It is a no-brainer to suggest Internet marketing for
promoting distance learning courses. Most of the target market is, by definition, online.
It is harder to actually plan that marketing when you realize
how fragmented the audience is.
Take Penn State World Campus, for example. It has enrollments
from every continent (including Antarctica) and offers courses
and qualifications in everything from "Addiction Studies" to
"Writing Social Commentary."
The difficulty for Jesse Trahan, the Marketing Associate charged
with Penn State's brand-level marketing, was finding the right
online venues and vehicles to reach such a disparate target
Although Trahan used a variety of online marketing, he
had stopped running general banner campaigns.
He explains, "They tend not to be as targeted, or they just don't
perform, or the traffic they do send through does not convert."
Nevertheless, last year he found himself exploring the US News &
World Report website. Among other things, US News' print magazine
is a top source of college and university rankings and
Despite his reservations, Trahan decided to test a banner
campaign on the magazine's website because advertising on the
online version was cheaper than print (which he could not afford) and offered more targeted exposure.
"I can advertise exclusively on the e-learning page within their
education section. I know that anybody who's going to that
specific page is definitely looking for e-learning opportunities:
which is what I'm offering."
Trahan spent just under $10,000 on a trial campaign, testing
banners and skyscrapers pushing awareness of World Campus as well
as promoting specific Masters and BA programs.
Click throughs from the trial were "above normal" and Trahan was
very pleased with the support and reporting provided by the
venue. Importantly, the click through data World Campus recorded
matched usnews.com's reported results very closely. (Note: this
is not always the case online, and can be a source of strain
between media buyers and sellers.)
Armed with promising results, a trustworthy site and a venue with
the right reputation and audience, he decided to scale up to a
There were four key factors for success:
Factor #1: Banner arrangement
With skyscrapers out-performing banners in the trial, Trahan
initially thought of just doing the former. He eventually
chose to go for a full-page coverage package, with:
o top and bottom 468x60 banners
o a small badge unit above a skyscraper on the right-hand
size of the page
He took full page coverage because the publisher offered a "great
deal" on the package in response to his initial skyscraper-only
inquiry. Trahan also wanted to tie up the site's inventory to
keep out competitors.
"I know there are other universities trying to get on that page.
So it's either take as much as I can or share it with other
Factor #2: Impression volume
To tie up the site, Trahan looked at the monthly impressions
available and bought enough to ensure dominance of the pages
across the duration of the campaign.
Factor #3: Set the timing
The campaign ran across the first half of 2002. World Campus
allows you to take courses anytime, but potential students still
follow traditional prospecting patterns.
"People still have in their minds that spring is the time you
enroll for school; specifically January as far as pure lead-
generation goes and spring for overall enrollment."
Factor #4: Refining creative (Link to samples below)
As in the trial, the advertisements either promoted World Campus
as a whole (click throughs were directed to the World Campus
homepage) or the main programs offered (where click throughs went
to the homepage of that program within the main World Campus
Trahan and his in-house design team watched the performance of
each different banner and optimized the creative accordingly. The
result was a 3-rule design framework:
1. Make sure people understand this is a Penn State product.
"The important thing for us to get across is our brand. In
the US especially, Penn State is an extremely strong and
recognized brand in education."
2. Identify the offer.
"Make sure they understand exactly what the product is."
3. Clarify what makes the Penn State offer different to a
similar offer from elsewhere.
"For example, our Masters in Adult Education is a more
practical and practitioner-oriented course than others'."
The team adapted the 3-point rule according to the limitations of
the size of each ad. "With a badge, it's probably just going to
be brand and product. You don't have room. With a skyscraper it's
brand, product and maybe two or three unique features."
The campaign's average click through rate was
2.34%. To put this in perspective, many online advertisers
would be extremely happy to get .5%, and ecstatic to get 1%.
Individual top-of-page 468x60 banners tended to have a click
through rate approaching 2%, the skyscrapers anywhere from 2.5%
to almost 3% (remember that banners and skyscrapers were
Trahan has not (yet) analyzed the success metrics beyond clicks,
largely because he is satisfied that visitors sent from USNews.com
are well-targeted prospects. (Note: We at Sherpa would suggest
he track landing page results to see if these can also be
optimized for this traffic.)
Besides, even if the clicks are not converting to prospects or
applicants at a phenomenal rate, he say he at least knows
usnews.com is a good place to be in an overall branding sense.
"The direct response is important, but the awareness generated is
a HUGE bonus."
Tracking clicks has shown him that the banners need to feature
what he calls universal and unique messages.
He explains: "A universal message is basically something that any
online university can offer. People have to realize that this is
an online education opportunity and it has the same advantages as
Once the universal message is there, Trahan says it is the "brand,
product, unique feature" message that reels them in and "closes"
Trahan attributes the higher clicks for skyscrapers simply to
having more space to communicate the universal and unique
Five key things Trahan has learned about banner ads:
1. Even Penn State's most effective banners grow stale at a
maximum of six months. He does not need to change the message,
but must at least freshen the design.
2. The best banners stand out from the surrounding site, but
without clashing; a balance between blending in and remaining
"I'm not going to put a yellow banner on a page that's
dominated by yellows, yellow backgrounds and yellow graphics.
But nor am I going to use day glow orange on WSJ.com."
(Note: Trahan's success may reflect the fact that it is often
smarter to optimize your banner for a particular site, than to
optimize creative across a range of sites.)
3. Publishers may have banner specifications, but it is often
possible to push the limits a little, such as using a slightly
larger banner file size. Trahan: "I'll submit it and hope I
don't hear back from them. If I do, then I'll change it!"
4. Although electronic media are relatively new, nothing beats
old-fashioned research and due diligence. Make sure the
website's demographics match those of your target audience,
and that your message is in line with what you are offering.
5. Place brand or logo elements at the top and bottom of your
skyscrapers, so no matter which half the visitor's seeing on
the screen, at least they know who the skyscraper's from.
Trahan's repeating the campaign this quarter and taking the
opportunity to experiment with some new design approaches.
While the 2002 campaign relied on solid backgrounds, blocky
letters and straightforward, simple messages, the 2003 banners
feature such things as different color gradients and floating
animated geometric designs.
Trahan wants to retain the legibility of the message ("somebody
needs to be able to read this within a few seconds") but attract
more attention to the banners in the first place.
His concern is that regular visitors to the e-learning pages have
eyeballs trained to move just to the things they want to absorb.
Banners are not one of those things. The new designs are aimed
at "trying to shake it up, untrain the eye a little, and move it
back on to the banners."
Samples of six Penn State banners & skyscrapers:
UsNews.com e-learning pages
Penn State World Campus Site