Marketing online programs… An interview with Nancy Prater, Part I

A New Series of Higher Education Marketing Interviews

Nancy Prater is Director of Marketing and Communications at the School of Extended Education at Ball State University. I’ve always been impressed with Nancy’s enthusiasm for higher education marketing as well as her ability to separate substance from silliness in planning marketing activities and evaluating the results.

Nancy agreed a few weeks ago to be first in a new series of higher education marketing reports from people who have agreed to share their experiences and insights.

If you want to follow up with Nancy on anything below, you can contact her by email.

Part II: Look for the second part of Nancy’s interview next Tuesday, March 29.

Nancy, tell us about your responsibilities at Ball State and how “marketing” in this position differs from your earlier marketing experiences.

  • That’s a good question. I was formerly Ball State’s Web site coordinator and worked out of our central marketing and communications office. In that position, I had to keep a wide perspective of ALL the various audiences Ball State serves. Now, I get to concentrate on adults learners and their specific needs. Plus, I enjoy being involved in a wider range of marketing activities. I am also learning that in a centralized university communications office, you are generally charged with only one of the four “Ps” in marketing — promotion. But, in online and distance education, you have a chance to be more influential with the other three Ps — product, place, and even to some extent, pricing. 

What are the major challenges you face, short-term and long-term?

  • One of our short-term goals, which I expect to be long-term, is managing growth, while maintaining our quality. We have experienced a 226 percent increase in the number of people taking online courses during the past five years, and the pace isn’t slowing. At the same time, 92 percent of our online students report they are very satisfied or satisfied with the overall quality of their academic program. We don’t want to lose that.
  • Another goal is helping faculty understand the value of online education. While we have professors who have embraced online teaching and are the leaders in this field, like many universities we have a large number of faculty who are unsure about this relatively new delivery method. But, the clock is not every going to be turned back. More and more students (both traditional undergraduates and adult learners) are getting turned on to the benefits and rewards of online classes.

Ball State has Twitter and Facebook sites for “Online and Distance Education.” How important are these to successful recruitment?

  • You might be expecting me to say “very.” But, I have to be honest and say that at this moment, while it is one more tool we have to engage prospects, we can’t (yet) tie it directly to increased recruitment. We are reviewing our strategy right now with those efforts, and I think in the future will be concentrating more on engaging students in social media toward the end of the recruitment funnel — after they have applied and been admitted.

I’m intrigued by the name used on your website: Online and Distance Education. Most universities would use “distance” or “online” but not both. Why are they combined at Ball State?

  • Well, it is still the most accurate description of what we do. Plus, it matches the most popular Web search terms used to find programs like ours — a factor that influenced the decision to name it that a few years ago during a Web site redesign. While the majority of our programs and classes are online, we also offer many on-site courses in our distance locations in the greater Indianapolis area. I should also note that we never use our organizational name of “School of Extended Education” to our prospective students or on our Web site. Our name means something to us internally, but the more descriptive “Online and Distance Education” is more understandable to those who don’t know us.

Everyone is talking about “mobile” today. Do you see mobile apps or a mobile website as important to recruiting “online and distance” students?

  • I think we will all look back in about five years, laugh, and say, “Remember when we thought we could ignore the mobile Web? What were we thinking?” We will be in the same category of those folks who said the Internet is a passing fad. Of course, that means as marketers, we are adding one more thing to our toolkit. I just hope we can let something go (think viewbook or other expensive printed pieces), but it never seems to work out that way in marketing. We just keep adopting new tools, while being too afraid to let go of the old ones.

Part II: Our interview with Nancy Prater continues Tuesday, March 29.

That’s all for now

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