Is Your Brand Relevant to Online Students?

College and University marketing materials typically beckon the prospective student with sciences, the arts, Greek life, team spirit, student support, or the most scenic campus. But what if that prospective student plans to live off campus and attend classes primarily or entirely online? Is the brand still relevant?   

As colleges and universities build out their online programs to keep up with demand, they’re finding they need to assess whether their brand meets the mark for online and hybrid students, says Kirsten Fedderke, Senior Vice President of Yes& Lipman Hearne, which works with higher education institutions to build brands that resonate with students, both on campus and online.

Sixty-five percent of 7,000 students in a 2023  McKinsey global survey said they want some aspects of their higher education to be online. The top three aspects they would like to be online are:

  • Access to recorded classes;
  • Easy access to online study materials; and
  • Flexibility to work and study.

Students were hesitant to go fully online out of concern for:

  • Being distracted;
  • Being bored; and
  • Lacking discipline to keep up with classes.

In 80% of the 17 countries where students were surveyed, the number one reason they gave to take a class in-person was to get more support from the professor.

“There is a lot of interest in hybrid programs from students who want flexible options,” Fedderke said. “But those students sometimes feel like they miss out on campus experiences, support and peer relationships, which are often highlights of institutional brands.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, Fedderke added. “Some schools are really delivering with online programs that help students build personal relationships with faculty and peers, and even have opportunities to attend on-campus events.” 

Here are some Yes& Lipman Hearne tips for how colleges and universities can extend their brand to perspective online students:

Assessment. Understand your school’s current brand—its multiple pillars and differentiators.

  • Does the brand translate online?  Is the experience promised by your brand one that your online students will also have?  For example, if your institution is known for faculty mentorship, do online students receive this same level of care?  If you’re known as a strong partner to your local industry, do online students benefit from this network?
  • If not, how can you tweak the brand for online? Are there enough other brand pillars to lean into? Can you differentiate the on-campus and online experiences while staying true to the brand?

Outreach. What is the experience of online students? Conduct surveys and/or focus groups.

  • Does the current brand resonate with them?
  • Do they feel they are supported?
  • Did they have an accurate view of what to expect from online classes and/or hybrid learning?

Build trust and authenticity. Hold information sessions with prospective online/hybrid students.

  • Be clear and honest about what the online experience will be and how it’s different than being in-person.
  • Train staff and faculty members in best practices for online support and enlist them to do personal outreach to prospective students.  

Keep building and improving the online program.

  • Create an online feedback loop for students and faculty.
  • Survey high school seniors about what they like or don’t like about online classes.
  • Consider influencers (parents, high school counselors, coaches, etc.) in online content and outreach.

Extending a college brand online is not one-size-fits-all, Fedderke said. “You can’t promise that an online student is going to have the same experience as those on campus. But there are examples of good online programs and networking opportunities. Depending on what a student is looking for, it can be a very positive experience.”

Exploring Trends in College Marketing Materials

College book

Symbolic mascots, expansive viewbooks, and interactive user focused designs. On a rainy afternoon I met up with Jeremy Spaso and …