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Case study: Digital marketing innovation in higher education

How to steal market share in a declining and disrupted market

Updated 9/24/21


Graduate students listening in a classroom

In recent years, higher education has become the wild west of disruption for graduate and continuing education with MOOCs (ex: Coursera and edX), massive online universities (ex: Southern New Hampshire University and University of Phoenix) and training programs (ex: General Assembly and Launch Academy) all stealing share from traditional degree-granting institutions as adults seek skill-based training in more modular, on-demand formats. Traditional graduate degrees in business like the MBA faced even more headwinds as the booming economy made the opportunity cost of enrolling in programs that much higher. In recent years, reports of schools like Wake Forest and University of Illinois shutting down their MBA programs happened on a regular basis.


Setting the stage for innovation


As the Chief Marketing Officer at Bentley University, a business university outside Boston, I was determined to address the double-digit declines in MBA program enrollment and led an effort to grow student enrollment in a highly competitive market (nearly 20 MBA programs in Boston). Partnering with sales (enrollment management) and product (academic) organizations, we aligned on adopting a market-driven approach to steal share from competitors and accepted a challenge from the board: grow MBA enrollment by 20% in six months (the next enrollment cycle). Six months later, we had grown the part-time MBA program by 30% and in a year, had generated 200% more leads despite continuing declines in demand. Here’s how we did it.


Six months later, we had grown the part-time MBA program by 30% and 12 months later, had generated 200% more leads despite continuing declines in demand.


Rule 1: Use customer insights to inform product development - read the case study



Rule 2: Harness digital marketing to expand the funnel


Historically, Bentley had relied on traditional advertising like radio and print with an “enroll today” call-to-action, placing themselves in direct competition with thousands of schools seeking to appeal to a dwindling pool of prospects who’d decided to trade in lucrative careers to pursue a MBA degree. In stepping into the CMO role, I challenged that model, arguing that we could attract a bigger pool of candidates by offering valuable content addressing their core needs which was not another degree.


No one “needs” a graduate business degree. They need the skills to advance their career and grow their earning potential.

I had a hypothesis that if we backed off the expensive bottom of funnel advertising and shifted that budget to valuable content paired with digital distribution and lead nurturing, we’d build a significantly more robust funnel with a strong pipeline of leads at the top. And I generated the data to back it up: funnel analytics showed we’d have to convert nearly 20% of existing leads to meet our enrollment targets, an unheard of enrollment conversion rate in our prior experience and across the industry. Why was Bentley attached to a model that was clearly broken?


Because everybody in the industry was doing the same thing (and still does to this day): selling the degree instead of the outcomes:


Digital ads for MBA programs in Boston

So after reaching agreement that relying on conversion “optimism” wasn’t the answer, we proposed the following initiatives - here’s a snapshot of each and how we launched these in concert with one another to support the entire conversion funnel.

Bentley University digital ad for Master Class series

Expand top of funnel leads (content + distribution): We created a series of rich content assets aimed at supporting prospects as they were contemplating career advancement, and more importantly, before they’d concluded they wanted to enroll in a MBA program. Using the customer insights we’d gathered, we understood prospects were open to self-paced online learning and piloted our first “Master Class” video with faculty providing target audiences with skills that would help them advance in their careers. We promoted this content to key audiences across digital channels (here's one of our ads - notice how there’s no mention of the MBA program!) and gated it to drive email capture. This content resonated with our target audiences and proved to be extremely efficient at generating marketing qualified leads for a fraction of the cost of previous leads with 25% of viewers opting in to learn more about our MBA program. Based on that video’s success, we created a series of Master Class videos and continued developing skills-based content for lead generation.


Optimize the funnel with strong lead nurturing: In many cases, generating more leads is relatively straightforward when compared to optimizing the many “micro conversions” within the funnel. In our case, recognizing that virtually no one is going to start an application on their initial visit, we needed to nurture these leads through a lengthy decision process with many micro conversions: opening emails, visiting the website, downloading a program guide, attending a virtual MBA information session and speaking with a MBA admissions counselor. A combination of tactics helped us grow application starts (or the number of prospects who started an application - the higher education equivalent of an eCommerce “add to cart”) by 250% in six months.


Optimizing the funnel helped us grow application starts (the higher education equivalent of “add to cart”) by 250%

To optimize each micro conversion, we had to make each associated touch point as valuable as possible to the prospective customer. That included:


Introducing audience-centric, needs-based content to support the customer decision process. From our focus group insights, we understood that prospects had a lot of financial fears related to taking on student debt and weren’t sure a MBA would pay off. In response, we created content addressing those concerns (alumni success stories, reports on salary trends for related careers, eBooks guiding prospects through the MBA decision process, etc.) and replaced traditional program fact sheets in the nurturing sequence with this new content. While time consuming to create, these evergreen assets had long shelf lives and were repurposed across emails, webinars, social media and more.


Examples of needs based content in higher education

Stepping up our email nurturing sequence after mining data that showed that if we didn’t engage prospects to take the next step in the first 30 days, they’d become inactive. So we increased email frequency in the first two weeks and found that contrary to popular belief, audience engagement increased, especially as we shared our newly created content based on prospect needs.


Optimizing the web experience to create more conversion opportunities by adopting a customer-first approach. As part of the pitch to build an online MBA, I advocated we needed to fast-track a new admissions website that would pay for itself if we could improve conversion and grow enrollment as planned. The new website would have to better address prospects’ needs by 1) making high priority "table stakes" content like tuition, financial aid, rankings, etc. easier to find; and 2) elevating outcomes such as starting salaries, placement rates, hiring companies and alumni success stories which traditionally, the university had shied away from.


As part of an effort to build more content on degree outcomes, I licensed labor market analytics from Burning Glass to create a"Skills & Outcomes" web page highlighting the skills associated with each graduate degree program and the associated roles, growth in demand, and average income for those skills.


Five months later, we had a new graduate admissions site which won a national CASE award and resulted in:


  • 133% growth in conversion (information request form submissions)

  • 14% drop in bounce rate

  • 2x growth in session duration


Rule 3: Employ iterative cycles (measure, improve, repeat)


Key to measuring these efforts meant ensuring all attribution tracking was validated and available in real-time for both prospects' web behavior (we used Google Analytics) and application/enrollment activity (we used Slate CRM). In true digital marketing fashion, we employed measure - improve - repeat cycles to ensure our efforts were having the desired impact and improve upon them.


What were the results?


  • In 6 months, we grew part-time MBA enrollment by 30% to its highest level in five years, stealing share from competitors in the Boston market

  • In 12 months, we grew our lead database for graduate programs by 200%


Contact me if you're interested in applying these best practices to your company or organization.

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