It’s an unfortunately familiar situation for many educational institutions - you have spent time and effort in creating a new, exciting program that covers a topic you are sure will succeed, only to be met with just a handful of registrations once the program is live. It’s a situation that everyone would like to avoid, but all too often market research is neglected as a part of program development, leading to material that is well designed and supported, but that does not have an audience.
In this blog, we will take a look into how we carry out the various stages of market research for our education partners, and explore how the process can be used to help higher education organisations create both a marketing and learning strategy that can be used to create more successful, scalable and competitive programs.
Stages of market research to build your learning strategy
The most important starting point for every project is to have a clear view of exactly what it is that you want to achieve. This goes beyond the obvious goal of ‘attracting more students’; are you aiming to expand your short course offerings, to start an education partnership with industry, or to offer member education options to industry bodies? The specific goal you are aiming to achieve will influence every step of the process, from market research and beyond, so it is essential to be able to define precisely what your goals are at this stage.
Unique education proposition
What makes your offering unique? What is the specific reason that your potential learners or partners would choose you over your competitors? This is what we can call your ‘unique education proposition’, and it forms a key part of the ways that you will structure and promote your initiative. Take some time to think about your unique expertise and experience - especially your core subject matter expertise, and how it might be used to give you an important competitive advantage. There will be areas in which you know that you have specific, expert knowledge and viewpoints; these are assets that can be used to give you an equally unique advantage in your marketplace.
Your proposed initiative isn’t happening in a vacuum. Unless this is the first course that you are considering developing, you will have a wealth of experience from previous propositions that can provide useful lessons on what has and hasn’t been successful. Looking at your current and previous education initiatives, think about what has been successful in driving growth, and of the barriers that you have faced to success. How can you best take advantage of the things that have previously succeeded, and avoid some of the potential pitfalls of which you are already aware?
What does success look like? While this might seem an obvious question to ask, understanding exactly how you will measure and track success is vital. Ensure that you have clear and measurable goals that you can use to see what is and is not working as you roll out the development, marketing and launch of your proposal. Remember the rule of SMART goals, and create metrics that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.
Core target customer
Understanding your target audience, and the potential demand for any given course, is probably the most important part of your market research. Even the most well-designed course will inevitably fail if it isn’t meeting a need that is present in your market.
A lot of this research will be hands-on. Search for your potential course topic, and see what appears; are there any competing courses? Is this a course that people are asking questions about online? Has there been much written about the subject, in blog and articles? The more information there is on the course topic, the greater the potential is that this is a subject that people will be interested in. For more concrete numbers, it’s worth looking at Google’s keyword planning tools; easily available to anyone who has access to a Google Ads account, the Keyword Planning Tool will tell you the search volumes for specific keywords – the higher the search volume for your course’s topic, the larger your courses audience will be.
Understanding the potential size of your addressable market will help you make informed decisions as you build your learning strategy, determining resource allocation, faculty assignment and marketing strategies. A solid understanding of your audience size enables institutions to gauge the viability and potential success of a course before investing substantial resources in its development.
Also consider the nature of the audience that you will be creating your course for, investigating factors such as age, gender, educational background, and career aspirations of potential students. Are the potential students in your market younger students looking to gain the skills they need to enter the job market, or older students looking to reskill or engage with lifelong learning to maintain their industry currency? When, where and how will your students be most likely to engage with their learning? What is the level of technological familiarity that you can expect your average student to have?
Fully understanding the nature and needs of your audience will give you the information you need to tailor your learning strategy, ensuring both course creation and course promotion are targetted to the right market. By considering the diverse needs and learning styles of students, institutions can create inclusive learning environments that cater to individual preferences and promote academic success, and by understanding who your learners are, you will be more prepared to create marketing campaigns that will reach your potential learners and engage their interest.
Customer value and motivation
Understanding the needs of your customers is essential if you aim to create courses that will equip your students with the skills and knowledge they will need to advance their careers and align with the requirements of employers.
Whether appealing directly to learners, or to their workplace sponsors, it is important to understand what it is that is motivating your learners to buy and complete the program. Be aware of the problem that your course will solve, whether that is upskilling workers to be more capable of accessing new technologies, participating to maintain industry currency, or expanding ‘soft’ skills. Each program will have differing motivations on the part of its participants and will require different approaches to be taken, both in how you will promote the course and in how you will engage your learners throughout.
