Remember the pre-pandemic days when online learning was just for people with busy schedules, or who couldn’t make it to campus? One thing is for sure — those days have passed. 

“Online learning has become increasingly popular over the past few years, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon,” said Holly Cartlidge, senior market insights consultant at Net Natives.“In fact, reports show that the market for global online degrees is expected to grow from $45 billion in 2019 to $117 billion in 2025.” 

It’s clear that students want choice when it comes to how they consume your programming. And if you aren’t offering strong online course options, it’s time to make some changes.   Thanks to the online marketing experts at Net Natives and some of your higher education colleagues, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Read on for their five steps to online course launch success.  

1) Do your research.

Before you pour time and resources into creating an online course, be sure you need it. “Ask yourself, ‘What are prospective students looking for, and how can we match those expectations?’ said Kas Nicholls, research director at Net Natives. To keep universities informed, Net Natives regularly surveys students, Nicholls added. One survey, conducted in August 2021 and January 2022, revealed that the most in-demand courses were computer science, law, and math. 

“However, if you already have a course in mind, you may want to begin with a program viability report,” Nicholls said.“This research collects data sources to evaluate student demand and determine if a program will be viable in the market. This allows you to better position your institution program portfolio, ultimately driving more student enrollment.”

2) Pinpoint your target audience.

Once you’ve determined the kind of course you want to launch, the next step is advertising it to your target audience. 

“We live in a day and an age where people want things that are customized to them… It’s always good to understand your audience and their needs, and align your messaging as best as you can for those individuals,” said Jason Hamilton, product success director at Net Natives. 

Ultimately, your messaging should align with student motivations. “Try to pinpoint what your students are looking for, whether that’s high labor market demand, affordability, or flexibility,” Hamilton added. “Then, incorporate that into your online course and into your marketing.” 

One way to determine your  target audience is through data-based research. “For example, at Net Natives, we use our proprietary tool, which combines CRM data with external sources to identify methods for targeting new and existing audiences,” Hamilton said. “Typically, you want to look at insights into your audience — things like audience size, location, and demographics. Then, you can create targeted messaging that appeals to them.”

3) Market at the right times — and on the right platforms.

Now that you know who you’re trying to reach, it’s time to start marketing. According to Net Natives’ marketing insights, most students conduct course searches between January and May, making the beginning of the year a good time to start marketing. However, it’s worth noting that students often take up to two years to enroll – so, the earlier you start promoting your courses, the better. 

The second factor to consider is your distribution platforms. “Ideally, platforms should be geared toward your target audience,” Nicholls said. "For example, if you conducted an analysis of your data and discovered your target audience is younger students, you should use more modern platforms like TikTok and other similar social media channels. On the other hand, if your audience skews older, use ‘on-the-go’ platforms like podcasts."

4) Collaborate with faculty.

When it comes to marketing, keep your faculty up-to-date on what students expect from their online classes. Otherwise, there may be a disconnect between the actual student experience and the way it’s promoted to students. For example, many universities boast about increased flexibility. While online classes are accessible in theory, that’s not always the case in reality, shared Jimmy Hart, director of marketing at the University of Alabama, during a Net Natives webinar on effectively launching an online course. 

“Faculty could still create a course that is not flexible… If they’re not taught how to do it or motivated to do it,” he added.  

Whatever it is you’re marketing, professors should be taught how to incorporate it into their online classes — which begins with training. “So, if you’re advertising flexible classwork, teach faculty how to make courses more accessible by recording lectures, offering remote testing, and posting assignments online,” Nicholls said. “Make it a collaborative process. For many professors, online learning is still new, and they may need support as they adjust.”

5) Maintain human interaction.

Ideally, with the right research and marketing efforts, you’ll exceed your enrollment goals. The only thing left to do is make sure the online course is high-quality. 

A common concern about online learning is that it lacks human interaction, said Cartlidge. “Students don’t want to just stare at a screen and listen to someone lecture,” Cartilage added. “They want to engage in conversations, work with others, and feel a personal connection to the class.” And it’s not just students who feel this way. During the Net Natives webinar that Hart participated in, Sheena McFarland, adjunct marketing professor at the University of Utah, said that faculty really want to establish connections, too.  

“I am dependent on getting something back from my audience… [sometimes] I don’t know if a joke landed, I don’t know if a concept clicked or not… And that’s been the challenge of teaching online,” McFarland added.  

So, how do you maintain human interaction through a screen? One way McFarland has accomplished this is by splitting students into groups to complete team-based assignments. Other options include playing trivia games, hosting class discussions, or offering live chats. 

At Net Natives, we offer a wide range of marketing tools to help ensure your launch is a success. In addition to our program viability reports and CRM analysis tools, we can provide a competitive analysis, brand tracking, student body surveys, and more. Reach out to one of our experts today.