How the OU’s digital growth strategy boosted student numbers

According to figures released in October 2018, the OU’s growth strategy led to a 20% growth in international enrolments.

A disruptive approach to new markets

So how did we do it? We started simple. This meant heavy investment in paid search, largely through Google but including other search engines, dependent on local preferences. It also included aggregator sites for the education vertical as well as behavioural-based display and social campaigns.

Based on these audiences, highly-focused ‘look-a-like’ targeting was introduced to extend the reach of activity without compromising on lead quality. Social channels proved the most effective predictors of ‘look-a-likes’. A multi-channel attribution model was introduced to ensure channel success was not based on ‘last-click’ behaviour

We were also forced to respond to changes in data laws when GDPR came into effect last year. GDPR led us away from a reliance on email as the main conversion tool and made us think about what our audience wanted – what media, message and at what time did people want to hear from us. This meant investing in ‘story-telling’ content and capitalising on the power of digital media to build communities – using social power to connect with audiences on their terms, rather than waiting for them to seek us out.

How can firms embrace the digital to achieve desired growth?

CEOs and boards across the globe are struggling to understand how digitalisation can be used to achieve the growth they are seeking

An example of our multi-channel approach:

Using a story-telling approach has allowed us to produce content specifically for social channels, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Retargeting was also a major part of the strategy, for example, we repurposed assets across YouTube to create TrueView for Action campaigns. This approach allowed us to seek out audiences we could remarket using both Search and Gmail Sponsored Promotions – all of which ensured messages cut-through and that the OU stayed top of mind.

We utilised assets across native, levering a user’s level of interest.

The Open University proves digital travels further when it comes to breaking into new markets.

It’s fair to say that in a hugely competitive global economy, UK universities have excelled at attracting international students but speak to many people within the sector and they will say that this success has come about despite, not because of, digital technologies.

How to keep service consistency in a multi-channel world

‘Organisations should have a strategy in place so that support staff know how to react depending on where an interaction is coming from’

The accepted method for attracting international students has been slow to evolve, remaining firmly focused on using traditional, ‘old school’ marketing strategies where ‘face-to-face’, exhibitions, and the much-maligned sector of recruitment agents prevail. The brave new world of digital marketing has been left, largely, in the cold.

But at The Open University (OU) we’ve always liked to do things differently. We’re not your typical university, and we don’t have typical students. As a world leader in online distance learning, it was intuitive that we look to digital as a way to achieve growth in what had become a declining market. And as an institution founded on disruptive technology, it felt right that we attempt to demonstrate the power of digital marketing within our sector. The additional potential benefits of short-cutting growth, de-risking investment and minimising our carbon foot-print made the decision simple.

Since its introduction, the digital-led strategy for in higher education to retarget them via other, high-use digital channels. Remarketing can be applied here in very much the same way as with YouTube to ensure data is shared amongst all channels, reinforcing a multichannel digital approach to ensure that The Open University is effectively breaking into the international market.

What is digital transformation in business: Everything you need to know

Kicking off Information Age’s Digital Transformation month, we look at everything you need to know about what is digital transformation in business; the challenges, the technologies and above all, how to succeed

Letting the results speak for themselves

We have recorded impressive growth in a relatively a short time-span, but believe this is just the beginning. There is so much more we can do to extend our global reach by using digital as a way of building truly scaleable online communities of like-minded people.

At The Open University, we are trying to produce a step-change in the application of digital marketing techniques. Too often the education sector is seen as an outpost of traditional marketing. However, much like the OU’s legacy of innovation we’re discovering and showing how digital channels can be used in new ways. Not only can they lead to growth, but they can actually open up a new, more immersive ways of engaging our prospective students.

Written by Kieran Costigan, Digital Campaigns Manager at the Open University

Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice consists of the best articles written by third parties and selected by our editors. You can contact us at timothy.adler at