Education Market Research Tips for Programs in Higher Ed and K-12

What is Program Market Research?

The goal of program market research is to understand the competition, demand, and trends for specific programs or courses within a university or K-12 environment. Program market research can also provide insight into how a program or course should be designed based on current and future demand, in addition to how it should be positioned from a creative standpoint within the larger education market. This type of analysis can provide much more confidence to an organization that a program will be successful once launched.

Why is Higher Education Market Research and Program Feasibility Important?

The world of education has only gotten more competitive over the last ten years. With the rise of for-profit education, in addition to the adoption of online learning and MOOC’s, education has become both more accessible and more competitive. Prior to launching a new degree program or course, schools must complete a stringent market research analysis in order to ensure success.

Why is K-12 Market Research Important?

Completing market research for K-12 environments is important as it can shine light onto not only what is in demand from a course perspective, but also how it should be delivered. Classrooms continue to advance in regards to what medium subjects are delivered to students in, and keeping up with trends around how information is consumed by adolescents can be demanding. Market research for K-12 can ensure that the right programs and courses are created, which will in turn deliver education in a mode that is successful.

What is the Market Research Process?

The market research process can generally be broken down into three core sections, with each focusing on the three core principles of competition, demand, and trends.

1. Primary Research

Through a combination of qualitative strategies (focus groups and stakeholder interviews) and quantitative research, information is gathered around education drivers as well as large data sets upon which to formulate and execute plans. We follow a research trajectory that begins with qualitative findings that, in turn, inform cogent, useful surveys. We partner with an Ivy League university’s Survey Research Center to manage data-gathering efforts from hundreds or thousands of stakeholders to provide quick, efficient, and illuminating data with which to make decisions about online programs. Primary research tools include:

  • Surveys
  • Focus Groups
  • On ground program data

2. Competitive Analysis

Understanding the competition is an extremely important step in determining program viability. While understanding program demand is important, many times the barriers to entry and the cost to compete are too high to warrant an investment. Benchmarks are generally used to determine how a program or course stacks up compared to others, and can be a good way to determine ROI. Competitive research tools include:

  • Google trends data
  • Google keyword planner data
  • Keyword Spy (analyze competitors paid advertising strategies

3. Secondary Research

Looking to outside resources for insights into program demand can help ensure success. Compiling and analyzing data from existing resources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor, local/state/regional agencies, IPEDS, job search web sites, and accrediting bodies can determine benchmarks and requirements, as well as short and long term labor market demands.

What Are the Best Market Research Tools?

There are a wide array of free and low-cost tools that are available to individuals looking to complete market research around a program. The following are just a handful of what is available:

  1. – Insight into consumers via surveys, trends over time in search queries, and benchmarks for display related efforts.
  2. – Understand the cost-per-click and search volume around core keywords that your potential audience might be searching.
  3. – Centralized location for federal government data including insights into career and education data.
  4. – Complete surveys of core stakeholders and faculty.
  5. – Large data sets to help provide insight into potential program target markets.

How Can Market Research Inform What to Introduce?

The insights acquired from program market research can shine light onto what programs to introduce based on demand and current competition. Insights from BLS data and other job related data can help to determine what types of degree programs are going to be, or are currently, in demand based on career data. Google trends and keyword data can inform how saturated a market is and can also illustrate how much it will cost from a marketing perspective to enroll a student.

How Can Market Research Be Used to Define Marketing Strategy?

The competitive analysis that is performed during program market research will also focus on the brands of the competition. With education continuing to get more competitive, having a brand that is unique in the market can help to attract students and lead to more organic PR. Insights from this analysis and internal stakeholder interviews will provide insight into what the creative messaging should be for the programs in addition to  what markets to enter and which demographics to target.

By completing a thorough program market research initiative, universities and schools will enter the program creation process more informed about what should be introduced and how it should be positioned within the market. This type of information will help to ensure program success and will also provide upfront insight into costs and metrics, which can prove to be instrumental during the planning and budgeting phase of a new launch.


