What’s the best strategy to recruit online students?

SOURCE: Victoria Heath / Unsplash
For online course providers to make a wave in the student recruitment market, they really need to know what they’re doing.

By Emma Richards 

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The competition for prospective students is higher and fiercer than ever across all pathways of higher education. The landscape hasn’t stopped growing, with more and more institutions offering an evergrowing list of new courses delivered through innovative methods of learning.

Higher education is no longer restricted to just universities and colleges, private companies are now offering credentials, qualifications, and learning packages that can rival some of the top names. Others are teaming up with universities to deliver blended learning experiences. And convenience is proving to be king as the boom in professional development and part-time courses is taking people online for their learning.

This also means the demographic of online students is different from their on-campus counterparts. Lifelong learning is an accepted part of most careers these days. As professionals understand the need to upskill in order to stay relevant, many are turning to online courses to get the education they need while fitting it around their already busy schedules.


The competition in this market is tougher than anywhere. Making a solitary voice heard through all the noise and standing out in a crowded field isn’t easy. In many cases, institutions are pushing the same “unique” selling points, using the same channels, and promising the same outcomes in their student recruitment campaigns.

So for online providers to make a wave, they really need to know what they’re doing. Thanks to a new report from Inside Track, it’s never been easier to know the best methods and handy tricks for connecting with those future students where they are.

The group conducted an analysis of student recruitment outreach of 20 different adult and professional degree programmes from top school in the US. They used that to determine the best practices and insights for establishing communication with prospective adult and professional students.

Diversify your student recruitment channels

It makes sense that if a university is trying to reach a prospective student, it’s best to use all the possible channels – and make it personal.

For initial contact, cover all bases – including text message, emails, phone calls, social media outreach, and online chat programmes.

While it’s tempting to send out bulk messages, studies have shown these have the biggest opt-out rate, rarely engage a person, and leave them feeling like they are just another number in a mass marketing campaign.

One-to-one messaging is far more effective, and personalising it makes the person know they are being talked to directly. Text messaging is particularly effective when used in this way, helping make a genuine and lasting connection that is likely to win over a potential student.

student recruitment
One-to-one messaging is far more effective, and personalising it makes the person know they are being talked to directly. Source: / Shutterstock

The same goes for online chat programmes. If a provider is going to use this service, make sure it is not run by a bot and instead gives valuable and real answers to real questions. Professionals using this service tend to want quick answers to quick questions – make sure this happens, but with a friendly tone.

As many know, phone calls can be a minefield these days. People are far more tech-savvy and more reluctant to answer calls from unknown numbers. While there’s no magic fix to this, Inside Track suggests making sure the number used to call is from a local landline, this makes the person far more likely to pick up.

Set student recruitment goals

Online enrolment, unlike its on-campus counterpart, is high velocity all year round, making it more difficult to chart progress and take stock. It’s essential, however, to make sure this is being done.

Setting clear goals and reviewing the data at pre-arranged times can ensure a student recruitment strategy is on target and methods are proving effective. Compare results to the previous quarter and use that insight to determine goals going forward.

Indicators like email open rate, clickthrough rates, and callbacks are an easily monitored method to ensure a student recruitment campaign is getting to the right people. Collating this information can also help a college target their campaigns more effectively.


Meet them where they’re at

It goes without saying that professionals and adult learners are very different from the usual undergraduate intake. The methods and approaches used to reach them, likewise, need to be different.

Find the platforms specific demographics visit. Anyone with personal experience of social media will know that these vary wildly depending on age and geography. Make sure you’re attracting the right kind of people, otherwise it will all be wasted energy.

They are busy people whose time is valuable. Recruiters need to be respectful of that and make sure any contact is at a convenient time and place. Inside Track suggests institutions be hyperaware of how the individual wants to be contacted, rather than what is easiest for the recruiter. Have their best interests at the forefront of the mind when engaging and go out of your way to accommodate them rather than thinking what’s easiest for the admissions department.

Speak to your audience

People are bombarded with advertising these days. Finding a message that cuts through the noise isn’t easy. But clear, concise and relevant are key attributes when it comes to getting people’s attention.

This means the old fashioned on-size-fits-all approach is no good. Inside Track recommends a more personalised communication, one that relates to a person’s specific circumstances.

student recruitment
They are busy people whose time is valuable. Recruiters need to be respectful and make sure any contact is at a convenient time and place.

That being said, personalising every single message when you’re trying to reach thousands isn’t a realistic approach. While segmenting the audience is good, there is a balance that makes it both manageable for the marketing team and relatable to the individual.

Sell your real unique selling points

It’s difficult to set a school apart with the proliferation of universities and colleges these days, but most students and faculty will know what makes them proud to attend their institution. Marketing teams need to know what makes their college slightly different. Learn what these characteristics are and sell them.

Avoid sticking to the attributes that every online course will have, such as flexibility and convenience, and highlight a unique story of the college.

Inside Track also suggests having any incentives – like scholarships or free textbooks – front and centre. Make prospective students aware of what you’re offering as this could be the thing that tips them in your direction.

As Inside Track says: “Find your niche and use it to your advantage.”