Why Your Marketing Team Needs to Be a Part of the Online Program Development Process


New programs are not paying off the way they should, concludes a recent study by Burning Glass Technologies. As reported on HigherEdDive, Burning Glass’s analysis found “that of programs that first graduated students in the 2012–13 and 2013–2014 school years, about 30% didn’t have a single graduate in 2018. Burning Glass notes those programs had relatively few graduates in that roughly five-year period.” Wisewire and Circa Interactive are excited to partner on this series of recommendations so that universities evaluating new programs avoid a similar outcome. 

As universities quickly transition to online learning in response to changing consumer preferences and the COVID-19 pandemic, undergraduate and graduate programs are launching at an unprecedented pace. Online education will be the financial lifeblood of institutions moving forward, but that doesn’t come without risk and the reality that not every degree program is suitable for the time, investment, and resources required to be successful online. 

While many factors and considerations come into play when universities are deciding which programs to take online, more often than not, we see one particular team not included in the decision-making process: marketing. As you’ll see below, this decision can greatly impact a degree program’s viability in the online market, creating a scenario where additional time, resources, and budget are essential to giving a program a chance to survive, let alone thrive.

What is (marketing) program feasibility?

When you say program feasibility, many people in higher education immediately think of EMSI, BLS, and employment data, for example. These data sets are an important component of understanding where market demand lies, but they don’t paint a complete picture. Launching an online program that you know is in high demand is one thing, but overcoming the challenges associated with successfully — and economically — engaging with target audiences and differentiating value propositions among dozens of competitors is another.

In addition to leveraging job and market data, we recommend including the following as part of the program feasibility process:

  • Competitive analysis (paid and organic)
  • Identifying UVPs and differentiators
  • Audience intelligence
  • Traffic and lead forecasting 

Below, we’ll take a step back to understand the reasons that many online programs fail and shed more light on the program feasibility process.

Where do we typically see universities go wrong?

The online program development process is no easy task for universities, especially over the last eight months as they navigate COVID-19. While higher education institutions are noble in their decision-making around which programs to launch online — they are almost always hyper-focused on the student and what will create the most opportunity and value after they graduate — a number of influences and politics are at play, often hindering their success and resulting in programs that are far too competitive or expensive to compete. Common themes include:

    • Faculty dictating which programs to launch. A university faculty is immensely valuable, and our team at Circa work closely with over 200 faculty members across the country to help them translate their research and expertise for a broader audience. That said, a faculty should not operate on an island when determining which online programs to develop. Its industry expertise doesn’t normally translate into marketing and demand knowledge.
    • Operating under the assumption that “if we build it, they will come.” This theory no longer applies, even for top brands.
    • Underestimating the budget and time needed to be successful. This is the most common challenge we’re tasked with solving and is usually a result of the marketing team being brought into the fold too late in the process. We often see budgets as low as 50% of what is required in order to reach enrollment goals. 


  • Not accounting for market saturation and failing to establish clear UVPs when going to market.
  • Failing to bring learning design, marketing, enrollment, and retention teams together. This oversight can result in an inconsistent experience from the first touch through graduation, in addition to the lack of a clear and engaging story throughout the enrollment process.


How do you determine which degree programs to take online?

Once you’ve developed an initial set of programs (usually five to 10), informed by EMSI and other tools to understand job demand, the marketing team can get to work. The questions below should help your team determine the top three programs that have ample market demand, aren’t too saturated, and fit within budget requirements:

  • Who are the competitors for a specific degree program (e.g., Master of Science in Accounting) locally, regionally, and nationally?
    • How do they differentiate themselves?
      • Do they have unique specializations?
      • Are their faculty members well-known or thought leaders in a specific industry?
      • Do they effectively communicate their UVPs through their marketing efforts?
    • How strong are their brands?
  • Who are your target audiences, and how does your program fit in their journey?
    • Where are they located?
    • Where do they work?
    • What are they interested in or passionate about?
    • Where are they most active online?
  • What volume of traffic and inquiries, by channel, will you need to generate in order to exceed enrollment goals? How much is actually possible through each channel and platform?
    • Does the program naturally generate traffic and inquiries?
    • Do we know conversion rates throughout the funnel (e.g., click to lead, lead to app, and app to start)? 
    • Using known or assumed conversion rates, what will it cost to generate the traffic and inquiries needed?
    • How much will it cost to compete? Does this fit within your budget?
      • If not, is there a specialization area that you can include that will help differentiate the program and allow you to target a smaller, less competitive audience?

While many other questions can guide your feasibility analysis, we’ve found these three to be the most impactful and insightful when seeking to uncover opportunities and avoid common pitfalls. Through simply including your marketing team during the early stages of development, you can ensure that you’re setting yourself, your team, and your institution up for success as you expand online.


About Circa

Circa Interactive is passionate about establishing a new way of thinking in enrollment marketing. By amplifying a university’s unique story, executing data-driven, multi-channel engagement campaigns, leveraging innovative technology, and working with faculty to inspire content creation, we connect colleges and universities with the students who will help change our world and push forward big ideas.