Higher Ed New Degree Program Marketing Checklist

by Belfort Group | Higher Education , Thought Leadership
September 10, 2018


Are you launching a new degree program? Here’s how to make sure you have what you need to market it.

Colleges and universities need constant innovation to stay ahead of the competition. To continue to attract the ever more demanding, time starved and financially challenged population of prospective students, successful schools are in the new product development business. Differentiating your degree programs’ curricula, format, timing and costs from competitive schools is essential for success. We’ve built this checklist based on our experience marketing undergraduate and graduate degree programs as well as continuing education, degree completion and certificate programs. We hope this information launches some lively conversation about higher ed enrollment.


Have you conducted market research?

If you have, hats off to you. But sadly, many schools do not do their homework. They believe they understand what’s needed in the marketplace and create programming to meet that need. The problem is, their belief is internal—not external.  To determine if a new program is viable, research on the following topics are required: understanding the marketplace, trends in employment and education, industry and employer workforce gaps, the opportunities for existing programs/faculty to bridge into new areas, available qualified populations of degree candidates, competitive programs and pricing – not to mention the emotional drivers of your audience. Also if your program is priced above comparable schools by as little as 10-20% without any real or believable differentiators to support the higher price, it could mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful launch. For adult and continuing education audiences, prospective students will do their research and make value judgments. In addition, if you are unsure of what benefits prospective students are seeking and you communicate the wrong benefits—campaign performance will be negatively impacted. Seek input from research and preditive modeling experts who can help you piece together the puzzle prior to launch.


Do you have enough time?

No matter how much time you have before launching a new program, the marketing team always feels up against the deadline. Yes, the first class is coming right up, but so is the next class and the one after that. Take a step back and reflect on the program you’ve created to make sure it accomplishes your goal—attracting students to a new program. Be mindful of the typical timeframes for consideration by prospective students, which can range from 6-18 months or more. If your program is not a perfectly suited match to market demand, you may need the full 18 months to recruit the first cohort.

Do you have the marketing resources and budget to support the launch?

New degree programs require more planning, investment, nurturing and marketing exposure than existing programs. Depending on the degree of “newness” and just how different the program is from competitive offerings, successful enrollment marketing could require a herculean effort. Educating the public about why a program is well suited to candidates and employers is challenging, especially if the program is not all that unique. Moreover, launching programs that are totally new and innovative—and new to the school—require human resources and budget above and beyond what is needed to market existing programs because they are often treading into uncharted territory. Prospective students need to be convinced there is a path beyond the diploma in their career or field of interest.

Do you have strong media relationships?

Third party coverage of new degree programs not only helps build awareness but also provides excellent external, expert validation that can move candidates from lukewarm to filling out an application. If you do not have dedicated media relations support, or the central communications department is too overtasked to devote time to the program launch, retain an outside marketing communications agency to secure coverage in mainstream consumer, business media and/or education verticals.

Does the Dean support it? I mean really support it?

In addition to time and attention from administrators, faculty and marketing, the dean must be fully invested in making the new program launch a success. By fully invested, we mean committed to making a substantial time and monetary investment in the program development and market testing – as well as the integrated marketing and communications campaign to reach prospective students, parents and alumni.

Got Creative?

Your new degree offering is unique. Now is the time to launch a creative idea that builds awareness and generates word of mouth. When the new MS in Innovation degree at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business was launched, we developed a creative content marketing strategy —The Whiteboard Innovation Challenge—which included a giant sprinter van wrapped in whiteboard material that prompted people to draw their ideas for improving everyday life in Boston. People submitted photos of their ideas to a Facebook contest page where winners received a smartwatch and dinner with the Dean and faculty to pitch their ideas. We drove the van to high traffic venues and engaged with people around the city, all the while capturing opt-in leads and distributing program information. This campaign – along with sponsorships, digital advertising, speaking engagements for the Dean and media coverage about the program – filled the inaugural class in just four months and led to a double-sized cohort in year two.

Are your web pages optimized and mobile friendly?

Strong landing pages have a significant impact on time-on-site as well as conversion metrics. If a candidate is visiting your landing pages from a cell phone and the pages are not mobile friendly, you will most likely miss the recruitment opportunity since consumer attention spans are so short. In addition, all pages must be SEO friendly to improve search marketing performance and capture the “warm” visitors who are seeking a program just like yours. Be sure to provide candidates with great information and content about the new program on a regular content update schedule to entice them to enroll.

Have you nurtured your leads?

With lead capture mechanisms in place, you can regularly send content and information to prospective candidates. We always develop custom content that is engaging, entertaining and/or informative, and then create regular editorial calendars for content delivery to candidates. We also leverage preferred communications formats, whether that is email, phone, online chat sessions or text messaging. This multi-channel approach ensures that you stay in the consideration set and bring candidates further down the funnel from awareness to consideration to conversion.

Do you have process measures?

Surprisingly, many organizations do not have an intermediate step between interest (visiting a website) and ultimate conversion (filling out an application). To help filter “lean forward” candidates (those likely to apply) from the more passive “lean back” candidates, we always create info capture forms that feature key program information as well as other important content like guidebooks or webinar recordings to promote the program’s ROI. By collecting information about leads (and phone numbers) as a process measure, you can include those names in nurturing and text messaging campaigns that connect channel origin to conversions.

Do you have the right new degree program marketing partner?

There’s no doubt that marketing new degree programs require unique campaigns to generate attention and inquiry. Both the internal and external marketing teams need to have a deep understanding of the personas that will be most attracted to the program. Without fully understanding the prospective student, it’s virtually impossible to choose media channels that will yield the requisite number of prospective candidates for the first cohort. When a program is developed with a strong fit in the marketplace, and the enrollment marketing campaign is done well, it can yield a pipeline of candidates for years to come. Done poorly, failed enrollment campaigns can lead to a lack of confidence by the administration, discontinuation of the program and a negative perception of the school by existing and prospective students.

If you answered “No” to three or more of these questions—you may want to call in some backup to successfully launch your enrollment campaign.

Belfort Group uses earned and paid traditional and social media to increase enrollment for colleges like MIT Sloan, Northeastern University, Bentley University, Katz School of Business and others. Reach out and call Don Martelli Vice President 617-413-6773– we’d be happy to provide you with some free advice.

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