The Great Debate: Website Best Practice for Online Degrees

Joan Benson

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Over the last two months, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven traditional courses into distance delivery mode. Oddly enough, this transition to online learning spotlights the long-simmering question of whether delivery method should be an early fork in the prospective student journey.

Program pages drive recruitment; we all know that. The debate is whether online degree programs stand alone or whether they are presented under the umbrella of the degree, as a variant or one of several paths to that degree.

We start with these premises:

  1. Google is your home page. Every prospect’s journey begins on a SERP.
  2. Online degree programs compete fiercely against each other. You need solid, dedicated content to sell your program over the competition’s.
  3. Online prospects have different priorities. Your content needs to speak to that.

Use Case: Online MBA vs. On-campus MBA

We know a few things about prospective online MBA students. They care about:

  • Start dates (how soon can I start?)
  • Flexibility
  • Managing competing responsibilities well

On-campus prospects have a different set of concerns, with one area of overlap:

  • Convenient location (how will this fit into my routes?)
  • Convenient schedule (how will this fit into my days?)
  • Managing competing responsibilities well

In general, prospects will have a preference for online versus on-campus, based on the other constraints in their lives or their understanding of their own learning styles. That preference will probably drive their search queries.

Prospect Journey 1: SERP to MBA to Online MBA Option (alternately, SERP to MBA to On-campus MBA, although in most sites, the MBA landing page also encompasses the on-campus MBA as a standard modality)

Prospect Journey 2: SERP to Online Programs to MBA

Prospect Journey 3: SERP to Online MBA (alternately, SERP to On-campus MBA)

Length alone would make you wonder why anyone would choose Journeys 1 or 2. However, there is a compelling (and all-too-common) case for these journeys: when an institution depends on static content housed on individual pages and when that institution struggles to produce the content it needs.

Then, a route through a more generic landing page makes the most efficient use of the apparently most-limited institutional resource, content.

However, in truth, the most limited institutional resource is prospects’ attention. What you really need is a better approach to content so you can deliver a better prospect journey.

The other case we hear for Journey 1 is pride: Our MBA program is so strong, so honored, so respected, we have to talk about it first, and then we can talk about modality. “Our strengths are why people pick us.”

Fine, those strengths will help you compete. However, to be considered (and therefore to compete), meet your users’ needs first.

And why can’t you talk about those strengths in Journey 3? This is, again, a content management issue. If your content is static and housed on the page, then Journey 3 will force you to repeat yourself. However, if you set up content libraries that feed into the page, you can meet your users’ needs and have a single place to talk about how great you are.

Journey 2 makes sense when your users have pre-determined their modality preference but not yet their degree: “I want an online program; I’m just not sure what it should be in.” You might have prospects considering your MBA, MPA, and MIS degrees, for example.

Best Practice: Separate Pages, Cross-Linked

Without knowing your individual requirements, our recommended practice is to separate modalities at the outset:

  • Online program page with a link to traditional option
  • Traditional program page with a link to the online option

These additional practices will improve your users’ experience and help you compete:

  • Clear search filters in a program finder
  • Central content libraries for institutional strengths and supporting facts and testimonials
  • Landing page for all online programs (Journey 2)—especially if you have (or plan to have) multiple online degrees that might be considered by the same prospects.

Want to learn more? Schedule a free consultation today.

Contributions to this article by Sandra Fancher

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