How to Recruit Online Students: A Playbook for Growing Online Enrollment

How to Recruit and Grow and Increase Online Student Enrollment: A Playbook for Recruiting Online Students

To combat shrinkage in college-bound high school students, higher education enrollment marketing professionals are developing strategies for winning an outsized share of the online, adult, graduate and international student markets. In other blog posts, I’ve shared our playbooks for increasing and significantly growing adultgraduate and international students enrollment. In this blog post, I’ll address strategies for recruiting online students.

In growing enrollment for online  programs for the past 25 years for numerous colleges and universities, we have learned three things: First, students can’t buy your programs or buy-into your college unless they can find you on Google page one or are referred by satisfied peers and friends; Second, you must build student support and flexibility into every aspect of your online offerings; Third, someone on your team must play the role of chief experience officer who views the entire student experience from their perspective.

To succeed, higher education institutions must deploy a unique balance of the marketing air-game, boots-on-the-ground game and follow-up contact strategies.


Appraise the college’s situation by immersing yourself in the college data and touch points:

  1. Asses your brand. Are you a local brand, regional brand, state brand, super-regional brand or a national brand. Your brand elasticity will determine how far from your campus locations you can realistically recruit from. A strong brand platform will also attract right-fit students who will stay and finish their degree.
  2. Evaluate your online enrollment data. Is the majority of your online enrolled students coming from within 100 miles of your campus locations? Study admissions funnel data carefully. Which part of the funnel is facing the biggest loss and melt?
  3. Know your signature online programs, portfolio online programs, and remaining online offerings. Know the online programs that are oversubscribed, undersubscribed and at-risk. Why? Because you won’t be able to spread your budgets evenly across all programs. You must play favorites and you’ll have to create smart portfolio groupings.
  4. Assess your website and perform an SEO audit. Leads from your website will out-convert the paid leads by 3-folds. Google page 1 is destiny.
  5. Benchmark cross-app competitors. Know who is ahead of you and who is behind you.
  6. Define right-fit students. These are the kind of students you want more of. There might be different definitions of right-fit amongst women, men, military/veterans, working professionals, Hispanics, African Americans, and others.
  7. Know your referral rate. Referrals produce some of the best quality leads. The best colleges graduate happy students who become the largest source of future students. Satisfied graduates bring trust and credibility which helps prospects cut through the clutter of choices and marketing.
  8. Understand what your prospects value the most about the institution (brand, salary bump, job placement, peers, alumni,, faculty thought leadership, etc.). Don’t operate blindly.
  9. Allocate competitive marketing budgets. Most non-profit colleges and universities are investing between 2% and 5% of their total revenue on marketing, when they ought to be investing at least 10%.  Small and medium sized colleges are increasingly competing against a growing club of for-profit colleges and public universities that are investing more than 20% of their revenue or greater than $100M in marketing.
  10. Perform SWOT. Face reality head-on.


1. Acknowledge the Psychic Battle of Hope and Doubt

Even though online education has become more mainstream, online students are typically working professionals who wrestle with competing forces.

On one side of this timeless battle, the chariots of hope gallop forward. Ambition simmers in them. Stars are lining up. The online students are ready to make the leap. 

On the other side, the demons of doubt rise in them: Am I too old? Have I been out of school too long? Am I qualified? Will I be able to keep up? Can I get there? Can I afford it? Will I be able to balance my family life, job and college? Will I fail?

It’s against this backdrop that colleges offer online programs and online degree completion programs.

2. Offer Online Degrees in Ideal Formats

Offer your online programs in formats that are convenient for working professionals. Most adults prefer asynchronous formats so they can pace themselves. If your programs are synchronous, offer them in the evenings and weekends. Give a technology orientation seminar so students are able to be effective from the very start.

3. Offer Adult Programs in Ideal Starts

Online students like frequent starts for courses, ideally every 8 to 12 weeks, and need the flexibility to pause and restart without penalty.

4. Invest in Online Learning Platform and Online Instructional Design

For online programs, student experience wholly depends on the quality of your teaching materials and ease-of-use of your learning platform. Don’t cut corners.



Your website is one of the most important touch points for online prospects because it is the #1 lead and application generation tool for online programs. You’ll be judged and evaluated by its quality and beauty.

