succeed at a national level, and to compete with big names like Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University, your budget must be able to accommodate a large number of ads in a large number of communities. The tough reality is that reaching the exposure threshold for ads placed in a national market is often extremely cost prohibitive for smaller institutions, and the jump to the national court is often too large, too soon.
Immediate national expansion is, unfortunately, an unrealistic, but often sought-after, goal for many schools struggling to drive online enrollments. When you look at the success of the national heavy hitters, it’s easy to understand why. But the road to success isn’t in emulating these national powerhouses, but by first beating them at home. In your local community, your brand—including your online offerings—has home court advantage, an advantage that can’t be underestimated when appealing to today’s outcome-driven, post-traditional student looking to return to school online.