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  • Writer's pictureSam Birkett

A Tale of Two Programmes – How to market a successful executive education programme now?

With executive education under financial pressure due to COVID-19, it’s understandable that teams may be tempted to rush out new products and services. But cutting out the groundwork will inevitably make it more difficult to attract customers – and lead to programmes underperforming. Ensuring a new programme is sustainable depends on three things: knowing your audience, being different and diagnosing potential leads.

I was reminded the other day of a business school that launched two education programmes at the same time. One flew and one failed.

Both programmes were similar – both within the same academic area and budget. With a typically short recruitment timetable, audiences were defined, marketing assets developed, and campaigns deployed.

Leads started to come in that fitted the prospective student personas. One programme began to convert to applications ahead of the deadline. But conversions to the second programme were woeful.

The team pressed on – re-evaluating leads, tweaking the desired participant and adjusting campaigns accordingly. Nothing seemed to work.

Before pulling the plug, the team decided to find out just why people weren’t converting. They reached out to people ‘interested’ in the programme, and friendly alumni.

The over-riding message was: ‘this is really interesting stuff, it’s got compelling content, good speakers and looks like a nice learning experience’. But what people didn’t say was: ‘I need to study this programme, now, for this price, in this format, because it will have a discernible benefit for me and my organisation.’

Put simply, one programme’s proposition had been thoroughly considered, tested and developed. The other programme, whilst good quality, simply wasn’t compelling enough for this market.

Thinking about this in the middle of a global crisis, there’s an even greater argument against rushing into new programmes to fill a financial need. Have a read of Simon Sinek’s ‘The Infinite Game’ if you don’t believe me.

It’s never easy when people are breathing down your neck, but in the long run, you risk losing an awful lot more budget through failed marketing campaigns and lost reputation if you don’t.

After all, time-consuming groundwork followed by quick failure costs a lot less than quick groundwork followed by slow failure.

Here’s some advice for programme teams to maximise their chances of success:

  1. Know your audience and your product

This might sound surprising, but in my experience, schools are not always able to articulate clearly whether a market need exists for a proposed programme. This is made all the harder when working in education, almost everything your organisation does is ‘interesting’ to an audience, but is it commercial?

At a very basic level, you need to understand who will buy it, why and how long will it take them to decide to buy it.

Here is a useful checklist to use:

  • Establish the relative position of your product to other offerings in the market, and in your portfolio

  • Talk to alumni within the target audience profile, what’s their honest feedback?

  • Establish a clear set of learning outcomes that the whole team understands, and can communicate

  • Define a proposition aligned with your audience – that the offering, format, investment and learning outcomes are digestible

  • Test, test, test the propositions with your related audience – apply the 80:20 budget rule to your marketing, learn what works, then back it with a budget.

2. Establishing your difference – does the proposition pass the ‘so what?’ test

How does our proposition align with the audience’s motivations and limitations, how will it help them? Is there a novelty and a curiosity for the audience? What is it about THIS programme’s content, approach or learning outcomes that is different, and significant for its target audience?

3. Measuring and diagnosing leads – is your marketing really working?

You need an effective system to process campaign engagement, measuring interest and diagnosing where your leads are in the recruitment cycle, and what is driving the cycle? Here are three useful questions to ask:

How are you using the channel mix?

Understand the purpose of each campaign and channel you are using. Set each a goal and metrics. Which messages are working, where, when, how are they working?

Track the conversion funnel

An automated CRM system will capture most of the data you need about your leads, but it needs to be set up correctly – you also need to know what an engaged lead really looks like.

Assign human resource to grade leads, reach out to them, and score their interest.

What’s the feedback from your target audience?

Speak to your leads and applicants to help modify, enrich and re-target your campaigns.


Some programmes just don’t sell. Whilst you can follow all of the advice above, we all know some programmes simply won’t sell, like thousands of other products in the world. However, taking your time with proper groundwork can help you realise at the earliest stages that a programme won’t fly, therefore you can cut your losses before you incur too many. It also forces you to learn, amend and enhance your product and its selling process.


Time is the most precious commodity, something we can never have enough of. By making the advantages and learning outcomes of programmes clear from the outset – and making them genuinely new and different, you stand a better chance of producing something that will outlive the pandemic and help your school in the long term.

This blog is featured on EFMD Global.

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