How beta testing can help minimize investment risk for new programs

COE units are often on the forefront of new technologies and program models, and many units invest a large amount of their time and resources to launch new, in-demand programs supported by innovative marketing campaigns.

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However, despite their reputation as innovators, many COE units still struggle to effectively and accurately measure demand for new program offerings. Beta testing, a common cross-industry practice that allows organizations to use audience feedback to test for potential flaws prior to a product’s launch, is often considered too expensive and time-consuming for budget conscious institutions, or is simply not possible given the rigorous program approval processes found at most institutions. But, as institutions continue to experiment with new lower-cost noncredit program offerings, beta testing has become a powerful, cost-conscious alternative to developing and launching entire programs at a time.

Southern Methodist University’s Continuing and Professional Education division (CAPE), which exclusively offers noncredit courses and certificates, uses a tiered program launch strategy paired with an innovative marketing research approach to track prospective student demand and shape programs in real-time.

Certificate programs outpace master’s degrees

In response to today’s difficult fiscal climate and competitive workforce, students are increasingly interested in certificate programs, especially noncredit programs, rather than expensive and time-consuming traditional master’s degrees. While this rising demand signals increased acceptance of non-degree programs among students and empowers colleges and universities to experiment with these types of offerings, non-institutional education providers have also grown rapidly to become direct competitors in serving the working adult professional student market.

Growth in Conferrals

Certificate vs. Degree Conferral, 2007-2012

Growth in Conferrals

Program units like CAPE, which historically cornered their geographic markets with non-degree offerings, felt increasing pressure from these alternative providers and decided to alter their approach to developing and launching new programs.. In order to mitigate the cost risks, the institution implemented a tiered process that allows their units to track prospective student demand in real time and shape program components accordingly. Division leadership develops and launches one course at a time, tracking the market’s reaction before deciding whether to roll out subsequent courses and create a full certificate program.

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  • Incoming inquiry data refine existing prospect personas and marketing messages for future recruitment efforts
  • Course enrollment listsprovides readymade cohort for full certificate launch, and blueprint for additional marketing
  • Tiered roll-outs tests initial proof of concept and minimizes investment in nonviable programs
  • Interest from particular positions or companies informs future program development

New Program Proposal Testing Process

Growth in Conferrals

A myriad of advantages for the institution

In addition to stemming wasted investment dollars, CAPE’s marketing team noted three additional benefits to the tiered launch process:

1. Refine prospect personas in response to incoming inquiries

2. Build a ready-made cohort based on course participants’ feedback

3. Use local employers interest to inform program development

Lastly, CAPE relies on local professionals to teach in most of its courses and certificates, and uses this process to mitigate the risks inherent in bringing on new instructors. Division leaders invite potential instructors to teach a single course before they extend an invitation to join full time.

How to market test new programs

CAPE leaders put their tiered process to the test when they considered a new digital marketing program. While the institution recognized the demand for digital marketing skills in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, intense competition from non-academic competitors put the launch of a full certificate into question.

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The tiered evaluation process and beta testing allowed CAPE to successfully develop and deliver a single proxy course, which tested market demand prior to the program’s launch. To implement further cost savings, CAPE also strategized on how to align the program with existing course offerings.

Tiered Rollout Yields Successful Launch

Tiered Rollout Yields Successful Launch

Further, division leaders used discounts to incentivize potential students to enroll in the program, providing ample initial market intelligence to inform the institution about the program’s strengths and weaknesses prior to a full program launch. Once the pilot course reached capacity, CAPE leadership made the decision to fully launch the new certificate program. Of the students who enrolled in the pilot course, 75% chose to pursue the certificate. To date, the digital marketing certificate is one of CAPE’s most successful programs.

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