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By: Sean O’Donnell

Bring It to Them: The Key to Attracting Adult Learners

It isn’t just about remote campuses and online learning. It’s about making prospects feel wanted and welcome throughout the whole of their decision-making process.

Marketing & Branding /
By: Sean O’Donnell

4 minutes

I was recently talking with the president of a well-known, but local, university that is absolutely killing it in nontraditional student enrollment. When I asked him what the strategy is that’s working, he said, “Simple: I bring it to them.”

Now, what was once a local college is turning into a statewide university enterprise with remote campuses and online learning leading the way. I am confident that if their success continues, a national presence is only a few years away. So, what are the underlying principles that drive this success?

An Experiment in Enrollment Marketing

I decided to explore this deeper and applied it to both his program and a competing state school program (which I know is struggling) to compare the experiences. The differences were vast and show why the former is successful and the latter is not. For brevity and anonymity, I will refer to the successful program as “University A” (UA) and the other as “University B” (UB).

Firstly, from the moment I mentioned UA in my search, I became targeted. Everywhere I went on the internet, from social media to the news, I got gentle reminders that UA is here, doing well, and I should consider taking the next step. Following one of those links, I was immediately given a value proposition: An easy and affordable process of learning with UA will yield better results in my career. That is what others are finding and if I get on board, I will share in that success. I gave them my information so they could get a hold of me.

University B, a very established and well-known institution, did not make it easy. I had to search for where the program I was looking for resides on their vast website and then search again to get the pertinent information I was looking for: “How will this help my career?” There was plenty of information about how elite and awesome their faculty are, but never a sense of how the students fare after they leave the program. Nevertheless, I submitted my information to them as well. So, the competition for who can convince me that their program is best for me was afoot!

Customers want their experience to be easy. Somewhere along the line, University B forgot this important paradigm of business.

Within minutes, UA started feeding me information that answered seemingly obvious preliminary questions like, “What are you teaching?”, “How will it help me?” and “How are other students doing after the program?” The entire time, an underlying message of “easy” permeated, and I got the sense that it was all about me, the student. I started to fear that I had opened a Pandora’s box of marketing and would soon be bombarded by emails, calls, or chat requests from someone clearly at a call center; but, that didn’t happen. Every few days, I would get an email gently reminding me they were ready to answer my questions, or get right to the application.

I think I am still waiting for UB to contact me. Not a single follow-up email, phone call, or mailing was received. I wasn’t sure that I put in the right info, so I did it again. This confirmed what I already suspected to be true: I had entered an information black hole in which mine went in and nothing came out. If I wanted to get information, I had to glean it from the website or go on a hunt akin to becoming a Raider of the Lost Ark. Nothing was easy — but hey — isn’t that how education is supposed to be? “We are University B…deal with it “, should be the motto; it is clearly their attitude.

When it came time to apply, University A had few barriers to entry. I was able to apply for previous credit from another university, get credit for the extensive career I have had in the industry, and was not required to take a standardized test. My previous degree and experience showed them I was interested and would finish what I started. Their process showed me that mundane tests asking me questions from sophomore year of high school are not as important to them. I could take classes at the new remote campus just minutes from my house or online. Everything was easy.

University B was the opposite. Once I could actually get a hold of someone, I got only the standard answers, “No, No, Nah and Nope.” These were justified with talk about “policies” and “committees” and everything else that was irrelevant to me. I was jumping through hoops and the overwhelming feelings I got from the experience were: a) This is not worth the effort and b) They must not really want me. Both of which made my decision easy and clear: Please, take my money University A!

The Lesson: Less Friction, More Friendliness

Customers want their experience to be easy. Somewhere along the line, University B forgot this important paradigm of business. Traditionally, they think “the harder I make this, the more it shows we are elite.” That is not true and they are underestimating the tribulations of the adult learner.

“Bringing education to them” isn’t just about remote campuses and online learning; it’s about making them feel wanted and welcome through the decision process — then carrying that through to the education delivery.

Education, in itself, is a difficult process — taking the time to exercise your brain, apply lessons, and better yourself is hard. It was difficult enough between the ages of 18-21 when that was the sole focus of our lives and we had endless youthful energy to devote to it. It’s exponentially harder to mix that in with competing priorities as an adult: family, work, health, etc. Universities don’t need to make the entry into that process hard as a way of “weeding out” failure. Students who don’t succeed in the classroom have their own adult conscience to deal with compounded by the financial burden of investing in a failure.

Successful universities of the future will recognize that and be more like University A in this case. “Bringing education to them” isn’t just about remote campuses and online learning; it’s about making them feel wanted and welcome through the decision process — then carrying that through to the education delivery. Let them know the only decision that matters is whether they choose your institution to devote their time, money, and hard effort. Build a marketing, admissions, and delivery plan that embodies this and the greatest ranking you will achieve is a successful student and alumni base that tell others, “Go there. They get it, and it will be easier and better for you.”

Sean O’Donnell

Sean O’Donnell

Independent Consultant

From 2000-2012, Sean O’Donnell created the first degree granting online master’s program for Villanova University and grew it to a $2 million per year revenue generator.  Since then, he has worked in the foundation non-profit world and corporate environments developing learning and training programs. As an independent consultant, Sean has helped many universities and businesses build and grow their adult learner population through careful infrastructure and marketing planning.  

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