Posted on 25 Oct '22

Collaborative Approaches to Online Masters Recruitment in a Disrupted Online Learning World

After 15 years of delivering online degrees, and significant growth in portfolio and student population, applications and enrolments to the University of Edinburgh’s online degrees plateaued. Externally, they were affected by a disruptive marketplace featuring stackable degrees, micro-credentials and innovative pricing models; internally, the devolved University structure meant many were shouting the same USPs to the same audiences. And this was all before the pandemic catapulted online learning into the spotlight. A new, more collaborative approach was required as Lauren Johnston-Smith, Online Learning Marketing Project Manager at The University of Edinburgh discusses.

More than 140 UK HEIs offered online degrees in 2020/21 (HESA and HEIDI data), the year that online learning was catapulted into the spotlight like it had never been before. Yet this mode of study remains a constantly evolving one. At the University of Edinburgh, we found that working more collaboratively internally helped us market our portfolio of 70+ online postgraduate degrees.

Global searches for online learning remains high

Google Trends is a great tool for seeing what people are searching for. As you can see, there was a huge increase in searches for “online learning” in March 2020 as people sought a course to fill their lockdown time and searches remain well above pre-pandemic levels.
Demand for online study has remained high, as evidenced in this FindAUniversity article which highlights a 3.7% average monthly increase from July 2021 to May 2022 for global user searches in online learning

However, it's a constantly disrupted environment

Learners today can choose to take a short online course for free, sign up for a full online masters or do something in between like taking a credit-bearing course that can be stacked up to make a bigger ‘alternative’ credential. The pricing picture is also constantly evolving – learners can pay thousands of pounds for an online masters or for just a few hundred pounds can access an ‘unlimited’ portfolio of short online courses. It’s hard for universities to compete with pricing strategies like this.

Experimenting with new collaborative approaches

Against this challenging backdrop, I decided to take a new approach to marketing our online degrees. Our institution is large and highly devolved. The localized freedom has its benefits, but often we found that we were just saying the same things in the same places. In 2019, I decided to cut across the silos and bring people together. Initially I worked with just one of our three colleges and a year later had the evidence I needed to bring everyone else on board.

Our institution-wide campaign promoted our University as a top ‘destination’ for online masters. The campaign was funded by asking for a financial contribution from all online programmes. This pooled budget enabled us to advertise on new channels, reach new markets and promote a shared message that represented all of our degrees, from Ancient Worlds to Animal Welfare.

What did we learn from this?

  • Local and universal campaigns can complement one another. As we know, postgraduate prospects will search for subject-specific keywords because they do know what they want to study, so there's still a place for subject-specific campaigns.
  • Although searches for subject-specific keywords may have lower number of searchers, these are usually high quality.
  • It was more cost effective to work together - pooling budgets allowed us to trial new platforms and reach new audiences.
  • Everyone benefited: not all our programmes had marketing budget - this campaign raised the profile of the full University of Edinburgh online offering.

What could you acheive from a marketing perspective if you collaborated more internally?

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