Robert LeeRobert offers a decade of demonstrated digital marketing expertise, and he has provided results to clients both within and outside of higher education while working as an analyst, team lead, and director. He has planned and implemented digital marketing campaigns for a number of large universities throughout the United States, and he leads Circa on all aspects of client strategy. Before founding Circa Interactive, Robert led digital marketing teams at the higher education organization Embanet.

Tips on Becoming a Web-Analyst for Online Higher Ed

Beginning to analyze a school website can be a daunting task, but in the world of higher education online it’s a fundamental part of achieving and maintaining your desired performance goals. It takes more than a discerning eye to do it effectively—and even after rendering your judgments and deciding the best plan is moving forward, there’s always this epic hurdle: providing actionable insight. The insight you draw from your website data from Google Analytics should not only make your action plan look desirable, but should continuously define it—and moreover, prove that it will work.

Already sound like you’re biting off more than you can chew? Have no fear. These two key metrics (and one grouping) will make on-the-fly analysis for your school website a walk in the park. Monitoring these metrics daily, while also comparing date ranges to establish trends, will give you insight to make continuous changes that will gradually increase your conversion rate to your desired goal. Let’s start with your most important metric.

1) Goal Completions (aka Conversions)

Through and through, Goals are the most fundamental metric to look for no matter what the objective of your online presence is. Use this metric to measure the instances that someone uses your site and completes an action you desire them to do. You can set up and customize these in Google Analytics, just be sure to verify these are set up correctly before diving into the data.

Here are some ideas for goals to help you measure the efficacy of your website:

  • application submissions
  • requests for more information (lead forms)
  • email/newsletter sign-ups
  • blog subscriptions
  • visit duration greater than ‘x’ minutes.

By definition, goals measure your website’s objective—they are the baseline for measuring the success of your initiatives, the work you’re putting forth, and the site as a whole.

2) Conversion Rate

Conversion rates represent the frequency of your goal completions. Monitoring these will tell you what’s working, and in turn inform you on what you can emphasize to the benefit of increasing Goal Completions. A poor conversion rate will alert you to what isn’t working. Determining what is a good—or bad—conversion rate should be relative to your site’s current performance. The best place to start is with your current average for each of your dimensions in Google Analytics; use that as a baseline for your improvement.

Remember, proactive web analysis is a game of inches. If you see a dimension in Analytics has a declining conversion rate—but it’s also carrying the weight of your site’s goal completions—drill-down inside of that dimension so you can find and eliminate what is bringing it down. In paid search analysis I look at individual campaigns to make sure they’re holding a conversion rate at or above average to their designated marketing channels.

3) Technology

We live in a multi-device world, so fluency between devices is a must if you’re going to capitalize on user experience. Knowing which devices your prospective students are using to connect and discover your institution online is a key insight that can be easily found in Google Analytics under Mobile > Overview in the Audience tab. Keep an eye on which platforms (desktop, tablet or mobile) have the highest conversion rate, and consider an audit of the platform with the lowest conversion rate.

Now, let’s step back and take a holistic look at the user experience…

  • Is the webpage rendering properly in different browser versions (Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc.)?
  • Does it render properly on mobile devices and tablets?
  • Is the lead form clearly visible on the page without necessitating the user scroll down to find it?
  • Is the site asking for personal information from the user?
    • If so, make sure your privacy policy is clearly visible, and linked to the form with a verifiable icon that assures users of your website security.

Consider whether the lead form begs too much of the user. If you’re focused on just lead-generation or building a wide list of prospective students, you shouldn’t have many more questions other than Name, Email, and perhaps a set of check-boxes that denotes the nature of their interest. Whatever the case, try to limit your lead forms to no more than 3 steps. Any more may have the undesirable effect of discouraging a user to proceed further down your funnel-path towards becoming a student.

That’s all folks!

Looking for more info on how to leverage Google Analytics? Check out our previous Analytics post: Using Google Analytics in Higher Education to Influence Marketing Decisions

Interested in learning more about Circa Interactive's Higher Education Marketing Services? Fill out the form below:

ERROR: si-contact-form.php plugin says GD image support not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them why GD image support is not enabled for PHP.

