The Power of Market Perception in Online Education

The Power of Market Perception in Online Education

I’ve always been fascinated by the power of perception. Our preconceived notions can blur the lines between the perceived value and the actual value of a product, an experience—even an education.

In 2008, the MindMax team kicked off an engagement to market an online program for an Ivy League college. The program itself, including the curriculum and the teaching staff, was excellent. But the quality and even content of the program mattered less to potential students than might be expected. 

The university’s clout—their market perception—carried more weight than the actual instructional design and program value.

We’ve had the opposite experience with smaller, lesser-known colleges that lack the name recognition and cache of an Ivy League school. Although the program quality was often comparable to that of a more “elite” college, we had to work twice as hard to enroll prospective students.

Colleges and universities continue to face challenges when marketing their online programs. This time around, brand equity isn’t the only factor shaping prospective student perceptions. The online education marketplace is a jumble of different offerings. A prospective student’s prior experiences with one or more of these offerings—and a lack of clarity about what to expect from an “online education” have contributed to a wide range of market perceptions and value judgments.

Diverse Perceptions of Online Education Post-Covid

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority of students across America have now experienced online education—or at the very least, “Zoom education.” 

Yes, there is a distinct difference between online education and Zoom education.

Online education has been around since long before the pandemic. It has consisted of everything from PowerPoint presentations to intricate simulations that guide students through an experience—ideally equipped with plenty of checkpoints to ensure that students achieve competency. 

Some online programs are text-heavy; others involve full video and interactive media to replicate the experience of in-person instruction. 

Schools that already had tremendous instructional design and pedagogy around online education prior to March 2020 were prepared for the year of Zoom education that would follow. But many schools weren’t ready for this sudden shift to online learning. They turned to Zoom education out of necessity, delivering rudimentary two-dimensional experiences using whatever resources they had available. 

There’s something to be said for these schools’ adaptability in the face of unprecedented global change, but the results were understandably varied. 

Coming out of the pandemic, prospective students have been exposed to a wide range of quality in online education. Inevitably, their individual experiences have been instrumental in forming their value judgments about the quality of online education as a whole. 

The Challenge: Communicating the Actual Value of Online Programs

As schools and their marketing teams approach the years ahead, they face a unique challenge. These institutions must accurately communicate the value of online education to potential students, whose perceptions of these offerings span a wide spectrum of experiences.

Brand equity certainly factors into the perceived value of online programs. However, factors like proximity, familiarity, ease of access, cost, and relevance to a prospective student’s goals are also part of the decision-making process. 

To prepare for 2022 and beyond, schools will need to educate (and in some cases, reeducate) a disparate marketplace of potential students around key differentiators that contribute to the value of their offering. 

As history shows us, shifting people’s preconceived notions and perceptions is never easy—whether we’re talking about big issues like politics and social change or selling a simple consumer product. 

To succeed, colleges must reframe a potential student’s perceived value of online education to align with the actual value of these experiences—which, when executed well, is indeed quite high.

At MindMax, we specialize in bridging the gap between prospective students’ perceptions of a school or program and the reality of these offerings. Through lead nurturing initiatives, we develop a thoughtful, tailored relationship with potential students at every stage of the enrollment process. We listen to their expressed needs and respond accordingly. This process allows us to calibrate expectations and ensure a good fit between a student and a program. 

If you need support marketing your school’s online education programs during these challenging times, let’s connect