Designing an online orientation program is a lot of work, and can take a lot of time. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but at the same time you are designing your program, you also need to be creating a comprehensive marketing and promotions strategy. While it would be great if students could just magically find the program and decide to complete it on their own, that’s pretty unlikely. Even just knowing about the program likely isn’t going to be enough to get most students to complete it. If humans were good at doing the things we know we should do, we would all exercise more, eat healthier, and spend less time with Netflix.
Here are a few things to consider when developing your marketing strategy.
Be clear about goals
As a first step to getting students to complete an online orientation program, it is important to ensure that your students know that the program exists and can identify one or more reasons why they should complete the program; reasons that will spur them to enroll or access the program initially. Be clear about what the program is, why a student should complete it, and how a student can go about doing so. The purpose and benefits of completing the program should be clear in any and all promotional content related to the program.
Start with recruitment
UVic’s Pre-Arrival Program is not mandatory; it’s completely up to the student as to whether or not they want to complete any or all of the program. So while we don’t tell students they have to do they program, we do try and talk about the program in a way that implies this is just a thing you do as a new student. It’s not a thing you “should do” or a thing you “could do”; it’s simply a thing that new students do. Our ultimate goal is that our new students have the same inherent desire to complete our Pre-Arrival Program that they do to attend any face-to-face orientation program.
For us, our approach of “expecting” students to complete the Pre-Arrival Program starts with recruitment. When we first launched the program, all of UVic’s recruiters were briefed on the program’s goals, benefits, topics, approaches, and any other information we had. This meant that in conversations with students, they were able to talk about the program as a way UVic supports their students. The Pre-Arrival Program was added to any next steps checklists that existed: Pay your deposit, register for courses, complete the Pre-Arrival Program. At our major on-campus recruitment event in May, all students received a promotional card about the program in their welcome package, and we were also present at the resource fair to talk up the program and answer questions. Our recruiters also took our promotional cards on the road with them when they visited schools throughout April, May and June.
By talking about the program from the beginning of a student’s interactions with UVic through to their first day of class, we are hoping to build a culture where completing the Pre-Arrival Program is just seen as a part of being a UVic student.
Have a web presence
Your online orientation program should have a web presence- one that is accessible to the public. Even if you are linking directly to the program inside your learning management system in all of your marketing and communications, you should still create a webpage that introduces the program, outlines its goals, gives an overview of the contents, provides instructions for how to access the program, and promotes any incentives. Early in your marketing strategy, I would recommend that you link people to this page, rather than the program itself. This webpage gives students a chance to learn more about the program before committing to starting it, and also gives an opportunity for family members to learn about the program (and then prod their students into completing!). A webpage makes your program searchable on the internet, and if the page is part of an orientation website, or in proximity to other information for new students, acts as another promotional method for the program.
Don’t believe me that a webpage is useful? Between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2020, our Pre-Arrival Program webpage had 11,304 views (9037 of them unique views), and people spent an average of three minutes and 28 seconds on the page. We only have around 4500 new students every year. People are accessing the webpage, and they are actually reading the content!
Provide repeated outreach
If you want your online orientation program to be successful, you’re going to need to develop a comprehensive and strategic communications plan. Telling your students about the program once or twice isn’t going to be enough. Your communications plan should include repeated outreach, a variety of outreach strategies, and variation in the messages contained with each outreach attempt. For the last two years, we have promoted the program at recruitment events, emailed students when the program launched, talked about the program via our biweekly email series, sent targeted follow up and reminder emails, and talked about the program via Instagram Stories every week. We also sent our faculty partners promotional materials for the program so that they could share via their social media accounts, any emails that they were sending, and any events they were hosting. Promoting online orientation programs through call campaigns or direct mailings are also options.
Inform the campus community
The more people on campus who know about your online orientation program, the higher the chance that other staff members will talk about the program with students and encourage them to participate. Students typically interact with lots of different departments prior to starting, including the Registrar, financial aid, academic advising, residence, international student services, and more. These departments are often answering student questions and helping reduce nerves, so it would be a logical extension of their conversations to encourage students to complete an online orientation to learn more about a specific topic, or just about the institution in general. We created a one-page overview of the program that we were able to share with campus partners, offered digital and paper-based promotional materials, presented to several different units so they could better understand the program, and also informed the university community via listservs and newsletters.
Provide an incentive
While telling students about the program, and talking about how much they could benefit from it will get some students to complete it, other students will need a bit of an extra push. If you want a strategy that will practically guarantee an increase in your completion rates, contests and incentives are the way to go. Incentives provide students with an extrinsic motivation to complete the program, and they are also attention grabbing, and draw people to learn about the program in the first place. You might offer a giveaway to every student who completes a certain topic or the entire program, or offer a contest where students must complete a topic or the entire program to be entered. In the past, we have offered students the chance to win a $200 bookstore giftcard if they completed the entire program, and then have also offered a chance to win a themed prize pack if they completed topics by certain dates throughout the pre-arrival period. Our intent in staggering the dates was to encourage students not to wait until the end of the summer to complete the entire program.
Follow up and reminders
After dedicating so much time to your marketing and promotion strategy and implementing the above six strategies, it’s important not to drop the ball just before the finish line. Sending follow up and reminder emails to students who have started the program, but not yet completed, is critical. Not only does this strategy provide yet another nudge to students to complete the program, but it also acts as a way to identify any students who thought they had completed the program, but are actually still missing something.
As student affairs professionals, we often don’t think of ourselves as marketers. However, if we want students to engage with and benefit from our programming, we need to wear that hat sometimes. It may feel like a lot of work, but it’s a lot of work with a large pay off… and it makes all your other work worth it!