Online Program Manager: What you should know before you sign

Posted: November 7, 2019

Dana Cruikshank Marketing Strategist

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It all started with the bright idea to start offering online courses. It seemed easy enough, and after all, tons of other schools in higher education were doing it. Prospective students looking to receive an online master’s degree or achieve a continuing education certificate wanted the flexibility of an online education and you wanted to provide it for them. And maybe it worked out, at least for a while, until the competition got too steep. Or, perhaps your institution concluded that you don’t have the technical infrastructure, marketing muscle or existing awareness to actually land students and manage the operation, so now you’re stuck in limbo. Either way, that no-brainer decision is probably now starting to feel like a rocket science-level challenge. 

Enter the all-powerful online program manager. Their siren song can be pretty tempting – someone who can swoop in and manage your online programs, from online infrastructure to digital marketing to student retention. For a mere 60-80% of your revenue, the OPM partner says they’ll make big investments in marketing and backend technology to take full control of your institution’s online courses. All you need to do is sign on the dotted line, provide a course instructor, some content, and watch the enrollments and revenue flow in. Easy enough, right? 

Well, like the mythical mariners of old who fell for the siren song, many institutions are now finding their OPM-driven dreams of online enrollment success dashed upon the rocks of missed targets and lowered expectations. And while an OPM may promise to be your one-stop shop for all things online education, you may be realizing along with plenty of other people, that OPMs are promising more than they can deliver. 

Maybe you’ve come to this conclusion already, but you’re not quite sure how to articulate this to your higher ed business decision makers. Or, maybe you’re still trying to decide if an OPM is right for your institution’s online programs. In any case, you’re not alone. We’ve got the breakdown on everything you need to find out the truth behind the OPM hype. 

Perception Versus Reality

While an OPM may promise to handle all the ins and outs of your online program, taking your new and unknown program to market and filling your virtual seats quickly with their foolproof digital marketing formulas, they probably neglected to mention several important things. Namely, these formulas usually only work when your school or online program already enjoys significant brand awareness. If you’re already grappling with institutional obscurity when carrying your new online learning model to market, your first goal needs to be awareness, not enrollment. That’s easier said than believed, especially when administrators prefer to see immediate return on investment as measured by that all-important BIS indicator (butts in seats). Still, the truth is that building an online brand is a long game, not a quick enrollment fix or a get-rich-quick scheme.  

This is where, when you look closely, the OPM model’s cracks start to surface. While OPMs promise formulas that will gain your program tens of thousands of students, they use inexpensive (and frankly ineffective) methods of reaching economies of scale. Their automated formulas reveal an artificial intelligence that is less than intelligent, as no formula can ever provide the kind of sentient, evolving insight that your full-service marketing team can. You know what sets your institution apart, who your audiences are, what they care about, and the sorts of messaging they need to hear. An automated formula can only achieve average results for your institution, even on its best day. Ultimately, we know that every institution is as unique as the individual students that attend – whether in person or online. Yet OPMs invariably turn an institution’s offerings into a commodity. With a marketplace inundated with online programs all promising the fastest, cheapest, most flexible course offerings, it takes quite a bit more than an auto-populating formula to distinguish your institution from another and attract right-fit students. 

Check the Details 

But what if your institution’s leaders are still gung-ho on the OPM. Is all hope lost? Of course not. The next best step you can take is to invite your business leaders to sit down and have an open-eyed look at the reality of giving your online programs to an OPM. If you’re in the position of being able to have that kind of discussion, you might consider pointing to several key concerns: 

  • How long is our commitment? – Checking to see the term length of your contract. It’s likely measured in multiple years, or even decades.  Consider what may change for your institution between now and then. While an OPM can promise an astonishing launch rate, the maintenance of adjusting and evolving to accommodate your institutional growth is most likely not on your OPM’s horizon. 
  • How much are we keeping? – Let’s say you sign a five-year contract. Right now, it may seem feasible to only receive 20-40% of that revenue stream from online courses, since after all, 20-40% of something is better than 100% of nothing. But while it may not cost you up front, what about in two or three years, when your team is ready to build out your own enrollment funnel? If the leads you generate through your marketing team have to pass through your OPM, which is still keeping anywhere from 60-80% of your profits, what are the implications for your revenue? And should they really capture that much revenue when you’re the one who ends up doing the heavy marketing lift?
  • How are we returning our investment? – The cost differentiation between the cut you give to the OPM, versus the cost it would take to bring this in-house to support is probably a lot more favorable and attractive than you might realize. Simply put, the cost of bringing your marketing and backend infrastructure up to snuff is probably not as high as the revenue you’ll hand over to the OPM. So while it may seem like your only option for executing an online program is outsourcing your programs to an OPMs, we’re here to tell you, you can do this

Take Control

While an OPM may promise to make all of your online dreams come true, the reality is that only you know what your institution needs. No OPM with a formulaic marketing plan can fully understand who your audience is, what your programs are, and who you are as an institution. And growing an online offering is not as scary as the OPMs might tell you. You don’t need an AI robot populating formulas to try to match algorithms to garner attention to your online programs. You just need the right partner – a partner who has the know-how and expertise to guide your team through discovering your place in the online world. 

You need the kind of agency that doesn’t make promises it can’t keep and doesn’t implement strategies that can’t return your investment above and beyond what you expect. This kind of process is built on the very thing that OPMs have ignored: every institution is unique. That means you need a partner who rejects cookie-cutter templated approaches to marketing, and instead focuses on research-informed and data-driven strategies. You need a partner who will first take the time to understand you and your students. This takes building personalized personae, crafting key messages and leveraging your identity to tell your story in a way that engages the audience in your mission. Only then will you see audiences find their place at your institution.

VisionPoint Marketing has extensive experience in higher education consulting and developing integrated marketing plans for higher ed organizations. If you have questions or want to start a conversation about how we can help, please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.