  • Inform it by market research insights.  Since most online students are working professionals who are paying tuition from their own pockets, they value flexibility and tuition freezes.
  • Invest in high-fidelity academic program pages.  Program pages, what we call “money pages” on a college website, are where many college decisions are made and college preferences are created. Even though the colleges are asking students to pony up fees that are close to the price of expensive cars, it’s rare to find the level of romance and presentation that even economy car companies put into their entry-level model pages. Instead of settling with bland program pages packed with facts, the VPs of Enrollment Marketing must create program pages that romance prospects and their families. They must feature stories of enrolled students, faculty, facilities, studios, and centers of excellence where the students’ minds will be shaped and skills will be developed. They must paint pictures of exciting opportunities that await them after graduation and offer stories of alumni as demonstrable proof of their program’s distinction.
  • Make it beautiful. Romance prospects. Merchandise hope.
  • Make it search engine friendly. Inform it with a Keyword Lexicon. Bake best practices in search engine optimization (SEO) into all aspects of it. Ensure that your online academic program pages, faculty and the university magazine stories are all ranked on Google page one.
  • Spotlight online enrolled students, alumni and alumni chapters in the institutional website, brochures, and social media. If students can’t see others like themselves there, they simply won’t show interest. They also rely heavily on word-of-mouth from friends. Craft brand messaging and content that is inclusive of people of different races, socio-economic status, career stages and faiths.
  • Prominently feature institutional reputation points because students use them as short-cuts.
  • Feature proof points of your commitment to various student profiles. For instance, working professionals would like to know that you have the support system in place for them. Similarly, African American and Hispanic students don’t wish to stand out like sore thumbs and want to know if the college has the support infrastructure for them to graduate on time.
  • Create customized admissions, financial aid and scholarships sections for adult students that address their unique needs.
  • Be prepared to create an online admissions microsite. If your design template and CMS constraints don’t let you mirror the website user experience with your target audience, be prepared to create a new admissions microsite.
  • Track website performance.  Carefully track prospect journey and conversion performance. Adjust it until it starts performing optimally.


Search, Social and Media Advertising paid platforms are all powered by algorithms that maximize their own profits with little regard for a marketer’s investments. To offset the algorithm’s greedy tendency, use sensible campaign management techniques to tune, optimize and micro-manage various aspects of the campaigns.

  • Deploy new paid advertising methodologies based on what the right-fit students value, micro-segments, look-alikes, A/B testing, geo-targeting, machine learning, big-data algorithms and affinity groups.
  • Use the latest best practices to create high-converting digital ad creative. Run A/B tests to feed the champs and starve the chumps.
  • Direct prospects to brand-infused, high-fidelity, story landing pages. Infuse brand, ROI, cogent argument construction, differentiators, calls-to-action, ROI stats and facts into the creative. Again, run A/B tests with copy and images to feed the winners and starve the losers.
  • Choose the ad platforms wisely. Not all paid channels perform equally. Google generates solid leads for most pre-professional online degrees. Online students convert best on Facebook/Instagram and YouTube, but not on Snapchat and Tik Tok.
  • Carefully track prospect journey and campaign performance so you can determine the right keywords, the right messaging, the right platforms, and the right landing pages. More importantly, so you can answer the pivotal question: where should you invest your precious marketing dollars in the next 12 months.
  • Use sensible campaign management techniques such as budget optimization, bid management, keyword management, audience optimization and judicious management of algorithmic recommendations.


Mobilize search engine optimization (SEO) and your content marketing engine to dominate search engines. Remember four things.

First, research shows that when colleges “get found” via organic Google page one results, prospects trust them more. Google page one organic results command over 90% of click share, and generate close to two-thirds of inquiries. Organic inquiries tend to form long-term relationships with the universities and they tend to melt away at a reduced rate. 

Second, leads generated from Google organic rankings tend to be like-minded and outperform paid advertising leads by three-folds.

Third, the best prospects prefer to “discover” the college of their choice through “accidental finds” on Google page one and word-of-mouth on social media.

Fourth, SEO marketing is a long game. It takes several months to achieve local and regional rankings, and often a year or more to achieve national and international rankings.

