Find—or build—affinity groups of prospective students

Best practice of the week September 18 - 22

While marketers can deploy labor market data in digital advertising and social media campaigns to capture student interest, often prospective continuing and online education (COE) students cannot be easily identified or reached. These students may be interested in a particular field or topic, but common digital tools cannot always quantify or track such interest.

In such cases, communities of interest and affinity groups, particularly those organized around a known individual or “influencer” within a given professional space, can provide a ready-made leads list for new and proposed COE programs. Southern Methodist University’s Continuing and Professional Education (CAPE) unit applies this approach to the popular digital platform to attract professional interest to new or proposed programs. is a global platform that enables users to create communities around shared personal and professional interests. The CAPE team both develops partnerships with existing Meetup groups and creates new ones where a group does not already exist.

First, the team’s program specialist, responsible for new program ideation and launch, identifies a promising new program development opportunity.

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Then, she searches for existing groups related to that topic. Where a group exists, the specialist will begin attending Meetup events and connect with the organizer, hoping to formalize a partnership. SMU can co-sponsor events and provide meeting space. In exchange, the group allows access and the organizer provides support in developing and teaching any courses or certificate programs that result from the partnership.

The program specialist will typically screen existing groups for size and activity, ensuring that she attends only popular Meetups.

Where a group does not already exist, the program specialist will search for a relevant industry professional with a large following, using blogs and social media to identify and contact a potential co-organizer for a new Meetup group.

In one successful partnership, CAPE’s program specialist approached a large and successful user experience Meetup group, organized by the leading UX professional in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area. After formalizing CAPE’s partnership with the group and recruiting the organizer to help develop and teach in a UX certificate program, the Meetup group has become the primary recruitment vehicle for the program. CAPE’s program specialist is able to notify Meetup group members of program start dates and offer discounted rates for attendees to both encourage and attribute enrollment.

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In a second example of a successful partnership, CAPE’s program specialist hoped to develop a data visualization certificate, but no local data visualization Meetup group or professional organization existed.

Instead, she identified a popular local data visualization professional with a large blog and social media following, and approached him to solicit his support in leading a Meetup group and helping to design and teach in a new data visualization program.

CAPE’s program specialist offered a number of recommendations to other colleges interested in using Meetup groups. Most importantly, she noted that although Meetup groups can technically be started for only a nominal fee, there can be additional (and possibly prohibitive) costs associated with staff time required to develop new content and event ideas, coordinate speakers, and arrange space. To minimize staff time and effort, CAPE's program specialist recommends making Meetup group co-organizers the primary people responsible for the group's day-to-day functioning.

Beyond the quantitative benefits to recruitment, cultivating in-person communities of professional interest through has benefitted the CAPE team in numerous ways. Program specialists can use Meetup group attendance and participation to measure interest in a proposed program and size the market in advance of program launch. Program leads can use group events to audition potential instructors from among the local professional community. Marketing can decrease its costs and increase efficacy by following up with Meetup attendees who have indicated interest in a given program.

Meetup groups and other in-person communities of professional interest, such as professional organizations, represent an effective form of engagement marketing that allows self-selecting prospects to derive practical value from event attendance, CAPE staff to vet new program ideas, and local professionals to build their personal brands and even recruit event attendees into new positions. Additionally, while CAPE staff use to engage local communities of interest, the platform could be used to engage with international communities interested in education abroad or professional development aligned with your unit’s program portfolio.

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