Building a Global Online Empire? Think Local.


By: Steven Fischer Jul 25, 2019

Building a Global Online Empire? Think Local.

You know that targeting is important when marketing your online college. You design ads with a specific audience in mind. On ad platforms, you use targeting tools to serve those ads to the potential students most likely to respond to them. But even the most carefully designed ad campaigns for online colleges might be missing one key targeting factor:Proximity.

Students, even online students, are far more likely to attend a school within 50 miles of their home. In fact, the percentage of online students choosing a school within 50 miles of their home has been growing steadily since 2012 according to the Online College Students Report 2019. Five years ago, 42% of online students choose a school no more than 50 miles away. This year, 67% of students did the same.

At the same time the percentage of students who enrolled at an online college more than 100 miles from home fell from 37% to 15%. It’s clear that targeting your advertising to potential students living within 100 miles of your school will give you the best return on investment for your ads.

Why Proximity Matters

What led to this drastic shift in the numbers of online college students who enroll locally? Simply, it is the number of local colleges and universities that have entered the online education space in that time period. No longer do students need to rely on distant institutions to provide them flexible online study options in programs they want or need.

Those seeking to enroll in an online program can do so at an institution with which they themselves, their friends, family, and most importantly, coworkers and employers are familiar with and respect – 30 percent of online students said recommendations of family and friends is an influential enrollment factor. This familiarity and respect provide validity to their online program and helps students to feel comfortable knowing they are enrolling in a reputable program – as 39 percent of online undergraduate and graduate students both listed reputation of the school/program as a primary factor in an enrollment decision – second only to affordability.

It’s not that online students are in love with learning on the internet. No. They picked online learning because it was convenient. According to the study, 28% of undergraduates and 24% of graduates said the ability to take both online and on-campus courses was an important factor in choosing an online program. Online students are looking for options and flexibility to fit their busy lifestyle. A school that’s close to home gives them the best of both worlds.

What this means for your marketing campaigns

While colleges and universities with online programs should not forgo looking beyond their region for students in order to enroll those who would want their specific program offerings and features (especially those with niche programs that appeal nationally), institutions should mount strong local marketing campaigns to enroll online students – and recognize that their major competitors are not so far away.

Campaigns should promote their reputation in the community, especially among employers, as students would see employers “seal of approval” as fortuitous.

Moreover, online institutions must ensure that they foster strong relationships with alumni. Alumni are the link between an institution and the greater community it serves, particularly friends and family. Given that most current and former students live in close proximity to their institution, alumni support and endorsement of online programs to others who live among them – friends, family, and coworkers – will lead additional local students to your door. Alumni can also be used in digital and traditional campaigns as they may be well known in the community and their community ties can be promoted.

Social Media, paid search ads, TV commercials, and even in-person events give you the opportunity to target prospective students who are local to your online college. Use targeting features online and take advantage of in-person opportunities to reach potential students most likely to enroll at your school.

Social media

Both paid and organic social media posts can reach people from around town or around the world. Create at least some of your social media materials to target local students When posting:
share content that showcases your community involvement
Let prospective students know about in-person events
Introduce them to your local staff so they feel connected even if they never set foot on campus.

For paid advertising on social media platforms, if you want the best ROI, the bulk of your ads should be targeted to potential students within a 100 mile radius of your school. If you have multiple campuses or service centers, create targeted advertising for each area.

Paid Search

For PPC advertising, use geotargeting to limit your audience. In Google Adwords for example, you can select specific cities and towns where your ad will be displayed. Or, you can use the radius function to set proximity targeting. Using these tools helps you maximize your ad budget by getting your message in front of potential students who are most likely to convert.


It might surprise you to learn that 10% of students say TV commercials about the school were an influential factor in their decision to enroll. That’s about the same percentage as social media advertisements and search ads.

If you run TV commercials, stick to local channels to be seen by prospective students most likely to enroll at your online college. For Hulu, DirecTV, or other platforms with national or global reach, maximize your ROI by running a local commercial instead of paying extra to reach a wider audience that is unlikely to enroll.

In-person events

With so many online students choosing local colleges, it may be worth your time to extend your marketing to in-person events as well. The local college fair might be a great place to find new students, even if some or all of those students intend to study online. Making an in-person connection with these students can help them feel welcomed into your virtual campus community.

In addition to college fairs you can attend career days, send speakers into local high schools and GED programs, and connect with local employers who hire people with degrees in programs you offer.

Make sure that the messaging of your print collateral and talking points matches your online presence. They should both stress proximity, reputation, affordability, and the opportunity for in-person classes when convenient.

Get more insight into online students

For more insight into what online students are really looking for, download the Online College Students 2019 Report from Aslanian Market Research, a Division of EducationDynamics, and Learning House, a Wiley Company. This yearly study delves into what, why, and how online students study. It also measures the impact of online programs and tracks industry trends.

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