ERROR: si-contact-form.php plugin says imagepng function not detected in PHP!

Contact your web host and ask them why imagepng function is not enabled for PHP.

Marketing an Online Degree Program: When To Hire a Consultant

Often when a department gets the go-ahead to launch a program in an online format, the focus tends to be on finding faculty and administrators, implementing online learning software, and putting together the overall course structure and schedule. Somewhere in the proposal there was some money put aside for marketing costs, but most likely little to no thought was actually put in to figuring out how and where to spend that budget.

When a program is looking to launch online, an in-depth online marketing strategy must be created and implemented. Unfortunately, most universities do not have the knowledge available in-house to tackle this kind of task. There might be a few individuals in the marketing or IT department who have dabbled in Google Adwords or know what title tags are, but nobody with enough experience to craft and launch an all-inclusive Internet marketing strategy.

When it comes to creating, implementing, and managing an online marketing strategy, a university generally has three options: recruit and train from within, hire an outside full-time specialist, or hire a consultant. The following analyzes each choice and provides insight into which option should be pursued.


Train Internal Employee/Bring On Entry-Level Resource

Some universities may have internal employees who have a history in marketing or PR who have helped to market some of the on-campus programs in the past. Maybe they have dabbled in Internet marketing, but are eager to learn more about it and have extra time on their hands to implement a small Internet marketing campaign. There might also be students looking for an internship in the field who have some marketing experience but are also looking to expand on their knowledge.


  • Little to no additional costs
  • Might already be familiar with the program, its brand, as well as its target audience
  • Can implement and manage a small campaign while continuing to perform other duties


  • Would need to be trained, which can be costly
  • Overall marketing strategy is going to be very limited
  • Not going to understand the best way to allocate marketing dollars among multiple traffic/student generating sources
  • Probably not going to drive the highest quality traffic
  • Probably not going to produce the highest ROI leads
  • Limitations when it comes to maintaining the campaigns once live

Good Option If

  • You find an internal resource that has an above average understanding of internet marketing
  • The campaign budget is very small (under 2k a month)
  • You are primarily interested in paid advertising rather than SEO
  • You already have strong program lead flow and are just looking for incremental lead flow via internet marketing


Hire an Experienced Full-time Internet Marketing Employee

If a university is looking at launching a large degree program online, or a handful of programs within a school, then hiring a full-time and experienced Internet marketing employee can be a good option. The university would want to find someone with 5+ years in the field, who, if possible, has proven success in the education vertical. Sometimes individuals will only specialize in a sub-section of internet marketing (PPC/SEO/Analytics/Social Media), but a university would want to find a jack of all trades.  This individual would also need to be more of a leader, who has held previous positions as a manager/director that could lay the groundwork for possibly building a team down the road.


  • Experience
  • Guide the strategic direction of the program/s
  • Costs would be salary based rather than ongoing fees
  • Individual would become very familiar with university’s brand


  • Very hard to find someone highly experienced in higher education internet marketing at the senior level
  • If someone is found, salary requirement would most likely be 100k+ and benefits
  • Might be strong in some facets of internet marketing but weak in others
  • If individual is too senior, need to hire additional entry-level individuals
  • If individual is too junior, may need senior leadership to help guide strategic direction

Good Option If

  • University has decided that launching online programs as part of its long-term strategic plan for success (3+ new programs launching a year)
  • The right person is found who is in it for the long-term


Higher An Outside Consulting Firm

There are a large array of different Internet marketing firms that would love the opportunity to work with a large university brand, but many of these firms might not be familiar enough with the higher education industry to produce optimal results. The Higher Education market is unique, and hiring a firm with experience in the field is absolutely essential.  There are a handful of firms that solely specialize in higher education, but universities should also be careful when screening and selecting these. A firm should be sought out that has a portfolio that includes similar universities to your own, as dealing with similar size brands is important.


