Moving (On)Line: 3 Tips to Strengthen Your University's Brand Through Online Programs

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Demand for online learning is at an all-time high.

Student preference for online learning is accelerating and this demand is driving a proliferation of new online and hybrid programs in the market. As colleges and universities compete for students in an increasingly crowded space, it is crucial to differentiate beyond modality (online versus on ground) by building compelling and highly-visible brands.

I recently teamed up with long-time Everspring partner Toby McChesney, Vice Provost for Graduate Programs at Santa Clara University to co-present a webinar and share insights and best practices for building a brand when moving programs online.

86% of colleges and universities report increased prioritization for online learning
Chloe 6 Report, Quality Matters and Eduventures Research, 2021

The Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University is a private, highly-ranked regional school in the heart of Silicon Valley. In 2017 they engaged Everspring to develop, launch and manage their online MBA (OMBA). Our mission was to bring a high-impact OMBA program to market that leveraged the innovation and technology for which Silicon Valley is known, and that built on Santa Clara’s brand reputation as a close-knit community. Since launching the first program in 2019, Everspring has helped SCU scale its MBA program to more than double in size and enabled Leavey to ascend to a nationally ranked online program. Most recently, the OMBA was ranked No. 3 in the Poets&Quants Best Online MBA Programs of 2022, ranking No. 1 in academic experience and career outcomes.

In the webinar, Toby and I discussed how Santa Clara translated the in-person curriculum of their MBA to an online format while creating a strong brand and reputation.

Here are some of the tips and insights we discussed:

1. Build Your Program’s Brand Equity

Building brand equity is about building trust with prospective students. Prospects are looking for flexible programs, but not at the expense of quality and reputation. At the end of the day, students want to enroll in a program they can be proud of and you can validate your brand through association with third party organizations and participation in rankings. Here are a few channels we’ve found successful.

  • Rankings shape student and public perceptions and are great quality indicators—they also build your brand and create buzz. There are many rankings providers out there, so choose those that build the most value for your brand. Since launching the first program, in two years, the SCU OMBA rose to #25 in the US News and World Report ranking.
  • Strategic partnerships with professional and trade organizations lend credibility and extend your reach. Be purposeful in working with reputable third party organizations like AACSB and GMAC, that offer an entry point for students exploring program options and expanding your reach.
  • Current students and alumni are your best brand storytellers and evangelists. They provide uniquely relevant and meaningful perspectives that resonate with prospects. Engage students and alumni through online events and referral campaigns to build pride and community.

2. Focus On Building Genuine Connections With Prospects

To win students in this competitive market, you need a proven marketing strategy to identify your target students.

  • Identify your target audience. No more guessing who your targets are. Identify and segment your market to enable growth across your program offering.
  • Make your brand personal and relevant. Forget stock images—images of real students, and relatable stories are most engaging because they are authentic.
  • Be consistent. Students are sophisticated consumers, and they are most certainly cross-shopping you against other programs. Ensure your touch points are intentional and consistent.
  • Empower faculty to strengthen your brand. Give faculty the tools they need to be successful, and bring them into the fold when planning your marketing strategy.

3. Build A Robust Brand Advocacy Loop

Building advocacy among students, alums and your community accelerates your brand​. Continual investment in your students and alumni focused on building culture and affinity will pay dividends.

  • Stay engaged with alumni well after they leave campus. Alumni involvement in your marketing builds excitement and affinity for your brand.
  • Engage students and alumni as brand ambassadors—they are your best spokespeople!
  • Reach students where they are—digitally. Engage your prospects through strategic digital strategies that reinforce awareness and brand connection.

Are you interested in growing your enrollment? Building your brand? Moving your programs online while delivering high-quality student outcomes? Please send us a message to connect with one of our University Partnership strategists.

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About the Author
Chief Marketing Officer at Everspring

Lisa has a 15-year track record building brands, developing products, and driving growth for industry leaders. Her successful digital and traditional marketing program management experience includes many industries with a technology focus, including IBM, Nissan, Cox Automotive, CDK Global and Cars.com. Lisa earned her Master’s in Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor’s in Business Administration from William and Mary. A first-generation college graduate, Lisa knows first-hand the transformational impact higher education can have on one’s life and approaches her role at Everspring with a passion.