In light of these, we recommend that the college:

  • Develop smart foundational SEO. Establish a multi-year rankings plan for securing Google/Bing page one rankings.
  • Start by creating a Keyword Lexicon with keyword clusters, frequently asked questions, and natural language queries. Ensure it include keyword buckets for academic programs, thought leadership, brand, geographic, decisioning, and reputation. Also ensure that the keywords span the entire student decision journey, all the way from awareness, to consideration, to decision and beyond.
  • Optimize all your online academic program pages. Ensure that the information that appears on search engine results is persuasive, aspirational and inviting.
  • Because rankings weaken over time and search engines reward fresh content, marketers must create a continuous stream of high quality, trusted and relevant content (such as articles, blog posts, videos, infographics, white papers, thought leadership articles, social posts, quizzes, games, etc.) and ignite it via promotion and conversation-starters to encourage peer-to-peer sharing. We call this the inverted admissions funnel strategy, which attracts and converts like-minded prospects.
  • Monitor your search engine rankings and traffic to identify which pieces of content are performing well and adjust your emphasis accordingly.


  • Email marketing is most effective with house lists, and as joint marketing campaign with related niche organizations; purchased lists convert poorly. Carefully track prospect journey and campaign performance.


Instead of making a shortlist of colleges on their own, online students are heavily influenced by the opinions of their social network of peers, co-workers and friends.

  • Instead of investing most of their marketing dollars on targeting students directly, reach out to corporate HR departments, trade associations, and senior managers who manage working professionals in need of a degree to advance their careers.  This creates a stereophonic set of messages that surround and engage an online prospect with what’s distinctive about a college.


  • Although colleges have an ambivalent relationship with college rankings, prospective students tend to gravitate towards the best ranked colleges they can afford to attend. Smart colleges routinely influence these ratings by creating committees that proactively affect ranking factors such as peer perception, student satisfaction, student placement rates, and salary data.

Each of these paid, earned and owned media strategies are good alone, but better together.


  1. Recruit Online Student Ambassadors. Ask them to share their positive experiences and insights with their friends. Ask them to welcome new students.
  2. Facilitate Student Visits and Tours. College visits are moments of truth. Face-to-face interactions during college visits, alumni outreach, and admitted student days improve the number of high-quality leads and admissions yield.  Students remember a college that reaches out to them in a timely, caring, personal and organized manner. Successful colleges work very hard in casting and directing volunteers, tour guides, work study and junior staff — ensuring the talking points, presentations, touch points and tour details are all curated and orchestrated perfectly. God is in the details.
  3. Befriend Community Colleges. The more the number of community colleges you build partnerships with, the higher your enrollment will be.
  4. Cultivate Relationships with Corporate HR and Training Directors. Corporations hope to retain employees by fostering their intellectual development. Corporate training programs are one means of doing that, but encouraging employees to get their next degree is the other means.
  5. Cultivate Strong Relationship with Surrounding Communities. Become known as the friendly online education provider in your region. The goodwill generated will pay off handsomely.


All your marketing investments will be wasted unless you build a solid follow-up system for inquiries and applications.

  1. Follow-up with inquiries on a timely basis. Respond quickly. Keep it human. Recruit friends and colleagues to become secret shoppers for your university — and ask them about their experience.
  2. Deploy a personalized contact strategy for every stage of the admissions funnel to maximize yield. Know what prospects and influencers need at every stage of the admissions funnel, and meet their needs. Pay as much attention to admission yield communications and follow-up processes as you do to lead-generation and lead-nurturing communications. Offset reduced contact with stealth applicants by stepping up the game at each touch point. 
  3. Deploy a unique contact strategy for applications to prevent melt.  The application is the new lead. Treat admitted students with the same care as you treat leads. Deploy drip campaigns, accepted student days, early orientation, and welcome reception.
  4. Make it easy for them to succeed. Designate counselors and coaches who assist with registration, scheduling, waiting lists as well as transportation, work-school balance, health issues, and psychological support.

Remember two things. First, a broken inquiry and application follow-up process reflects poorly on the entire brand. Second, don’t let automation get in the way of personalized and timely follow-up because there are no short-cuts for old-fashioned, human-centered relationship building.

If you are seeking an online enrollment marketing agency for increasing and significantly growing your online enrollment, consider partnering with us.