  • Experience if the right firm is hired
  • Can guide the strategic direction of the program/s
  • Fee’s associated with services can be most likely be customized based on client needs (pay per lead/flat rate/hourly)
  • Most likely provide all internet marketing services including web design and development
  • Firm can be continuously utilized for new programs or fired at any time
  • Can provide recommendations on additional programs to launch
  • University can copy strategy for new programs


  • Finding the right consultant or organization can sometimes be strenuous
  • Consulting fee’s can sometimes be high depending on the program budget and needs
  • Not overly familiar with university brand
  • Can sometimes focus on quantity of quality

Good Option If

  • University has decided that it wants to test out a few programs online, but are not 100% sure that online learning should be their long-term strategic approach
  • A university doesn’t have the resources or want to introduce a large scale internal marketing team
  • A firm is decided upon that has a long history of success marketing online degree programs

Launching an Online Program: How To Tell What Types of Online Degrees Will Be Successful

Over the last few years, there have been dramatic shifts in the world of higher education. Changing economic landscapes, the evolution of online learning technologies, and the emergence of for-profit colleges have turned higher education upside down. High quality public and private educational institutions have been scrambling to figure out a way to compete in the ever-evolving education landscape while still upholding their academic integrity and keeping their brands intact.

As public institutions continue to see their budgets slashed and private institutions struggle to bring on enough students to keep their colleges alive, online degrees have emerged as a possible revenue-generating solution. But simply taking programs that exist on-campus and launching them in an online format isn’t enough and can sometimes put universities further into the red. An exhaustive process of analyzing the competitive landscape as well as program demand must be undertaken in order to ensure a program’s success. The world of online education is already overly saturated with programs that have been launched by universities looking for a quick fix to a complex problem, but little focus has been paid to what potential students actually demand.

But it is not all gloom and doom; there are many individuals out there who view a high quality online degree program as a fantastic alternative to a more traditional on-campus option. The world of online higher education is growing, and will continue to as larger brands move into the market, online learning environments evolve, and online degrees continue to become more socially acceptable. Introducing a degree program online is a big decision, but the following guidelines can be useful in determining the potential opportunity of a program.

Elements of a Successful Online Program

1. Is the Degree and Are Graduates In Demand?
This is a basic way to at least tell if there is a market for your program. This should be the very minimum that is required if you are looking to launch a program online, but should not be the sole criteria. There are many different resources that will tell you whether or not a type of degree or graduate is in demand, but unfortunately much of this is based on job or career projections that have not happened and will not for at least a handful of years. There are some resources that you can review to gauge the career demand for your graduates, but remember that these are estimates and projections based on what is going on right now (back in 2006, getting a real estate or finance degree was a great idea).

  • U.S. Department of Labor
  • U.S. Department of Education
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics

An important and sometimes overlooked way to understand whether a program is in demand is by reviewing the search volume (Google Keyword Tool) for keywords associated with your program. For example, there are 5,400 local monthly searches for the keyword “masters in public health”, but only 880 for “masters in public policy”. While not exact, this would infer that there are approximately six times as many people searching on the Internet for a MPH over a MPP. The keyword tool is also useful for deciding what to name the program (don’t get creative, it will just confuse potential students).

Another obvious way to understand whether an online program is in demand is to look at your recent graduates from your on-campus program (if one exists). Are employers chasing them?

2. Is the Potential Online Degree Program Unique?
Unfortunately, in most situations, if the degree you are looking at launching is in demand then the market is most likely already saturated with less than desirable universities offering a similar program. There are thousands of different degrees available on the Internet, so how are you going to stand out from the rest? Unless you work for a university that has an extremely recognizable and well-respected brand, you are going to have to work at communicating the value of your program to potential students. Some of the following might help to separate your program:

Curriculum: Is there something unique about the curriculum that can really benefit certain individuals? For example, if you are launching a Masters in Information Systems, does a course focus on a specific technology that is in demand but not covered by other universities? Do professors that are well known in the industry teach the courses?

Accreditation: This might sound basic, but you would be surprised how savvy potential students are when it comes to accreditation. This is a good way to separate yourself from much of the competition, especially if you are a smaller brand. It is never a good idea to launch a new unaccredited program in a competitive field.

