In 2020, Covid-19 has had an indisputable impact on the global higher education market, bringing the importance and necessity of online programs to the forefront. Searches related to online learning saw a ten-fold increase during March and April 2020, and online-only students now make up around 15% (and growing) of all higher education enrollment, up from just 4% pre-Covid. But while the pandemic may have pressed the fast-forward button, online programs have definitely been on the radar for some time. 

The current online-first positioning is also happening at a time when competition is fiercer than ever. Developing and rolling out a new online program is an incredibly time consuming, often complex and intricate, process, and if not done effectively could result in a loss for your institution. Which is why we bring to you this short guide on the four fundamentals you must get right when launching a new online program. 

Whether you’re an institution which already offers a number of courses online, and you want to launch a brand new online program, an institution that has some courses online, but would like to transition more, or an institution that has no online programs at the moment, but wants to catch up quickly, there’s something to learn whichever camp you may be in right now.

1. What makes your course new in the market?

First things first, you need to identify a gap in the market or a demand for a new program, and explain why your institution is the right one to provide this course. What does it look like from year one right up until graduation and what are the lifelong outcomes of someone completing this course? Are other universities already doing this program, or are you the first overall, or in your area of the country? All these questions need asking and then answering.

Market research trends

From the research we do at Net Natives, we know that certain courses such as Sustainability Management have seen major national growth in interest the last couple of years, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Do these courses fit with the type of student you’re attracting to your campuses, do your brand and perceived perceptions allow for these new offerings on your roster?

2. Who are you creating this for? 

Understanding your audience is a critical step in launching a new online program and this insight cannot be overlooked. It’s great finding a niche subject that you think will add value to students’ lives, is seeing growth in searches and enrollment trends and which none of your competitors are currently offering. But what good is it introducing a new course if none of your prospective students have any interest in taking it? By conducting primary research, you can begin to understand what motivates the kind of students that look to you for their education; what are their barriers and what are their inspirations? 

From there, you’ll be able to start mapping out what they want to take from this new potential course, and this research will allow you to identify whether you market new programs as standalone courses, whether the curriculum fits alongside pre-existing programs, or whether you market a number of new programs separately. And if there is cross-over, how you shape the messaging to avoid confusion from prospective students. 

Perhaps from persona research and competitor analysis, a Sustainability course could look likely to bring some value to your institution, however you may also find that your prospective students are much more likely to be engaged with the likes of Construction Administration. Understanding these fundamentals can help you make the decision between launching one new online program or another, through informed and acute research and insight. 

When considering your ‘whos’ and personas, you must also consider their backgrounds and available resources, not just their aspirations, qualifications and interests. With online learning, a whole host of new barriers to low-income individuals have been presented. While typically on-campus education can be supplemented with scholarships, bursaries and free resources, how does this translate when studying at home and online? How can your institution ensure these new programs are accessible to all types of students? Consider the potential barriers of reliable WiFi, quiet study spaces and available laptops. If these are something you can help with, ensure that’s in your messaging when launching your new program. That opens a door to many students that, perhaps, is frequently kept closed by many of your competitors. 

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3. Why now? 

Our third point is something you should be continually asking yourselves; why is now a good time to launch a new program, why this program over another and why this program for this market? Ensure that your new online offerings align with your existing on-campus programs, to not only help bring down the cost of developing your new program, but also to give you the flexibility to nurture your existing pool of students into becoming future online learners. 

Launching a new online program costs both time and money and should never be something done in haste. Use your personas and market research to answer those questions, and if the time isn’t right, hold back until it is. Do it right, or don’t do it at all. 

4. What does good look like? 

After all the research into what program you should be launching, why and to whom, you’ll have a clear picture of the road you're taking. But at this initial stage, you must be able to visualize where you want to go. What are you looking to achieve with this new online program? What does success look like and what KPIs will you be measuring along the way? What does a good enrollment target in years one, two and three of your program look like? Once you’ve decided on metrics, such as your target CPA, they will allow you to constantly measure progress and identify where you can amend, optimize and pivot in order to succeed. 

While this planning stage is a critical point of launching a new online program, arguably the hardest work is yet to come, and that is getting students through your doors and enrolling in your brand new course. So have your eyes on the prize and keep focussed. But if you get the what, who and why pinned down from the get go, you’re already on the right track.

Our expert team at Net Natives are continually learning about what students want from institutions, and discovering new ways for universities and colleges to provide the right courses, at the right times. If you’re considering launching a new online program, get in touch

Article by

Eleana Davidson Native Author

Eleana Davidson

Senior Marketing Executive