In a recent advisory call with a senior college manager who was working to further develop their online programs and support infrastructure to meet an expanded mandate of more programs, registrations, and revenue, he posed a question that went something like this. “Given all the challenges we have in the (higher education online) market, what are the most important things you should do to position your online programs for success”?
It’s a common challenge, buttressed by a well-known gauntlet of higher ed market forces and economic factors, including increasing costs, demographics-driven declining enrollments, low unemployment, hyper-competition, the rapid evolution of ed tech, and post-covid instability, to mention a few. In the moment, my response covered some of what’s below, but it also launched me down the rabbit hole of the “what are the most important things” question.
My more organized response to the question is:
1) Tune Up your Operational Efficiency
Even if things are going well there is always an opportunity to tune up your operational efficiency. Look at your registration revenues, your recruitment infrastructure and systems, marketing costs, ROAS, social media advocacy stats, and KPIs and adjust your investments accordingly. Do what you do well, even better, but also choose to trim back on the things that are not delivering. Be cautious here because overzealous operational efficiency can be the enemy of innovation, so make sure you keep investing in new programs, partners, and marketing and sales to drive your online business forward.
2) Benchmark your Programs and their Performance
Benchmark against your primary competition, and identify where you are underperforming and where there might be “low-hanging” opportunities. Then act on it. This review might reveal that your local/regional competitors already all have a trendy new program and that it’s probably too late to get into it (i.e. data sciences). On the surface, and without looking externally, it may seem appealing but being 3rd or 4th or 5th into a market is usually unsustainable. Or at best, a breakeven proposition. You need to carefully select and prioritize where you will invest, given limited time and resources. Pick the programs that best align with your academic strengths and have the greatest upside.
3) Get Really Strategic
Make it your practice to seek and develop opportunities and activities that differentiate your programs from your competitors while at the same time giving you a sustainable competitive advantage. To meet the definition of good strategy you must accomplish both. Make the hard choices of what you will do and what you will not do, based on how much value your programs will create for students. Then challenge yourself to really push your boundaries to innovate and create new market spaces, restructure market boundaries, and eliminate the competition and position for success. (Try your hand at Blue Ocean Strategy for this).
4) Reduce your Time Horizons on Strategic Planning
Strategic Planning has an unfortunate but often deserved reputation of only being useful for long-term planning (the average strat plan in higher ed is currently around 5 years) and that it generally sits in a binder on a shelf until being revised again some time far in the future. That interpretation, (or reality), is simply not acceptable because your strategic planning is critically important. The institutional strategy should lean longer term but not to the extent that it is ignored or not highly relevant to the short-term planning. Strat planning should also be all about making the choices that drive your business every year not just longer business planning or budgeting. I think a simpler, more agile, short-cycle strategy approach is the way to go, particularly in these challenging times. To accomplish this, you may need to create an independent departmental level strat plan, but regardless, change your personal and departmental, (if not institutional), mindset to actively embrace agile Strategic thinking, all the time.
5) Focus on Execution
Strat plans, in particular, often fail to deliver on their objectives. Recent research indicates that 48% of all execs fail to reach half of their strategic targets. Business plans and marketing plans are often a close second, as they often don’t have real teeth to them or are not effectively implemented. Assuming you have gone to the effort to create a good solid plan, don’t then let it fail due to poor execution. One effective way to tackle execution is to get specific on setting and managing objectives and expected outcomes. (I personally like to use OKRs to manage this). To ensure effective execution, you need senior management to champion your plans, you need to overcommunicate them, align staff to them, train for them, measure progress, and follow up on them. If you do all of the above, diligently, you might just get yourself over the hump and into the half of execs who do succeed with their plans and meet most of their strategic objectives.
Collectively, I think the challenges and opportunities faced by higher ed managers and marketers today are more formidable than we’ve faced before, at least over my 35 years in the business. But they are not insurmountable, they never are. So, roll up your sleeves, dive in, and get to work on one or all of these five areas to position your online programs for success.