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Program Planning for Marketing Results

How Can Changes to Your Institution’s Program Planning Approach Improve Marketing Efficacy?

When deciding which programs to launch, many institutions assume that their biggest, most marketable programs (like an MBA) are the best choice. However, the challenge with this program planning approach is that many other institutions today are doing the same thing, making it harder to compete. To gain a larger presence in the market, institutions, especially in the small to mid-size range, need to revisit their program selection and planning strategy to succeed.

In this article, Wiley Education Services’ Senior Director of Marketing Program Management, Jourdan Hathaway, describes an innovative program planning and development strategy called Strategic Portfolio Development (SPD). Hathaway explains how SPD leverages an institution’s most strategic and scalable anchor programs and identifies a series of “suites” (concentrations, certificates, and/or interdisciplinary programs) to help differentiate programs and enhance an institution’s marketing efficacy. Read her explanation below.


The SPD approach can influence an institution’s marketing efforts in two key ways:

  1. By enhancing the university’s value story in the marketplace
  2. By providing an economic benefit to the university’s marketing budget

First, let’s start by examining how an institution builds its value story. It starts with things like history, mission, and credentials – these are long established macro-level brand ingredients. Then the value story is further developed by factors that are rapidly evolving – program differentiation, outcomes, and the online environment.

So where does SPD as a program planning strategy play a role in this? In effect, it helps the institution become a center of excellence in a set of scalable disciplines, which in turn, helps build competitive differentiation. While SPD can have great internal benefits to the institution, it’s also a student-centric approach – it’s the intersection of institutional competency and today’s student journey. When an institution can market a depth of experience that gives students meaningful choices, their value story further grows in the marketplace.

The SPD approach starts with a solid understanding of the product portfolio and the markets it can serve to inform a strategic marketing direction. Next, an audit of the university’s brand and look is done to understand in-depth details of the programs. Finally, a competitive analysis is paired with this information to provide perspective on the landscape, which provides guidance for where to position the program, department, or university at large, and allows for market differentiation. As much as I’ve used the word market differentiation, it’s most meaningful when it directly impacts a student’s perspective and decision. Gone are the days of using course catalog descriptions to sufficiently describe the program. Gone are the days of the online modality being unique. Students want to know the outcomes and the return on investment. If there’s a set of related choices that can better speak to the nuanced need of a chosen career path, that can help build a student’s decision-making confidence.

Finally, let’s move on to the way that Strategic Portfolio Development as a program planning strategy impacts the efficiency and scale of an institution’s marketing budget. Sometimes there’s an assumption that every graduate student knows exactly which program they want to pursue, but the reality is that many prospective students' initial searches are very broad. Students start looking for program comparisons. This often leads to uncovering a specialization, or even a different program, that the student didn’t know existed. Here’s an example: I was recently using an online search engine index that measured and quantified the number of searches done for the terms ‘accounting masters’, ‘accounting MBA’, and ‘business masters’. On average, there are 76% more online searches for the broad term ‘business masters’ than searches for an ‘accounting masters’. And, ‘accounting master’s has 147% more searches than typing in ‘accounting MBA’.

Now, let’s imagine that the school could compete with any of these phrases. That’s exactly where SPD is valuable – it allows a program suite to be efficiently co-marketed to a more diverse audience set. Even if it’s messy internally because the programs come out of different colleges, there is real strength in marketing relevant choices together. Instead of building many one-off marketing assets that support a single program, an institution can consolidate around programs clustered in a discipline. The speed to market is quicker because a tangential option can be added to an existing set of assets and marketing campaigns rather than start from scratch. From a paid media perspective, digital marketing efforts can be initially targeted to a larger audience, which generally results in a lower cost-per-inquiry.

How SPD is Benefiting One University's Marketing Strategy

As an example, The University of Scranton, which is currently implementing the SPD approach, can market ads like, ‘University of Scranton Business Programs. Find which one is right for you’. That cost-per-inquiry is less expensive than a highly competitive phrase like MBA. But, if an MBA was all they had, then they'd be limited to that narrow approach. If the only other online program was a Nursing Masters, it wouldn’t make sense to co-market.

In Scranton’s real-world portfolio example, marketing can happen at the individual program level – MBA with accounting specialization – but bring down total costs by marketing the suite at large – Business Programs. Market demand then dictates how inquiries shake out by program. At Wiley, we underpin this strategy with sophisticated media technology that allows performance targeting and conversion modeling – but that’s a topic for a different day.

To learn more about Strategic Portfolio Development, click here for a general overview, or listen to a webinar Wiley Education Services did in partnership with WCET. In it, you’ll hear how this program planning approach incorporates in-depth market research and benefits marketing activities, as well as how it has been implemented at The University of Scranton. Click here to check it out.

Jourdan Hathaway

Senior Director of Marketing Program Management, Wiley Education Services

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