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Earlier this year, I contacted Anna Miller, the executive director of online education marketing at New York University, for advice and counsel on online program marketing. Anna (along with Emily Irvin) recently wrote a fantastic article in Volt, “3 Steps for Investing in Online Education Marketing.” I wanted to learn more about Anna’s insights on the shifting world of online education marketing and her career progression.

Q: Tell us about your role at NYU. How is your team situated within the university? How did it come about and what are the main sorts of things that you do as the executive director?

A: The Online Education Marketing team sits in a unique spot within NYU. We’re under Global Enrollment Management & Student Success and, specifically, on the Enrollment Marketing and Communications team.

That’s not always the case for teams like this; for example, it’s not uncommon for anything “online” to be in a silo within the online learning division at a college or university. Instead, our Enrollment Marketing team has four units—Undergraduate and PreCollege Marketing, Experiential Marketing, Strategic Student Communications and us—Online Education Marketing. It makes for much more synergy and integration. We are not trying to separate online education from the overall NYU brand; it’s all an NYU student experience, no matter the modality.

The team was dreamed up after extensive research and years of evaluating the needs of our schools at NYU. It’s no secret that online education is having its moment—at NYU and across the education ecosystem. We like to think of ourselves as part of a larger movement, and that momentum that the movement sparks requires support. That’s where we come in: we’re here to support our schools and to help them attract quality students.

Because of where we sit, what we do is so often about being a connector. My role in leading this team is to be sure that: Folks across the university know about us; my team has what they need to be conduits and inspirational partners to our individual schools; and we take on meaningful projects that can impact program enrollment and overarching marketing strategies across schools.

We are essentially a central resource that meets with interested schools that run online programs and help to surface lessons and best practices while also executing specific campaigns and projects that boost enrollment and bring visibility to their programs. Since we’re an internal team, we’re intentional and invested in NYU in a way that an external marketing agency may not be. And we’re inherently flexible and nimble to adapt to our schools’ various needs. We also take quite seriously our role in creating a collective brand that builds continuity and goalposts for all online programs at NYU.

Q: If you were going to offer universities one big piece of advice about online education marketing, what would it be? What do we all get wrong?

A: We’ve actually got two biggies! And for those who appreciate brevity, I’ll give you the TL/DR:

  • Leverage market research with a students-first approach
  • Avoid the cookie cutter marketing approach and be more authentic

In terms of leveraging market research, I firmly believe you need the expertise of a marketer to understand the labor market, especially for online education. Consider industries outside of higher ed. Marketers play an enormous role in the design of what’s being offered to those they’re marketing to—that is, there’s an acute focus on the four P’s of marketing: product, price, place and promotion. In higher ed, sometimes we narrow our thinking to only promotion.

While it may feel natural to design a degree program based on faculty members’ passion to teach a topic, it’s really necessary—and I’d say even our obligation—to set students up for success in the labor market. This feels especially true with online education. We need to help our esteemed faculty identify concentrations that meet emerging skills that show up in the workforce. Ultimately, it’s about designing a program with the student in mind, first and foremost.

The second piece of advice relates to a non-negotiable value on our team: authenticity. The basics of outreach are necessary—things like info sessions, nurture campaigns, search ads. But so often, the value proposition is not unique and there’s a cookie-cutter approach for marketing online programs.

Online program management (OPMs) providers jumped in years ago and helped launch programs across the country; they created the baseline for how to market an online degree. Now, it’s our job to elevate the language, actually engage students and articulate the program in a unique and human-centered way. It’s on us as marketers to go far beyond marketing best practices to honestly, creatively and genuinely engage prospective students.

One of the things folks in higher ed often struggle with is clearly articulating their point of differentiation. It doesn't take an expert marketer to notice most online programs describe themselves in the exact same way. You know the drill:

  • They’re flexible.
  • They’re designed for working professionals.
  • They give you access to outstanding faculty and a network of incredible peers.

We conducted a massive amount of market research so we didn’t fall into this common trap. We heard from students, faculty, alumni and administrators with the aim of truly understanding what makes our program stand out. We concluded that NYU’s online learning experience is a digital metropolis, echoing the energy of New York City. It’s through this work that we’re able to authentically tell the story of our students and amplify those stories to the rest of the world.

Q: Can you share the educational and professional path that brought you to your current role at NYU? What advice would you offer to others looking to ascend into leadership roles in marketing within higher education?

A: I started my career marketing sustainable energy at different nonprofits before it was popular. I then chased a boss and pivoted to higher ed, working at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business at an institute that was working to address global poverty. Working with business leaders from all over the world ignited a spark inside of me, and I decided to pursue a Master of Business Administration. While I thought I’d get my MBA at Stanford, I was lured away by an innovative online program.

A lightbulb went off for me: I realized the world hadn’t caught on to what was happening with online education (this was pre-pandemic). So often people remark on what you lose by bringing a program online, but they fail to see there are things you can do online that you just can’t do within the confines of a physical classroom. With this newfound interest in the possibilities that arise when a degree program is offered online, I accepted a role at the University of Pennsylvania helping to market their online programs.

I quickly became a fervent advocate for online education in this new role within a unit at Penn that was dedicated to advancing online learning. These experiences illuminated the vast, untapped potential of online programs to meet a growing demand among the generations who are now becoming college-level students.

These are generations who have grown up with the internet at their fingertips. They expect the majority of their needs to be met online—shopping, entertainment, therapy, you name it! Online education not only meets them where they are, but it has the potential to meet diverse learning needs, facilitate collaboration and provide equitable access to education.

With this strong belief in the power of online education, I was hired two years ago to launch the Online Education Marketing team at NYU.

Along this journey, I rose to meet moments of great challenge—key moments that pushed me to acquire new skills and level up my professional know-how. There wasn’t a defined path, per se, but an awareness of these interesting junctures in my path and decisions to take new, exciting and unfamiliar routes.

My advice to young leaders in higher ed marketing is to exist in a world of possibilities over barriers. Figure out how to make things happen even when you hear “That can’t be done” or “We’ve never done things like that before.” It’s such a fun and impactful way to explore your career and make a difference at your school. And you know what? People will want to work with and for you because you get things done—this type of attitude is infectious and it inspires collective ambition.

On our team, we lean into our own humanity. When we’re on, we fire on all cylinders toward excellence. We work on projects that we genuinely like. Upon making this shift of existing in a world of possibilities while leaning into our collective humanity, I find myself doing projects that I feel are awesome. When you adopt this mentality, passion and motivation are so much more likely to guide the work.

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