Can MOOCs be the next marketing and branding vehicles for #highered ?

May 31st, 2012 Karine Joly 2 Comments

Courses? Marketing and branding vehicles, really?

Yes, free online courses taught by faculty members currently teaching for institutions of higher education. Not just lecture videos (you know the kind you can find on iTunesU or YouTube EDU), but the real deal from learning objectives, lectures and readings to homework and final graded assignments.

That’s what I see in the future of higher education when I look at Coursera, Udacity or even edX.

If you think about it, the idea of using courses as marketing channels is actually not new. Before the Web became what it is today, many brands created educational materials to be used in the classroom. Channel One is an example among many. The TV channel brought to hundreds of high schools news-based shows while delivering a very targeted audience of students to its advertisers.

Today, more and more organizations, companies and brands rely on courses as ways to engage and educate their customers and fans. Whether these educational resources are available for free or for a nominal fee, they have become central to many content marketing efforts outside of the higher ed world.

HootSuite UniversityMany players (vendors, agencies, etc.) in social media have even developed and promoted full-blown online training programs. HootSuite University and HubSpot’s InBound Marketing University come to mind. The fact that most of these players chose names including “University” or “Academy” for these programs isn’t a coincidence. It was a marketing decision.

No matter how they call it (teaching, training, tutoring or coaching), more and more companies embrace the idea that educating their prospective or current customers is the most effective way to catch, engage and retain their attention.

Beyond this multiplication of online programs in the social media industry, the online course offering for any topic has exploded over the past year with the launch of many start-ups backed by grants, venture capital or even only incredible passion.

I’ve been watching very closely all these new companies and organizations (Big Think, The Saylor Foundation, TED-Ed among others) while I was working on the online course portfolio of Higher Ed Experts and teaching the capstone graduate online course on social media marketing campaigns at SNHU.

We live in a knowledge economy where more and more people need to learn. We also live in a connected world where it is virtually possible to learn anything as long as you can access a device connected to the Internet (even computers are now optional ;-). As a result, the interest and the demand are huge.

Following the trail open by the for-profits, the market of online degrees from non-profit accredited institutions has been growing very rapidly. This growth has been fueled by an economy under pressure paired with what often looks like an unlimited supply of money through student loan programs. Mark Cuban (yes, THE Mark Cuban) has analyzed what’s happening in this very good blog post 2 weeks ago.

With so many players in the higher ed market and the real thirst for knowledge out there, risks (and opportunities) abound for smaller institutions – especially when more prestigious institutions like MIT or Harvard have announced their goal to educate millions (if not billions) with their online venture edX for free or for a nominal fee.

CourseraSo, how can smaller institutions compete with prestige and gratuity?

By being present on the market and by demonstrating the value of the education they offer on campus – or even in their degree-granting online programs.

Coursera offers free courses from top institutions (Princeton, Stanford and Penn State). And, while these fine institutions probably don’t need Coursera to brand themselves (at least in the US, but it might make sense internationally), I really think that institutions that are not as well-known could definitely use this site or a similar platform to market themselves by showing the quality of a few of the courses they offer – online and for free.

Coursera, Udacity or a similar platform could become a marketing channel where institutions will pay to offer a selection of free online courses taught by real professors – as institutions pay today to buy advertising on websites, TV or college fairs. The top institutions could get a spot for free, while the others could get one by paying a subscription, a bit like search engines with organic and paid listings.

Using such a platform for lead generation and to engage prospective students would definitely make a lot of sense.

Many industries have been built – or saved – by the free sample or the first 30-day trial marketing tactics. So, I believe real quality free online courses (again not just lecture videos, but the real deal) can definitely help market institutions of higher education.

Why wouldn’t we allow prospective students to test drive the institution they want to use for their education when an academic degree can cost as much as a car?

This innovative strategy could ultimately help colleges and universities deeply transform the admissions business by refocusing the whole process on what should really matter in higher education: the learning process and the learner.

I’d love to hear what you think of this idea of using free online courses taught by real university professors to market institutions of higher education.

Do you think I’m on to something? Is your institution already doing it? Tell me more by posting a comment!

2 Responses

  1. Kyle James says:

    What you said here is VERY important for people to pay attention too. This is the fundamental shift that has taken place in marketing over the past decade. In our always connected world where information is just a touch away we expect to have the knowledge to make educated decisions on big purchases. A college education is one of the LARGEST purchase we will make in our life not just financially but also for the time commitment.

    We expect to be able to get online and get product reviews from friends and unbiased 3rd parties. We expect to see the sticker price for things, but also be able to try it out or test it for free for a while in a freemium model.

    Educating is the newest, most powerful marketing tool available! People don’t want to be sold too the want to be educated on why your product or service is better than another one.

  2. Karine Joly says:


    I went to a conference on innovations in e-learning this week and met a lot of corporate trainers and learning professionals.

    One of them, Harold Jarche, wore a cool t-shirt that stated “learning is the new black” – when I saw it, I added “and teaching is the new marketing.”

    I really believe it is.

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