It is important to understand the personal value of the course to its participants - the benefits that they will receive in the context of their work - even in circumstances where a worker is being sponsored to undertake a course by their employer, as the personal value of the course is what will ultimately motivate the learner to complete the program. Make sure that you clearly understand and communicate the value and benefit of the course, not only before purchase but throughout the learner’s journey, helping to motivate the learner to begin, engage with and complete the course and leave as a satisfied participant.
By understanding the needs of industry and of your learners, institutions can be sure that they are following the correct learning strategy, creating courses which fulfil a need within the market and will equip students with practical, relevant knowledge.
The key to developing the right learning strategy for your marketplace is to understand your competitors; who they are, who they are serving, and what they are offering to the market. To understand this, institutions must conduct comprehensive competitor analysis, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors, which will help you to identify potential gaps within your market or strategies for course development and positioning that will help you create distinctive programs that stand out from the competition. By understanding competitors, institutions can refine their course offerings and provide a unique value proposition to students.
Don’t just limit this to your direct competitors. There are fewer barriers to accessing information than ever before, and the current education marketplace includes less obvious competition such as YouTube, eLearning apps, or even podcasts. Make sure you consider these possible threats, and know what you bring to the table that makes your program a compelling alternative.
Consider starting with a SWOT analysis – an overview of your, and your competitors, Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that will help you build an initial overview of your market.
It will almost certainly not be practical to create the entire proposed portfolio of courses at once - the better method is to identify the core course or courses of the portfolio that will initially deliver value, and then consider how you will expand growth beyond that point once the initial pillar elements of the program have demonstrated success.
Rather than attempting to build a complete program at once, instead start with what will form the central element of your program and do what you need, to make that a viable product. By launching this section of your course, you will be able to determine what is and is not working and get an even clearer understanding of the needs of your audience, giving you a solid core that you can use to support the expansion of your program.
The work that you have done up to this stage will help you to identify what initial elements can be used to create a valuable and useful core; you should have a clear idea of the needs of industry and your target audience and of your unique strengths and opportunities. With these in mind, give some thought to the courses that will initially deliver value to both you and your audience, and how you will transfer and maximise that value.
With an understanding of your market and the specific groups you aim to reach with your learning, you can develop the learning strategy that you can use to build out your programs’ core, starting from a clear understanding of the skills and knowledge gaps that are facing relevant industries, of what is needed to address these gaps, and of the cohorts who will need to develop their skills.
Once you have developed and delivered this pilot element, you will have a successful central core that can be used to help you scale up and achieve wider success with your program.
Once the core elements of your program are successful, consider how you will scale your delivery - what additional courses and resources will you add, and how will you provide the internal capacity to support the growth of the program? It is easy for growth to slow or fail if there is not a clear plan for how and when you will expand your initiative, so it is important to have a plan in place that will allow for smooth, managed and sustainable growth.
How and where you choose to deliver your course will significantly impact how easy it is to rapidly scale. Bear in mind that growth will be much easier to achieve in an online or virtual environment than in face to face, without the constraints of classroom sizes or a geographically limited audience. By taking advantage of the possibilities of online delivery you can more easily increase cohort sizes and reduce the cost of delivery per learner, helping you scale rapidly and sustainably.
Acquisition and growth
With a plan for your program set, and with the backing of a clear understanding of your market, you can now begin to actually plan your marketing activity and develop a plan for growth that will deliver success. As you build out your marketing plan, think of things such as who your target market is, which avenues you can use to reach them and promote your program, and what available sales and marketing capability you can access, either in-house or through working with partners.
Beyond sales and marketing capability, it is also worth planning for the resources you will need as you build, deliver and optimise your course, both initially and as you later scale and expand what is available. Consider the partnership options you may have available to expand on your in-house capacity for product development, delivery and facilitation and the systems that you will use to host and deliver your program, and how these will shift and change as your program ultimately expands.
Market research and planning out your opportunity should be viewed as an essential part of your course development, helping to clarify the precise needs of the market, identify new opportunities for growth and expansion, and ensure that courses developed meet both the demands of industry and the needs of your learners. Most of all don't be worried about not proceeding with an opportunity. Just because it’s a topic you are passionate about, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a course people will want to enrol in. You can still share you passion through other means like masterclasses, videos and blogs.
By leveraging the insights gained from market research, institutions can stay ahead of the curve and provide students with valuable skills and knowledge needed for success in their chosen fields, and ensure that each course they develop achieves the numbers it needs to guarantee success. If you are working to scale your education business, Guroo Learning can help you to find the marketing strategy that’s right for you. Find out more information here, and get in touch to discuss how we can help you to reach your goals.