Ranking: Is the on-campus program ranked in any way? Has the program been recognized by any industry leaders or large organizations? These can go a long way in separating your program from the competition.

Concentrations/Focuses: One way to cater your degree to specific audiences is to offer different concentrations or focuses that are relevant to your core students demands. For example, if you are looking to introduce a Masters in Internet Marketing, you could introduce concentrations in Social Media, Search Engine Optimization, or Pay-per-click.

3. Does the Potential Program Have a Defined Target Audience?
Unless you have an extremely strong brand, or offer a degree program that cannot be matched by any other institution, it is going to be very difficult to compete in a market that has a broad audience. For example, if you launch an Online MBA, when marketing the program, it is going to be hard to find the specific audience that is interested in your program over a competitors program .

Facebook and LinkedIn advertising have also enabled marketers to create custom audience segments, which in turn has produced a cheap way to drive highly targeted traffic. For example, if you introduce a Green MBA program, you might be able to craft custom audience segments that target individuals on Facebook who are interested in green technologies and renewable energy. Rather than just relying on individuals who are searching for an Online MBA (estimated Google CPC of $60), you can drive potential students to your site that are already interested in Renewable Energy for $2 per click.

4. Is Launching the Program a Bargain for the University?
At the end of the day, the potential income generated is going to be a major deciding factor as to whether or not to launch a program. Obviously you need to figure out how much money you are going to spend (expenses), and how much you can bring in (revenue) to figure out the potential income from a program. But how are you going to figure out how much an online degree can generate?

We are going to take a quick look at the basic costs associated with marketing the program from an Internet advertising standpoint. The first place to start is to figure out how much it’s going to cost you to generate a lead.

Most likely you are going to need a savvy Internet marketer who is familiar with the higher education industry to calculate that for you. The education vertical is one of the most competitive on the Internet, so relying on someone who is not familiar with the industry is generally not a good idea. This individual will calculate an estimated cost per lead by looking at estimated cost-per-clicks, keyword volume, audience segments, and conversion rates across multiple different traffic sources. These numbers can fluctuate wildly (some keywords cost $50+ per click), and many of the future articles on this website will provide best practices on how to squeeze the most out of your marketing dollars.

Once you have determined your cost per lead, you need to figure out what percentage of those leads will become students. This number can also fluctuate wildly depending on multiple different factors including number of starts, brand strength, cost, and financial aid.

So let’s say your estimated cost per lead is $120 (about average for a medium competition degree with a relatively strong brand), and you are able to close those leads at 2%. That means it will cost you around $6,000.00 per student, just considering the expenses associated with driving traffic. This does not include various other fixed costs such as web design, and hiring other individuals that will make launching an online degree successful (internet marketers, student advisors, copy writers, online savvy professors, etc.).

Someone with a solid finance background is going to be needed to provide more accurate calculations, as the above is just a basic calculation of the marketing needs. One other factor that is extremely important in determining the revenue per student is your projected retention rate (if half of your enrolled students drop-out, that’s going to kill your bottom line).

5. Is the Potential Program a Bargain for the Student?
One of the major deciding factors as to whether an individual will enroll in a program is how much it costs. This might seem obvious, but universities sometimes don’t take this into consideration when pricing a program. People are becoming more aware of the dangers associated with debt (especially student loan debt), so making sure that your program is priced competitively is extremely important.

Introducing a program in which employees of certain companies get tuition reimbursement is also worth looking into. Unfortunately this is somewhat hard to gauge, especially when the online program might not be launched for another one to two years, but is something to keep in mind.

So is My Program a Good Candidate for an Online Format?

There are many factors that influence whether or not a program can compete and be successful in the online marketplace. While sometimes it can be hard to project the opportunity surrounding a program pre-launch, there is research that can be completed that will paint a clearer picture as to what to expect. As long as the program looks to be a strong candidate from a marketing, recruitment, and retention standpoint, the program is most likely at least worth an initial market test.