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Adult distance learners are a difficult demographic for colleges to attract. It’s not like targeting high school students within a certain radius and knowing that many of them will be interested in you simply because of your location.
Ronald Kennedy faced this dilemma when he became Executive Director, Distance Learning and Graduate Studies, Liberty University, about 2 1/2 years ago. He was charged with increasing the college’s distance learner enrollment, which was about 12,000 students when he took over. At Liberty, adult and distance learners are almost one and the same -- 60% to 70% are 30 to 45 years old.
Adult distance learners also can enroll at almost any time, unlike traditional college students who typically start in the fall. And there’s plenty of competition from colleges like The University of Phoenix, which offers courses to working adults online and in local learning centers nationwide.
“It’s a very competitive field out there going after the adult learner,” says Kennedy. CAMPAIGN
Kennedy and his team devised a strategy that focused heavily on online ads, interactive lead generation and Liberty’s brand identity to attract adult distance learners and keep them interested as prospects.
Here are the seven steps they followed:
-> Step #1. Analyze demographics of each degree program
Kennedy and his team first conducted a detailed demographic analysis of each of the college’s more than 35 distance learning degree programs.
They compiled this data by:
o Extracting the student profiles of each degree program
o Breaking down profiles by gender, age, household income, etc.
o Matching the demographics to websites for targeted advertising
“We get a lot of traffic that we can’t effectively source back to any particular channel,” Kennedy says. “That relates directly to our strong brand identity.”
-> Step #2. Leverage existing brand
Next, they took advantage of the school’s reputation for having one of the oldest distance learning programs. The team also leveraged the college’s conservative faith-based approach to education in their messages to stand out from secular schools offering online courses.
-> Step #3. Target online ads to matched websites
Kennedy and his team ran banner ads primarily on two types of sites:
o Ones that appealed to the demographics of Liberty’s online degree programs
o Ones that affiliated with education, specifically online education
“We’re targeting a student who is potentially going to take classes online, so there’s already an affinity that they live online.”
An example of matching demographics to degree: They advertised the school’s seminary degree program -- with a 95% male demographic -- on sites that appealed to Christian men.
-> Step #4. Qualify the leads
Prospects who clicked on the banner ads were directed to a landing page with a form containing qualifying questions to weed out those who weren’t a good fit. “On the back end, we do append some information to the lead to try to tell us internally who’s most likely to convert more than others, and we’ll gear our strategy in-house to that,” Kennedy says.
Qualifying these potential students was very important because adult learners are expensive leads to generate and nurture. Adult learners often won’t enroll in an online degree program for up to a year after giving their information to Liberty. This means the team has to spend more money to keep the brand name in front of the lead for extended periods of time and they didn’t want to waste money and internal resources on leads that weren’t going to convert.
-> Step #5. Invest in matching services
Kennedy and his team also spent some of their marketing budget on a service that matched programs with students to develop more qualified leads. Here’s how that worked:
- The service provider used search engine marketing and an extensive keyword campaign to drive traffic to Liberty’s website.
- Then, they collected the demographic and contact information from the leads and matched them with the most compatible degree program at the university.
“We liked the strategic analysis they were willing to provide on the leads we were getting to help optimize and bring in better quality, as well as analysis they did with SEO and purchasing,” Kennedy says.
-> Step #6. Create landing page
Higher quality leads were directed to the landing page, which included a description of the university and information about it being ranked No. 3 on the Online Education Database’s 2008 list of online universities in the United States.
The landing page asked visitors to enter:
o Phone number
o Good time to call
o Degree program of interest
“The easier you make that form, the more leads you’re going to get,” Kennedy says.
As soon as visitors submitted their information, they received an immediate reply email. They also received a telephone call within 15 minutes. This was an extremely important part of the nurturing strategy because “in this business speed wins,” Kennedy says.
That nurturing strategy consisted of three parts:
Part 1. Phone call
Telemarketing calls were the No. 1 method Kennedy and his team used to follow up with qualified leads. Leads remained in the phone rotation for up to six months, and call scripts changed based on the stage or length of time a lead was in the rotation.
Part 2. Email
Email was second -- and the longest lasting of the three strategies because it was the cheapest.
Early on, emails were sent frequently. The further the lead was in the sales process, the more spread out the emails became. As with telemarketing, the messaging in each email changed at each stage in the sales process or based on how long the lead was in the process without taking action.
The emails contained:
o A link back to the school’s distance learning website
o “Real life” situations in the messaging
o Emphasis on the ultimate goal
o Call to action
Instead of just telling adult learners how convenient online classes were, the team described how inconvenient it was to find a baby sitter after work or to fight traffic to take classes on a campus. They juxtaposed that scenario with coming home, making dinner and then working on the computer for a couple of hours to take classes.
The team also invited leads to call or email the university for more information or to chat live with an admissions counselor or academic adviser online from the school’s distance learning site.
Part 3. Direct mail
Direct mail was No. 3. “We try to hit them with all the different communication styles that are available to keep our name and brand in front of them vs. our competitors,” says Kennedy.
With direct mail, the school sent one to three pieces over a shorter period of time because of the cost.
-> Step #7. Test, test, test
The team analyzed traffic patterns and continually looked for more effective keywords. They also conducted split tests on creative, including the online ads and landing pages.
Testing was especially important when determining how many qualifying questions they should ask a lead, Kennedy says. The team did split tests between longer, more detailed forms vs. shorter forms.
Enrollment in Liberty’s distance learning program shows the campaign’s overall impact: in 2 1/2 years, Kennedy and his team have seen a 108% increase to more than 25,000 students.
o 3% to 5% clickthrough rate on banner ads with targeted audiences
o 0.5% to 1% clickthrough rate on paid search ads
o 2% to 5% clickthrough rate on trade name search
o Higher clickthrough rates on Christian sites vs. secular sites
“I think through doing more target marketing, more demographic type research it’s really paid off in terms of what we’re seeing at the back end as far as enrollments,” Kennedy says.
As for how many questions they should ask a lead, the shorter forms proved to be more successful, Kennedy says. But it was a balancing act. “We’re constantly honing out how many questions we’re asking vs. how many we’re going to have to qualify.”Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from Liberty University:
CourseAdvisor - helped generate qualified leads:
Ronald Kennedy's blog:
Liberty University’s Distance Learning site: